Worthless Words

25 November 2008

Wherein the Editor Vents, a Little

One day this will seem like youth, by Greg Gladman, with Creative Commons licenceBad writing is my bane. I don’t mean the sort of writing that appears on blogs as streams of consciousness, a quick and ready reflection of the world as it changes. That can be excused because it doesn’t carry with it the pretence of anything that might even approach perfection. I can even reluctantly leave aside newspaper journalism, for much the same reason. And my concern is not so much with the elision of facts or any confusion of dates. That happens to the best of us, and most readers are wise enough to navigate through the discrepancies. No, my beef, and what pains me professionally, is with writing that should be good but isn’t, that has a message but can’t communicate.

Where does written communication start and end – how does it happen? All communication should be a two-way process. Speaking and listening creates a dialogue, an exchange, and in a similar manner writing should always acknowledge the reader. Quite obviously writing can’t be as dialectical as a conversation that reaches agreement, but writers should always imagine the reception of their account or argument before they begin. Even if you write for yourself you’re still an audience and things have to make sense. But how many times have you heard someone say “I don’t know what I meant when I wrote that”?

Bad writing by people who should know and do better can be intensely frustrating for someone like me, but it also has practical implications. Allow me to given an example. Last night I rewrote a domestic helper’s statement that originally described a situation in which she was given a letter telling her that if she didn’t improve her performance after a week of compulsory training she would be sacked. This, in itself, might not seem confusing, but the statement had been transcribed by a help agency that often deals with cases of unfair dismissal and knew the details of the woman’s situation. By passing on the statement without thinking whether it communicated the problem at hand, that problem could well have grown.

Even though things could better, by Darwin Bell, with Creative Commons licenceAlthough this missive was labelled a “termination letter”, what the statement actually described was an official warning, and it would have been considered as such under the law in Hong Kong. Had the statement been submitted to the Labour Tribunal unaltered it would have been considered evidence of the woman breaching her own employment contract by leaving after being given a mere warning, with the concomitant financial burden of having to pay her employer the equivalent of a month’s salary and make her own way back to the Philippines without a ticket provided as part of her severance package.  But what the woman had related to be written down was that she was given a termination letter that would be rescinded following the compulsory notice period of one month if she performed well after her training.

Read the rest of this entry »


The Teacher as Token

12 November 2008

A Lesson in Communication

Sms, by Pixel Action, with Creative Commons licenceCommunication is an abstraction, regardless of how we look at it. Writing, reading, talking, listening, waving, frowning – these are all immediate actions that convey information. Communication is but the rubric under which we usually group them, the point at which hindsight dwells on their similarities rather than their differences, considers the sum rather than the parts. A teacher, for instance, communicates in a number of different ways: pointing, talking, pausing, walking. Together these actions constitute not only the lesson in action, but also the way in which meaning shifts from one mind to many. There is a certain symbolism in them all and the teacher becomes a token, at once surface alone and substance entirely, imposing order and challenging the structure of existing thought.

Having spent time lecturing honours students about academic writing at a Hong Kong university recently I’ve had time to ponder the multiple meanings of the token as a concept rather than an artefact. At the most obvious level a token is a souvenir, a small reminder of something. In that sense I’ve been nothing but a presence, reminding 70 students that their classes are compulsory, that something must be said between the start and finish of each lesson. This is the teacher’s role as an authority figure, and with students in their third year as undergraduates the figure is a little more obvious than the authority.

We begin, then, with a sort of restrained communication, which is really closer to tokenism.

Read the rest of this entry »


A Tale of Interesting Times

25 October 2008

Nick Paumgarten’s Literature of Crisis

These are interesting times, as the Chinese would say, and all the more worrying for it. Last week I spoke to a man who has built a reputation as a long-term value investor in Hong Kong’s stock market. “The market’s crazy”, he said, “I’m going to Shanghai for a while”. You just can’t argue with that. But there are other ways of perceiving the situation, and we can’t all afford a cross-country jaunt for the clarity of distance. So I’ve turned not to the dry financial press, with its hyperbole and gloom, but to a writer who knows how to weave a story a little better than well. Sometimes the technique is almost important as the telling, especially in describing what would otherwise be unknowable, or at the very least arcane.

