by F.

If you want to communicate in writing, you should check out Roy Peter Clark’s blog. Clark also has a nice book called Writing Tools which repackages a lot of traditional writing wisdom in a memorable way. I’ve been reading his blog for a while, and I enjoy it, but I think diminishing returns has kicked in. Take this entry on “how a detail makes meaning.” Piffle, basically.

This is not suprising. At some point, there’s just not that much more to be said. So an instructional writer like Clark has a choice. He either finds new ways to offer the same old wisdom again, or he tries to “innovate”–to think big thoughts and deepen his analysis.

Put another way, his product is advice. But customers want new products. They want new stuff to keep coming. Advice columns are like fashion: the newness is all. Certainly the wisdom is nothing new. It can’t be. If you don’t believe me, check out the Latin Proverb of the Day. If you study the classics much, you see why they are called classics: most human wisdom (excepting science) has been discovered again and again (and forgetten again and again). In the ancient world it was Plautus. Now it’s The Office. The same applies, more or less, to writing.

With a caveat. Linguists and cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists are discovering new facts about how we process information. These discoveries can help written communication. For instance, Style is the best writing book in the history of the world, in my view. Part of the explanation, I think, is that the author knows a little cognitive science, and it informs his writing.

If you pick up a good book on technical writing, or “writing in business,” you’ll find some interesting tips that take into account something new about our world: we get a lot more data than we used to. So communication has to be presented in a digestible way. That’s why the FT redesigned its format this week, and the WSJ did the same thing months ago. (I don’t like the WSJ layout at all; I love the FT’s.)

Style and Writing Tools would make a fantastic writing course. In fact, I don’t think you would need much more than that for instruction. The rest you can pick up from aping good writers.

Look at a magazine like Cosmopolitan or Men’s Health. Are there really that many news ways to “drive your man wild in bed” or “create a killer six-pack.” No. The explanation is that when customers want the new, you either provide it or fake it. There’s a limit to how much wisdom there is to teach. The trick is to know when you’ve crossed the line from the land of eternal verities into Platitudistan.