Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Writing and Communicating

There is some irony, perhaps, in the fact that, though I’m a novelist and can barf out a block of text topping several hundred words in no time flat, when I’m at work and see an email consisting of more than about 200 words in paragraph form, with no formatting to highlight key points or organize information visually, messages are lost on me.  It was a fun fact of life at my last job that “messaging” was commonly effected by the Giant Block O’ Text method, and sometimes I still find this true at the “new” (now nearly a year old!) employer.  When working on communications with one of my own kids, I’ll massage a message (har) with at least a bit of formatting, especially when it comes to emails we’ve got to share with big groups.

When working on anything, ever, in PowerPoint, I’ll gnash my teeth and go mad at Giant Blocks O’ Text, flat out.

Perhaps precisely because I’m guilty of producing giant streams of NON-information in excess, when I see actual information treated to the essay format (or, Maud help us, novel lengths – which you all must have seen yourselves in pointless emails), seeing GBOTs in forms definitively unsuited to it (PowerPoint, I am looking at you) hurts my head.

GBOTs hurt *everyone’s* head.  It is unkind and unproductive to try to stuff a Word document into PowerPoint or an email.  PPT and email are visually and cognitively rotten vehicles for anything but the most high level media.

For pushing twelve years, let it be said, Mr. X and I have brought novel-length emails to the level of an art form – I won’t pretend that when options are limited, you use whatever medium you can.  But even then, once there is any exchange, we have always reorganized big blocks into smaller chunks of dialogue, responding to each other point by point in a visual equivalent of real time.  Sometimes, if we don’t read an entire email before responding, the results can be curious – amusing – even disastrous, of course.  Limitations.

But the point is, given constraints, the only kindness to our fellow beings is to work within them.

Because PowerPoint, for instance, is theoretically designed as a presentation software (often used to present without an actual speaker or even a meeting involved, of course), it is optimally used to illustrate data, plans, concepts, or team information at the highest level, eschewing detail.  The idea, again theoretically, is that a big-picture chart or bullet list allows a speaker to expound further than what’s on screen and make their speaking role relevant while perhaps more dynamic, with graphics and other visual/auditory information supporting them rather than the other way around.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever watched a presentation in which 100% of what a speaker said was emblazoned at great magnification directly behind them on a big screen.

Yeah.  That.  Or, really:  NO ("noooooooooooooooooo!!!").  That.

It’s torture, waiting for a presenter to catch up with their plodding, hyper-pedantic slides.

It’s torture, too, going through email and getting a message the sender passionately believes is crucial for you to understand, and it’s half a screen of black-on-white prose in ten point font.

When we’re being paid to read and receive information, spelunking for it when it’s buried in paragraph form in a copious message can be bitter work and wasted time.

When we’re alone on a train or at home, reading a book we chose out of interest and hope – no matter how long – the same is still true.  The nature of the reading, the working of our brains, the organization are completely different – but the need can be very similar:

“Give me the story.”

This doesn’t mean rich descriptions and context and world-building needs must be pithy – or that, literature forfend, prose should be organized in some other way than a wonderful block of text, perhaps even topping four hundred juicy, pulpy pages of reading goodness.  It just means that everything contained in those pages ought to be serving something, ought to be accomplishing something (even if that something isn’t pushing out the sales figures for Q3).

The luxury for authors is that what we’re out to accomplish may be conveying something as subtle as the alluring turn of an ankle, the way a character’s walk romantically captivates another (or, as in “Pippin”, the arch of a foot!).  We may need to place a reader in a moment of stillness which, redolent with some flower’s exotic scent and the soft, golden light of evening, may be broken at any moment.  The need may be to leave our audience wondering whether we’d rather stay in the stillness or heedlessly throw ourselves into the next action, the next sound, the next rapture or disaster …

There just should always be some need.  That “tension” our beta readers like to go on about, that agents get so excitable about.  Even if the tension isn’t that of a spy rifling through a drawer just as the Russians are coming back to the office.

If we have a Giant Block O’ Text going, but its essential message isn’t apparent, we’re doing no better work than the Communications experts who bury the lead (lede, if you prefer …) and render it invisible with too much pointless verbiage.

Like this post, if you will.  Which started with a 532-word intro before I revealed the point.

Was that clever context and tension … ?  Or just torture?

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