Friday, 26 March 2010

The Writer’s Nightmare, or Words which obscure rather than reveal.

The most important thing about getting a novel published isn’t the fame (what fame?) or the money (ditto), it’s the thought that someone will read it. I’ve banged on before about the collaboration between reader and writer; it’s something that happens without your knowledge. Occasionally you meet people who’ve read one of your books and you may chat about it, but that’s a tiny fraction of those who’ve relived their version of your fiction. All the others are and remain strangers. That’s sort of eerie but magical.

So what? Well, if you want to make money out of writing, you have to do other stuff – commercial stuff. It’s just as challenging but it does carry its frustrations, so I thought I’d use this posting to share a few of them with you.

As writers we love words, rhythms, sounds – the way a happy combination opens up meanings you didn’t know were there. So when we come across their misuse, we get apoplectic (or pissed – in the British not the American sense).

First example. I was writing a DVD script for a promotional video and I suggested to the MD of the company that, rather than appear in the programme himself, it would have greater impact if we interviewed some of the workforce and heard them saying what a great company it was, how terrific the stuff they produced was, etc. He saw the point and agreed. Then, the following day, I got an email from him with his scripts of what they should say. One went as follows. (I haven’t corrected the punctuation but I’ve changed the names of the company and the individual concerned.)

“My name is Fiona Campbell, Product Development Manager, Acme Corporation International. My function within the group is to research and develop innovative new products. In today’s ever-changing marketplace, the development of exciting and convenient, quality value added products, is of paramount importance for continued success in a highly competitive market. At Acme, joint ventures with customers on the development of new and existing products shall continue to play an important role. At Acme an important part of my teams duties is to liaise with customers and various departments, including quality control, production, sales and marketing, to obtain as much information as possible to help achieve quality products with a quality company image.”

Nice, natural, flowing chat, eh? That’s bound to convince people. And he used the same strangulated, constipated style for all the others too, however high or low their station. I ignored him.

Another company wanted a DVD for a product launch. I asked them for a description of the product and their reply, consisting of a single sentence, was a master class in the orchestration of subordinate clauses. It’s something I’ve quoted many times in talks and I still love it. I’ll call the product Acmeclad and this is what it does:

“Acmeclad is of a monocoque construction comprising a polymeric textile reinforcement encapsulated within a neoprene outer layer complete with integral neoprene strakes, bonded to a polypropylene penetration-resistant felt impregnated with a corrosion inhibitor or biocide contained within a water resistant thixotropic gel as dictated by the application for which the system will be supplied.”

Unsurpassable, you might think. But wait. Listen to another wonderful sentence written by a professor of rhetoric and comparative literature. (I have the full reference for this but I’m withholding it to spare her blushes).

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”


Now I know you’re desperate to be able to write just as eloquently, so in Just Write, the book I co-authored with Kathleen McMillan, we created THE NONSENSE GENERATOR. It’s an instant key to demonstrating your intellectual superiority to a reader. First, you take a straightforward sentence: “Studies have shown conclusively that (A) (B) (C) lead inexorably to the paradox of (A) (B) (C)”. Now think of any random sequence of six numbers from 0 to 9 and use them to choose words from columns A, B and C.

0 Intuitively……......…interdependent……..anomalies
1 complementary.....deconstructive……....paradigms
2 fundamentally…....disparate…………......morphologies
3 indecipherable…....internalized……… sets
4 pathologically….....polymorphic…….....…meta-analyses
5 intransigent…….....politicized…….....……structures
6 exponentially…...…volatile………......…….periphrases
7 ethically……….......…post-modern…...……values
8 pharmaceutically....inert……………........…variables
9 metaphysically…....dysfunctional…….....dichotomies

For example, if you chose 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, your sentence would read:
“Studies have shown conclusively that intuitively deconstructive morphologies lead inexorably to the paradox of indecipherable polymorphic structures.”

See? Writers-R-Us.


  1. Love it! Now I'm going to go away and play at generating nonsense!

  2. Sure you have time, Catherine? What with Flow, Cloud and the rest?

  3. In conclusion, the reason for lawyers is to interpret bad writing.

  4. Indeed, Reg. They are, after all, experts in perpetrating it.

  5. I take it you've heard of the Oulipo

    there was also a mathematical "tune generation" algorithm a while back someone wrote... (everything ended up sounding like Autechre / Ableton generated mashups)... I' trying to make an "art generator" (an extension of Keith Tyson's "art machine" ) - got to love rules that surprise. gooood stuff.

  6. and "metacognitive" - a very clever word:) Sometimes reading an article or even a book I wonder if native speakers feel as stupid as I do. Now I know, "yes you do"! It is a great relief.

  7. OMG - being a student and having to decipher this stuff must be horrific. BTW, like the photo Bill. Is this one of yours?

  8. Hi lepeep. Yes, I actually blogged about Oulipo last December ( Maybe you've also come across the Dada Engine - it's an online generator of stuff that sounds legitimate but is nonsense. If I remember correctly, you type in a few words and it wraps them all up in incomprehensible postmodern terminology. Great fun.

    sofisticos, sometimes it's in the apparent interest of some academics, not to mention politicos, to hide behind verbiage - it obscures their own inadequacies.

    Michael, glad you asked about the photo. Yes, it's an eagle I carved which sits outside my study window. The punk snow haircut and cloak made me think perhaps I should have thought of adding them when I was carving him.

  9. Are you serious? You carved that Eagle!? Beautiful. Very interesting stuff, Bill. I been practicing with the chart, too. What a blast. Now I can copy several of the sentences and send them to my congressman and get the standard letter back agreeing with my viewpoint. ;)

  10. If you get really proficient, Marley, you might actually get yourself elected.

  11. Does anyone understand the convoluted sentences?

    Like the eagle, Bill, and the new-look blog.

  12. LOL! I'm not sure I need a Random Nonsense Generator to generate nonsense; I seem to do it far too easily all by myself. Great fun though...

    And when will managers learn that management-speak is a dead form of communication?

  13. Rosemary, I doubt it - but people are so easily impressed with stuff like that that they assume the people who say or write them are superior beings. And the new look blog was a response to Catherine's observation re. Michael really classy redesign of May Contain Nuts that it's hard to read white text on a black ground.

    Fiona, I agree that it's fun writing one's own rubbish - I've always used that to get cheap laughs. As for management-speak, those who use it should have their residual brains scraped clean.

  14. Oh, thank you! finally, a white background for my poor, tired eyes....SOOOOOO much better. wonderful. :)

  15. Glad it's better for you, scary. I only changed it because of Catherine's comment on the first version of Michaels' cool new layout. Glad, too, that you like the eagle. I must put a shot of it up without the snow maybe.

  16. I, too, like the white background. My favorite part of the blog post, however, was "constipated style." May I use that phrase in the future?

    Like you, I do commercial writing and I see so much of it...

  17. Be my guest, Linda. I guessed that you'd come across plenty of this type of thing, too.