My Personal Perspective
The Importance of the Written Word
It will be obvious from most parts of this personal forum that my professional and intellectual life reflects the centrality of the written word. Rather than explain its relevance in different sections of the site, I decided to explore the essence, and importance, of words, and the written format of words on this page.
I did not grow up in an environment of books and newspapers. There was a marked deficiency of written words in our poor post-war household, and there were no attempts to interest me in such matters; not surprisingly my worst performances in school were in English Language and Literature, closely followed by the modern languages. It was not until I reached the expansiveness of higher education that I started to appreciate the richness of writing, but even then, and for many years, that was from the perspective of a scientist.
My writing career was initiated while I was a graduate student, when, with the encouragement of a very enlightened professor, I produced a single-author paper on a very important metallurgical phenomenon. On entering the medical field, where I had to learn all about the practice of reconstructive surgery, which itself was in its infancy, I decided that the best way to accomplish this was to write a book, for which again I was encouraged by a very enlightened publishing editor. That book, written as a young academic in the UK, was well-received in the USA, which did my career no harm; incidentally, the book was translated into Russian, for which we received royalties in roubles, but little enhancement of reputation. The importance of the written word was now firmly established in my professional trajectory.
Of course, I need to place this in perspective. As several well-known people, including Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain, have famously quoted, ‘actions speak louder than words’; but it is not an ‘either / or’ question, and neither of these individuals would have got very far without their own written words. Some say that the spoken word is more effective than the written word. It is true that more emotion can usually be impressed into speech, and, indeed, I make that very point in the audio presentation in the poetry section of this forum, but nearly always, the best-spoken words come from a text that pre-existed in a written format. As much as Churchill was renowned for his oratory, it was his writings, which far exceeded the length and breadth of his speeches, that yielded his Nobel Prize. However, this is a moot point since, as indicated in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, the freedoms to speak and write are essentially equivalent.
Within this perspective, the most significant qualifier has to be the quality of the written word. A poorly written text cannot usually be considered important. Naturally this is a very subjective matter, where one often has to fall back on the well-worn aphorism that has been used to define many things, from obscenity to art, which is ‘I know it when I see it’. I make no secret of the fact that I respect and admire really good writing and, conversely, abhor writing that is devoid of sound construction, thoughtfulness and, where relevant, honesty.
The values of good writing are those of clarity, style, authority, permanence, relevance and outreach.
An obvious starting point related to quality is an insight into that which I do not admire. I recognize and appreciate that there are widely held views on this, but I do not consider social media to be a platform for excellent writing. Nor do I consider a blog to be relevant, for although I understand the importance of this informal line of communication, often with transient relevance (being derived from a web-log), this is not where I imagine the epitome of good writing should be based – and I instinctively dislike anything with such an ugly name. Obviously, classical letter – writing largely became unfashionable as soon as electronic mechanisms were available, especially email and then those with even more immediacy; no-one claims, as far as I know, that this has improved writing skills. However, as long as clarity and civility have not been irretrievably harmed, I suspect that the advantages of immediacy outweigh the downsides, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that the world is now a better place. Journalism, which has been defined as the activity of gathering, assessing, and presenting news and information, may or may not involve masterpieces in writing, a great deal depending on the urgency of the subject and the resources available. The journalist who is responsible for disseminating ‘breaking news’ is less concerned about linguistic excellence, but the weekly features writer of a mainstream publication will live or die by the quality. The top awards, such as The Pulitzer, can be directed to either end of the spectrum, but it will be the authority of the writing that is paramount.
This brings me to the formats that I do admire. I have to admit that style and content are constantly changing, which is perfectly natural in a world where language is in evolution, so that the designation of an admirable writing format may be era-dependent. Since I write equally in the context of scientific, legal and literary genres, it might be assumed that I have different rules, or styles, for each. This is self-evident when it comes to the basis of truth (legal arguments vs poetry) or emotion (science vs short-story or musical lyrics), but I tend to follow some common underlying principles.
