Say Something Simple to Somebody

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bobueland
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Thu Sep 20, 2007 7:51 pm Post

I thought of saying something about writing. I know that this is doomed to fail since anybody in this forum knows secretly that if s/he but bothered s/he could be a really lucid expositor. So knowing that nobody will read this I can fearlessly express what's on my mind.
I imagine that this article will be about four pages long. Since I have no stamina to write such long article in one sitting, I'll write it in small pieces:

Part 1. Say something that goes somewhere
Part 2. Speak to somebody
Part 3. Say it simply

Before we embark on our little journey let me give a short summary of where we are heading. The first requirement for good writing is that you have some germ of an idea, something definite you want to say even though you do not yet know how to say it. However during the writing process this idea must take solid form. When you present the final draft there can be no vague meanings. The second requirement is that you have somebody to say it to. You would not say the same thing to a five year old child, to an average Joe and to an Einstein. The third requirement has to do with simplicity and structure. You must communicate your idea as directly and as simply as possible. You must do so in an organized and structured way so that your readers can follow your thoughts without loosing their way in a labyrinth of ill-defined concepts and amorphous statements. In order to do this, you must think intensely not just on what you want to say but also how to say it. Is there a better way of expressing this? Could I use a short story? Could a metaphor or analogy make this idea more clear? What darlings can I kill to let the pure idea shine through? Is there a way to cut these ten pages into three pages, that really say something? Will it be clearer if I start with a short summary of the whole thing? Do I gain anything if I introduce concept B, before concept A?
Last edited by bobueland on Wed Apr 30, 2008 6:55 pm, edited 21 times in total.
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vic-k
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Thu Sep 20, 2007 8:57 pm Post

I`m reading it, but that probably has the same value as nobody reading it, so carry on.

Vic
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Wock
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Fri Sep 21, 2007 2:51 am Post

I like using the phrase K.I.S.S.

Keep It Simple Stupid.

Your right. Sometimes you just have to present something in a simple and raw form.

Sometimes less is better.
The wheel is turning but the hamster is still dead.

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bobueland
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Sat Sep 22, 2007 5:13 pm Post

The first principle is that you must have a definite place to go to. You can brake that principle in two ways. The first is by not going anywhere, and the second is by going everywhere. Here’s a text generated by a computer program, that isn't going anywhere.
Quote:
Competently expedite standardized services vis-a-vis multifunctional interfaces. Dramatically communicate distributed ideas whereas exceptional solutions. Rapidiously negotiate multifunctional leadership through scalable manufactured products. Appropriately facilitate 24/7 mindshare rather than covalent results.

Some people can also generate such texts. For instance
Quote:
So we have some very popular theorists who, tired of the burdens of postconventional and world-centric rational perspectivism, recommend a regressive slide into egocentric vital impulsive polymorphous phantasmic emotional revival.

This is from a book that is ranked as number 8327 at Amazon.com. A best seller!
I once bought a 200 page book that was a perfect example of jabber not going anywhere. The title of the book is “God's Secret Formula: Deciphering the Riddle of the Universe and the Prime Number Code” and the author is Peter Plichta. After looking in it for one hour I threw it in the garbage can. This was a mistake since I can’t give you nice quotes from the book. But the guy has a home page at http://www.plichta.de/. The home page starts with “Dr. rer. nat. Peter Plichta, Chemiker und Mathematiker” followed by a flying saucer image. He writes about himself in third person and introduces himself in the following way.
Quote:
People like Peter Plichta are born only every 100 or 200 years. They operate with several talents, here mainly for chemistry, pharmacy, nuclear chemistry, and physics/ mathematics respectively. Such people are vagely aware at the age of 15 that their talents as gifts of nature also include an obligation. They are fundamentally and incredibly ahead of their time, live modestly, but are people of action for the benefit of mankind.

How do you spot a book that has nothing to say? The first warning is that the author is full of his own importance. The second warning is that the author is always promising but postponing his important message to later. The third warning is that the author seems to be determined to camouflage his meaning with every word and sentence. If after reading a page or two, you have to scratch your head and ask what the hell that was all about, you probably ran into an author that has nothing to say.

