Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Essay on literacy: What should writers expect from readers?

Thoughts about what it means to be a writer & a reader now.... 

What do I expect from you, dear reader?  More importantly, what does any author expect of their readers?  

Do I expect that you’ll skim over the text and smile quietly, or do I expect you to wrestle and engage with it, mano-a-mano? 

Suppose I use a word like “vasty.”  What do you think as your eye passes over?  Perhaps I would have used it in a sentence like “This essay is a place of vasty ideas.
As you read, you might have had a momentary mild surprise, but then keep on reading.  Since you know me and have read things like this before, you’d probably assume that it's not a typo, and I had something slightly odd in mind.  But unless you’re a dedicated reader and burdened with an endlessly inquiring mind, you probably won't look it up. 

Why not?  In an online world, where many things are quickly searchable, why not?  What does this say about the nature of reading?  

These are the kinds of questions every writer constantly asks as they write:  “Is this getting my point across?   Will people understand what I mean if I use this word?  What about that word?  Should I use concept A or concept B to be as clear as possible?” 

I’m not sure how other writers do this, but we are always standing balanced on the knife edge of decision.  Shift the salami of choice one way, and the edge cuts fine and the word works in the text; shift it the other, and the wounded word drops to the floor, un-understood and point missed.  This is true at the microscopic level (word by word, slice-by-slice), and at the macroscopic level (story thread by story thread, or salami-by-salami). 

One of the joys of reading is seeing the way some writers play with language.  I completely enjoy reading books by Barry Lopez, almost always learning something new about the world, and about language at the same time.  In his essay “Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire” you learn a new word right off the bat: Effleurage is a massage done with a circular stroking movement.  What’s fascinating about this use of the word is that he’s describing the way a traditional potter’s use of a long, “dragon-shaped” wood-burning kiln to fire his pots.  That’s about as far away from the ordinary meaning of effleurage as you can get which normally has a connotation of delicacy.  But once you know that word, the essay sparks with a kind of brilliant glimmer of insight.  The potter IS massaging the kiln’s fire, moving it up and back and around in the dragon’s belly; the idea is similar, but logically distant, and very, very precise. 

Obviously, the best choice is to be self-defining in your prose choices.  Tom Robbins writes in “Still Life With Woodpecker”   that “…Hawaiian was a language that could name a fish"humuhumunukunukuapua'a" and a bird "o-o" and never mind that the bird was larger than the fish.

By the time you visually zipline over the 22 characters of the Hawaiian name, you know that humuhumunukunukuapua'a is a fish and the 3 character o’o is a bird, all nicely self-contained.  

As a writer, you expect certain things from your readers.  If you’re writing a Russian novel, readers expect interesting Slavic names.  If you’re crafting technical documentation, you write with the expectation that the reader wants to get through your sterling prose as quickly and painlessly as possible.  Naturally, the most important thing you can have in mind while writing is an image of what your readers understand and what they’ll do in response to what you write. 

It boils done to choices like this:  Can I use a word like effleurage?  Will readers understand what I mean?  Will they bother to go look it up?  What about words like quark, reification, dendrochronology, or metasequoia?  What about concepts such as Stirling engine, dark energy, or the Hanseatic League? 

I really don’t know what other writers do, but here’s what I think about as I write: 

          It’s magazines all the way down. 

What I mean is that if you’re a “Gourmet” magazine type reader, I can use vocabulary like emulsify, lecithin, and molecular gastronomy with impunity.  If you’re a “National Geographic” reader, I know I’m safe with places like Tierra del Fuego, and Alice Springs, or concepts like “walking a transect” or “karst topography.”  A “Reader’s Digest” reader implies a certain level of simplicity in writing, while “National Review” implies another.  Even conceptual fields that are far flung can be useful to think about.  Someone who scans “Cigar Aficionado” will know that sometimes a Cohiba is just a Cohiba, while a “Scientific American” readers will probably understand the difference between “dark matter” and “dark energy” and if they don’t they’ll look it up.  But they also might not know the difference between Bob Marley and Bob Crachit, or care. 

So the REAL question is not just what kind of magazine audience do you write for, but also what do you expect the reading audience to do with what you write? 

Will they look up a concept or word and reach for the deeper meanings?   Will they bother to check out the reference I’ve made to an essay or book?   

