Sunday, November 15, 2009

Plain English

Last Wednesday I presented a paper at the 5th Annual Graduate Conference at UWA. The conference theme was "New Approaches/ New Understandings" - great for me since much of my research is concerned with shiny new things. I had a very nice time with my fellow hermits, who are all very clever and accomplished.

The conference made me think about what makes a good paper, and how much a paper differs from a chapter or an article. Is it preferable to have powerpoint? How much theory is too much? If 90% of my audience is not from the English department, how much context do I need to supply for my comments? Given the infinitesimal number of people actually involved with/ interested in the Grotesque as a topic, how much do I need to say about what the word means/ has meant historically and culturally?

The thing about papers is that they force you to cut the fat. The whole history of the Grotesque has to be trimmed down into three or four sentences. My love of quotes, florid phrases and magical tangents is sharply curtailed. Like one of those 'in Plain English' YouTube tutorials.

I'm thinking of doing one of these videos, just for myself. 'The Grotesque in Plain English.'

Each paper is a balance between trying to communicate clearly and concisely, while also trying to express complex ideas in the form of an argument. I try to include things that I know I like to see when I'm watching a presentation. I am an easily bored visual person, so I like colourful pictures and things that go boom. Powerpoint or video clips add an element of danger, however. You must be ready for the sudden but inevitable betrayal of your technology. I'm very impressed by people who manage to be magnetic and informative without the use of technology. Also without notes. I am not one of these people. Without a script my mouth starts pontificating on a variety of topics without consulting my brain. This is barely manageable in real life; and a big mistake in front of an audience.

I read Stephen King's memoir On Writing yesterday. He has a lot of opinions on writing clearly and efficiently. His hatred of adverbs has made me rethink my love of them. Or, at least, I now notice that I love them. And feel shame.

Even though he is writing about fiction, it still applies to academic writing I think. On the use of adverbs and passive tense he says: "When I do it, it's usually for the same reason any writer does it: because I'm afraid the reader won't understand me if I don't. I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one's own pleasure, that fear may be mild... If, however, one is working under a deadline... that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather: you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn't need the feather; the magic was in him" (p97).

(I was going to include a Disney 'Dumbo with feather' clip to illustrate the point, but damn that movie freaks me out.)

Truly, it is hard to avoid fear when writing in the academic context. Fear of being thought ignorant, fear of sounding foolish, missing the obvious, or missing the point entirely. This fear can cause you to write badly, or paralyze you entirely. The effect is magnified when you are writing something to perform in public: where you are at the mercy of your audience. I will try to remember Stephen King's wise words as I write my next chapter.


  1. I feel shame too -- I use plenty of adverbs plentifully!

  2. But you are a poet! You have to use adverbs, I'm pretty sure there is a law.