Word Fu

I realised last night that I have something in common with my qigong teacher. Qigong is a Chinese system of movement to improve health. You can use a mental shorthand of “a bit like tai chi” if that helps (though of course there are reasons why it’s inaccurate, like tai chi being a martial art and qigong not).

My teacher has been doing martial arts since he was a kid. He’s said on a couple of occasions that he doesn’t know what it’s like to start an exercise-type thing for the first time in later life (mid to late thirties in my case): our journeys are different from his.

I’ve been doing things with words all my life. I’m used to getting them technically correct and marshalling them into newsletters, reports, books, etc. I fundamentally don’t, and can’t, understand what it’s like for someone who hasn’t developed those skills much. Of course, I can still help with what they’re trying to do, just as my teacher can, and enable them to get better results.

What sparked this line of thought? Bad books. I’ve seen a few interesting-looking novels on the Kindle store, grabbed the previews and found that the author has lots of great ideas but does not have the craft of writing. They use words inappropriately; there are typos, repetition, phrases that don’t ring true. Dialogue seems a particular difficulty. Instead of a smooth delivery that lets the writing fade into the background so you can get lost in the story, you’re stuck in a conflict between a continual jarring effect and the desire to find out what happens next. For me that tends to lead to abandoning the book, because of the mismatch between my standards and what the author has done.

That led me to think about how much this matters in the bigger picture. Are those “bad books” actually brave books or foolish books? The line between constructive and destructive criticism is a fine one.

Isn’t it a good thing that the internet has opened up new, low-friction ways for people to get their messages out there? Yes it is. One must also recognise that rather a lot of people don’t give a hoot about finely-honed writing, if Amazon reviews and indications around the net are to be believed. That’s probably because they don’t have a focus on writing skills themselves, so a lot of missteps pass them by without troubling them. They just want the stirring yarn. If lots of readers are happy, to what extent should we criticise a work for falling short of a formal standard? Maybe the internet, with all its easy, rapid communications, is pulling us away from standardised English toward a multitude of individual dialects – as I believe it was in centuries past. I suspect this will become a big topic of debate as the ebook phenomenon matures.

This is a point of learning and exploration for my own “teaching”. It’s the balance between making the best work possible and helping actual real people to do what they want and need. Much like my qigong teacher has to correct one thing at a time rather than trying to get the students to do what he can.

I think that if you’re going to do the thing that should involve a commitment to do it well. There has to be a first release, and if you go on to do more you’ll probably look back on it and see its flaws because your skills have developed. But there has to be a dividing line between “not ready for the limelight” and “good enough, let’s go”. Publishing is so easy now, but I don’t think that lets people off the hook of putting the work in (or getting the help) and developing the craft to make a genuinely good product. That’s not just a work ethic. It’s practical, helping you to get customers, satisfy them, and keep them coming back, rather than losing them as those ebooks lost me.

What do you think? What lines would you draw?


2 thoughts on “Word Fu”

  1. I can really appreciate your frustration Tim but as I read your blog I heard my mother’s voice saying “If you can’t do something properly, you shouldn’t do it at all”. This message is SUCH a block to both trying something new and risking making mistakes, particularly publicly (trust me!). So while I agree that just because you ‘can’ do something, doesn’t necessarily mean you ‘should’, and that it is good to develop your craft, I also admire people taking the risk and putting themselves out there – however imperfectly.

    1. Thanks Gina. That tipped me off that the piece wasn’t doing what I intended it to, which was raising a question more than finger-wagging. I’ve done a big rewrite so hopefully it’s closer now.

      I think it’s particularly interesting in the publishing arena. Traditionally there were gatekeepers who enforced the standards for the author. Now more and more people are bypassing that. It’ll be very interesting to see how it all shakes out over the next few years.

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