On writing: Is it dense to be complex?

writing is power (my image, of course!)

writing is power (my image, of course!)

Writing can be bold and dangerous and disruptive. It can be quiet and still and sneaky. It can be melodious and rhythmic and beautiful. It can be subversive and challenging and difficult to read. As a reader and a teacher of English and Literature, I am a believer in the power of language, of words, of literature, of story and of writing. To educate and to soothe. To challenge and to change. It’s why writing is so important for everyone. Writing – and being able to enact authorial intent, to release thought and emotion through words on a page or screen or device – is power.

I teach my students of English to write for audience and purpose. For whom are they writing? What is their purpose? To persuade, to shock, to inform, to inspire, to call to action, to explain, to intrigue? As authors, once they have identified for whom and why they are writing, they can make choices of form, structure and language. I teach them the ‘rules’ of various genres and forms so that they know how to use them, and how to deliberately break them. The same goes for any writer: know your game, how to play and conform, and how to challenge or subvert.

I find blogging an interesting form in the sense that the audience is sometimes unclear. In some ways I write it for myself – as a web log of reflections. Yet I write around particular topics, and I know that I have a readership of individuals and groups who are (it seems!) interested in what I have to say. In some ways I write to share my story so that others might glean something from it, in part because I get so much from others blogging their journeys or writing ‘aloud’ their thoughts and theories as they form. I like even more the collaborative nature of blogging; when it opens up conversation, in comments, on social media or in new blog posts. As Pat Thomson writes, writing can be identity work; it can be a way into being and into connection. And as author and self-publisher, a blogger is free to write how and about what they choose. It’s a kind of free writing.

Academic writing is a different beast. Some academic writers work to make their writing accessible to a broader audience than the academe or a narrow field of scholars. Sometimes I use my thesaurus in reverse (‘What’s a simpler way of saying this?’). But often, as Greg Thompson and Linda Graham have suggested recently, academese can be complex, esoteric and hard to decode precisely because of the densities and intricacies of the ideas being tussled with. Readers and writers of academic prose need to work hard, grappling with words and concepts. Sometimes it seems that every third academic writer invents a new word just to sound more obtuse and scholarly than the next. Yet these discourse-specific terms can be the result of the sweat and tears of theorisation; ‘How do I best communicate this theory?’ Like literature, often celebrated for its multi-levelled complexity, academic texts often need to be read and re-read in order to be understood, and on different levels. Academic allegory. A journey into knowing.

One’s own writing, too, can involve struggle. Using big words isn’t necessarily gratuitous chest-beating in order to show off or project cleverness; it can be the result of ideas and words wrestled with, toiled over, written and re-written. Boundaries pushed at persistently. Knowledge formed or reimagined. I am a neophyte in the world of academia, but my PhD has taught me that writing in academia can mean taking one step forward to take ten steps back. Often I write my way into understanding, like Naomi Barnes who sees writing as inquiry and blogging as process.

my crude Venn diagram of the writing-reading process

my crude Venn diagram of the writing-reading process

Meaning is made at the junction between text (as performed by the writer) and reader. The writer brings themselves to the text, with all their own context, authorial processes, beliefs, assumptions, knowledge, gaps in knowledge and writerly decisions. The reader, too brings their self, context, beliefs, values, and skills of interpretation to the written piece. It’s in that zinging middle space – like in the tension between the fingers of Adam and God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling – that meaning is made. It’s why no reading of a text is ever the same, and why there can never be a ‘right’ interpretation, only perhaps a dominant one.

In today’s world there are a range of places and forms in which authors can communicate their work, theorise, research, think and write. Writers make decisions based on what they want to communicate and who they are reaching out to (or away from). They can choose big words, small words, combative words, inclusive words. They can simplify or complicate. They might write to situate themselves in a particular discourse, within a particular conversation, or with a particular group.

Readers, too, make choices. To read, engage, re-read, give up, struggle through. Or to respond and engage by writing, writing, writing.

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5 thoughts on “On writing: Is it dense to be complex?

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