Machine. Ecosystem. (7) – Style is content (text as system)

Style is content.

Poet Marvin Bell reminds us that the content of a poem is not the same as a poem’s contents, reminding us that when we paraphrase what a poem is about (its contents) we are not talking about the poem itself (its content or meaning), losing sight of what it does to us as we read it. The same is true of sentences.

Or, to put this another way, the informational or propositional content of a sentence is not the same as the sentence’s meaning, since sentences don’t just carry information, like putting objects in a canister, but do things with it and to it, shaping it to particular purposes and effects. In this important sense, sentences work like verbs, doing things, taking action, rather than like nouns that only name.

Most of us have been taught to think of style and meaning or form and content as two different things. We think of content as the ideas or information our writing conveys. We think of style as the way in which we present those ideas. Many aphorisms and metaphors have been used to describe style, ranging from “Style is the man himself” to “Style is the dress of thought.”

If we have to use a metaphor to explain style, we might think of an onion, which consists of numerous layers of onion we can peel away until there is nothing left—the onion is its layers, and those layers don’t contain a core of onionness but are themselves the onion.

Brooks Landon – Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft (amazon)

He’s right, of course. I’m not ready to dismiss propositional content just yet, but the danger more often comes in the opposite direction, as we try to reduce the irreducible, rather than living with complexity.

Texts are complex adaptive systems: the whole is more than – and different from – the sum of the parts. They change, too, as the meanings, ideas, feelings that we bring to them change. They change even as we read them, because we’re changed by the very act of reading.

If it’s nonsense to speak of the meaning of words outside of text, or of sentences in isolation, then it’s nonsense to speak of trees apart from forests, or people in isolation from their contexts, or cars in isolation from the ecosystem that they’re part of.

And yet… we do, and frequently find it useful or necessary to do so. The important thing is to see that the lines we draw are arbitrary (although some work better than others). The best we can do is try to hold the whole in mind even as we think about the parts, avoiding both the trap of mechanistic, reductive thinking, and the equal-and-opposite trap of of using complexity as an excuse to avoid the hard work of paying attention to detail.

The Daily

If you haven’t, go and read Seth Godin’s posts here and here.

It sounds hard, but daily turns out to be easier than weekly or fortnightly. If you do it daily, you don’t miss.

Daily writing. Daily exercise. Daily prayer or meditation. Daily time with the right people.

Daily accumulates by a magnitude. Low bars and high cycle-speeds will see you on your way far more effectively than the fits and starts of enthusiasm, and one day you’ll find yourself, if not at the top of a mountain, then at least on a small hill with a breeze and a half-decent view.

Deep literacy: Kevin Kelly on more than reading

… producing books with ease on Gutenberg’s press did not fully unleash text. Real literacy also required a long list of innovations and techniques that permitted ordinary readers and writers to manipulate text in ways that made it useful. For instance, quotation symbols make it simple to indicate where one has borrowed text from another writer. We don’t have a parallel notation in film yet, but we need one.

Once you have a large text document, you need a table of contents to find your way through it. That requires page numbers. Somebody invented them in the 13th century. Where is the equivalent in video?

Longer texts require an alphabetic index, devised by the Greeks and later developed for libraries of books. Someday soon with AI we’ll have a way to index the full content of a film.

Footnotes, invented in about the 12th century, allow tangential information to be displayed outside the linear argument of the main text. And that would be useful in video as well.

And bibliographic citations (invented in the 13th century) enable scholars and skeptics to systematically consult sources that influence or clarify the content. Imagine a video with citations. These days, of courses we have hyperlinks, which connect one piece of text to another, and tags, which categorise using a selected word or phrase for later viewing.

All these inventions (and more) permit any literate person to cut and paste ideas, annotate them with her own thoughts, link them to related ideas, search through vast libraries of work, browse subjects quickly, resequence texts, refind material, remix ideas, quote experts, and sample bits of beloved artists.

These tools, more than reading, are the foundations of literacy.

Kevin KellyThe Inevitable

Stan Lee (1922-2018) – What If?