I’ve found that my reading style has shifted as I move into more electronic forms.  Now, every time I see a word I don’t know, if I’m on a tablet, I long-press it to get the definition.  This has changed the way I read; it has changed the level of understanding I have.  I do more-or-less the same thing when reading an essay on my laptop.  The mention of the name of an interesting essay (say, “Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire”) causes me to copy/paste it into Google and see from whence it came.  Note that I gave you the link in the mention above.  Should I do that, or should I expect that you can do it on your own?  

Another example:  I, the writer, expect you to be able to recognize quotes.  And I guess I expect you to look up stuff that doesn’t make sense.  I expect you can find a reference even if I just sort of graze up against the idea or borrow a bit of language. 

Does this cause me to write differently?  It certainly does.  I have more expectations of you because you, gentle reader, are a creature of the present, and reading now is different than it was 50 years ago.  I expect more of my readers. 

By the way, have you looked up “vasty” yet

Turns out that it just means “vast,” after all.  BUT… it evokes a particular sense of time and place and kind of purposefully overwritten meaning.  “Vasty” was introduced in 1596 by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part 1, so it’s been around for a while. It appears when Hotspur mocks Glendower for his outrageous claims that he can control the devil and spirits.

Glendower:  I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;
              But will they come when you do call for them?
Glendower: Why, I can teach you, cousin, to command the devil
Hotspur: And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil—
              By telling the truth. Tell truth and shame the devil.
 Henry IV, Part I Act 3, scene 1, 52–58

That’s it—the original coinage of the term.  But you knew that.  I know some fraction of you looked it up.  

Other writers have picked up the word and used it in their own writings, but always in a passing homage to Shakespeare.  And that’s how I’m using it, as a bit of spice to the story.  And for people who remember where “vasty” comes from, it adds a twist of zest, a kind of seasoning for the mind.  In this case, I’m using it as a foil, but a fun foil that makes my point.  It’s all just words, but this one is very New Yorker and Paris Review. 

As are you—which is what I would have expected. 

Have you looked up humuhumunukunukuapua'a yet?  It’s well worth the cut-and-paste.  Such a long word, but such a brilliant fish.  

How National Geographic of you!

And how our expectations about literate reading have shifted.  

Keep reading.  But read differently.  


  1. Interesting, though I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "literate" reading (or writing).

    Thinking about readers, writers and expectations leads me to wonder how much the expectation of readers writing responses (in some medium) influences writing.

    I don't know what your expectations are regarding responses from readers, but your reference to different vocabularies reminded me of former basketball player and current NBA sportscaster Walt "Clyde" Frazier, who told Brooke Gladstone during an On the Media interview that he increased the "bounding and astounding" vocabulary he uses in his sportscasting by reading the New York Times theater review section each Sunday.

    As a reader writing a response, I'm not sure what to expect with respect to HTML, but here are some relevant links:

    A Conversation with Basketball great Walt 'Clyde' Frazier

    Walt “Clyde” Frazier Dictionary

    1. Hi Joe - I love responses! It makes the blog feel more community-like and less like me pontificating. As you know, lots of folks have left superb comments in response to various things I've written, and more importantly, they write and respond to each other.

      Here's my previous discussion about what "Literacy" is all about. http://searchresearch1.blogspot.com/2012/02/what-does-it-mean-to-be-literate.html

      I agree with your idea here--that readers can now write-back to the authors. (As happens here.) The *dialog* has definitely changed the way I think about writing. Pre-web, it was much harder to get the degree of feedback that's possible now.

      I think the feedback has made me a better writer. (I hope readers agree!)

  2. Dr. Russell, I'm with you. Reading and writing are shifting.

    It is very interesting your post from today. I thought at first that I was on another blog and then kept reading. With technology now is easier to learn and be in contact with the world and as we have seen not always a word or concept is the same in all the world.

    I as a reader, try to learn the most possible and do like you say, searches on words and phrases that I don't know or understand. Also, I have noticed that reading and interacting now on the Internet, allow us to have a better way to think. I'm sure that now I'm different and better.

    Also, have to say, that many times writers achieve more than what they expected and many times they don't even know. That is, readers find new ways and answers, for example; and maybe that wasn't the primary goal of the writer but they accomplished more.

    As an example of the above, your SearchChallenges. They are not, at leas for me, just to get an answer. They are a way to learn and know the world. Learn how to think better, a way to connect with different cultures and ways of thinking and many more.

    Kind of out of topic, just was reading about Hummingbirds which I love and had the fortune to see their nest, eggs and birth. I thought their name Etymology was different and no, it is just for the sound they make. Then tried more and found interesting data from how are they named in other countries and searched more about Colibrí . It was fantastic experience and also was able to use Dr. Russell Wikipedia tip.

