Monday, November 23, 2015

Preconference seminar review: Teach Your Text to Strip with Marcia Johnston

Review by Jesse Tomlinson

Marcia Johnston: “Tight, readable, concise. But what does concise mean?”

We’re at ATA56 in the preconference seminar with Marcia and we’re talking about English writing. In lieu of “Ms. Johnston,” I feel comfortable calling her Marcia, not just because the title of our seminar is “Teach Your Text to Strip”, and it isn’t because she’s in a lounge singer’s dress and red feather boa with lovely black gloves snaking up to her armpits. It’s because she’s an accessible, friendly online personality who plays a game called “Tighten This!” involving sentences that need to be stripped down. This game is a neat way to think differently about our words, our words in translation, and just exactly how much every little extra one counts.

We start the seminar by discussing what ‘concise’ means. It doesn’t mean short, because ‘short’ isn’t connected with meaning. If a sentence is short, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s clear, or concise. It doesn’t mean ‘shorter’ because that’s just like a woman’s skirt. Do we really want a skirt as short as possible? No, we want a functional skirt, one perhaps that is minimal, but that is still covering all the places we want it to. So concise is minimal, but that ‘minimal’ still has to be effective.

So what should we strip off then? How can we write more concisely? Marcia gave us an excellent list and I’ll show a little knee here – get rid of:
  • weak ‘be’ verbs
  • the word ‘different’
  • ‘of’ in general
  • not, no
  • just

Marcia was clear in letting us know that you can’t just strip it all off and be happy with a word-less party. ‘That’ is probably useful after a verb; but we can often take it out after a noun.

You can read more on ‘that’ on her blog.

We never want ‘in order to’ at our word burlesque event; her advice is to slash and burn this little threesome at all times. Bottom line: “Don’t cut words that we need for meaning, like ‘the’, ‘that’ or even ‘is’”.

But how to tell when and how to strip? The decision comes from context. Marcia just wants you to sit up and take notice of the words. Many words slide into texts without us thinking about them. “Let the context be your guide.”

I came away from this seminar not only loving the strip tease Marcia performed for us at the end, but loving her message. It’s not about a quick-fix answer like, “Make your texts as short as possible.” When is it ever? But we still inevitably find ourselves looking for that kind of easy answer.

So Marcia played up on what we all want. She gave us a bit of stripping (text and accessories!) but emphasized that it’s more about what you’re taking off than the fact that you’re taking it off.

What is the short answer after all then? We need to use our brains in a way that we might not have been using them so far. We need to look at the words we use every day in our writing, and to consider them in a different way. We need to think about words that before we were taking for granted.

And whatever does stripping and ‘taking it off’ have to do with direct writing, except for snipping some of those extra words? It has to do with skin, the universal language. And I really loved that tie in. Words convey things. So does flesh. But more or less flesh is not necessarily better. What is better is the way you present the flesh, the way you flesh out your text, or the way you dress it up or down.

And now if only I could find a pair of those long black gloves . . . 

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