The exact cover of the Marvel What If that Dave’s brother kept in a plastic folder


Stan Lee was brilliant and prolific.

We know him for Spiderman, the X-men, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther… for being the driving force behind Marvel Comics, now a multi-billion dollar, multi-media juggernaut.

It’s less well known that he started in the comics industry in 1939, aged seventeen, as a general dogsbody, lunch-fetcher and inkwell filler at Timely Comics (which would eventually become Marvel).

Lee must have had something about him – he became editor at 19 – but here’s the thing: he slogged it out writing comics – westerns, crime stories, horror and superhero work – for twenty two years without really hitting the big time. They say he chose Stan Lee as a pen name because he was worried he’d be embarrassed by his work in comics if he ever wrote the Great American Novel.

By the early 60s Lee was fed up, and ready to quit. The Fantastic Four was a last throw of the dice on his wife’s suggestion that he try writing the comics he wanted to write. There was nothing to lose.

He was forty-one years old.

The rest is history.

What if Stan Lee had never written the fantastic four?

Some takeaways:

Structure Counts: Information Architecture reading list and who’s who

I know almost nothing about Information Architecture, but I’ve been thinking a lot about structuring information recently.

Here’s the metaphor: Jacques Carelman‘s famous Coffee pot for Masochists.


See Impossible Objects at It’s Nice That


All the pieces are there, but it just. doesn’t. work.

We’ve all used badly put together tools, instruction manuals, software, doors. At best they’re slower and frustrate us. At worst, they cause us to lose out or harm us.

It’s the same with ideas. Whether we’re communicating simply to transfer knowledge or for emotional impact (your priorities may vary, but if you want to do either you really need to be doing both), the way they’re put together counts.

Let’s do a Zinnser on that last paragraph.

It’s the same with ideas: the way they’re put together counts. The structure of your ideas is crucial whether you’re communicating to transfer knowledge or to create an emotional impact, and really, if you’re serious about doing either you really need to be doing both.

Better? I think it’s a bit better. Must try harder.

So without further ado, here’s my Information Architecture Reading list:

Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond, 4th Ed

 by Louis RosenfeldPeter Morville and Jorge Arango


Love that polar bear

The introduction and first chapter that are included in the kindle sample are pretty compelling, but I can’t find an short quotation from it that doesn’t make it sounds boring, so I won’t.

Oh okay, I think this bit is cool:

[The] abundance and pervasiveness [of information] makes our lives better in many ways, but it also introduces new challenges. With so much information available in so many places, it can sometimes be difficult to cut through the noise to find the information you need and understand it once you have found it.

Information architecture (IA) is a design discipline that is focused on making information findable and understandable. Because of this, it is uniquely well suited to address these challenges. IA allows us to think about problems through two important perspectives: that information products and services are perceived by people as places made of information, and that these information environments can be organised for optimum findability and understandability.

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It’s possible that I like this book because it makes me feel like I’m in the matrix.

Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything

by Peter Morville

Big in Japan:

I’ve started this, and referenced Peter before. I thought I’d shared a link to a talk about the book on youtube, but can’t find the post, so here it is:

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The Information: A History, a Theory,  a Flood

by James Gleick

So far: fascinating. Need to think more about it to say how it’s helped and changed my thinking – watch out for a future post.

Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works 2nd Ed

by Ginny Redish

On the strength of the couple of chapters that Ginny shares for free on her website I paid £25 for this. It’s worth it for the first few chapters alone.

Don’t Make Me Think

by Steve Krug

It’s brilliant and funny. More from me about him here.

The Design of Everyday Things

by Don Norman

Look! It’s the coffee pot. This book is how I know about the coffee pot for masochists in the first place. It’s supposed to be brilliant, and it’s good so far.

Information: A Very Short Introduction

by Luciano Floridi

Stumbled across it on Amazon just now. Middling reviews, but Floridi directs a lab and straddles multiple chairs at Oxford; has well appointed office; wears tweed and high cheekbones). Might be a good starting point?

