Evolution of writers at MeFi October 29, 2003 10:32 AM   Subscribe

I'm sorry if this is a stupid, self-indulgent post (so no problems if it's deleted forthwith) but it's based on over two years of reading MetaFilter almost completely. It certainly seems interesting to me - but I may be wrong. See? I've noticed several users becoming ever more adept at expressing themselves: from more drawn-out to pithier; from abstruser to clearer; from all-over-the-place to more-to-the-point. Does anyone else find, by merely participating here and being exposed to MeFi's notoriously severe critique, that they're writing better than when they first joined? Specially foreigners (or non-Americans) like me? To what an extent is MeFi interaction good practice for writers?
posted by MiguelCardoso to MetaFilter-Related at 10:32 AM (57 comments total)

I'm not a writer, but posting and reading here is good for my English.
Also, I really think you (Miguel) should start a www.MiguelsMetaMefi.com where we could discuss things like this at leisure.
I'd check in every day.
posted by ginz at 10:45 AM on October 29, 2003

posted by keswick at 10:50 AM on October 29, 2003

Nothing hones grammar and diction quite as effectively as an ever-hungry pack of word-hounds. Either your behavior is reinforced by a fear of rejection/flaming/pillory, or you rise to the content and contributions of your peers, growing better at your craft and ... and ... um ...

gosh, i hope everybody likes this comment.....
posted by grabbingsand at 10:51 AM on October 29, 2003

posted by bshort at 10:51 AM on October 29, 2003

There are, thanks be given, quite a few foreign users here who are writing in a second - or third - language. Americans and Brits tend to be very forgiving - though kindly and usefully correcting our most obvious mistakes and faux pas - and this is wonderful. My point, however, extends to native English-speakers themselves: if you look back a year or two, you'll find individual members becoming better at expressing themselves; less tentative and fuzzy; more effective. My theory is that MetaFilter's relentless style of critique (sometimes including spelling itself) is a welcome tonic to all.

As an example, the normal MeFi comment "What's your point?" was very helpful to me, coming from a wordy, abstract and sentimental culture.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:03 AM on October 29, 2003

The audience certainly helps, but I think any excuse to put your thoughts down on a regular basis leads to better writing. And nothing disgusts me more than multilingual MeFi members who are more eloquent in the one language I know than I am.
posted by yerfatma at 11:08 AM on October 29, 2003

"practice makes perfect"
posted by thomcatspike at 11:11 AM on October 29, 2003

I think the straight grammar/spelling sort of criticism is extremely low here. In fact, I have the idea that people hold back on that consistently and constantly.

As for the rest, I agree with you that one will usually do better if he has a good point to make and can clearly convey it... But sometimes just a good "wappa-wappa" contains a complete, terrible and utter clarity.
posted by taz at 11:12 AM on October 29, 2003

:: obligatory comment about not knowing which native language is spoken by thomcatspike or clavdivs ::
posted by dhoyt at 11:14 AM on October 29, 2003

I wouldn't say my writing is better, but I certainly have a thicker skin about criticism, and I've learned to walk away from arguments that can't be won. So that's a help.
posted by me3dia at 11:16 AM on October 29, 2003

I don't think it's necessarily just mefi, but writing tons of email and blogging for the past 4+ years has really, really, really improved my writing.

I'll just say this: even though I've been a straight A math and science student my whole life, I barely scraped by in every english class I took from high school through college. I nearly failed poetry and literature classes back then, never getting better than a B- in any english class in my life (usually ended up with C grades).

And now I've helped write several books, I look forward to writing and I love to read for the first time in my life. Something certainly helped that along, and I think it was the mostly text-based internet that did it for me.

Of course, this could all be boiled down into practice makes perfect, I suppose.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 11:20 AM on October 29, 2003

As an example, the normal MeFi comment "What's your point?" was very helpful to me, coming from a wordy, abstract and sentimental culture.

I am not sure that this lesson has been learned. I know I havent learned it (coming also from a latin culture) but I am not sure that is a bad thing.

A friend told me, or I read somewhere, that southern europeans as well as latin americans are less interested in getting to the point. They love the argument itself, the careful choice of words, the dynamics and the sophistry.

