Mark Twain on Style

Here’s some fine advice from Mark Twain, no slouch as a stylist himself, on the virtues of writing that is plain and succinct:

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

(I stumbled across Twain’s wisdom on a post on Advice to Writers, a wonderful source of pithy, useful suggestions for how to make your writing better.)

Take a look at this passage from the opening chapter of Huckleberry Finn to see how masterfully Twain puts his advice into practice, as we watch poor Huck grapple with feelings of loneliness and restlessness in the home of the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson:

I set down in a chair by the window and tried to think of something cheerful, but it warn’t no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars were shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me, and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me. Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that’s on its mind and can’t make itself understood, and so can’t rest easy in its grave, and has to go about that way every night grieving. I got so down-hearted and scared I did wish I had some company. Pretty soon a spider went crawling up my shoulder, and I flipped it off and it lit in the candle; and before I could budge it was all shriveled up. I didn’t need anybody to tell me that that was an awful bad sign and would fetch me some bad luck, so I was scared and most shook the clothes off of me. I got up and turned around in my tracks three times and crossed my breast every time; and then I tied up a little lock of my hair with a thread to keep witches away. But I hadn’t no confidence. You do that when you’ve lost a horseshoe that you’ve found, instead of nailing it up over the door, but I hadn’t ever heard anybody say it was any way to keep off bad luck when you’d killed a spider.

I set down again, a-shaking all over, and got out my pipe for a smoke; for the house was all as still as death now, and so the widow wouldn’t know. Well, after a long time I heard the clock away off in the town go boom — boom — boom — twelve licks; and all still again — stiller than ever. Pretty soon I heard a twig snap down in the dark amongst the trees — something was a stirring. I set still and listened. Directly I could just barely hear a “me-yow! me-yow!” down there. That was good! Says I,”me-yow! me-yow!” as soft as I could, and then I put out the light and scrambled out of the window on to the shed. Then I slipped down to the ground and crawled in among the trees, and, sure enough, there was Tom Sawyer waiting for me.

Lovely, isn’t it? What works in fiction works in a blog. Try it!


Powering Up, Again

(Photo Credit: Bill O'Leary, Washington Post, 1/27/11

We begin again, after the storm and the power outages and the canceled class. Social media may be powerful, may effect certain kinds of changes (which is perhaps why the Egyptian government blocked access to social media websites as it has sought to control unrest in that country in recent days), but they can’t control the weather. Alas.

Tomorrow, we will play catch up. Our discussion will focus on the readings that were assigned for last Thursday as well as Aimée Morrison’s essay, “Blogs and Blogging: Text and Practice” (PDF on Blackboard). (Morrison’s essay is in this very useful anthology, by the way, which is electronically accessible through the University of Maryland library.) We will defer our discussion of Rebecca Blood’s The Weblog Handbook to Thursday. You should also be reading around in The Bygone Bureau’s “Best New Blogs of 2010” to help you decide what kind of blog you might like to study for the blog tracking assignment and to start sparking ideas for the blog you will design and build for this class.

In advance of class tomorrow, here are some questions I would like for you to reflect on. Be brave. Leave a comment here on the blog in response to one or more of the questions. It will help you prepare for class, and, besides, it’s never too soon to start learning in public. (Here again is that link to Grammar Girl’s advice on “How to Write a Great Blog Comment.”)

1. As we begin our work, do some reflecting on your use of and relationship to blogs and other social networking tools (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.). How passive or active is that relationship for you? How would you characterize your rate of use — light, medium, heavy, addicted? How would you characterize your technical skills? How, today, would you complete the following sentence? Blogs are . . . .

2. Take notes as you watch the video presentation by professors Richard E. Miller and Paul Hammond, “This Is How We Think: Learning in Public After the Paradigm Shift.” What do you see as the key terms and major ideas in the presentation? How do you imagine they might be relevant to the work we will be doing in this course? How has the transition from what they term a “print-centric paradigm for human communication” to a “network-centric paradigm for human communication” shifted the ways in which you read, write, and think?

3. Similarly, what do you see as the key terms and ideas of Jay Rosen’s “The People Formerly Known as the Audience?” Pay particular attention to his bullet points. Also, think about how Jeff Jarvis’ “First Law of Media,” which Rosen quotes, might be applied to what’s happening in Egypt: “Give the people control of media, they will use it. The corollary: Don’t give the people control of media, and you will lose. Whenever citizens can exercise control, they will.”

4. What did you learn about blogs and blogging that you didn’t know before by reading Aimée Morrison’s essay? What about the form or the practice of blogging do you find especially compelling? baffling? Why?

Have at it, bloggers! See you at 3:30 tomorrow, weather permitting.

Course Description

This course will offer students an immersion in blogging as a writing practice and as a social/literary genre with deep, multiple roots in cultural history. Our broad goal will be to explore what blogs are, what they do – culturally, politically, literarily – and what they can teach us about reading, writing, and social networking in the twenty-first century. Our work will pivot back and forth between formal study of the genre and its history and the daily discipline of designing, building, and maintaining a publicly accessible multimedia text. Thus, the course requires both a willingness to experiment with the production of new media forms and an ability to think critically about them. It will call upon your creativity and your analytical skill, your sense of intellectual play and your curiosity about how media shift – the increasing prevalence of post-print literary and cultural forms – has and has not changed communication and everyday life.

You will spend a lot of time on the Internet for this course, studying blogs, commenting on them, producing your own. We will also examine a number of print genres that might be considered precursors to blogs, including newspaper columns, diaries, journals, essays, pamphlets, miscellanies, and war reporting. We will read around in new media studies (e.g., Jaron Lanier, Alan Liu, Clay Shirky, Cass Sunstein) to help get a handle on where blogs fit into the mediascape of Web 2.0. We will consider blogs – such as Riverbend’s Baghdad Burning and Julie Powell’s The Julie/Julia Project – that have been turned into books and/or films. We will reflect on issues of style and persona, on the norms and practices that define the blogosphere, and on the freedom and responsibility that accompany the possibility of publishing without the print culture filters of editors and other gatekeepers.

NB: No technical skill, including HTML encoding, is assumed or necessary. Students will be urged to make use of Blogger or WordPress for web-hosting and design software. Both services offer templates that make designing and publishing a breeze. Also, if you are curious about what the instructor knows about blogging and where she learned it, feel free to visit Roxie’s World. Rest assured you will not be required to impersonate a dead dog in order to succeed in this course.

(Photo Credit: Moose, Oct. 2003)