Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I want to be a long-eared bat*

Or whatever it takes for Christian Bale of the hotness and Batman fame, in a rarely smiling picture that is to follow, to notice and gradually adore me.

But really, this is a more, erm, academic post.

Last Monday, I bought On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Since then, I have been recommending it to people in my daily circle -- You HAVE to read it! The book's been around forever -- 25th anniversary in print -- but to me it was a new discovery. So pardon me if I sound like a 12-year-old who’s been given a book to review for English homework but it was easy to read, neither preachy nor instructive, and stayed clear of anything grammar-related. I liked the subtle humour, the anecdotes, the tips, the examples, and especially the pieces and authors Zinsser quoted from.

Zinsser says his favourite definition of a careful writer comes from Joe DiMaggio, “though he didn’t know that’s what he was defining.”

DiMaggio was the greatest player I ever saw, and nobody looked more relaxed. He covered vast distances in the outfield, moving in graceful strides, always arriving ahead of the ball, making the hardest catch look routine, and even when he was at bat, hitting the ball with tremendous power, he didn’t appear to be exerting himself. I marvelled at how effortless he looked because what he did could only be achieved by great daily effort. A reporter once asked him how he managed to play so well so consistently, and he said: “I always thought there was at least one person in the stands who had never seen me play, and I didn’t want to let him down.”

The book has these interesting, quotable tit bits in abundance on topics apart from Jazz and baseball – the subjects of Zinsser’s other two books.

I made notes and wrote page numbers in red ink on a slip of paper I was using as a bookmark. I made notes even when I got to Zinsser’s chapter on Science and Technology. Ordinarily, to stay awake, I’d skip anything on science and technology. Just as well I didn’t.

In that chapter, Zinsser talks of the importance of ‘writing like a person and not like a scientist’.

A tenet of journalism is that “the reader knows nothing”. As far as tenets go, it’s not flattering, but a technical writer can never forget it. You can’t assume your reader knows what you assume everybody knows, or that you still remember what was once explained to them.

After hundreds of demonstrations, I’m still not sure I could get into one of those life jackets that airline flight attendants have shown me: something about “simply” putting my arms through the straps, “simply” pulling two toggle knobs sharply downward (or is it sideways?) and simply blowing it up – but not too soon. The only step I’m confident I could perform is to blow it up too soon.”

Don’t you love what he’s doing? Somebody tell him he touched a chord.

“Look for the human element”, Zinsser says.

Use your own experiences to connect the reader to some mechanism that also touches his life...

...Just because you’re dealing with a scholarly discipline that’s usually reported in a style of dry pedantry is no reason why you shouldn’t write in good fresh English.


And then he quotes an article by Diane Ackerman.

Most of us know only three facts about bats: they’re mammals, we don’t like them, and they’ve got some kind of radar that enables them to fly at night without bumping into things. Obviously anyone writing about bats must soon get around to explaining how that mechanism of “echo-location” works. In the following passage, Ackerman gives us details so precise – and so easy to relate to what we know – that the process becomes a pleasure to read about:

It’s not hard to understand echo-location if you picture bats as calling or whistling to their prey with high frequency sounds. Most of us can’t hear these. At our youngest and keenest of ear, we might detect sounds of 20,000 vibrations a second, but bats can vocalize at up to 200,000. They do it not in a steady stream but at intervals – 20 or 30 times a second. A bat listens for the sounds to return to it, and when the echoes start coming faster and louder it knows that the insect it’s stalking has flown nearer. By judging the time between echoes, a bat can tell how fast the prey is moving and in which direction. Some bats are sensitive enough to register a beetle walking on sand, and some can detect the movement of a moth flexing its wings as it sits on a leaf.

That’s my idea of sensitive; I couldn’t ask a writer to give me two more wonderful examples. But there’s more to my admiration than gratitude. I also wonder: how many other examples of bat sensitivity did she collect – dozens? hundreds? – to be able to choose those two? Always start with too much material. Then give your reader just enough.

As the bat closes in, it may shout faster, to pinpoint its prey. And there’s a qualitative difference between a steady, solid echo bouncing off a brick and the light, fluid echo from a swaying flower. By shouting at the world and listening to the echoes, bats can compose a picture of their landscape and the objects in it which includes texture, density, motion, distance, size and probably other features, too. Most bats really belt it out; we just don’t hear them. This is an eerie thought when one stands in a silent grove filled with bats. They spend their whole loves yelling. They yell at their loved ones, they yell at their enemies, they yell at their dinner, they yell at the big, bustling world. Some yell faster, some slower, some louder, some softer. Long-eared bats don’t need to yell; they can hear their echoes perfectly if they whisper.

*Long eared bat (courtesy uglorable.com)

I love that paragraph, the yelling, all that yelling! I didn't know bats were like family. This book has me feeling like Buddha.No, but seriously, I’m considering using the last two lines as my email signature. I think it might work.


Long-eared bats don’t need to yell; they can hear their echoes perfectly if they whisper


The Unbearable Banishment said...

There's a fine line between "the reader knows noting" and talking down to your audience. So mind your line, dear.

Anonymous said...

whatever self help books total faggotry

The.Mystic said...

Thanks for sharing the book! I'll pick it up soon!