A beautiful argument is a true argument or at least it should be. But that holds little weight here where argumentation and sharp, pithy comments hold sway. My own view is that rarely does one convince another of anything so why not the indulgence of ideas? In daily life and even sometimes in writing, people are swayed more by beauty and charisma than by straight logic.

You are more likely to want to believe what I say because you love me (or respect me?) than because I have presented you with an undeniable syllogism.
posted by vacapinta at 11:24 AM on October 29, 2003

I wouldn't call message-boarding good writing practice for fiction writing, which is the kind I aspire to do well. It doesn't hone any of the expository skills, and the "voice" focused conversation hones is the wrong voice to develop if you want to address a general audience. Arguing can be a kind of writing, I guess, and this is a fine place to get good at it. But it's not good for much, other than writing a column or editorial.

People here also come to rely too much on in-jokes or in-references, which are actually harmful to developing one's writing talent. When you know too much about who you're writing for, you get lazy. It's fully possible to become a better MeFi writer while losing ground as a writer in general. Over-specialization, or something...

Further, while the "pack of wolves" may spur some people to type more carefully, it also probably discourages a lot of the best writers here from participating at all.
posted by scarabic at 11:25 AM on October 29, 2003

I can't say that contributing to MeFi has substantially affected my writing style, but during the past three years I have also completed law school, which in itself is a transformative experience for a writer. I attribute most of the improvement in my writing skills to that, rather than MeFi. Then again, you never know...
posted by monju_bosatsu at 11:26 AM on October 29, 2003

I should add (I didn't want to say) that MeFi is, by and large, imho, very well written in the most formal and expressive senses: economic; pithy; wild; snarky/humorous; often stylish; always to the point. This "house style", which exists in the better media, influences us all. Though it belongs to no one - which, in my experience, is a sign of excellence.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:35 AM on October 29, 2003

Oh yes, it's fine to compliment us on our fine writing skills, but what I want to ensure that we all make proper use of the word 'myriad' in our suicide notes. Okay?
posted by WolfDaddy at 11:44 AM on October 29, 2003

When you know too much about who you're writing for, you get lazy.

I disagree. I take time to make sentences as insurmountable as possible so the smarmy fucker on the other side can't throw my point back in my face. If I didn't know the place was full of pains-in-the-ass happy to tear apart my every point given the smallest opening, I'd be much lazier.
posted by yerfatma at 12:06 PM on October 29, 2003

Some things are becoming clearer... mathowie quotes thomcatspike - that's a beaut!

Does anyone else find, by merely participating here and being exposed to MeFi's notoriously severe critique, that they're writing better than when they first joined?


To what an extent is MeFi interaction good practice for writers?

Well, with all due respect Miggy, that's a little repetitious and unpithy.

So, I'm not sure it works for everyone...
posted by dash_slot- at 12:06 PM on October 29, 2003


An anecdote:
I am in the middle of a days long argument over money with one of my girlfriends. The reason it is days old is not so much the topic, but something I said relating to it.

You see, each time I raised a point concerning how she handled her money, she had a rather pointed retort, almost like she had the lines rehearsed. Finally, I said, "You've had this argument before, haven't you!"

That was when she threw the dog brush at me.
posted by mischief at 12:13 PM on October 29, 2003

Further, while the "pack of wolves" may spur some people to type more carefully, it also probably discourages a lot of the best writers here from participating at all.

I know this is what keeps my participation here to a minimum (Even though I come here obsessively throughout the day). I will say this however - writing included, I think MeFi helps to make me a great deal more socially intelligent all around. Not only does writing improve, but being able to communicate with strangers is made a great deal easier. I can't count how many times a MeFi article or whatnot (jokes, meme's) has helped break to ice. Is this common?

I second ginz's notion. These types of posts, while annoying to some Crabby Patties out there, are in my opinion one of the greatest appeals to Metafilter. Would this community be as strong without them? I think not.
posted by Quartermass at 12:17 PM on October 29, 2003

I write less overall.
posted by konolia at 12:19 PM on October 29, 2003

Well, dash_slot, vacapinta is right - we Southern Europeans relish prose, wordiness, ambiguity, elegance... In effect, not saying anything but loving the discussion itself.

