December 26, 2008

Are Words Trivial?

Last week, Kelly McCullough committed "writer heresy" over at Wyrdsmiths by suggesting that the individual words one uses while writing a story just aren't that important. Bill Henry came back with the expected defense of words as a writer's stock in trade:

Or to use the terms in which this idea is typically framed, "content" and "style" aren't radically separate things, which exist independently of each other.

The story ("content," the "story itself," "what happens in it") and the way you tell it ("style," "phrasing," the words you put on the page) aren't materially distinguishable from each other.


I'll get back to Bill's argument in a bit. For now, let me just note that Bill is an excellent writer of literary speculative fiction and a respected academic copyeditor.

As usual, I mostly agreed with Kelly--with our differences being attributable to the fact that I'm primarily a character writer and he's not.

I care about the words to the extent that I care about voice, which is a good bit. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about which words and types of words a narrator would and would not use.


That is to say that words are important because of how we individually use them. For the most part, people who speak a shared language use the same core set of words. But it's in the differences that things get interesting. They can tell us volumes about the speaker. They can tell us where the speaker comes from, how educated they are, how culturally isolated, their age, their gender.

These unshared words tell us the identity of the speaker.

Bill and Kelly wrestled each other to a mutually respectful standstill, which might have been the end of the issue for me if a blogstorm hadn't occurred. It started with an appearance by Abbie of erv on Bloggingheads in which she expressed her frustration once again with sensationalized scientific reporting.

Along came a couple of journalists to tell us why Abbie wasn't qualified to have an opinion on the subject. Among the reasons: "She's bragging about the fact she can't write." Dr. Isis unfortunately, while giving the self-important journos a good smackdown, fell for this criticism and suggested a copy of The Elements of Style for would-be scientists. Even Abbie...well, here:

I cant write. But I still have a relatively successful science blog.
I dont want scientists to be intimidated by blogging because 'they cant write'. You dont have to be a professional writer to talk about your research with the general public. I thought I made it clear that I highly respect blaggers who have the ability to write well and talk about their favorite science topics (I mentioned Ed and Orac), but I do not want scientists to think they have to write well to interact with the public directly via blag.


For the record, Abbie writes entertainingly and informatively about retroviruses--specializing in HIV--in a lovely patois of scientific terms and apostrophe-free LOLspeak, spiced with fangirl squee. My background in biology is so deficient (I'm working on that) that I don't have the vocabulary to follow a lot of posts on specific biological mechanisms, but I can follow Abbie. Despite her protestations to the contrary, the woman can write.

So why doesn't she think so? Why do half the science bloggers I read for entertainment and information apologize for their writing (the other half being people who never apologize reflexively), even those who can make people cry on demand? Luckily, along came Bora to fit this debate into its place in a larger discussion of how science is conducted.

Academic science is a very hierarchical structure in which one climbs up the ladder by following some very exact steps. Yes, you can come into it from the outside, class-wise, but you have to start from the bottom and follow those steps "to the T" if you are to succeed. But those formal steps were designed by Victorian gentlemen scientists, thus following those steps turns one into a present-time Victorian gentleman scientist. But not everyone can or wants to do this, yet some people who refuse are just as good as scientists as the folks inside the club. If you refuse to dance the kabuki, you will be forever kept outside the Gate.


Insistence on using the formalized kabuki dance in science communication is the way to keep the power relations intact. Saying "don't be angry" is the code for "use the rhetoric at which I excel so I can destroy you more easily and protect my own spot in the hierarchy". It is an invitation to the formal turf, where those on the inside have power over those who cannot or will not use the kabuki dance. This has always been the way to keep women, minorities and people from developing countries outside the club, waiting outside the Gate. If, for reasons of your gender, race, nationality or class you are uncomfortable doing the kabuki dance, every time you enter the kabuki contest you will lose and the insider will win. The same applies outside science, e.g., to mainstream journalism and politics.

This is why some people in the academic community rant loudly against science bloggers. If they cannot control the rhetoric, they fear, often rightly, that they will lose. Outside their own turf, they feel vulnerable. And that is a Good Thing.


I love this analogy, in part, because kabuki is such a perfect counter to Bill's argument about story and words. In kabuki, movement is just as important to telling the story as the words are. The story does exist independent of the words. This shouldn't be any surprise, of course. West Side Story is no less powerful because it abandons Shakespeare's words for music and dance. There are as many ways to tell a story as there are people to tell it.

