Editors are frequently haunted by shapeless texts. You would be surprised at how many documents are submitted with random titles, weird spacing between sentences and paragraphs, Haphazard Capitalization, sloppy punctuation; loose speling, allusive references to things, ‘fanciful quotations », or slashes that save the author from choosing the right word/concept. These texts seem to espouse a theory of self-expression, whereby authors best convey their thoughts and feelings by liberating themselves from conventions.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Ignoring established norms regarding presentation, structure and tone is guaranteed to throw off your readers. Writing is highly normative for a simple reason: Conveying information is by nature codified. All forms of language are expressive only to the extent that they avoid muddling the message with unnecessary disturbances. Shapeless documents are cluttered with noise.
Your writing, therefore, will inevitably follow certain rules. A clean and conformist layout is essential, but you also want to pay attention to such things as overall length, the usual size of paragraphs, and customs concerning footnotes. The reader will settle into a certain relationship with a text and its author based on tell-tale signals. These will indicate, for instance, that this text is a blog post, rather than a treatise, because it is both short and conversational. The shape of a text is a contract of sorts: Readers know what to expect, and that helps them focus on what counts.
By contrast, if you send a formal email that reads like a text message—complete with colloquial language and typos—you are signifying sloppiness regardless of what you intend. Likewise, a memo may contain the same brilliant ideas as your notes-to-self, but unless it adds order and direction, it will do little more than communicate confused thinking. In an article, you may adopt an academic style or an essayist’s outlook. Simply avoid texts that belong to no recognizable format—ghastly creatures that live in narrative limbo.
Be true to form for your own sake. Proper presentation, a discernible outline, careful punctuation, accurate spelling and other details are not distractions that will make it more difficult for you to concentrate on substance. On the contrary, these norms reduce the uncertainty and anxiety of writing. Knowing that an op-ed needs a catchy title, a central argument, short paragraphs, crisp sentences, simple words and a punchline removes much of what you otherwise would have to think about. Having accepted these rules, you may devote your entire attention to the point you want to make. The shape of a text is a grid that brings writing down, almost literally, to filling a form.
Where does one find the template? Quite simply by looking at role models. If you don’t know how to draft a professional email, seek inspiration in those you receive, or those your manager sends. Emulating others is crucial to finding one’s own style in any field. No great poet, essayist or analyst emerged by snubbing whoever preceded them. Revealingly, no one would even think of becoming a proficient musician without first learning the techniques of their forebears.
The problem of shapelessness has a broader, philosophical dimension that deserves discussion. Our cultural environment is increasingly blotted with semi-spontaneous output that claims to be both casual and creative. Smartphones, social media, and self-publishing tools have all contributed, in different ways, to democratizing expression and personal brands. Now anyone can publish lovely pics and witty posts. Before that, contemporary art had already popularized the notion that anything esthetic, or disturbing, or merely novel could have significant value.
But meaningful cultural artifacts aren’t half-baked and don’t exist in limbo: They tap, add to and enrich the cultural fabric that surrounds them. Any text is part of a diversified, vibrant and codified ensemble. Authors so absorbed with themselves as to ignore the precedents set by others will at best reinvent the wheel and stay shallow.
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Illustration credit: Henry Ridgely Evans Photo from “Hours with the Ghosts or, Nineteenth Century Witchcraft” by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
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