Saturday, June 24, 2017

Post 06: The Complexity of Writing

I like to talk about complexity and writing. In short, I view writing as a complex activity, and that changes the way I teach it.

First, I should define what I mean by complexity. Everyone knows that complex is different from simple, but too many people confuse complexity and complicated. A complex process, for instance, has many intricate steps and usually requires great expertise to competently complete; whereas, a simple process has few steps and does not require great expertise. But complicated processes are also not simple, and many people confuse complicated and complex. They are not the same. For example, a jet fighter—say, an F-18—is complicated. It is composed of hundreds of thousands of parts assembled in intricate patterns to create a marvel that flies at 1,200 miles an hour and can out-fight most anything else in the sky, except the F-35. It takes great expertise to maintain and operate these machines. However, an F-18 is not complex because there are very few ways to configure it so that it will function as intended. There is basically one right way to put it together, and the military spends great energy and money making sure that its people know how to do it.

An essay, on the other hand, is complex. It, too, is composed of lots of parts (morphemes, words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, division, etc.) assembled in intricate patterns to create a marvel that helps people communicate with one another, but unlike an F-18, an essay can be put together successfully in many different ways. Moreover, changing any element in an essay (for instance, a different reader) changes the entire essay to meet a new demand. Unlike a complicated process or artifact, then, complex processes and artifacts have many more solutions and can restructure themselves to meet new demands. So complex things, such as humans and essays, are complex because they have more than one solution and arrangement (think of the millions of different looking people), and they can morph or evolve to meet new situations and demands.

This complexity makes essays—and people—more difficult to work with and master than an F-18. Lots of us don't like that. We want essays to be simple, or at least merely complicated. So we create little formulas such as the 5-paragraph essay to try to make writing a simple process that anyone can do in 30 minutes, which is about as long as we want to spend on any given writing assignment. This formula seldom leads to an essay that anyone other than your mother wants to read. Most 5-paragraph essays are insufferably boring and maudlin. Believe me—I've read thousands of them.

Good writing is complex: a complex process leading to a complex product. The best essays are always complex, and complexity is damned hard to teach and even harder to master. But it's the only writing worth writing or reading.