Literature

Back in secondary school… No, wait, I’m in America. What do you call it? High school? Something like that? Ok.

Back in High School, I studied English Literature. Not by choice, you understand. I was compelled.

It was absolutely excruciating. Never has anything destroyed my interest in a subject quite like English Lit. I remember that we spent a whole term – that’s three months – on Act 1, Scene 1 of Macbeth.

Maybe my teacher felt overly familiar with that chapter, being something of an old crone herself. But we read it, we analysed it, we interpreted it, we acted it, we watched the movie, we went to the play (ok, the whole play, not just the first act) by the RSC. God, that was dull.

But still not as dull as Great Expectations. A book whose ironic title is the only wit to be found. I *hated* being forced to read this. I’d sneak a Pratchett book into class to read instead. How ridiculous that I had to sneak a book into an English lesson.

But despite hating Lit with a passion, I found myself becoming rather good at it. My secret was in finding that there were no limits. You could take the piss as far as it would flow.

I remember we were analysing a rather harmless poem about picking blackberries. My family and I do this every year down by the river. It has fond memories for me.

“What’s the poem about?”
“Blackberry picking”
“Go on.”
“Er…”
“What was the author intending?”
“Er.”
“What are the blackberries symbolising?”
“I dunno. Life?”
“Excellent!”
Really? Ok then, “the nature of the berry signifies the promise of the summer fruit, of the joys of life, and while it is fleeting and momentary, there are plenty more to be found, until the season, much like life itself, eventually comes to a close.”
A+

I owned English Lit from that point onwards. My reinterpretation of the hundred words of Act 1 Scene 1 ran on for seventeen pages. Front and back.

So I aced Lit, and I found it useful later in life. In coursework assignments, it’s easy to bulk out an essay with rambling nonsense. Later still, I could knock up a system design specification in about a week. Two hundred pages (big headings). Happy client.

Trouble is, with all that fluff, there’s precious little content.

It is actually not at all a good skill to have.

Recently, a couple of years back, I changed this habit. I decided not to write any more documents that weren’t expressly for the purpose of conveying information. No more bulk, no more fluff. Get to the point, cut it back even further, redraft again for clarity, and then kill any words that aren’t absolutely needed.

It’s harder. Writing less takes longer.

The same is true of speaking. In a meeting, how often do you ramble on? Are you explaining what’s on the slide? Are you saying the same thing you said last week? Are you pointing out something that anyone smarter than a grapefruit already knows? Or something nobody cares about?

It often arises in interviews. You’re nervous, you’re keen to appear knowledgable. So you start waffling. I’ve cut my interviewing back to coding problems on a computer, because waffling wastes so much time. I won’t rank you down for waffling, I’ll criticise myself for not cutting you off.

And of course, I’m terrible at waffling in meetings. I’ll be trying to clarify something in my own head, by explaining again, something I already said last week. Or yesterday. Or five minutes ago.

So stop me. But don’t embarrass me. We’ll need a secret signal between ourselves.

When I’m rambling, just start checking your tweets on your iPhone. Preferably with a large bored sigh. I’ll stop.

And of course, I’ll do the same for you.

Lets do this.

Tpyos

I have a problem with spelling.

It’s a bit like anti-dyslexia. I’ve seen friends stare at a page of text, totally unable to see the glaring errors in front of them. I don’t have that. I get the opposite.

When I look at a page of text, errors jump out at me. They’re distracting. I’m not trying to proofread, not trying to find problems. It’s them. They find me.

Of course, I’m as vulnerable as anyone else when it comes to text I’ve written. It’s hard to proofread your own stuff.

But it’s bad enough that I find it a problem to read on the Kindle. As soon as I see an error, I’m pulled out of the book. The carefully constructed fantasy world is jerked out from under me. I want to feed back to the publisher, so I think about how I could do that. I can’t.

I’ve taken to just highlighting the word. Then I move on. For the rest of the chapter, I’m not reading, I’m just checking words for errors. The next chapter, I can start reading again. But I’m not back into the fantasy world for another three chapters or so.

So I bought this book recently, written by an ex-colleague. It’s good – it’s really good. I want to write back and say I love how he sets the scene, how he builds his characters through their actions rather than simply describing what they’re wearing. How he doesn’t fall for the new-author fate of rewriting the first three chapters straight from a thesaurus, just to appear intelligent; but at the same time, I love the simple choice of words. “Raucous chowder” is a wonderful way to describe Fisherman’s Wharf.

I’d say this, and more, but I wouldn’t be able to say it without adding the soul-destroying “but”. He doesn’t want to hear the “but”. Nobody cares about the “but”.

But there’s a rogue “if” instead of “it” in paragraph eight. And it’s killing me.

And nobody needs to know that.

So maybe I’ll just be quiet.