Now, to be fair to Bill, he's talking about the process of deciding how to tell the story as much as anything else. Even so, what's wrong with finding value in the informal, the unshaped, the impromptu? Beautiful, deliberate language has its audience, but it doesn't resonate with the masses in the way that the story behind it does--look at most bestsellers. In fact, for someone without the education or cultural background to make that kind of language familiar, it can be very alienating. It can obscure the story.

Just as the formalized language of science can obscure the knowledge it contains. It is no accident that the people who questioned Bora's point about who is disadvantaged by the formal practices of academic science were British male scientists. Whose dance of manners do they think science adopted?

Words are trivial to these scientists only because their words are being used. The words that define science are the same words that define these people's identities.

Words are not trivial to those for whom English is a second (or third or fourth) language. They are not trivial to those whose regional dialects are used as a shorthand for ignorance. They are not trivial to those who don't understand that a word like "ambitious" can be an insult that everyone but them will hear because ambition is what's gotten them past all the barriers to their participation in science. They are not trivial to those who have grown up with a language that has moved on. They are not trivial to those who want to understand their world but can't afford the time or energy to specialize in a field.

Words are not trivial, but they should be. It's the knowledge that should be important.

To bring this back to the writers' side of the discussion again, Laura Bradley Rede of the Death Pixies summed up the whole question brilliantly at Wyrdsmiths:

If I may go all Zen koan on you, I think words are the bucket for the water that is the story. The bucket shapes the water, it helps deliver the water, it keeps the water from being lost. But you can't drink the bucket. :)


There is value to being able to speak a common language with a common grammar. It can smooth things immensely. But any language that doesn't adapt to new circumstances dies.

I find no small irony in the fact that the people who are keeping the language of science from dying--by updating it, by carrying it into new cultures and new corners of the culture it comes from--are the people whose language skills get so little respect. These are the people who are making words trivial again, and for that, they should be thanked. Instead, the clamor against them is so loud that even they don't know the service they're providing, despite their audiences telling them repeatedly.

So, once and for all and for the record, you guys are wonderful writers. The fact that you write differently than someone else is a reason to be proud, not for apologies. Or in other words, thank you for the water.

13 comments:

Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

I want to second the fact that Abbie is a good writer because she has a distinctive "voice." When I read her blog, I have not doubt that this is her. And yes, I can follow her lines of thought and explanation. So, she may not have George Johnson's "voice," but I read her because I am entertained while I am learning about her specialty. Is that not cool?

One of the things that I have noticed in this blogstorm over the value of science blogging, is that there seems to be desired imposition of "voice." As Bora refers to it, there is this set style of dispassionate writing that science journalism should conform to in order to be taken seriously, as in, "there is no 'I' in science writing." I believe this is crucial for formal papers; but one of the things that some of the bloggers (Chad Orzel comes to mind,) is that the audience is considered to be as monolithic as the writing.

As receivers, we are vital to the science communications process, and those who criticize the bloggers and especially erv, forget that there is a large audience that will be drawn to the science because of the style of writing. As long as she has the details right, then I think it is a great thing, and from all indications she does.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Yeah, ERV is an awesome fucking writer. And what some of these assholes seem not to understand is that the purpose of writing a motherfucking blog is totally different from the purpose of writing a scientific paper or an article in Science Times or a letter to the editor of the Journal of Toenail Fungus.

It's a motherfucking relief for scientists--many of whom are outstanding writers--to be able to relax their writing from the shackles of "In order to test the hypothesis that blah, blah, blah, we performed the following experiments", or "While it is known that blah, blah, blah, bleh, bleh, bleh remains a key question the field. We thus propose the following specific aims". That shit has its place, and is the bread-and-butter writing of working scientists. We blog to get the fuck away from that shit!!!!!!

If these dumbfuck journalists don't like it, then let them put us out of business competitively by writing more compellingly. If dumbass thinks ERV's blog is TEH SUX00RS, then let him write about virology so compellingly and comprehensively that no one bothers to read ERV's virology posts anymore. Otherwise, shit-for-brains can kiss my ass.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Mike, one of the ironies of this whole debate is that people are deploring the state of science education at the same time they're hyperventilating over people who are reaching nontraditional audiences. And yeah, it doesn't get cooler than that.

CPP, I can only imagine how much of a relief it must be for you. :) You do have a really good point about competition, though. I wonder how much of the characterization of scientists as amateur (bad) communicators has to do with the fact that they're doing for free what the journalists are paid to do.

