5365: Style for Reals.

Topic: Provide an example of action or character in something you’ve read or something you’ve written recently, and how that might improve according to Williams.

Whenever people start talking about “reality,” you’d better duck, because a big, fluffy pile of nominalizations is probably about to get “all up in your face.”  Perhaps ironically, discussions of reality are often less about what “is” and more often about what isn’t.  Usually what isn’t isn’t clear, and it certainly isn’t a character as we usually think of them.  In so many academic texts—whether they’re about reality or differance or methodology or vitalism—characters tend to be ideas, abstract forces and concepts.  This lends itself to static rather than dynamic prose.

Take for example this excerpt from Sorokin’s The Crisis of Our Age. (A truly random find; I tripped over this in a long list of google search results for “reality”.)

First of all, for the reason that some kind of intuition is at the very basis of the validity of the systems of truth of reason and of the senses. Second, because intuition, as distinct from discursive dialectic and sensory experience, has been one of the most important and fruitful “starters” of an enormous number of the most important scientific, mathematical and philosophical discoveries and technological inventions. Third, because a variety of the religious and mystic intuition has been the main source and the main force for the creation of the greatest artistic, religious and ethical systems of culture. Fourth, because there is a sufficiently large body of the testimonies of the great thinkers, creators of religion, of art values, of science, demonstrating the reality, the functioning and the power of this source of truth. Let us elucidate these points briefly.

Dense much? It’s not just the content.  (He’s theorizing about reality, truth, and faith; whether or not revelation and intuition—as opposed to dialectic and reason—exists as a source of truth.)  Sure, that’s dense enough in its own regard–but even more so the problem in this passage is stylistic–beginning with the basic level of Character/Subject and Action/Verb.  His characters here are abstract–reason, intuiton.  Their actions? Usually something like “has been one of the most important and fruitful starters”  Or “there is […] demonstrating,” a vague claim to existence as action with a whole lot of people in there muddling things up. People—those “thinkers” and “creators”—who aren’t styled as characters in the sentence but probably should be.

Here’s my attempt at a recasting (a translation, as Lanham might call it).  I tried to make intuition more clearly a character, and otherwise let actual humans be agents in their own right as much as possible. That is, in Williams’ terms, I tried to make subjects characters and verbs actions:

We should accept such sources. First, because some kind of intuition validates our systems of truth, reason, and the senses. Second, because intuition (not dialectic, not sensory experience) has set in motion many of the most important scientific, mathematic, and philosophic discoveries and technological inventions. Third, because religious and mystic intuition created great artistic, religious, and ethical systems of color. Fourth, because the great thinkers and creators of religion, art, and science testify to the real functional power of this source of truth. Let us elucidate these points briefly.

Not perfect, but that’s better.  I think so, at any rate.  I chopped the original 141 word text into a sprightlier 94 words.  Then I ran them (shame on me) through MS Word’s readability tools. The Flesch Reading Ease score improved from a 36.0 to a 41.5 (the higher score is easier, for lay readers).  The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level fell from 15.2 to a gentler 11.3. I managed also to trim average words per sentence from 28.2 to 15.6.  So, even the computer agrees with me; on a purely descriptive level, the revision is more clear.  Perhaps, I’d go so far as to hope, even more real.

Here’s the second example, which originally inspired me to go hunting for that exponentially more dense text on reality.

Perceptions of reality are effected by the medium through which we see it. Reality television is an example. The CBS’s Survivor, MTV’s Real World, or ABC’s Extreme Home Makeover presents viewers with real people engaging in real events, with cameras capturing and showing their every move. Because “the camera never lies,” viewers believe what they see actually happens. What viewers do not consider are the editors and producers who choose what to air or not air from the original footage. Perceptions of people as “good” or “bad” is not made by the person’s actions, but rather how they are presented on the program. This appearance of truthfulness, or verisimilitude, is constructed, and (presumably) rhetorically presented as reality.

