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Five levels of writing - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Five levels of writing [Dec. 1st, 2007|09:06 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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[Current Mood |amusedamused]

The level of formality of my writing falls into one of five categories depending on the context.

Technical writing. Super-boring, stilted, abstract. No cleverness allowed. Any references to popular culture are immediately shot down (yes, I've tried.) In The Mathematical Experience, Davis and Hersch conjecture that the purpose of mathematical writing is to "hide any sign that either the author or the intended reader is a human being". I think they hit the nail on the head! Not all academic disciplines have norms as extreme as that, but they come pretty close.

I also have to say "we" instead of "I" even when I'm the only author. WHAT IS UP WITH THAT? I've never been able to figure it out. And I just can't bring myself to do it. Fortunately I've never had to write an actual paper as the only author, so the real test is going to be when I write my thesis.

"Normal" writing, such as this blog post or an email to a group of people. This is the level that I really enjoy; I have the freedom to write whatever I want but the responsibility to put some thought into what I write so as not to bore or affront the reader.

Informal writing, such as 1-on-1 emails or comments to blog posts. I don't expect more than one or two people to read these, so I do no more than a cursory review of what I wrote.

At this and the following levels of writing, I also dispense with capital letters. Using them makes text slightly easier to read, but it's harder on my wrists (especially with my current tendinitis), and when the intended audience is O(1) the effort doesn't seem justified.

Text messages (and to an extent emails composed from my phone.) I freely resort to omg and lol, but fortunately I don't have to strip all the vowels from my words because my Treo has decent autocomplete :)

Youtube comments fall into a category all on their own. It is imperative in this medium of communication to establish that you have an IQ of no more than 60. Gratuitous insult-flinging is also encouraged. Needless to say, capital letters are out of the question. Spelling any word with eight or more letters correctly is frowned upon.

<lol>I haven't quite mastered the art yet. I believe my comments stick out a little bit to the experienced youtuber. But I think I'm getting better. For instance, I no longer cite papers from PubMed, DBLP or the arXiv in support of my conclusions. When someone makes a statement about the sexual orientation of my favorite political candidate, I do not point that it does not follow from his stated political positions. Nor to I bother to question the relevance of the argument to the issue at hand. I have learned that the correct response is instead to question the morality of my opponent's mother. A retort that somehow involved the Jews would also be appropriate.</lol>

It's a pretty interesting phenomenon. I'm sure anthropologists of the future will find youtube comments of our time an object of great curiosity worthy of study and providing many insights into human behavior.

Of course, I have to link to xkcd on youtube.

[User Picture]From: paper_crystals
2007-12-02 04:00 am (UTC)
What about novel writing?
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2007-12-02 04:25 am (UTC)
the post was about the writing that i do.. not writing in general. i haven't written any novels yet :)
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-12-02 05:10 am (UTC)


slashdot comments > reddit comments > digg comments > youtube comments > rediff comments


- Umesh
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2007-12-02 05:17 am (UTC)

Re: comments

quite possibly true. i haven't seen the comments on any of those except slashdot and youtube. my guess is it mostly reflects the strength of the respective moderation systems.
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-12-02 11:18 am (UTC)

Anonymiuty + Audience

I think Penny Arcade guys came up with a good theory: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19

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From: (Anonymous)
2007-12-03 04:54 pm (UTC)
We refers to "the reader and you". Both you and the reader understand the proof together. This is especially true for technical books and also followed in technical papers.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2007-12-03 09:04 pm (UTC)
oh, if it were used only in proofs i wouldn't have much of a problem with it. but it's gotten to the point that "i" has been banished from all technical writing. how do you justify something like "we downloaded the experimental dataset from http://blah.org"?
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