But you wouldn't understand. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:19 PM on October 29, 2003

I have become much less verbose. I think I have become a more skilled writer, because this was the first place I ever wrote where I was fearful of being embarrased.
posted by vito90 at 12:21 PM on October 29, 2003

yerfatmama, I think we're talking about different things. I agree that if you know you're writing for an exacting audience, you may be more careful.

My point was that when you know the character, language, likes/dislikes, personalities, mores, etc of your audience, you play to them, and this is different than writing for the general public. You use references and you're confident that your audience will get them. You don't explain things you know they already understand. You make in jokes, you riff on established memes.

This is what I mean by lazy. A writer who aims for a general audience can't make too many assumptions about what that audience knows and doesn't know. When you settle into a niche where you can predict your audience with a high degree of accuracy, it shows in the writing. If you still disagree, consider whether what's funny between you and your friends would work for a stand-up comic.

So, like I said, you can get really good at playing a particular audience, especially one that talks back, but this will not necessarily help you become a better writer for a general audience, and it may hurt you, in fact.
posted by scarabic at 12:22 PM on October 29, 2003

I write less overall.
Noticing this as a stage members may go through, you've learned sticking to the subject in a discussion. You are not distracted nor lose focus:) Plus two cents is worthless these days.
posted by thomcatspike at 12:31 PM on October 29, 2003

When I first started posting here I felt terribly uncomfortable: too many people with interesting careers and experiences for a youngster in his early 20's to cope with. I worried too much about how I expressed myself and probably came across as a lumbering, ungainly, grammatical and stylistic eyesore. After awhile, though, a certain level of comfort set in, a certain acceptance that nobody finds me as funny as I do, and I stopped trying to present myself much differently than I see myself.

Jesus, Miguel, you're rubbing off on me--I just had to delete an inane commentary on how I used to want to be a writer. Get out of my head!
posted by The God Complex at 1:11 PM on October 29, 2003

I write better than I did a few years ago, I think, and that's mostly as a result of writing at my website.

I think (or at least argue) better than I did a few years ago, I think, and that's mostly thanks to fighting off a few of the sMaRRt b4strds here at the 'filter, and reading the arguments of those with whom I did not directly cross swords.

I reckon the quality of argumentation is often lower these days than it was when I joined, which pains me, but perhaps that's because my brain has swollen with practice to such jovian size that you all look like ants to me.

Then again, maybe not.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:29 PM on October 29, 2003

Except, for, my, comma-strewn, parenthetical, style, which, has, gotten, even, parentheticaller, lately.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:33 PM on October 29, 2003

Perhaps, the commas (and parentheticals), although sometimes unwieldy, at least in certain circumstances, are not altogether unwelcome, as they tend towards more introspective, and, dare I say, intellectual--although sometimes overly cautious--comments. A proper sentence, at least for one who intends, or seeks to achieve, a level of sophistication not reached by less complex sentence structure, should contain at least three, and perhaps more, commas.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 1:40 PM on October 29, 2003

I find that I write less because I don't expect my arguments to be heard in all the shouting. To me, a discussion is about finding out more about a subject and updating your own beliefs - not about proving someone else wrong (which seems to be the Golden Rule of MetaFilter). And while I don't mind people holding contrary opinions to my own, I don't like the bloodthirst exhibited when there are disagreements.


Oh. I guess I never 'got' the nick till now. And all this time I was picturing someone exotic, maybe arabic, kind of like Fatima Blush in Never Say Never. Well, that's disappointing. ; )

posted by widdershins at 1:43 PM on October 29, 2003

I find that I am more careful about what I say than I used to be (this may not be apparent to anyone but myself, however), because I am now well aware that anything written here has the potential to be scrutinised and analysed in minute detail by literally thousands of people. I tend to think through what I have written at the preview stage and look for ways in which I can be misconstrued by someone with a different viewpoint. This has helped me to translate my thoughts into written words more clearly (again, this may not always be apparent to others).
posted by dg at 2:40 PM on October 29, 2003

"One must be for ever drunken: that is the sole question of importance. If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time that bruises your shoulders and bends you to the earth, you must be drunken without cease. But how? With wine, with poetry, with virtue, with what you please. But be drunken. And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace, on the green grass by a moat, or in the dull loneliness of your chamber, you should waken up, your intoxication already lessened or gone, ask of the wind, of the wave, of the star, of the bird, of the timepiece; ask of all that flees, all that sighs, all that revolves, all that sings, all that speaks, ask of these the hour; and wind and wave and star and bird and timepiece will answer you: "It is the hour to be drunken! Lest you be the martyred slaves of Time, intoxicate yourselves, be drunken without cease! With wine, with poetry, with virtue, or with what you will."

which sort of sums up my roundabout attitude to mefi, the writing process and whether we should be concerned with if we've got any better.
posted by seanyboy at 4:12 PM on October 29, 2003

You are more likely to want to believe what I say because you love me (or respect me?) than because I have presented you with an undeniable syllogism.