Compared to Sorokin (or Sorokin’s translator, I suppose), well, this isn’t so bad.  Sentences 1, 6, and 7 are pretty standard passive sentences, which I’ll descriptively revise below. Sentences 2-5 have distinguishable characters (reality television, specific shows, viewers) and actions (presents, believe, do not consider), and are thus pretty clear. But because the writer placed these among a series of passive constructions, much of their force dies before I even got a chance to read them.

Here’s my revision of sentence 1: “The medium we see reality through affects how we perceive that reality.” I think this teases out a bit of the redundancy of the statement with its see/perceive coupling, so the writer might choose revisit this statement on another level. Shifting the final “it” to “that reality” protects the reader from a forced choice among referents. Still, medium is more distinctly the actor in this sentence, since it’s plunked right up front.

Sentence 6: “Viewers don’t perceive people as good or bad based on their actions, but instead based on how they are presented on the program.” Here I’ve changed one passive section but left the other as is for a particular reason. The first half of the sentence calls out for a character—someone to do all that perceiving. The passive second half, on the other hand, emphasizes the lack of agency of individuals on the program at the hands of editors and producers mentioned in the previous sentence. The writer could choose to further emphasize the nefarious part editors and producers play by placing them in this sentence too, but I think that might overcomplicate the sentence. At any rate, this works well, and is a good example of when a writer might want to use passive voice.

Sentence 7: This one was tough. Who’s doing the construction and rhetorical presentation? The medium? (as in sentence 1) The editors and producers? The viewer? I always take “rhetorically” to involve human motive, so my revision goes as follows: “The series editors and producers construct and rhetorically present the appearance of truthfulness—verisimilitude—as reality.” The invocation of emdashes is, of course, my own stylistic choice (some might say crutch), one that keeps the appositive from breaking the action of the sentence at its end. If I were writing this myself, I’d probably even italicize “appearance” and change “reality” to “reality itself” to further emphasize the importance of that connection.

Here’s the final. (With a few minor edits thrown in for consistency between sentences.)

The medium we see reality through affects how we perceive that reality. Reality television is an example. CBS’s Survivor, MTV’s Real World, or ABC’s Extreme Home Makeover presents viewers with real people engaging in real events, cameras capturing and showing their every move. Because “the camera never lies,” viewers believe what they see actually happens. What [they] do not consider are the editors and producers who choose what to air or not air from the original footage.  Viewers don’t perceive people in reality shows as good or bad based on their actions, but instead based on how they are presented on the program. The series editors and producers construct and rhetorically present the appearance of truthfulness–verisimilitude–as reality.

To my eyes, the changes capture a more concrete explanation of this abstract but certainly character-driven process.  They also exemplify the scalpel I need to more carefully apply to sections of my own prose.  For reals.

[EDIT: Dan offered a great recasting of that last sentence; I’m adding it here because the opening clause is quite a bit tighter than my own: “The series’ creators rhetorically present the appearance of truthfulness as reality” Every time I look at original sentence, I want to fiddle with it some more…]

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2 thoughts on “5365: Style for Reals.

  1. Wow, Chris, this is well done. I’m often put 0ff by the density of academic prose. I often think I’m simply not bright or focused enough to catch what the author is throwing. So Williams cheeky indictment of academic writing is comforting to me. The density of your initial passage is like adding insult to injury. The concepts aren’t difficult enough; now we must overburden it with these complex constructions.

    It is almost as if the authors think the dense, occluded style befits the content. If it’s presented simply, perhaps it’s not as profound? In any case, your recasting of the first passage is spot-on.

    I take issue with the last sentence in your second passage. You presented a double subject and double predicate, then introduced verisimilitude as an appositive – delimited by em dashes. I think there’s too much going on in this sentence. Would this recasting lose too much meaning? “The series’ creators rhetorically present the _appearance of truthfulness_ as reality.”

    Thanks for the excellent analysis! You have really helped my understanding.

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