Happy Friday: On deconstructing a conspiracy theory

January 25, 2013

Rationality with a slight tinge of snark, a lovely snack when served with a frosty beverage


One key to writing well: editing

January 21, 2013

Emily Temple at Flavorwire has a nice bloggy-style compilation of quotes on an unappreciated part of writing: the fine art of editing. All are great; two are special.

Pithy, but true….

“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” — Raymond Chandler

 

And I love this one. 

“The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.” — Neil Gaiman

We so desperately want to get a completed manuscript off our desk that we forget that it needs to incubate a bit. When we return, our ideas have matured, and those sentences we loved (or tolerated) before, look atrocious.

OK, I’ve procrastinated enough. Time to start editing that manuscript. 


Creativity’s Recipe

January 21, 2013

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Oliver Burkman has a lovely short essay on the best practices for fostering innovation. It just rings true to me. The crux:

The key to a solution lies in how you state the problem. You need to strip it of context and colour; more technically, McCaffrey argues, you need to reduce it to a specific form: “verb, noun-phrase, prepositional-phrases”. What the ski firm really needed to do was to “reduce vibrations over 1,800 hertz”. From there, it’s an easier leap from one domain to another: similar vibrations, it turns out, play havoc with violins, causing sound distortion. Violin designers address this by using a metal grid; the ski designers, finding the analogy, adapted it: problem solved.

So the recipe for doing something creative is as simple as 

Creativity=

1) State the problem in its most basic, explicit terms.

2) Stare at that statement and looking for analogies to problems in other fields. Apply the solution logic in those other fields to your problem.

Rinse, repeat. 

Note that 1 and 2 call on different skill sets. The first is that of the logician who also knows her system well enough to grok its essential parts. It’s *really* essential parts.  Barbara McClintock captured this in the dictum “Know your organism.” The second is that of the broadly read, intensely curious, generalist. Focus on one to the exclusion of the other, and you risk becoming the 1) drudge who only publishes in specialty journals (where you are a *star* of your niche group), or 2) the flighty person with a thousand ideas but no publications. 

It’s hard, often frustrating work trying to balance the intense understanding of one system while keeping up with issues of Science and Nature. But when you discover that the template of one field of inquiry overlays your problem in an eerily satisfying way, you can almost feel ole’ Leonardo looking over your shoulder and smiling. 


Good writing is considerate

January 13, 2013

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Utilize     A noxious puff-word. Since it does nothing that good old use doesn’t do, its extra letters and syllables don’t make a writer seem smarter; rather, using utilize makes you seem either like a pompous twit or like someone so insecure that she’ll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look sophisticated. The same is true for the noun utilization, for vehicle as used for car, for residence as used for house, for presently, at present, at this time, and at the present time as used for now, and so on. What’s worth remembering about puff-words is something that good writing teachers spend a lot of time drumming into undergrads: “formal writing” does not mean gratuitously fancy writing; it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing.

From Both Flesh and Not: Essays, by David Foster Wallace