Detail from manuscript of Arthurian Romances in the Beinecke Rare Book Library

On Second Thought

I’m allowing myself today the luxury of writing about writing. Or rather, about my writing.

This is a big step for me. I may think of myself as a writer on occasion but only in the most private of moments. I’d never call myself one publicly. Instead, I write posts. Nothing as ambitious as a tale or a story, though some of my posts certainly look like stories. But stories are things my author friends write. I do posts. Naturally these same writers—since they are my friends—scold me for thinking this way, but I have the feeling their protest is a case of noblesse oblige.

I used to call them “texts”, but text doesn’t sound very literary, even if it is the stuff literary critics work with work. But that’s exactly the point—the work, I mean. A text is something one works on. Or from or with, a source for a translation, a starting point for a homily, something to be sent to proofreaders or set in type or delivered on stage. A text is investigated or articulated. It is set before exegetes, interpreted in court. But it is not especially relished. Text focuses on the writing, post on the reading.

But I’m digressing. (That’s the problem with confessional writing. Once you get started you allow yourself all sorts of liberties, like opening parentheses you don’t close or wandering around a point with no apparent intention of arriving there.)

A year or so ago one of my writer friends, who runs a small online journal where she publishes flash fiction and personal essays, was kind enough to host a few of my little stories—there, I said it—on her site. She didn’t edit my stuff very much, and the changes she made were all for the better. “I could have done more,” she told me. “You can get repetitive at times”

“I repeat myself?” I asked.

“Oh not in the way you’re probably thinking. I meant how you write, not what you write. We all have a repertory of devices we use when we write and we need to be careful not to overuse any of them. You’re not always careful.”

“For example?”

“Oh, I think it’s better if you find this out on your own,” she said.

Overuse. Repetition. It made me think of a bad pop song or a tic.

I had to look. I’m a methodical investigator; detecting patterns, albeit in numbers, is part of what I do in my day job anyway. The principles were more or less the same, I thought.

We exclaim our singularity in voice and gait. Why not, too, in the way we write? Our identity is encoded in the lakes and forks of our fingers, and in the furrows and crypts of our eyes.  Why wouldn’t it be in our choice of words and syntax as well? The material was there–my texts (here the term fits perfectly). I just had to read them closely enough.

A skilled programmer can write a 60-line routine in Python that will, with the help of a table of frequencies of letter and sound combinations, automatically detect the language in which a text is written. All I needed to do was to find the diacritics of my own language, the stylistic equivalents of the slashed l and hooked c, the telltale signs of my authorship.

I went back and reread the previous ten texts I had written, paying attention not to content but to style. I did it as an editor or forensic scientist might, ignoring content to look instead for feature vectors, recurrences of tropes and rhetorical devices. I even translated a handful of paragraphs into (some rather pitiful) German, which forced me to pay even greater attention to the surface of the texts.

It was easy enough to identify the more egregious offenders. Parataxis and appositives jumped off the page. So did my trouble with conjunctions. I omitted them where one would expect them or added too many. I looked this up. Technically these devices are called asyndeton and polysyndeto. I use them a lot, sometimes in the same sentence or paragraph.

This from Attic Beds:

It is as if in ridding ourselves of the woolen sweaters and heavy shoes of less temperate seasons, we begin to put aside the burdensome distractions into which we are drawn the rest of the year, the intrigue and politics of work and school, the deadly commute and the clamor of bills. We shed layer after layer until in the end and for a short but blessed while, we find ourselves stripped of clothes and worry alike. We can once again feel our nakedness: the swirl of a breeze against our skin, the thin film of salt drying on our back, the tickle of grass between our toes. It is as if the world is trying to make love to us.

Asyndeton. There was one in nearly every post I examined. Definitely part of my m.o.

I discovered I also have a weakness for metanoia, which is loosely speaking Greek for “wait, I’ve reconsidered.” It denotes the recalling of a proposition in order to reformulate it more tentatively or agressively, as in ‘or better’, ‘no—’, or ‘on second thought. I still do it. The day before yesterday I wrote: “A cabinet of curiosities gathered over the years and ‘of interest only to their collector. Or rather, to their accumulator…”

There were other, more quantitative clues as well, like sentence length and readability. As a data nerd I naturally generated these for a sample of five posts with the help of an online text analyzer (average sentence length, 11.5 words, skewed in small measure by the presence in the sample of one rather nicely crafted sentence of 66 words).

The analyzer also showed me frequency counts of words, one of the salient markers used in deanonymizing scripts (think of your preference for one or the other element in such common synonymous pairs as immense and enormous, or since and because). I was struck by the high rank of words like think and feel and know.  And then there was ‘something’, which was much more frequent than such workhorses of the language as ‘make’ and ‘ask’ and ‘come’. Which made me wonder, why such ambiguity?