In this brief discussion, I leave poetry aside since the purpose of this type of written word, and the means by which that purpose is achieved, are different to other forms of writing. There are no generic ground rules for style in poetry, although there are some specific features within sub genres, such as in Haiku and Shakespearean Sonnets. I am reminded here that some forms of poetry do not, to my mind, bear the essential features of classical poetry, which focus on the metrical feet of the verse; the apparent popularity of ‘prose-poetry’, which largely avoids any rhythm, comes to mind. My views about poetry, and some examples of the poetry of myself and of some past masters of the genre, are to be found in the section on Poetry and Art.
One end of the spectrum of excellence is seen within books of lasting aesthetic or artistic merit, usually referred to as literature, although that word does have broader meanings. In terms of quality of writing, I do not distinguish between fiction and non-fiction, but I do think we have to be careful with the increasing trend towards sub-groups, such as the so-called genre of ‘creative non-fiction’, which appears to be geared more to marketing MFA university courses than a reflection on the quality or even relevance of a writing style. Arguably, the better examples of literature are seen when fictional settings encompass serious sociological, political, or cultural issues. It is fascinating to examine the citations for Nobel Prizes in Literature (which, parenthetically and fortunately, remain as eclectic and controversial as ever) and see the frequency of this combination, for example, with Peter Handke (2019) “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience”, Kazuo Ishiguro (2017) “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”, and Orhan Pamuk (2006) “who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures”.
Over many years, Peggy and I have collected books, of widely-varying genres and authors, and established a beautiful, mahogany-lined, library in our North Carolina home. Here are many examples of this type of writing, where exquisite expression about fictional scenes focuses the reader’s mind on the underlying societal narrative. Consider Pasternak’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’, set within the brutality of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia; (Yuri Zhivago was a hospital doctor in Moscow as the brutal First World War transitioned into the even more brutal revolution “Among them was the war with its bloodshed, and its horrors, its homelessness, savagery and isolation, its trials and the worldly wisdom which it taught. Here too were the lonely little towns where you were stranded by the war, and the people with whom it threw you together. Such a new thing, too, was the revolution, not the one idealized in student fashion in 1905, but this new upheaval, to-days born of the war, bloody, pitiless, elemental, the soldier’s revolution, led by the professionals, the Bolsheviks). And with Albert Camus in ‘The First Man’; where, in his unfinished autobiographical novel he describes his frustrating search for a father during the escalating tensions between Algeria and France (“And the blind stirring in him, which has never ceased, which he still felt now, a dark fire buried in him like one of those peat fires, gone out at the surface but still burning inside, making the outer fissures move in rough eddies of vegetation, so that the muddy surface moves in the same rhythm as the peat of the bog, and these dense imperceptible waves would cause, day after day, the most violent and the most terrible of his desires, as well as his most brazen anxieties, his most fruitful nostalgia, his sudden need for bareness and sobriety, his yearning also to be nobody –“). And with Alan Paton, in ‘Cry The Beloved Country’, describing the personal torment in apartheid South Africa (The Revered Stephan Kamalo, a black priest of the Umzimkulu Valley in Natal, whose son has been charged with the murder of a young white man in Johannesburg is being counseled by Father Vincent, a priest from England. The text reads “Father Vincent said to him, yes, I said pray and rest. Even if it is only words that you pray and even if your resting is only lying on a bed. And do not pray for yourself, and do not pray to understand the ways of God. For they are secret. Pray for the soul of him that was killed. Pray for the women and children that are bereaved. Pray for all white people, those who do justice and those who would do justice if they were not afraid. And do not fear to pray for your son, and for his amendment”).
Such passages are central to my theme of the importance of the written word; sometimes, it is often the brilliance of a single sentence, or paragraph, that encompasses both the humanity of an occasion and the profound complexity of the unjust world. It is a little like the difference between ordinary prose and outstanding poetry, where the former is a text with all the right words while the latter has all the right words, but in the right order. Not many writers can achieve those heights of excellence, but when you read such works, you know where you are. Incidentally, I never cease to be amazed at the quality of the written word that is often presented to us in English as the translation of a foreign language masterpiece, such as the work of Pasternak mentioned above and of Émile Zola (Germinal), Fyodor Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov), Victor Hugo (Les Misérables) and many others.
From a scientific perspective, the written word varies enormously with respect to the purpose, format, publishing medium, readership, originality and authority.
