Friday, May 30, 2008

Writing for Godot

I've spent the week working on several writing projects that collectively define a large portion of the compositional spectrum for me. They require such different skills and processes that they almost seem like completely different activities.

First up, a book review for the A.V. Club. (Link is to a sample -- the actual one I wrote hasn't run yet). Here the word count is paramount: 400 words, no more and not many less. In that space I have to introduce the topic, put the book and author in context, summarize the book's content, and explain my aesthetic judgment about the book's quality. The strict word count and fairly rigid coverage requirements mean that I almost always fall into a three-paragraph formula that's as comfortable as an old shoe, but also often feels like repeating myself. It's nice to write a different kind of review for a different format, as I did with this same-length-but-no-paragraphs review of Fantagraphics' Bill Mauldin collection for Comics Panel (scroll down close to the bottom).

Next, an encyclopedia article. I've written several of these in the past couple of years, and I've discovered that they are easier and more fun if the topic is fairly narrow. It's a heck of a lot more enjoyable to summarize the life and work of one person, for example, than to try to figure out what an encyclopedia entry on "Southern Religion and Film" should be like. There aren't any guidelines for the content of the latter, which makes writing it something of a nail-biter. (What am I leaving out? What am I forgetting? What am I not giving its due? What piece will be obviously, glaringly absent or wrong to all readers, except, somehow, me?) The assigned task for encyclopedias is to be comprehensive while still expressing a moderate point of view. The more abstract the topic, the more difficult that is. So I did my best on this one to provide a loose typology of connections between Southern religion and film, but had to give up on the idea of comprehensiveness, especially in 1250 words.

Third, proofreading a journal article that's about to be published. This is where I get to sit back, read something I wrote six months ago, and be astonished at my own genius. Well, maybe not genius, but whenever I read something I wrote in the past, I'm usually surprised by how good I think it is. The process of writing usually blinds me to the overall point or impact, so that when I see it later and can hear the click-click-click of the tumblers falling into place to unlock the argument, I'm really rather impressed with myself. Maybe I can do this after all, I think. An academic journal article is actually looser and more personal than either of the previous two genres of writing. I can use the first person, extended analogies, and a greater length to make more complex points. Sure, there's a particular academic tone that's expected for this rarefied audience, but the freedom to construct a multi-layered edifice and make several related points means that I usually breeze through this writing more quickly and naturally than anything else other than personal reflection.

Last, composing a few sections of a student handbook we're putting together. Now we're on the extremely restrictive end of the spectrum. The assigned task is to be completely comprehensive and completely clear. The text must address as many conceivable issues and situations as practical, and it must articulate specific policies that govern those issues and situations. This is hard, hard work. Just writing a first draft, I am reworking every sentence multiple times to find the most thorough, well-defined, and precise way to communicate. It's an interesting challenge -- not unlike encyclopedia writing in its goal of comprehensiveness, but with the subtraction of any point of view, and the addition of nigh-unlimited space to achieve complete coverage. I don't think I'm cut out to be a technical writer, but it makes for a refreshing and instructive change ... occasionally. (I'll leave the demarcation of steps and definitions to Archer, whose mania for order and penchant for reading instruction manuals for fun make me think this might be a career option for him.)

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