Two Websites

A Brief History of Information at The Register. At least one of my best tech friends reads this site often, so I expect this article is good. It’s on the list.

historyofinformation.com

HistoryofInformation.com is designed to help you follow the development of information and media, and attitudes about them, from the beginning of records to the near present. Containing annotated references to discoveries, developments of a socialscientific, or technological nature, as well as references to physical books, documents, artifactsart works, and to websites and other digital media, it arranges, both chronologically and thematically, selected historical examples and selected recent developments of the methods used to recorddistribute, exchange, organizestore, and search information. The database allows you to approach the topics in a wide variety of ways.

Pow.

Right, almost time to go – quit while you’re only five books behind and all that…

Surprise Bonus

Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places

by Jorge Arango

This guy is supposed to be great, and I like the cover. He’s an actual (bricks and mortar) architect who became an information architect

Note to self

Writing is a great tool for sharing ideas with other people.

It’s been dawning on me over the last few days that one of the people I’m communicating with is me.

When you take the time to record something accurately, or to express something clearly, or to reference carefully, it’s often a gift to your future self.

So do it often and well – chances are, you’ll thank yourself for it.

Made to Stick: Simplicity

Following Zinsser On Writing, here’s a snippet on simplicity from Made to Stick.

The first chapter is about reducing your message to it’s absolute core.

As with Zinsser, clarity of intent is key for the Heath brothers: it’s not enough that the message is simple, it must be profoundly important.

They use the military practice of sharing “commander’s intent” as an analogy to help us cut to the core of our messages.

In the military, commanders at each level of the chain of command summarise their intent or purpose in a couple of sentences at the top of a each of orders. This is done so that when (not if) circumstances change and the details of best-laid plans become irrelevant or wrong, troops can still make decisions and take action to achieve their commander’s overall purpose.

No plan survives contact with the enemy. No sales plan survives contact with the customer. No lesson plan survives contact with teenagers.


They suggest finding the Commander’s Intent for your message by adapting these prompts:

“If we do nothing else during tomorrow’s mission, we must …”

And

“The single most important thing that we must do tomorrow is …”

They continue:

Find the core of the idea. Weed out superflous and tangential elements. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is weeding out ideas that may be really important, but just aren’t the most important idea. The army’s commander’s intent forces its officers to highlight the most important goal of an operation. The value of the intent comes from its singularity. You can’t have five north stars.

It’s about discarding a lot of great insights in order to let the most important insight shine.

There’s plenty more in the chapter that I’ll share another time, but this is the main thing.

Easy question:
What superfluous and tangential activities are slowing you down?

Harder:
What good, productive activities can you set aside in order to achieve your main goal?

Clarity. Simplicity. Focus.

I’ve been reminded about the importance of clarity and simplicity by three books in the last week:

  • Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug’s classic on web usability.
  • Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath’s great (so far) guide to how to make ideas memorable and impactful.
  • On Writing Well, William Zinsser’s brilliant and very funny book on… writing well. 

They all share a key message for communicators of any kind: be clear about your purpose, and keep things as simple as possible.

These ideas can help us improve any work that we do, and the rest of our lives too. Omit not just needless words, but needless activity, needless calories, needless consumption. Simplify. Focus. You’ll be amazed at how good you feel, and how much more you get done.

But simplicity and focus (like abstinence and diligence) are only virtues if applied to the right things in the right way, so clarity is key:

  • What do I want?
  • What am I trying to achieve?
  • Who is this for?
  • What makes this good?
  • What would make it better?
  • Why do people buy this from us?
  • What makes it worth it?
  • What will make people come back?
  • What is the contribution that only I can make?

A clear vision of what’s most important is the lens that makes it possible for us focus our energy, to decide what to do (what to think, even), and reduce clutter and friction enough that we have the time and the space to do it.

Clarity. Simplicity. Focus.

And now, it’s Friday night, and I have a clear vision of what it’s for: needless activity, needless calories, needless entertainment.

At the right times and in the right places, the needless is the one thing needful.