And then I realized. I hedge.

I reread the texts like a detective who’s chanced upon a breakthrough clue and goes back to the scene of the crime. And there they were, like hardy well-adapted weeds, the play-downs and mitigators and shields that denoted evasion or equivocation: perhaps, actually, apparently, I think, kind of, essentially, particularly, maybe.  (I also seem to be quite enamored of the word “seem”.)  Even more so than metanoia and asyndeton, hedging turned out to be a very discriminating marker of my writing.

It’s as if I’m negotiating with my readers, politely asking them if they wouldn’t mind agreeing to the proposition I’m putting forth. Why can’t I just come out and say it?  But of course I know why.

Since then I’ve been more aware of what I (over)do and try to trim back the worst offenders. But I have to be vigilant. If the way we write is as unique as our gait, it is just as hard to change. If you reread the first four paragraphs you will notice some of these devices. I didn’t deliberately write to include them. They just came up and I didn’t edit them out, as I would have done in an ordinary post.

Though I prune and weed, I can’t eliminate them entirely. But then, I don’t want to. This is, after all, my voice.


If you think the idea of a writer’s unique  stylistic “fingerprint” is far-fetched, consider that algorithms to deanonymize authorship are already being developed. Arvind Narayanan, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Princeton who studies information security and stylometric analysis, is sufficiently worried about what will happen to political dissent with the full advent of this technology that he is already calling for the development of obfuscation techniques to protect anonymity online. (Until these are developed, he suggests using a thesaurus, changing tenses and altering punctuation at random)

For an encompassing inventory of hedging terms and their functions in discourse, see Bruce Fraser’s illuminating article on “Pragmatic Competence: the Case of Hedging.”

Image from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, MS 229, detail of f. 133v. Arthurian Romances


3 responses to ‘On Second Thought

  1. Thank you, Liz, for your generous and engaging comments. Lots here to talk about.
    You’re right about the medium affecting rhetoric. I’m more straightforward in the things I write for work for example (I even have a section in a course I teach on “Writing for the Web” that I call “Don’t Write like a Wimp”). But the hedging in the things I write here also has to do with character. Unless it’s just a bad habit or tic. (I love the phrase “not my tic”!).

    I hadn’t heard of epanorthosis but I think it and metanoia are probably close cousins. You may know that the former, which usually means “correction”, can also mean “making amends”, as the latter can also mean repentance (there’s probably a post hiding in there waiting to be written) . I’d like to read the poem in which you use it. I have a copy of some of Bishop’s poems at the house, which I’ll delve into this weekend. (I haven’t read Muldoon but would be grateful for the reference to the poem).

    Ah, the strikethrough! I’ve never used it, though I know it’s there. I like its brutal honesty—this is what I first said, but then I realized (or was told) it was a mistake and now I’m… making amends. And given the interactive nature of our blogging, I realize it’s important not to make a major revision to a post (in terms of facts or positions) without leaving evidence of the changes (I’d ordinarily point out the correction in a small note). The strikethrough looks kind of messy (I guess I’m too obsessed with clean surfaces) but I could get used to it 🙂

    Thank you again for the conversation!


  2. Fascinating and compelling as ever, thank you. So many gifts in this one (‘one’ hedges, avoiding ‘post’ and ‘text’). I like the distinction you draw between stories and posts and the suggestion that texts are writerly while posts are readerly. Those definitions depend largely on how writing is consumed rather than produced and perhaps the interactivity of a post alters our tics? Do we write differently, with different mannerisms, in this space? Maybe if you ran your text analyser thingy on something you had written for a different audience you would find different features in your writing. I can imagine ‘hedging’ is something that a blog space might encourage because of the interactivity and possibility for challenge. We are more careful. Another thing (or maybe two more): I haven’t come across ‘metanoia’ before but it sounds a little bit like something I have always known as epanorthosis. I learned it from Elizabeth Bishop who uses it in her poetry – saying something, then correcting herself but leaving the correction in the poem. I love it. Bishop is just extraordinary. I tried to do this in one of my poems recently and had fun, though was conscious it was not really my tic. That’s not quite the same as hedging I know. Finally, wordpress let’s us hedge and show our second thoughts with the strike through facility – I’ve wondered at the extent to which having access to something like that may change the way we think and write. And finally (finally) – Paul Muldoon has a great poem littered with somethings – it might be called Something but I think perhaps it is called something else. I’ll look it up. It’s in his oy Sand and Gravel collection I think. It took me a long time to appreciate what he was up to with it – you have added ‘ambiguity’ to my reading of it. Thank you 🙂


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