Actually, no, I'm not. I may smile at your delight in your own verbiage (by "you" I mean not necessarily you personally, but anyone who practices what you preach), but I believe people who present convincing cases. And I have in fact changed my mind more than once based on what people have said on MeFi. There are some smart bastards here, as stavros says, and they know how to find good links. I enjoy the arguments and I enjoy the hijinks, but I don't confuse one for the other.

(The God Complex, you're doing fine as far as I'm concerned. Your "Jesus, Miguel" paragraph is sheer perfection.)
posted by languagehat at 5:15 PM on October 29, 2003

I know i've tried to be less wordy and more to the point (tried is the operative word there)--but I always reread after i've already posted, and immediately think of a better, shorter way to say whatever it was i said. (I think often i'm reaching for something behind/below whatever it is i may be saying--clarifying thought processes or something--and spitting it out helps me find it)
posted by amberglow at 5:19 PM on October 29, 2003

you play to them, and this is different than writing for the general public.

Yeah, I'll buy that. It's easier to make a popular point by hewing to the catch phrase of the moment than expressing what you really think. Which is why I stick to cliches, old saws, adages and the like.
posted by yerfatma at 5:23 PM on October 29, 2003

I have deleted a lot more verbiage than I've posted, if anyone can believe that. Sometimes all I really want to do is just type out the joke, thought, reply, or rant without really sending it out to be read - setting it down in print (and seeing it on the screen in preview) is enough, and satisfies the urge.

However, it helps in these instances to keep your cursor over the "back" button instead of the "post" one.
posted by yhbc at 7:03 PM on October 29, 2003

ackk! wait!

oh ... shit ...
posted by yhbc at 7:04 PM on October 29, 2003

...ensure that we all make proper use of the word 'myriad' in our suicide notes. Okay? - WolfDaddy

Bonus points for obscure Heathers reference.
posted by dejah420 at 7:50 PM on October 29, 2003

yhbc, the preview button is my friend also. Being able to read a comment in context on the page often makes me say "what dickhead wrote that?" "Oh, right" *back*
posted by dg at 8:21 PM on October 29, 2003

Hooked on MeFi worked for me!
posted by thatweirdguy2 at 8:34 PM on October 29, 2003

yhbc and dg, you twits might be dangerous running free in public. well, woo woo woo you use the smarmy little preview box to view your glorified mumblespeaken thus gratifying yourselves in a manner most of us find a biological outlet for. heh. none of the rest of us do that.
posted by quonsar at 10:13 PM on October 29, 2003

posted by quonsar at 10:13 PM on October 29, 2003

Only wimps use preview.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:15 PM on October 29, 2003

posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:16 PM on October 29, 2003

To what an extent is MeFi interaction good practice for writers?

In my case, it's terrible. I have five short articles to write by Friday, on deadline, and I just spent almost three hours instead here at MeFi. Writing is hard; following interesting links and reading (myriad) comments is easy.
posted by LeLiLo at 12:55 AM on October 30, 2003

Fuck the lot of you.

