Going Meta on Writing

First of all, a confession: I’m an engineer, programmer, and a geek. That explains a lot. If there were a literary police, I’d be doing 20 to life for knowingly writing under the influence of well, geekdom.

Geeks are a curious lifeform; stereotypically speaking, they are quirky, independent, intelligent, but socially challenged. Dealing with one or two at a time is fine; any more is like herding cats. Geeks think differently (to be charitable), and are not overly concerned with what other people think of them. For example, the following happened to my friend Kevin at Caltech, a place with arguably the highest concentration of geeks in the world:

In a freshman humanities class, a professor asked, “How many of you know more than one language?” A significant portion of hands go up. “More than 2?” Many hands disappear. “More than 3?” Only a few remain. This went on until only one hand remained. Kevin was shocked and puzzled, as his gaze followed the lone hand down and found it attached to his geek friend’s torso.

The professor inquired, “Excellent. How many languages do you know?”

“Uh, 9”

Visibly impressed, the professor exclaimed, “Nine! Do share with us.”

“Well, I know C, C++, Fortran, javascript, …”

That about sums it up. However, in terms of writing, if being inflicted with the curse of geekdom is a handicap, then true debilitation comes from being a (bad) programmer. Programmers are generally interested only in making their code function, and are adverse to others examining their work. Many “binge code” for days, with no documentation, under the delusion that their code could be trivially understood in the future. I spent the earlier part of my life churning out line after line of code, making perfect sense to myself – at least until I woke up the next morning. Old habits die hard. My earlier writings are clearly infected by the programmer’s disease, riddled with cancerous lesions, and many need to be euthanized, or at least quarantined. I try not to look back too much, as they induce involuntary vocalizations unsuitable for print.

The engineer in me – the practical, solution seeking side, comes to the rescue. Engineers love toys, I mean tools, and they love to solve problems (especially unsolicited ones in bitching sessions). Engineers are less concerned about the research and more interested in making things work, given the resources at hand. In my case, having read approximately 0 of the top 100 books in English literature, better writing through osmosis is out of the question. Having little choice, I boldly rely on the best writing tool invented in modern times. Namely, the spelling and grammar checker.

Yes, that rumbling noise you just heard is Strunk and White rolling over in their graves.

For some, writing is an art and an enjoyable process; for me, it is a way to communicate ideas. From a pragmatic viewpoint, I just need to get the idea from my squishy brain to yours. In programming terms, the code has to function – the rest is style points. My approach to non-fiction writing is like programming. First, identify the key function of the program (core concept). Write pseudocode (rough outline), actual code (stuff it with content), compile (spelling, grammar), run (proofread), facekeyboard (facepalm), rinse and repeat.

Usually the first draft is so repugnant it offends even WordPress. It is usually littered with grammatically correct sentences that make little sense, much like Noam Chomsky’s famous “Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously” example. When my writing is unclear, it’s because either I don’t fully understand what I’m trying to convey, or I am not able to express it clearly. Without fail, it’s always been the former. I fantasize about writing eloquently and effortlessly, like Steven Pinker, Carl Sagan, Daniel Dennett and many others. Their ability to elucidate is what sets them apart, and that comes from a deep understanding of the subject, the audience, and command of language – which unfortunately cannot be faked.

Thankfully my skin is extra thick, and the online format allows me to go back and delete my cringeworthy posts. As any golfer can attest to, practice does not necessarily make perfect – it makes permanent. It creates the delusion of improvement, which is good enough for me. After all, false hope is still hope. It is said (Abraham Lincoln? Mark Twain? Maurice Switzer?), “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt”. Well, I’m removing all doubt.  Fxck Mark Twain.

Final note.  Grammar checkers do not catch a lot of things, and punctuation makes a big difference. Example:

“Call me Ishmael”

is very different from

“Call me, Ishmael”

And perhaps my favorite example, the movie “Dick Tracy”, when altered by a comma and a question mark, changes from an animation to a very different genre (romantic action).


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