    Thanks, Dr. Russell, for writing to us.

  3. I am curious as to why you wrote this article. Ah that's your point isn't it. Am I interested enough to read it and will I take an action by reading it. Well I've done both.

    Yes I followed your links and it isn't just links. It's any word that you may use in an unusual way e.g.'foil' that causes me to stop and think "what do you mean?". Technology has helped me grow my vocabulary because of these simple tools.

    My reading habits use to be that I always had a dictionary and thesaurus nearby. I tended to check it regularly but I found it a nuisance because it interrupted the flow.

    I've never considered myself a writer but up until a few years ago I always had a Manual of Style (Chicago, AP) on hand. I found them somewhat useful when writing but now online versions are much more effective. I use to have one called the Little Brown Handbook that I used as well. Here's an example of an online manual of style used at "The Economist" . Should we have an online "manual of style" for blogs? or online in general to help us write effectively in order to communicate better.

    When it comes to writing now we can use something like Evernote to capture notes, images, links and webpages in a database. You can tag each entry, organize into notebooks & search for tags and text. I need to spend more time learning to do this but it's one of those "I'll get around to it". I would think writers online would have an expectation that I will have some knowledge & make use of such tools to enhance my understanding.

    Reading for pleasure I will absorb the context in its entirety but if I'm searching for specifics I skim or use Control F. I have this belief that when skimming if the first sentence in the paragraph doesn't give me something I tend to skip over the entire paragraph. My second rule is look for not exactly keywords but phrases. We see these words without even realizing we've seen them. Control F works well if you know specifically the words/phrase but not the idea.

    There's nothing like learning a new language to get you to reexamine your assumptions about communication. My spanish learning journey is only a part of the discovery I've had in the process of language learning.

    Interesting topic.

    1. Aha! You discovered my secret plot. That is my point....

      WRT Control-F -- one thing to remember is that you don't need to search for the entire word, just the shortest "unique substring" will do. For example, supposed I'm Control-F-ing through my notes. Suppose I'm looking for that place in my notes where I quote my friend Michael Wyzmerski. But I can't remember if it's "Wyzmerski" or "Wyzmerska" or "Wyzmyrski" -- good news, the string "WYZ" is so rare (and present in all possible spellings of his name) that "WYZ" is what I'll Control-F for. No need to try and guess the whole name.

    2. a small addendum referencing the responsive web design photo…
      Just Enough Research, Erika Hall
      Mule Design Studio
      blog - I need to reread the opening…
      I'm sure you are familiar with these, but the use of language and production values are high - producer & audience… and they may bring on an occasional smile.

  4. As a writer you should provide links, even if your reader can look them up. You already have the link handy, and it takes you about 10 seconds to add it (a little more if you have to look it up again). It would take each reader significantly longer (and still not be sure that they've found the link you meant). So unless you are writing for an audience of one, you should provide links when specific online resources are mentioned.

    You shouldn't, however, be providing links for things that you don't want people diverted to—linking every word would make the links useless to the reader, like the ubiquitous sings about cancer-causing chemicals in California, which do not distinguish the major hazards from the insignificant ones.

  5. "Ha Ha Ho Ho Hee Hee" … to paraphrase: “I search everything; nothing is sacred. I search nothing; everything is sacred."

    provocative postulation - what does it mean to be re-wired for intake & output and what happens in the middle…?
    verily, you be vasty, Daniel, you prod & lead with deftness.
    wha…? Hebrew: ושתי, Persian: وَ شتی
    found this via Rosemary's OneLook dictionary looking @ vasty… thanks again RM.
    alts to Jean-Honoré Fragonard Matisse
    light reading
    Katz -Glass?
    reading 33 years ago
    Ha'ena State Park
    dream Mortadella
    for friends in Portugal
    Can you eat humuhumunukunukuapua'a

    fluctuating status

    what does this mean? or that? isn't it true for any sensory input? one of the few constants: wandering wonder

    btw, what are magazines? maybe that was the problem with Moses tablets - they didn't "long-press" (I know, they were really android devices.)

    mazel tov
    searching on for a watercolorist with large thumbs… who sees what I can not know… in Blowing Rock, North Carolina

  6. Very well written and interesting as usual!


    Here are the bumps I found on the reading road:

    "the wounded word drops to the floor" — I immediately visualized a chopped-off finger, and I bet that wasn't your intention. I have sliced many "embutidos" (although very few salami) and don't quite get how slicing them at a wrong angle makes a bad cut, unless you cut yourself;

    "right off the bat" — I didn't know this expression, although the meaning is clear in context. I checked it out and was glad to find its probable origin;

    "he’s describing the way a traditional potter’s use of a long […]" — it seems to me that this is ungrammatical, the sort of typo you get when you're thinking of a sentence and then, half the sentence written, you decide on using another one; shouldn't it be "he's describing a traditional potter's use […]" or "the way a traditional potter uses a long […]"?