Sometime the problem is not that your writing is not going anywhere, but that it is going to multiple places. Here's an example
Quote:
“I know how we can get rich”, says Svetoslav.
He was born in Bulgaria and came to Sweden as a refugee 20 years ago. His family is still living in Bulgaria.
“My sister is as an estate agent. She knows of some land in Tzarevo, a beach resort at the Black Sea, which will be urbanized soon. If we buy now we can at least double our money by the next year”, he says with a strong conviction.
“Sounds fantastic”, I respond.
Five days later we land in Bourgas and Svetoslav’s sister drives us to Tzarevo. Tzarevo Municipality is located in the south-eastern part of the Republic of Bulgaria. It is situated at 65 km to the south of Bourgas, on the E-87 highway. The municipality borders Black Sea to the east, Malko Tarnovo Municipality to the west, the Republic of Turkey to the south and Primorsko Municipality to the north. A specific landscape feature of Tzarevo Municipality that is being utilized for the implementation of its tourism functions is the shore. There are 16 beaches along the coastline of the municipality, with a total length of 9,184 m, and the municipal center – the town of Tzarevo – is situated at three bays.

The problem with the text above is that it’s going to two places. It starts with a story of some guys wanting to get a fine haul, but turns into a travel brochure at the end. The reader looses focus, and if you continue like this he’ll soon loose his patience.
Last edited by bobueland on Wed Apr 30, 2008 7:01 pm, edited 7 times in total.
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gr
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Sat Sep 22, 2007 7:49 pm Post

The first warning is that the author is full of his own importance. The second warning is that the author is always promising but postponing his important message to later. The third warning is that the author seems to be determined to camouflage his meaning with every word and sentence. If after reading a page or two, you have to scratch your head and ask what the hell that was all about, you probably ran into an author that has nothing to say.


Well, either that or you are reading a really grand work of philosophy!

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bobueland
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Sat Sep 22, 2007 8:04 pm Post

The second principle is to write for somebody. Who are your readers? That will determine how much you must write in order to motivate them, how much detail you have to put in and what kind of language you can allow yourself to use.
When talking about the audience, I feel split. Because deep down you’re always writing for yourself. Now if you’re writing about a situation that we all can recognize in our own life, there’s nothing wrong with it. In fact it’s an advantage because then you can be earnest and write with your true voice. Here’s an excerpt from “Wild Mind”, a book by Natalie Goldberg.
Now I am leaning against a boulder. The stone cools my back. Reader, even though you are not here with me, I want you to look up at the sky. Do you see it? It’s a big sky. If you never been this far west, then imagine standing beneath the sky in Ohio: a two lane highway, the day gray, you can see the horizon all around. Nothing disturbs that view but an occasional farmhouse with a row of Russian olives as a windbreak or a white building on the side of the road that says EAT in thin neon. The bottom line of the E and the left branch of the A are broken off.
So, either in New Mexico or Ohio, we are under a big sky. That big sky is wild mind. I’m going to climb up to that sky straight over our heads and put one dot on it with a Magic Marker. See that dot? That dot is what Zen calls monkey mind or what western psychology calls part of conscious mind. We give all our attention to that one dot. So when it says we can’t write, that we’re no good, are failures, fools for even picking up a pen we listen to it.
But let’s say that you are describing something, the requires a context that you but not your readers are familiar with. Then you should not write for yourself but for your readers.
Suppose for example that you want to describe Fermat’s Little Theorem. If your readers are experienced mathematicians you could just say:
Theorem: Let p be a prime number and n any number that is not divisible p. Then n raised to the power of n is congruent to 1 modulo p. In other words n^p==1 (mod p).
But if you’re readers are laymen, that the statement above will not mean anything to them. You must begin with their frame of reference and not with your own. You might instead say something like:
Some numbers like 6 and 9 can be written as products of other numbers. For instance 6=2*3 and 9=3*3. Other numbers like 7 and 11 can’t be written in this way. These numbers are called prime numbers and here is a list of the first ones:
2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 23, 29, ….
Nobody has ever been able to give a formula that will list all the prime numbers. Even worse, almost nothing is known about them. Although the greatest minds have tried to solve the riddle of prime numbers nobody has ever succeded. Fermat, one of the greatest mathematicians of all times, noticed a peculiarity when he examined the exponents of the number 2. If you calculate at the sequence
2, 2^2, 2^3, 2^4, 2^5, 2^4, 2^6, 2^7, 2^8, …
you get the numbers
2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256,….
Now if you subtract 1 from these numbers you get the sequence
1, 3, 7, 15, 31, 63, 127, 255,….
Which of these numbers are prime Fermat asked himself? The numbers 3, 7, 31 and 127 which correspond to the exponents 2, 3, 5 and 7. So it seems that the number 2^n - 1 is prime only when n is prime. If n is not prime then the number 2^n - 1 doesn’t seem to be a prime. Fermat was chocked with his discovery and tried to prove it but was not successful ….
Last edited by bobueland on Wed Apr 30, 2008 6:51 pm, edited 8 times in total.
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kewms
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Sat Sep 22, 2007 9:27 pm Post

gr wrote:
The first warning is that the author is full of his own importance. The second warning is that the author is always promising but postponing his important message to later. The third warning is that the author seems to be determined to camouflage his meaning with every word and sentence. If after reading a page or two, you have to scratch your head and ask what the hell that was all about, you probably ran into an author that has nothing to say.


