Robin Rendle
• San Francisco, California

Indeterminacy

When I look back on work from five or six years ago—heck, I don’t even have to go back that far—I see it clearly now: a few extra sentences here, another repetitive chunk of stuff over there. I’m so desperate to impress and swoon, so desperate to make a reader sit back and declare “ah, yes! Here is a very smart egg indeed!” that I sort of become blind to the complex words that aren’t necessary or the list added to the end of a paragraph where a sentence would do best instead.

There’s so much junk!

This isn’t about minimalism, mind you; it’s about clarity. Expressing yourself so clearly that someone doesn’t have to perform any gymnastics to follow along with what you’re saying. The problem here is that a lot of writers think that the gymnastics is what makes for good writing. And I certainly thought this way, too. I wanted to be seen as a Great Writer of Literature as much as the next chap.

But this sort of thinking will lead to nothing but junk in the end. And I’ve stumbled upon so much…questionable…content…lately that it’s starting to make me sensitive to it. Take this example, where I won’t link to the website or anything because the goal here is to focus on the writing and not blast the writer:

[This website] as a proposition suggests a space of indeterminacy; a set of possible frameworks that allow the unintelligible to flow through them. Perhaps an introduction is all too fixing—enacting a form of pre-emption of what is to come. Therefore, as a reader, you can treat this text as an invitation to move with us through some of the many possible links the contributions generate when read in relation to one another.

I most certainly feel the unintelligible flow through me as I read this: what the heck does any of it mean? I think it might be shortened to something like this perhaps:

[This website] is not one thing, but many. That makes introducing it difficult to describe. However: do not take this as an invitation to explore further, but instead take it as a warning. Take a lantern, take a rope; you might get lost.

Okay, I added some unnecessary juice to it. But that’s basically the point of this paragraph: tell the reader that hey there’s a lot of weird stuff on this website, mention how the articles don’t really click together, make it interesting, and then get out of the way. But instead we’ve been asked to mentally kickflip around words such as proposition, indeterminacy, pre-emption. These words do not clarify, they make the image here much harder to grasp. “Take a lantern, take a rope; you might get lost” isn’t poetry or anything but at least the image in your mind is clear.

When I began reading this website I couldn’t help but wonder if this was an extremely cool website that I just couldn’t parse the language of or whether instead it was a legally binding contract I had stumbled upon.

I reckon so much writing is like this because it’s how we’re taught in school and it’s what’s often considered good writing in our culture. We’re taught that indeterminacy is a smart word that makes us clever and interesting whereas instead to me it suggests nothing but laziness. It was the first word that was typed out and then no one double checked to make sure that 1. it was easy to understand and then 2. it was something I wanted to read.

This is what I call The Guy Debord Problem: the writer is letting their ego get in the way, they have left open the dictionary on their desk, but are not thinking clearly about the reader. It’s as if they’ve perched a mirror next to their keyboard so that they can see only themselves (the writer) in focus.

But! We shouldn’t be thinking of ourselves at all as we write. We should instead be asking ourselves the most important question when it comes to writing: am I caring for the reader? Is every word, every sentence and paragraph caring for those strangers I’ll never meet?

Am I writing in service of them, or of me?

“Service” here means not wasting their time: avoiding words designed to make you (the writer) sound clever, and never letting an unkind word slip. (You can get mad all you like with your writing, but you can never be petty.) Basically: “simplify, simplify, simplify. Or, as I like to paraphrase: simplify.”

Any bit of writing should be in service to the reader in these ways, but I think we’ve all been taught to write in a style that forgets the reader entirely. My English degree taught me, incentivized me in fact, to write poorly with this sort of obfuscatory language, “nevertheless…”, “in this essay I will set out to…” etc.

It’s all complete junk. And we have to learn to see this junk in the wild if we’re going to banish it from our work.

I also think part of this is because we don’t study bad writing at all, and we jump straight to Macbeth and Paradise Lost. We’re introduced to writing as if we ought to be poets reclining on love seats whereas instead we should treat writing as if we’re editors that are sat hunched around a table, half-drunk and smoking profusely whilst a bar brawl breaks out all around us and we’re on a deadline for tomorrow morning at 8am and—we check our watch—it’s already tomorrow morning, the clock has just violently turned 2am, and we’ve barely finished reading the first draft. All the while we’re overwhelmed because the only way that we can focus on the task at hand is to obsessively keep asking that question, over and over again, each time increasing the volume to shut out the noise all around us and to make sure that we never slip up, not even for a moment:

“Am I writing in service of my reader?”

“Am I writing in service of my reader?”

“Am I writing in service of my reader?”