Dr. Isis said...

But see, this was the point of my entry, Stephanie. It's not whether Stephanie can or can't write, it's that she repeatedly says (and if you doubt this watch the Blogginheads video) that she can't write and even makes the comment that she'll never be able to write for Discovery magazine.

So, either her style is a conscious choice, in which case she should not apologize, or she genuinely believes that she is a bad writer and should take steps to remedy the areas she believes she is deficient.

I enjoy Abbie, but I think that what we have to be careful of is this apologetic attitude that we scientists tend to fall prey to that because we are scientists we must be bad communicators. If we call ourselves bad writers, and allow others to judge us in that way, we will never be accepted in the public discourse.

Isis the Scientist said...

I mean, Abbie can or cannot write. See what happens when I get all damned worked up?

Stephanie Zvan said...

Dr. Isis, honestly, I agree with you on everything but the Strunk & White. It's the ultimate in codifying arbitrary language rules, so I just couldn't let it pass without a mention. But yes, Abbie has nothing to apologize for (nor Pal, nor CPP, nor Greg, nor Bora), and the sooner she stops, the happier I'll be.

Isis the Scientist said...

I think there is a role for S&W for codified writing (which technical writing is) and I meant it more as a symbol of a way scientists attempt to remedy their poor writing skills -- that is to say that if you are worried about they way you write, you should investigate ways to improve the areas you feel you are deficient -- more than as a concrete suggestion. Often, we scientists are handed a copy of S&W (I know my classmates and I were)and told to "work it out."

Kelly McCullough said...

Very nice.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Isis, S&W probably deserves its own post one of these days. For now, let's just say that I know they need something and I'm not prepared to suggest a replacement for S&W without quite a bit more consideration. It's just that I cringe at the damage it does.

Kelly, thank you. For the compliment and the heresy.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I wonder how much of the characterization of scientists as amateur (bad) communicators has to do with the fact that they're doing for free what the journalists are paid to do.

Those working scientists who blog at ScienceBlogs get paid to do so.

Stephanie Zvan said...

True dat, CPP. I'll bet if you polled anti-blogger journos, though, you'd see they haven't bothered to find that out. Fighting straw men is so much easier.

Bill Henry said...

Sorry for posting this comment so many days after the fact (I just got home from my blissfully Internet-free holiday), but I really want to address one thing Stephanie said:

"Kabuki is such a perfect counter to Bill's argument about story and words. In kabuki, movement is just as important to telling the story as the words are. The story does exist independent of the words."

This completely misunderstands what I was trying to speak about in my comments to Kelly's post whence this all came from.

Maybe it will help to put it in different terms: think of some familiar phrases like "the medium is the message" or "form follows function"—when I'm talking about the relationship (the inseparability!) of "content" and "style" ("story," "words"), *that's* (kinda sorta pretty much) what I'm talking about.

So: it's just not valid to use kabuki in a discussion about writing a novel; comparing a dramatic performance art form (kabuki) to a prose fiction story is totally apples to oranges.

In fact, kabuki is a *perfect example of* (not a perfect counter to) what I'm talking about!

In kabuki, the story (as Stephanie herself observes) doesn't exist separately from the way it's told: the performances of live actors in specific makeup and costume executing highly formalized vocal and physical (i.e., movement) performances in a highly formalized ambient milieu of stage, set, lighting, live audience, and so on and so forth.

Subtract or change any of those elements, and you change the story you're telling.

My comments to Kelly were never about defending "beautiful, deliberate language" over "informal, the unshaped, the impromptu."

In the simplest form I can muster, they were about saying this:

Words aren't important? Okay, subtract the words from your novel. What do you have left?

There is no bucket, grasshopper. Only water.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Hey, Bill. Glad you enjoyed your vacation. You certainly earned one this year.

There are some things that are said in a broad, exaggerated way to draw people's attention to the truth they contain but are not, in fact, true themselves. "The medium is the message" is one of those. The medium is a message, usually about one's expectations of one's audience, but it is not the message.

You can tell the same story in kabuki that you can in LOLspeak that you can in iambic pentameter. The fundamentals of the story exist independent of the medium. They are shaped for their audience by the medium, but they are not of the medium. That's why we "forgive" bad grammar and usage from our favorite storytellers. That's why stories outlive their tellers.

There are buckets. There are ladles and goblets and squirtguns. The water will outlast them all.