James O'Neill's Blog

August 8, 2007

On Writing. And formats for storing writing. Via sockpuppets

Filed under: General musings,Office — jamesone111 @ 7:11 pm

I mentioned the post that I lost last night and that it referred to Clive James, a writer whose words I can hear as I read them. I can’t think of many others like that: I hear Bill Bryson’s words in the on-the-brink-of-mania tones with which Kerry Shale read them on the radio, rather than Bryson’s easy paced burr.

When I read a transcript of James’ essay “Smoking, my lost love” from the series “A point of view” I could hear it in my head. This, I thought, is someone whose blog I’d subscribe to, if he had one – which he doesn’t. He does have a web site  and I found myself in the audio section listening to a piece called “Insult to the Language”  It shows a side of him which these days we are supposed to call “pro-detail” for fear that the a constable from the Political Correctness police will whisk us away if we describe someone as “pedantic”, but nonetheless it has some quotable passages which show that his best writing is on the subject of the writing of others. For example

“Such blunders… drive the reader to re-work the sentence himself before he can figure out what the writer must mean. When the writer is getting all of the fee, and the reader is doing at least half the labor the discrepancy can  cause resentment….
…There is a brand of Lumpen prose which … weighs like lead because the reader continually has to join in the writing. ”
and quoting an example “This is just a mass of raw material waiting for the reader to make something of it”

{Perhaps I should point the irony of quoting this after the passage I pasted into my previous post, lest someone else should point it out for me}  But this idea of sending a “mass of raw material” for the reader to sort out is what I referred to in Why am I the one doing this as Bad E-mail. Why am I the one who has to organize the writers thoughts into something coherent ?”

To show how sloppy writing distorts meaning, he talks about metaphors which people use incorrectly because they do not understand the practice which gave rise to them “He shot himself in the foot” James tells us “Originally referred to a solider in the great war, who hoped that a self inflicted wound would buy him a ticket out of the trenches. Perhaps because of the irresistible mental image of a western gunslinger pulling the trigger while getting his revolver out of its holster, the metaphor is nowadays almost universally used to evoke clumsiness, rather than cowardice” . Rather disappointingly neither of the editions of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable that I have at home has this phrase in it.

Of course I’d need something newer than my 1980’s copy of Brewer’s  to look up a term like Sockpuppet.

A little time ago I was writing about Open XML and the process of moving from an ECMA ratified standard to an ISO modified one; it was something that was in the news and I felt I had something I wanted to say on the subject. This week an update reached the mail boxes of many Microsoft Bloggers, with a suggestion that we might want to blog about it. I don’t mind if someone mails me to say “we’ve got an event which may be of interest to your customers will you spread the word ?”. I have more trouble when it’s a news story where I don’t really have an angle. The news in this case, and it is good news for Microsoft, is that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts now support both Open XML and ODF formats. Great! You can read their comments about the process they went through here – with a link to the comments they received and the policy itself, though if I am to be honest, I really hope you have something better to do with your time.  (Reading and listening to Clive James for example.)

I talked to Steve about it. “If we all blogged it at the same time wouldn’t we look like a bunch of Sockpuppets” I said. To my surprise an upto-the-minute, on every-social-network, sidewalk-surfer-dude like Steve didn’t know the term ,so I checked with both Wikipedia and Wordspy. The thing about a sockpuppet is that it is a false identity, I was spreading the term in the wrong sense – in just the kind of way that Clive James had talked about.

So having us all blog about it at the same time would make us … well I don’t know what the term is (suggestions please. Any along the lines of “Typical Microsoft employees” won’t be accepted.). Of course I’d never blog about the subject. Oh no. Perish the thought. I might mention it in passing to illustrate something rather more literary, but that’s completely different 🙂

This post originally appeared on my technet blog.


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