Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Note on my Writing Style

"Of all the sentimental errors that reign and rage in this incomparable Republic, the worst is that which confuses the function of criticism, whether aesthetic, political or social, with the function of reform. Almost invariably it takes the form of a protest: “The fellow condemns without offering anything better. Why tear down without building up?” So snivel the sweet ones: so wags the national tongue. The messianic delusion becomes a sort of universal murrain. It is impossible to get an audience for an idea that is not "constructive"—i.e., that is not glib, and uplifting, and full of hope, and hence capable of tickling the emotions by leaping the intermediate barrier of intelligence."
H.L. Mencken, Prejudices: Second Series, 1920

Mencken continues to be one of my favorite writers in the English language; his humor, propensity for metaphor and clever turns of phrase are second to none. Mencken was a major influence in my literary development. He introduced me to the joy of parsing language.

I have received several comments characterizing my writing style as pretentious, dry and boring. While I bristle at the former, as it makes claims about intentions which are frankly known only to me, the latter are legitimate complaints. I hope in this post to touch on several influences which will explain, if not excuse, my writing.


I have always been a reader, although my taste generally encompassed a very narrow range. I primarily read fantasy and Science Fiction, the vast majority of which had engaging plots and were tightly written to that effect. There is something to be said for this kind of writing, and I devoured them at an increasing rate. At one point, this was after my high school graduation, I was reading the works of Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut at a rate of almost a book a day. This amounts to roughly $300 over the course of a few weeks! I still enjoy these genres and the writing style that accompanies them, which is genuinely efficient. Plot is the primary focus and the utilitarian prose reflects that.

I eventually stumbled upon "the classics" and fell in love with Russian literature. Dostoevsky, Gogol, Pushkin and Chekhov were all I read for a great while.

A shift in focus from plot to characterization and theme resulted in a shift in writing style. There was more plot in the first 20 pages of 'The Icarus Hunt' by Timothy Zahn than the entirety of Dostoevsky's 'Notes from Underground'; the former required a strict adherence to action and movement while the latter had recourse to detailed dialogue and description. While neither tool is inherently better than another, the scale of the canvas determining the size of the brush, I did find the styles and themes of classical literature more rewarding.

Finally, I began to read philosophy and popular science books. I started with classical western philosophy such as Plato and David Hume, and progressed to Bertrand Russell, A J Ayers, Rudolf Carnap and Daniel Dennett. At the same time I read as much science as I could, both online and off, mainly focusing around Economics, Cognitive Science, Physics, Probability and Evolutionary Biology.

It is from these that I am mainly influenced; the counter-intuitive nature of much of their conclusions had to be reasoned with a clarity and precision that demanded careful wording. From my study of classical philosophy I learned to be wary of casual, non-rigorous exposition. Too many great minds had fallen pray to vague arguments and intimations that relied on the prevailing intuitions of the day rather than explicit logical inference

I came to realize the strengths of using precise, technical vocabulary in addition to enjoying the creative imagery and phrasing of Pushkin and Mencken. Whether or not I am successful at melding the two is up for debate, but I find it difficult to write any other way.


  1. Who said that about your writing style? They were probably just jealous. No worries though, I like reading your work...even if I have to stop at every other word and think about what on earth you are talking about :)

  2. I'm with Gaby, I'm interested in hearing what you have to say, even though your writing is quite beyond my ability to grasp most of the time. When I mentioned that I like some feeling in my conversations rather than dry intellectual stuff, I wasn't trying to put down your writing, rather trying to comment on what you said about normal conversation being "worthless." To some people, me included, normal conversation that doesn't serve a purpose can still have a lot of meaning. Nevertheless, I am interested in what you have to say, because I care about you. I'm impressed by your grasp of writing skills, believe me!

  3. i like you beutiful write