Politics and Whatnot

Just another liberal political blog

The destructiveness of formal writing

One of the great things about having a random blog is that you can post stuff that really doesn’t belong anywhere on the internet’s topic-based forums.  This post definitely falls into that category.

I was looking through some old essays on my computer, from ten years ago when I was in college (they were transferred over from my old computer).  I remember thinking that it would be funny to see what I considered to be “good writing” when I was that age, as I still consider my writing to kind of suck now.  I figured it would probably be boring, mindless drivel by comparison to my current abilities.

And I was wrong.  Very wrong.  In fact, I would have to admit that in comparison to the writing I do for my current day job and even for this blog, my old essays seemed to be very thoughtful and entertaining.  Why?

One thing jumped out at me: no citations.  My old philosophy essays had no citations, and even a history-related paper I found had only a few citations rather than citing every sentence.  And I realized: citations destroy writing.

Seriously.  Think about it – if you have a work that has no citations, you just write it, without worrying much about conforming to whatever it is you’re talking about.  Now, this is usually seen as bad because it gives the writer the freedom to distort the source.  However, it also gives the writer the freedom to summarize a source in a manner that is tailored to the author’s point rather than the way the source was written.

For example, say I am making a point that Shakespeare is overrated and his stories suck.  I could do this as follows:

Take Romeo and Juliet, for example: the ending was an obvious cop-out.  The story is about lovers, whose love persists despite the world’s disapproval.  After building up this conflict throughout the story, Shakespeare kills them off with an arbitrary accident that has only a superficial relationship to everything else that happened.

But if I have to cite what I’m talking about, I have to do it like this:

Take Romeo and Juliet, for example: the ending was an obvious cop-out.  Throughout much of the story, Shakespeare focuses on the conflict between the protagonists’ love for each other and their families’ disapproval.  (See Act x, scene x, some scene that’s like that.)  However, the only relationship that the ending has to this conflict is that the motivation for Romeo’s attempt to fake his death, that led eventually to the tragedy at the end, was related to the conflict.  (See scene x, act z whatever).  This is a weak ending for some reason, but I forgot why because I had to spend so much time worrying about how it fits what I’m citing.

Obviously I’m exaggerating just a bit, but you get the idea. It’s a pain in the ass to have to cite sources, and it disrupts otherwise fluid writing.  In the process, the truth of what the author is trying to convey can be lost.  Citations may be important in some cases, but many forms of writing in the professional world require them to the extent that they become burdensome and destructive to the search for the truth.

Another problem is format.  My college writing didn’t have any particular format, it was whatever made sense for what I was writing.  This allowed me to get wrapped up in what I was writing.  When I wrote about historical figure during college, I still remember that as I was writing one of my longer college essays, I was imagining being the historical figure I was writing about at that pivotal moment in history.  But if I have to follow a rigid sentence-by-sentence format, my mind is instead focused on writing the right thing in the right place.  Rather than painting a picture, I’m pounding pegs into holes.  Yet, any kind of professional non-fiction writing seems to involve at least a loose sentence-by-sentence format of some sort.

I guess this is a bit off from the typical political hot air on this blog.  See?  Now I’m trying to conclude to follow my usual blog posting format, and it’s not working.  I’ll just end it here, fuck it.  Shit just got meta.


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