Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Finding the balance - the writer's 3Rs

What I’m calling the Writer’s 3Rs are like the standard 3Rs in two ways. First, they do not all begin with R, though they are closer than the originals. For Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic I’d like to substitute Reading, Research, and ‘Riting. Second, like the standard 3Rs they are all fundamentally important if we are to have any chance of success.


Put simply, you can’t be a writer without being a reader. Forget Disraeli’s famously vainglorious ‘When I want to read a good novel I write one’; if you are not reading the best of others you will not make the best of yourself. This is not to say you should imitate what others are doing, but good reading gives you the rhythm of good writing.

By ‘good reading’ I mean reading both as a noun and a verb. Don’t read trash except for learning what to avoid in your writing or for occasional entertainment. You only have so much reading time; spend it wisely with the great writers of all ages, and I mean read them - it’s not enough to have these books on your shelves like trophies, and the screen adaptations are no substitute for the real thing, as good as they might be on their own terms. I’ve had many conversations with people who claim (and believe) they have read this Austen or that Dickens only to discover on probing that they have merely seen the film or TV series.

Don’t think of reading great books as homework, as a necessary duty; they are great books because they contain within them tremendous stories with wonderful characters, and these are books that make you feel, think and grow. Don’t play safe by sticking only to the classics; some of your contemporaries are greats in the making, not all yet widely recognized.

As writers, our ‘good reading’ is also creative reading, dynamic reading, and often rereading because when the writer’s spell is first on us we might become so entranced we fail to interrogate and analyse. Again, rereading is not homework; it is a different level of pleasure with learning in it, and enhances our own art. Creative reading has us thinking more productively, sometimes explosively. It charges our Eureka moments.


I make the distinction between reading and research partly to indicate the more focused reading that purposeful research for a book requires, and partly as a reminder that research requires more than reading. It also means ‘being there’ in the footsteps of your characters, getting out to the locality of your plots; and listening. When J M Synge was writing The Shadow of the Glen he said that much of his inspiration came from overhearing the servant girls in the kitchen through a chink in the floor of the old Wicklow house where he was lodging at the time.

Sketch of JM Synge by John B Yeats

Good research is organised curiosity. The notes you accumulate along the way may eventually represent a forest, yet it will seem that you use only a few branches in the final book. Don’t look on the rest as waste. The research you have done will be in the timbre of your work even where it is not apparent in the content; in fact, research can become all too visible in a book and weaken the effect, like seeing the conjuror palm the card or catching a glimpse of the elegant model’s bra strap. Beware of exposing the architecture.

Do not confine your research to factual material. At certain times people speak more freely in fiction, not least in societies or periods such as the Victorian where repression is the norm and writers have to speak truth in disguise.

The most difficult decision in research is knowing when to stop. One route opens many others; the answer to the question you had yields more questions; or the material is just so damn interesting. In the age of high speed broadband, where you can be delivered in a trice to yet another treasure trove, it's especially tempting to sit, and sit, to sift the jewels ('Oh, my precious'). It’s important to recognize when exploration threatens to slide into procrastination, for then it’s time to write. For all our learning, we will only be credited for what we have ourselves contributed, not simply contemplated.


Writers do not exist who know exactly what they are going to say from beginning to end when they first sit down to craft the opening words of book or novel. Some will be highly organised with a detailed plot summary, time line, storyboard or chapter plan; others will have mapped out only the sketchiest outline, perhaps a paragraph or three of synopsis. However prepared, no writer is entirely in control at this stage.

The act of writing is a journey in the company of characters and ideas. You may think you know your characters at the outset - after all you have written their biographies and pinned them on the board in front of you - but you don’t. They will let you know more fully who they are as you move along together, just as real friends do on a long trip. Often they will take you to places you didn’t know you were going to visit. And as for the ideas you had when you started; prepare to shed some and take on board a host more that you will discover along the way. If you are new to the experience, prepare to be surprised how much you have to write to find out what you think.

Perhaps there should be a fourth R. Rewriting. At some point you are going to have to turn back and do it all again. Some writers wait until they put the final stop on the last sentence of their first draft, then pause before they begin the process of rewriting; others (myself included) constantly redraft as they go. The truth is, whatever our individual techniques, for most published writers six, seven, eight drafts and more are not unusual.

