The practical benefits of literary forms
As blogspace evolves all around us, new forms of writing appear. I mean forms in a technical sense -- literary forms, or patterns of writing. One of the most interesting of these is David McCusker's. Recently he explained why and how he writes in stanzas, with five fixed-length lines per stanza. "This obviously isn't poetry," writes David. "So you might wonder, why do I do it?" His answers resonated very much with my own sense of writing as an art which, like software, is creative yet mechanical.
The stanzas of Homeric verse were engineered to meet certain requirements. They helped people recite, absorb, and remember the stories that defined their culture. David says that his style:
- makes the writing go faster
- enforces brevity
- delivers "consistent quality of service"
Wondering what else has been said about the practical benefits of literary forms, I found a page about Haiku as a poetic form adapted to the present world. Here are some of the reasons:
- Haiku is quickly remembered. The fast [short-term] memory contains only 5 to 7 units information chunks.
- Haiku can also be quickly forgotten. It does not clutter mind because it is made of but one information block. It will be more quickly erased if we don't decide to remember it.
- As it is quickly written and published, it allows its authors to be quickly visible. Everybody writes to be read and appreciated.
Though I don't write stanzas or haikus, I do follow certain formal rules in this space. Titles and lead paragraphs play an important role. Recently, several folks wrote with suggestions to improve Paul Holbrook's RSS truncation rule, which I have adopted here. The problem to be solved is that an item might not have an appropriate lead paragraph, in which case some other algorithm perhaps should be used to make the RSS description.
In the end, though, I decided that writing a self-sufficient lead paragraph is a good rule for me. If I need to stretch the definition of a paragraph in some cases, I can, by switching to Source view and moving the </P> tag so that it captures what I need. But this rarely happens.
We (that is, we technical types) focus intensely on form when we write software. Poets aside, who else but programmers could seriously debate the merits of Python's significant whitespace? So it has always seemed odd to me that these same people (with some notable exceptions, including McCusker and the Wiki tribe) pay scant attention to form when writing email or other kinds of purposeful communication. Why not? The reasons are the same.