Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Keep it Simple – A Technical Communicator’s Golden Rule

Recently, in my technical writing class, I was given the assignment of finding a bad writing sample to present to the class. For some time the phrase “dangling participle” had been bouncing around in my head. If someone came up to me on the street and asked for a sample of one, did I even remember whether it was good or bad writing? Much less, come up with a sample of one? So this is where I decided to start my Google search. Good old Wikipedia cleared up the good or bad writing question:
A dangling participle is an error in sentence structure whereby a grammatical modifier is associated with a word other than the one intended, or with no particular word at all. For example, a writer may have meant to modify the subject, but word order makes the modifier seem to modify an object instead. Such ambiguities can lead to unintentional humor or difficulty in understanding a sentence.”
Well, clear that a dangling participle would be a sample of bad writing, but I couldn’t really make sense of the definition until I looked through a few samples:
  • Turning the corner, a handsome school building appeared.
  • At the age of eight, my family finally bought a dog.
  • Walking down Main Street, the trees were beautiful.
  • Reaching the station, the sun came out.
Okay, handsome school buildings don’t turn corners, or heads for that matter. A family’s age is not usually a topic of conversation. Beautiful trees don’t walk down the street and the sun doesn’t usually come out when it reaches the station. I remember now what a dangling participle is, but I’m not sold on turning this in for my assignment. So my web searching continued.

Next I happened upon the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest sponsored annually, since 1982, by San Jose State University’s English department. The contest was started by a SJSU professor who discovered the originator of comic-strip-hero Snoopy’s favorite phrase to start a novel, “It was a dark and stormy night; …” The originator was Edward George Bulwer-Lytton who opened his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, with the infamous line:
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
Contestants in the Bulwer-Lytton contest are asked to compose and enter the opening sentence of a bad novel. I read through several entries from over the years and found a favorite that I thought to present in class, but questioned using a contest winning piece of bad writing. Then I saw a link to Sticks and Stones, a page where contest followers had submitted published authors who might have won the Bulwer-Lytton.

Since I do have a tendency to ramble in my own writing, and want to put into practice what I’m learning - technical writing is all about communication, clarity, and conciseness – I decided to use one of these actually published samples. The final choice for my “Bad Writing Sample” assignment is a subtle reminder of a couple of things:
  • why I didn’t always complete literary reading assignments in high school,
  • how as a technical communicator, I need to always serve the reader – keep it simple.
I hope you enjoy the following work, and you too will take home a good lesson in how to be a better communicator. Keep in mind that Mr. Melville’s excerpt is one page of a seven page chapter, a one sentence paragraph, with a 469 wordcount.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale

“Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal pre-eminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title 'Lord Of The White Elephants' above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial color the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolisings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things -- the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honour; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”

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