There are far too many specific formats to mention here, ranging, as they do, from short abstracts of conference papers to learned books of major significance. I have to say that rarely do scientific texts reach a high standard of linguistic excellence. This may not matter too much, and we must recognize that many scientists are forced to compose their output in the English language, which may not be their mother tongue. However, there are some fundamental principles that should be followed if scientific writing is to have any credibility; these are based on truthfulness, ownership and unambiguity. It would seem obvious that a scientific text must be truthful and accurate; this does not mean that the writer has to be correct, but the statements that are made should be based on facts and interpreted according to established methods. Of course, mistakes are made, but the reputation of science, as promulgated by the written word, is being increasingly harmed by deliberate distortion of facts and willfully incorrect interpretations. This has become quite evident with the spate of retractions of papers in otherwise high-quality journals because of the detection of image manipulation. Perhaps nowhere can the written word be more dangerous that when it claims to be telling scientific fact which the author knows is scientific fiction.
Ownership is also important in scientific communication. It seems self-evident that writers, including scientists, would want to be clearly affiliated with their output. Three aspects are important, the first when authors seem reluctant to claim ownership of their own work, the second when they claim ownership of parts that are not their own, and the third where, in plain sight so to speak, texts are rewritten posthumously by well-meaning, but in my opinion, misguided individuals, often during the process of preparing special collections. The first of these may sound trivial but can be hugely irritating and sometimes have legal consequences. I have experienced many papers, in academic, industrial or litigious circles where key documents have no clear name of the author, usually without date and locations as well. Most significantly, this happens with documents that should provide key information in patent litigation, but the absence of ownership can negate all arguments. The second refers to plagiarism, which is the unauthorized, and undisclosed, use of someone else’s text. This most usually occurs in academic publishing; as an Editor-in-Chief of a major scientific journal some 20 years ago this became a serious problem, the detection of which was slowly assisted by good anti-plagiarism software. The need for such software is antithetical to the underlying philosophy of scientific research and writing.
The third area of ownership concerns relates to some ‘editing’ practices. All authors of published works recognize the importance of editors in finalizing a text; some editors / sub-editors add significant clarity to a text, while others want to insert their own preferences to words and style. But that is not what I mean here. The real significance of this topic was brought home to me recently when reading a version of a book of poetry of Wilfred Owen; he was probably the best- known poet of the First World War era when he fought in the trenches and received high awards for bravery. He was killed in action during the last week of the war (I read one of his poems in the audio section of this site). He wrote many poems during these periods at the front, often using rough notebooks or scraps of paper. These were collected after the war, and several anthologies were published. The book that I read contained not only his original words, and sometimes alterations he made himself, but also versions that literary people and librarians later re-wrote for Owen in the belief that their words more closely represented what he saw and thought than his own. I personally found that offensive.
Returning to the theme of scientific writing, I should note the extreme difficulty of combining accurate, advanced, scientific facts with style and ease of comprehension. Some of the world’s greatest scientists wrote excellent books about their work, but many of these were not easy to read; I would include Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein in this group. Some others were more skillful at the comprehension level, including Charles Darwin with ‘The Origin of the Species’, and Stephen Hawking with ‘A Brief History of Time’; both books require concentration and perseverance, but the messages are clear. Not surprisingly, some of the best scientific books have been written by scientific writers / journalists about other people’s work or scientific concepts, such as Primo Levi’s ‘The Periodic Table’ and Richard Dawkins ‘The Selfish Gene’.
I have entitled this introductory section ‘The Importance of the Written Word’ for a good reason. Over centuries, and indeed millennia, societies have striven to record their history in a visible, permanent and understandable way, and many human inventions, such as papyrus / paper, printing presses, typewriters, word-processors and so on, have been directed towards improving these records. What I am representing here is the profound importance and significance that societies themselves, and individuals within the societies, are able to fully participate in both the writing and reading of the written word. This is not a trivial point since, at least in the USA, there are widespread decreases in both reading and writing skills among young people, who are being increasingly deprived of access to literature because of misguided political and ‘religious’ positions. Whatever the subject matter, from novels and poetry to science, engineering and the arts, it is essential that the written word survives, and the higher the quality of the writing, the better for all of us.