- I found this considered outburst in a thread today miguel, a perfect example I would say. Does this represent the cretinisation of metafilter.
posted by johnnyboy at 1:16 AM on October 30, 2003

i disagree. i don't think you can really call it 'cretinisation' so long as it lacks any reference to livestock. 'fuck the lot of you' is moronised, at best.
posted by quonsar at 2:09 AM on October 30, 2003

Thanks for sharing that, seanyboy. I hadn't seen it before.
posted by rushmc at 3:20 AM on October 30, 2003

Thanks languagehat. You're a sport ;)
posted by The God Complex at 3:36 AM on October 30, 2003

Practice makes perfect.
posted by plep at 12:54 PM on October 30, 2003

I'm a transcendent thought.
I was flashing through some drab grey matter,
burning a helter-skelter pattern of insight into the featureless
when I hit a wall.
It was a blue wall.
Safire varicose blue,
decorated with thin white words.
I followed the razor-wire rules,
looking for gaps and chances.
But I couldn't get through,
so I left,
posted by Opus Dark at 1:49 AM on October 31, 2003

Cole Porter, right? Noel Gallagher? No, it's that incurable Russian wag, isn't it? Anyways, it's very inspiring, Opus Dark. Just let me just try to pick out the tune on the pee-anner...
posted by MiguelCardoso at 4:43 AM on October 31, 2003

its PI- Anna. and your a writer?

"Safire vericose blue" is now my favorite shade.
posted by clavdivs at 6:43 AM on October 31, 2003

Practice makes prefect.
posted by nthdegx at 6:10 PM on October 31, 2003

I just had another thought. Unlike many Mefiers I am not a computer geek. But this site made me learn HTML in a fundamental way. I understand what tags are, AND I'M NOT AFRAID TO USE THEM!
posted by vito90 at 7:52 PM on October 31, 2003

say it; don't spray it, vito90 ; >
posted by amberglow at 9:10 PM on October 31, 2003

My first post, and my last two. Changes? : Hmmm."does evolution attack religion at the root? Or does it merely challenge literal interpretations of creation myth/narrative? I can (and do) construct religious narratives consistent both with Evolutionary Theory and also with modern scientific theory as a whole. It's not that hard, really. Theologians, Christian and otherwise, used to get around the contradiction between Biblical (or other religious) narrative and emergent scientific theory by just dispensing with literal interpretation. This was more workable in the Catholic Church because of the existence of the Pope - who is defined as God's voice and arbiter on Earth. Because the Pope is defined as, essentially, a divinely inspired agent of God who has ultimate, unquestioned authority to interpret Biblical text, he has the right to, by executive fiat, declare that "despite the Biblical description, we now know that the Earth revolves around the Sun". But when the Catholic Church finally accepted the Copernican model of the Solar System (Heliocentric rather than Earth-centric) this did not result in Catholics running morally rampant for the lack of Biblical certainty. Why not? Because the Pope was there to assure the faithful that, while the Bible was NOT to be taken literally concerning the question of whether the Earth revolved around the sun or vice versa, the Ten Commandments still stood as God's word to be taken quite literally. Presto! ~ No moral dilemma!


"....perhaps those of you who took shots at the administration in your youth will find yourselves in an internment camp instead of a retirement home.

In short, unless you've already crossed the point of no return, like quonsar or y2karl or foldy (the latter of which is my pick for "first MeFi member to be indefinitely detained") remember the advice of the former White House press secretary and be careful what you say." ( ljubljana )

Most typical fascist threat ever.

Come on now, please. Let me rephrase that tired, vicious sentiment and cut out the extraneous words: : "Shut up!....or, perhaps, one day you'll be sent to a concentration camp because of your political opinions."

I find such veiled threats quite repulsive." [ from y2karl's most recent Iraq post ]


"This thread would make for a great high-school discussion topic concerning "Truth and fiction in the digital age".

How many words have been spent here arguing for the truth or falsity of the blood red water? How many opinions seem to have been changed in the process?

Regardless, I don't like the idea of killing dolphins and think the blood red water issue is a red herring of a fish-tale - so the water was dull red and not bright red?

Does that somehow change the fact that beings, dolphins, which are probably as intelligent as you or I, in their own fashion, were being sliced to bits while still alive?

Save your outrage, folks, for the outrageous lies aired every minute of the day on mainstream media (and not just on Fox)." [ from the Dolphin slaughter/photoshopped red water post ]

In my first post, I stand on a podium as a a preacher or professor illuminating the unwashed. In my last two posts - over 2 years later - I climb down from my podium and try to engage my audience.

In short, I'm now a bit less of a talking encyclopedia which regurgitates facts and a bit more like a human who asks questions and solicits opinions. A bit more, I said.

And - like the Wonderchicken - I use too many commmas. My spelling, however, has improved.
posted by troutfishing at 9:29 PM on November 1, 2003

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