Master storyteller Stephen King in his book On Writing helpfully makes the distinction between writing with the door closed (first draft) and writing with the door open (rewriting). There is a heat and intimacy, a first flush, in your relations with your book which does not bear interference. But even lovers have to come out of the bedroom sometime. Getting the advice of others is like marriage counselling for your book - better make sure you consult with someone who has expertise on the subject.

Are you getting the idea yet that a writer’s life is a busy one? It is, and it is tricky to get the balance right between the three (or four) Rs to make it also a productive one. Nor are these all. Just as in school our children cannot become entirely rounded individuals by concentrating only on the 3Rs but must also explore other subjects and have time to play and socialise, so must we writers allow ourselves the opportunity to be fully human. Above all, we must find from somewhere the space for another 3Rs - Recreation, Rest and Recuperation. Oh, I wish had the time for one of those time management courses.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Dumbed down by PowerPoint

It’s twenty-five years since Microsoft acquired PowerPoint. In one-third of a lifetime the program has achieved virtual ubiquity, not just for business presentations and sales pitches but in public meetings, schools and colleges across the developed world. It’s a fair bet if you have sat in a classroom or meeting room anytime over the last quarter of a century you will have been PowerPointed; and then some.

I’m sure I’d find common ground with readers, elicit nods of recognition with an article entitled Bored silly by PowerPoint. Which of us has not peered past a turned shoulder in an imposture of attentiveness to a distant screen, our yawns politely stifled while a speaker (more likely male than female) works his way through every one of forty slides by reading aloud each of the myriad bullet points on each slide, breaking off only to say of a particularly crowded specimen, ‘Mmm, you probably won’t be able to read this...’ A too-familiar scene, but my argument is a wider one - that the way this Microsoft presentation tool is conventionally, almost universally deployed acts as a barrier to clear reasoning and expression, and actively inhibits the close, creative engagement that can help to spark, expand and develop our best thinking. In school or at work we are brain-dulled and dumbed down by PowerPoint.

One generic descriptive label for presentation equipment and software is speaker support: a telling phrase, its focus on the messenger rather than the message, much less the audience. Of course there can be genuine benefit for those who only sit and stare - it’s true that a striking illustration, a well-designed graphic, a significant quote may, judiciously selected, enhance enjoyment and understanding - but all too often the speaker’s PowerPoint pack is not there to support the presentation; it is the presentation.

What we generally see is an abridged form of autocue on slide. On slide after slide after slide in relentless sequence. Our speaker would probably prefer to have it all up there word for word, but that’s not the done thing with PowerPoint. It’s de rigueur to employ nouns without verbs, cut out conditionals, avoid pronouns (especially personal pronouns), chop and order everything into a hierarchy of bullet points. The effect is a flat placebo of a presentation, pretending potency but squeezed of content, reason and any trace of passion.

Imagine if Martin Luther King, getting to the crux of his I have a dream speech, turned his back on his audience and addressed them using PowerPoint, thus:

At least as a member of the audience you might have some of the gaps filled in by the speaker on the day (though a 2007 study by the University of New South Wales found that trying to attend to a speaker while simultaneously following a visual summary of the words leads to ‘cognitive overload’ and a consequent failure to do either). What’s worse is trying to make sense of handouts that are merely a print-out of the given presentation. Devoid of oral interpretation, meaning drains from the printed sheet. Yet surveys have shown that an audience is even less likely to focus properly on a presentation when they know they will be provided with a handout of the slides at the end.

Despite these shortcomings PowerPoint continues to be used with mind-boggling frequency – 30 million presentations per day according to Microsoft’s own estimate – and across an extraordinary range of subjects. To test the breadth of use, try typing any random concept you can conceive into a search engine and add the extension ppt. I just tried it with the phrase diabetic monkeys ppt and sure enough a PowerPoint slide show obligingly presented itself at the top of the search results. Why the enduring popularity of this mind-sapping software? I’d like to suggest some reasons as I continue my exploration of its deleterious effects.

First its use in schools, embedding early the notion of PowerPoint as the default mode of presentation. Teachers Рoften influenced by teaching guides set out in PowerPoint format Рtend to be regular users. Pressed for time and conscious of copyright issues, many rely on standard Microsoft templates and reach too readily for the royalty-free images, so inventive opportunities are forsaken for clich̩. Pupils are encouraged to present much of their own work in the same style, so what may traditionally have been reports written in full sentences and carefully structured in paragraphs, perhaps with hand-drawn charts or illustrations, are these days prepared and given like client pitches in the inelegant, anti-literate half-language of bullet points. Art is sacrificed for clip art.

