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.