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Dec 9, 2011

Writing shorts

Yesterday, I have written 50 emails (29 on Wd, 35 on Tue, 43 on Mn), a reference letter, and worked with two differed groups on a conference program, and on a new program policy. I also put together an application form, and made a couple of Updates entries. It cannot be all that good. In fact, rest assured, most of it was not good. Even marginally decent writing takes time. Paradoxically, shorter pieces may not need less work than longer ones. In fact, proportionally speaking, shorter pieces should take much more time than longer ones. Much of misunderstandings can be avoided if we took time with our short communications. An unclear email can open a floodgate of clarifying questions. It can also create confusion, errors, hurt feelings, and many more unintended consequences.

We write more shorts because our readers are not likely to read longer ones. I love an occasional New Yorker article because it is longer than a usual magazine piece. I am assured though that the author put hundreds of hours into developing it, so it is usually very good. But an email longer than half a page is very unlikely to be read thoroughly if at all. A 20-page policy is assured a pompous oblivion. Web sites with hundreds of pages will linger unvisited. We are forced into the world of shorts, and most of us are as graceful there as an elephant in a china store.

No one teaches us how to write shorts. It is a special skill, one that becomes more and more important with time. As the nature of communication changes, “Twitterature” becomes its own art form. It will develop its masters, its own sets of rules and its own beauty and elegance. I always require students to write longer papers, just because I want to know their thinking, and to make sure they can construct a more complex argument. But now I am thinking that we should also teach them the art of brevity. The problem is not in lack of time; it is the lack of skills. The task is putting the same amount of thought into a shorter text. English is already a very economical language, with a long tradition of economical, direct and clear writing. Yet the skill does not come by itself. We can marvel at Twain’s on-liners, or Hemingway’s laconism, and yet unable to produce anything like that.

Yesterday, the Cabinet (Monica, Susan, Karen, Eileen and I) spent more than an hour writing this one page document. And note, it went through two drafts already. Why so long? - Because writing is thinking. Language stimulates our imagination, and we are better able to imagine scenarios – intended and unintended – of a policy when we’re working on explaining it. One may believe we think first, and then write our thoughts down. This is not true, of course; no thought arises outside communication, and no thought can be expressed without interpreting. Now, is our one page an example of good writing? Probably not in the aesthetic sense of the word. But we at least walked out of the meeting with some common understanding on what we want to be communicated.

Let’s try to pay attention to our short writings. It is a matter of proportion: the author should take at least twice as long to write something as it takes the reader to read. I know – we won’t be able to cope up with student and each other’s emails, you think. But I bet we’d need fewer exchanges, if we thought a little better about the message that starts it all.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    Are you considering using an observational tool to ground RIC faculty-mentors? I ask because my experience has shown that mentors observations will reveal more about what the mentor finds important - and these topics can vary greatly across mentors.

    IF, you were interested in using a formal tool, in addition to observational field notes, the CLASS provides information re: teacher-child interactions. There are 3 domains, but nationally "instructional support" is the toughest to make improvements on, but it may just be the key to improving practice.

    My graduate students already video their practice. I'm thinking of having them use the CLASS as a self-assessment to then ground the mentoring dialogue.