For children and adults PowerPoint is the easy option. It obviates the need even to express a complete thought, still less develop an argument or guide a reader through possibly complex or subtle ideas with clarity and skill. Enough to dash down a few headers, fill under with some salient points – an outline sufficient to talk to. Trouble is, in avoiding the hard graft of deep thinking and writing, they avoid the deep learning too. They lose the richest opportunities for analysis, exposition, synthesis and, at best, revelation. As E M Forster wrote, ‘How can I know what I think until I see what I say?’

On a superficial level PowerPoint looks good, looks cool, and of course it’s slick to use. The presenter with the remote control has the room under control (if only because the audience is semi-comatose). The more polished the presentation the more authoritative it appears to be – and certainly the aspiring executive who can carry it off with a measure of pizzazz and conviction is often the one who will attract the notice of senior management and gain both kudos and promotion.

In this very coolness lurks the greatest danger. I use the term ‘danger’ advisedly because, as I’ll exemplify, there are circumstances in which the consequences can be life-threatening. By preferring form over content, sales pitch over objective analysis, by substituting condensed pellets for the meat of the argument, by creating an illusion of control and authority that stifles discussion and relegates the audience to passive recipients of here’s-some-I-made-earlier slices of preorganised information, without elaboration or deconstruction, the PowerPoint presenter can lead us to mistaken conclusions, shallow judgements, bad decisions.


In February 2003 the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. All seven crew members were lost. A tragic accident, yes, but an avoidable one according to post-disaster analysis by Professor Edward Tufte of Yale University.

A fortnight earlier, while the craft was in orbit, a short video sequence had shown NASA observers that something (it turned out to be a piece of foam debris) had hit the wing. To help senior officials assess the threat, Boeing Corporation executives converted their engineers’ investigations into a rapidly-assembled PowerPoint presentation of 28 slides on screen with summary printouts – a standard form of briefing. The devil (doubts, uncertainties, worries) was in the detail. Specific technical findings about the wing damage were buried in a confusing, multi-layered crowded slide. The highlighted, key bullet-pointed executive summary was generally upbeat about the problem. Top level officials missed the underlying messages. Drawn to the optimistic summary and reassured by the tone of the presenters, they concluded there was nothing really to worry about. A wrong decision not to intervene turned the undetected hole in the wing of the spacecraft into a two-week time bomb that triggered calamity.

Columbia Space Shuttle February 2003


This was a failure both of the presentation and the organisational framework within which it was delivered. In many corporate cultures – not least typically ‘macho’ environments such as the military, the space industry, engineering – there is a strict reporting hierarchy and an assumption, as information is passed up the line, that senior management is far too busy and important to be bothered with small details. Bosses have their eye on ‘the big picture’; they demand reports presented in hyper-condensed form so that they may review and pass judgement without having their valuable time wasted on minutiae. This is condition perfect for bog-standard PowerPoint – neatly ordered bullets with key words and phrases lined up for inspection (supporting information filtered out), a few charts with coloured bars or arrows interweaving between word bubbles to provide (illusory) one-page snapshots of the technically complex; all smartly presented electronically and with a slim sheaf of hard copy for later perusal (or more likely to be filed unread).

What’s missing from this picture is just about everything that vivifies learning and leads to genuine understanding: motivation, engagement, interaction, examination of evidence and counter-evidence; thinking aloud, questioning, discussing, opining, debating, arguing, reasoning, imagining, postulating; pulling strands together and reaching some sort of realisation, new awareness, consensus or resolution.

If, as seems probable, PowerPoint continues to hold sway as it has done for the last twenty-five years, don’t hold out for improvement. Oh, there will be technological advances no doubt – the PowerPoint of the future is sure to be even more impressive and glitzy, studded with apps and gizmos for the new world – but what they’ll add up to is the modern equivalent of smoke and mirrors, taking us further away from the opportunity to experience insights that can result from the deep thinking that accompanies considered writing, truths that can be revealed by discussion without distraction.

At its worst, a PowerPoint-supported talk is a conspiracy of pretence. The speaker pretends to communicate, and the audience pretends to listen. Nobody learns. The presentation may seem smart, it may look great, rather like a picture in a swish corporate brochure, and equally devoid of life. There may be words, words and more words spoken from the platform, but it’s one dumb show.