Nick Paumgarten seizes on the role of credit in the current travails, writing in last week’s New Yorker. His brief argument is not in the least difficult to follow – interbank lending has dried up and all else has followed. “Hoarding”, he writes poetically, “is panic’s quiet twin”.  That might seem a little too rhetorical, but allusion can often trump analysis in drawing the bigger picture. First the banks panic, and then they – and everyone else – start to hoard. It follows that when someone mentions recession, no-one really wants to spend. Everyone’s thinking about whether they can keep their jobs, whether their savings will last if they don’t. So things get worse, and hoarding really does become panic’s quiet twin.

Read the rest of this entry »


Out of Time

13 July 2008

On Hadrian and Being Harried

History is battleground of ideas, a terrain laid with hidden dangers and the sad remains of methods passed beyond the pale. You might imagine – or even remember – the dull drag of history across the page, but the dates and happenings are never just there, ready formed, waiting to be relayed. Historians take positions, form perspectives, dash in, out and around conventions that the reader may never recognise and would rarely care to know. History is, after all, a profession for some and carries with it the arcana of half forgotten lore.

But a feature of history on the run – magazine articles, television interviews, newspaper columns – is that the traces of skirmishes past, of major shifts in thinking, just barely show through, if at all. Take Robin Lane Fox’s account of the Roman emperor Hadrian in yesterday’s Financial Times, for instance. It’s a battle fought against the shadows of opponents long since gone.

Lane Fox is a long established historian at New College in Oxford and knows well the intricacies of ‘classical’ Europe. He has written with authority on Alexander the Great and published his Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian to a very favourable reception. Spend even a moment reading his Financial Times article and you’ll see why – his style is fluid but clear, his logic straightforward and his capacity to engage the reader in considering the relationship between past and present exemplary in a field that has elevated waffle to a high art.

Writing to coincide with the opening of an exhibition on Hadrian at the British Museum, Lane Fox argues that ancient history “is both powerfully near to and far from our own world”. His case for Hadrian as “a thoroughly modern emperor” is not entirely personal – it flits agilely between the emperor’s enthusiasm for hunting to address the recent hunting ban in England, his love of a younger man, which Lane Fox reminds us was by no means the same as contemporary homosexuality, an invasion of what is now Iraq and the always troublesome problem of Jerusalem. Hadrian solved the problem brutally, by levelling the city and forbidding Jews entry to the site.

There’s pause for reflection in that for us all.

Read the rest of this entry »


Conventionally Speaking

6 June 2008

How We Listen to Nothing

NO, by neil-san, with Creative Commons licenceWho speaks in the silence between words? In his masterly essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell wrote of hackneyed phrases, terms that enter the popular imagination deprived of their original meaning, devoid of context and “ready to think your thoughts for you”. They appeal to the emotions rather than the rational mind, and use silence as a shield, as a way to stop true understanding. Their intent is negative – by excluding something they allow someone or something else to speak quietly to you, urging you to ignore what you already know.

Some of these phrases are deliberate manipulations, others are unfortunate cultural lapses. All are dangerous.

Consider first a term that I often see in my professional capacity as an editor in Hong Kong – the ‘Tiananmen Incident’. Now regardless of the dubious capitalization, what does this describe? An event that took place in Tiananmen presumably, and anyone with a little curiosity could easily find that the site is a plaza in Beijing, a famous meeting place and home to Mao Zedong’s tomb. But what does the term refuse to say? That 19 years and two days ago the Chinese military, at the instructions of the government, massacred hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators, mainly students.

Speak out for Peace, by mudkat, with Creative Commons licenceThat’s common knowledge, right? Yes, but in China it’s not commonly spoken. And in Hong Kong, that little part of China which really isn’t China at all, academics tend not to use the term ‘massacre’. They sanitise the situation with ‘incident’. That’s the official government line, and as Hong Kong academic Carsten Holz argued in the April print edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review last year, those who don’t listen to the voice in the silence soon find that their research in China generates few useful results. Data are not forthcoming and the mandatory local research partner is unlikely to be found.

Read the rest of this entry »


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.