    "That’s about as far away from the ordinary meaning of effleurage as you can get which normally has a connotation of delicacy." — this is difficult to read, at least for me, because while parsing it you have to enter and leave and reenter the same road: "about as far away from [ something ] as you can get" and "[ something ] […] which normally has a connotation of delicacy";

    a potter massaging a fire, together with a dragon-shaped kiln — I've never seen a dragon-shaped kiln and it's not easy to imagine one; I've never seen a potter using a kiln except to put their ceramics inside and take them out (I've made clay ocarinas myself and used a muffle kiln for the purpose); on the other hand, my imagination of "effleurage" in this context shifted immediately to a potter "throwing" or "pulling" a pot on the wheel (I just learned these terms on Wikipedia);

    "sterling prose" — didn't know the phrase, didn't even know "sterling" safe for the British currency; it was nice to check this one out on the dictionary, and nicer when I found the familiar "Stirling engine" afterwards, never having realized these were homophones;

    "It boils done to" — probably a typo for "It boils down to"

    "walking a transect" — had to check it out, very interesting;

    "Bob Crachit" — no clue who he was, although I was familiar with at least one movie out of this Dickens' tale; turns out to be "Cratchit" in fact;

    "foil" — I had to check it out; I didn't know this particular meaning; "anything that serves by contrast to call attention to another thing's good qualities; 'pretty girls like plain friends as foils' ", says WordNet.

    The word vasty wasn't a problem for me, being a Latin word, so I just read it as a fancy word for a clear concept. But thanks for the enlightenment on its origins. With a little gale you soon dispersed the cloudy meaning of that word and blew it to the source from whence it came!

  7. 2/2

    Now let me share a little tool I've been using a lot while reading online: The Google Dictionary extension for Chrome allows you to double-click any word and get an instant definition on a pop-up, or a link to search it.

    In fact I use Maxthon, the browser, to read this blog. As soon as Google Reader was discontinued, I installed Maxthon, with two very specific purposes: reading feeds on its native Feed Reader; and opening some pages that work only on Internet Explorer, since Maxthon shares IE's agent. But Maxthon doesn't have the Google Dictionary extension. So, when I find an expression I need to research, I do what I do in every other browser: I select it, right-click it and choose "Search" on the contextual menu.

    Search on! "And in your search spend your adventurous worth."

  8. I was a technical writer back in my working for a living days. I wrote and did presentations on many aspects of paper-making. My feedback was positive and I really enjoyed making complicated stuff easy to understand. I expected my readers to ask questions and they did.

    Now I am learning to do the same with some family history stories and finding it very different and much harder. That said my first piece has just been accepted for publication so I must be making progress.

    I noted previously that I have OCSD. Obsessive Compulsive Search Disorder. I love doing this business. I have always had a dictionary near by, in fact, I even have an original Samuel Johnson dictionary. I spot peculiar words and usages and check them out right away. F'r instance your use of "from whence" send me this wonderful site: http://www.worldwidewords.org/ where I found I was wrong in thinking your use of it was wrong. I have since updated my brain cell.

    So, I look up stuff as I find it. My wife the English major just soldiers on looking out for the meaning as she reads.

    In my little family history article I used a few words current in 1840 England to give it flavour. My test readers were not amused. I took them out.

    HTH I knew vasty from way back in grade 12 in the source you mentioned. Have never used it though.

    My best looked up word: 'irredentist' I was surprised to find has nothing to do with teeth


    1. thanks JtU - now I'm familiar with bowdlerise and why Norman Mailer used fug… (from 7 May 2005)
      WWW is an interesting site and now I know whence it came…
      was that correct…

    2. a couple other bits that may be of interest…
      Samuel Johnson
      The History of English, 1:21
      "facebook" & "twitter" probably weren't in the 1755 edition - (although twang is there)
      SJ mobile
      the Open University
      wiki OU