Well, either that or you are reading a really grand work of philosophy!


I wouldn't say that. Plato, for instance, is very readable. I've been told that Einstein is, too. (I don't read German, so can't judge for myself.)

I don't have much patience with people who use the grandness of their thoughts as an excuse for writing incomprehensible mumbo jumbo. Rather, I would say that if you can't explain your topic to an average educated adult, you probably don't understand it yourself.

(True, the educated adult may not get as much out of it as an expert in your field would. But they should at least be able to figure out what your general area of interest *is*.)

Katherine

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Sun Sep 23, 2007 3:24 pm Post

[quote="bobueland"] ...once bought a 200 page book that was a perfect example of jabber not going anywhere. The title of the book is “God's Secret Formula: Deciphering the Riddle of the Universe and the Prime Number Codeâ€

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bobueland
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Sun Sep 23, 2007 8:45 pm Post

Now you know what you want to say and to whom. The next step is to arrange your material. In my experience this should be done very simply and directly. Here's an example of how I organized the article you're reading.
First I will tell them that their writing has to say one definite thing. I will illustrate with two examples. A text that says nothing and a text that says two things.
Then I'll tell them that they must start from the readers frame of reference. I'll illustrate with two examples. A text that doesn't require special knowledge and a text that does.
Then I'll tell them how to organize their material. I'll show them an example of how this can be done, and I'll point out the importance of stories and examples. Finally I'll show how they can simplify their text.

Observe how simple the structure is and how stories and examples are used throughout. The stories and examples are the heart of the matter, and your writing should be organized around them. Without stories and examples your writing will be lame and lifeless. General theories are afterthoughts based on concrete examples and stories, and can often be left to the reader to infer. Many books on writing will tell you the need of transitions between the parts of your text. In my experience, this is not true. If your examples and stories are compelling, readers will not even notice the lack of transitions.

Let’s now discuss simplicity. I remember going to a TV & Radio shop, looking for a VCR. A salesman approached me and asked what kind of VCR I was looking for. “I just have one requirement”, I said. “It should be very simple to use”. “Mmm, that will be expensive”, he replied. He was right, because it takes effort, often great effort, to make something simple. Good authors know that, and they will go through great lengths in order to prune their texts of unnecessary words and sentences.
An immigrant opens a shop in a little fishing town, and puts up a signboard that says “Fresh Fish Sold Here”. An author living close by comes in one day and says, “The word ‘Here’ is unnecessary. People understand that you are selling here and not somewhere else”. So the shop keeper erases that word. The next day, the author comes in and says, “What’s the word ‘Sold’ doing there. This is a shop so people understand that you are selling”. So the shop keeper erases that word also. Next day, the author comes in and says, “The word ‘Fresh’ is unnecessary. This is a fishing town, people know that shops like yours are selling fresh fish. So the shop keeper erases that word also. Now the signboard only says “Fish”. The next day, the author comes in and says, “The word ‘Fish’ is totally unnecessary, you can smell it from miles away”.
Just like our author you should take great care to take away extraneous words and sentences. Ask yourself repeatedly, “What am I trying to say here? Can it be said simpler, more direct? Does this add anything to the message?”. For example, my first version of this text started: “Let’s now discuss simplicity. Long time ago, before the days of DVD, there used to be gadgets called VCRs (Video Cassette Recorders). I remember going to a TV & Radio shop, looking for a VCR.” Since the middle sentence didn’t add anything to the message, I took it way. Remember. You want your text to be simple. Direct. Right to the point. How do accomplish that? By working at it.

I’ll end this article with a little joke.
A man opens a shop in a little fisher town, and puts up a signboard that says “Fresh Fish Sold Here”. An author living close by comes in one day and says, “The word ‘Here’ is unnecessary. People understand that you are selling ‘here’ and not somewhere else”. So the shop keeper erases that word. The next day, the author comes in and says, “What’s the word ‘Sold’ doing there. This is a shop so people understand that you are selling”. So the shop keeper erases that word also. Next day, the author comes in and says, “The word ‘Fresh’ is unnecessary. This is a fishing town, people know that shops like yours are selling fresh fish. So the shop keeper erases that word also. Now the signboard only says “Fish”. The next day, the author comes in and says, “The word ‘Fish’ is totally unnecessary, you can smell it from miles away”. Just like our author, let’s be brave enough to prune our text, even to the point of leaving nothing left.
Don't be a sissy, don't be a snob. Post a reply to Ueland Bob.