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On Styles of Writing

On Styles of Writing

  1. “While the medicine ball underhand relay toss is beneficial for developing total body power, explosion, and for closely mimicking the muscle action of a relay start, flat start work is certainly of great importance in our program as well, and medicine balls also aid greatly in cultivating a powerful flat start; on a regular basis we implement both flat and relay start medicine ball routines into our power workouts here at Liberty University.”
  2. “Medicine balls for relay starts are good. Medicine balls for flat starts are good too. We do both here at Liberty.”

One sentence, 73 words, with a Gunning Fog of 38.52 vs. three sentences with an average of seven words per sentence...The latter with a Gunning Fog of 6.61.

While obviously exaggerated for the sake of the following article, I would much rather read (and write) works filled with ideas constructed in the style of example number one vs. example number two. Blame it on my love of history and having studied history in college if you must, for it was certainly much more popular to write in elevated style in ancient (and not so ancient) times. Having studied and admired the Declaration of Independence for example, with an average of 37 words per sentence and a Gunning Fog of 21.7, you simply cannot help but take on the characteristics in your own writing of the works that you digest, the works that you love. For the aforementioned reasons, unbeknownst to the outside world, writers of history tend to err on the side of long-winded, include a few more commas and semicolons than most, and put the working memory through its paces, all to the excitement and enjoyment of the writer's captive audiences.

This style of idea expression is certainly less popular today, and by far. As for the preferred writing and reading style of the majority of Americans today…Is it not interesting how we started to admire “clear, concise, and short” sentences as technology became a bigger part of our lives? We have all heard it before, and one seemingly cannot be a great writer in modern times unless sentence structure is “clear, concise, and short.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard about an author’s style of writing being “clear, concise, and short…” While I cannot prove the following, my intuition tells me that two things have happened since we started clamoring for shorter, more concise sentence structures:

  1. An increased use of technology has lowered our attentions spans and ability to focus, and in some cases dramatically. A portion of Americans simply may not have developed fully the working memory capacity necessary to process, understand, and remember a text where sentences average 37 words.
  2. The writers, thinkers, and pop-culture icons of the day have given the market what it wants, and in turn has perpetuated the cognitive slide. The aforementioned areas of the public sphere have lost much in terms of density and complexity, and it is hard to blame them…if the market demands clear, short, and concise because it cannot compute the style of Washington and Jefferson, by all means, give the market what it wants.

A quick Google search for other opinions related to the above hypothesis is telling. Enter -

 use of technology attention span

into Google and feel free explore fully the results. While the data is inconclusive and not proven beyond a doubt, there are many researchers who would agree; our heavy use of technology is in fact lessening our ability to "go deep" as Cal Newport would advise, and is lowering our attention spans and ability to focus in the process. As for me, I have chosen to fight against the tide. I love the elevated style of the aforementioned Presidents, and will carry on the tradition of their grand architecture, if for no other reason than because I enjoy the cognitive workout that reading and writing such text produces. As for said workout, I do not attempt multitasking while reading. I do not read with distractions. I focus deeply when I read, enjoying immensely the workout given to my brain and specifically my working memory while pouring through text in the fashion of The Declaration of Independence or other epic works. For those Americans who cannot hold their concentration longer than a few seconds, and whose brains are always “on call” for the next incoming stimulus, example number two above would certainly be more to their liking. They can check their email, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, text messages, AND walk down the hallways at their respective universities, all while reading at a 6th-grade level and not skipping a beat.

To say that our taste for epic works has vastly deteriorated in modern America is an understatement, to say the least. Consider the two examples of the opening paragraphs of the State of The Union Addresses by George Washington and Barack Obama below, in which we see the decline of the collective power of the average American's ability to concentrate and focus in full force. My how far we have fallen.

George Washington
State of the Union Address
1796
Average Words/Sentence: 35
Gunning Fog Index: 21 

Opening paragraph:

“In recurring to the internal situation of our country since I had last the pleasure to address you, I find ample reason for a renewed expression of that gratitude to the Ruler of the Universe which a continued series of prosperity has so often and so justly called forth.”

 

Barack Obama
State of the Union Address
2015
Average Words/Sentence: 17
Gunning Fog Index : 12

Opening Paragraph:

“We are 15 years into this new century.  Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world.  It has been, and still is, a hard time for many.”

 

Sure, George Washington could have said something along the lines of: 

"Since we last talked, life is good. We should thank God for his many blessings and so on and so forth..."  

But it certainly would not carry the same weight as his epic 35 word, one sentence opening paragraph. I should note, the aforementioned example is not meant to criticize President Obama, for his speech writers are writing for the masses, and the masses want clear, short, and concise sentences, the majority not wanting to have to think too hard about what they are hearing, said masses conditioned over the past 20 years to understand and process a Gunning Fog of 12 versus 21. 

To further see the decline of our ability to focus on and comprehend epic works, the site www.analyzemywriting.com allows the reader to measure the Gunning Fog Index of the opening paragraphs of each State of The Union Address from 1796 to 2015 and see the graph of said Fox Index over time. The trend is what you might expect having read this far into the article; we started with a Gunning Fog of roughly 25 and declined steadily over the past 200+ years to 13 or so. Again I do not blame the speech writers or the Presidents, they are simply writing for the times and for the masses. No, the blame, if any, falls squarely on the shoulders of the American populous itself; we allowed ourselves to fall to the point where the writing of Washington and Jefferson seems archaic, as if written for a different time and different type of American all together... 

Various readability scores of the opening paragraphs of State of the Union Address, from 1796 on the left to 2015 on the right. As one can see, the complexity and density of the writing has decreased significantly over time.  

In yet another example, consider the love letter written during the Civil War by Maj. Sullivan Ballou of the Union Army to his wife Sarah, dated July 14th 1861: 

 

Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days - perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure - and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine 0 God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing - perfectly willing - to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows - when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children - is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country?

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death -- and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.

I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I loved and I could not find one. A pure love of my country and of the principles have often advocated before the people and "the name of honor that I love more than I fear death" have called upon me, and I have obeyed.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me - perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar -- that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night -- amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours - always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father's love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God's blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.

--Sullivan 

 

Average words per sentence: 27
Gunning Fog Index: 13.5 

Ballou died a week later at the First Battle of Bull Run, but his letter remains as a testament to his love for his family and the epic writing style of the day. A lawyer and politician, Ballou earned his degree from Brown and spent time in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. While we might expect such prose from a Brown-educated lawyer and politician, consider that Ballou was only 32 at the time of this writing, younger than I and perhaps many of you reading this as well. How many 32-year-olds today are writing in such eloquent style...Ivy League educated or not? 

While I have not yet attained the mastery of Ballou, Jefferson, and Washington, et al., I shall do my part to keep this style of writing alive and well. I realize this may severely limit my audience, and if that is indeed the case, so be it. I would rather face the challenge of converting the masses back to the writing style of the 1800's than to succomb to the pressure to write in the clear, short, and concise sentences that our current attention spans and ability to concentrate demands. If at one time we as a nation could process and understand fully the words of Jefferson we can do so again, and I will continue to write in the Jeffersonian style, converting one reader at a time to my cause. 

For the record, my thoughts in this article average 27 words per sentence, with a Gunning Fog of 16.08, and a lexical density of 52%. The Declaration of Independence: 37, 21.7, and 47% respectively. 

 

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