This is part of The Blogging Gauntlet of May 2016, where I try to write 500 words every day. See the May 1st post for full details.
If there’s anything I like, it’s when people do something interesting with structure.
A good example of this is from the Firefly fanfic Forward. River’s thoughts are centered on the page, and will shift into bolds or italics.
Ra does something similar. Magic spells are written in monospaced font and a different color.
I like how toying with the structure reveals our implicit assumptions about that structure. By adjusting it in the right way, authors can reveal those assumptions, then push their boundaries to describe things without words. Done properly, it gives a sense of completeness - the text content gets tied to the medium itself, and neither can easily be separated from the whole.
When I write blog posts, I’m on the lookout for structural gimmicks. In yesterday’s post, I was pretty pleased with myself for finding a way to use “***” twice in a row, once to indicate how I use it as a section break and once as an actual section break. I’m also pleased I got to discuss section breaks right before using one in today’s post as well. The joke’s wearing thin, so I promise this is the last time I’ll use this gag.
For a while, I was seriously considering writing a post made entirely from quotations. I would have cited quotes about plagiarism, using the structure to blatantly show I was copying from everybody else. At the same time, the structure would also show how organizing all the quotes together was itself enough to make it original. It was going to show the boundary between plagiarism and original thought by having elements of both appear in its construction. Look, I even collected some quotes I was going to use.
There is nothing new under the sun.
Let no one else’s work evade your eyes
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes
So don’t shade your eyes
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize
Only be sure always to call it please “research”
(Lobachevsky by Tom Lehrer)
If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
Eventually I abandoned this project. I still like it conceptually, but the reward-to-effort ratio is way too small to justify writing it. I tried a quote-heavy post in Memorable Quotes and called it a day.
I know of one other person who came up with a similarly convoluted structure, and actually went through with it. That person would be Mark Rosewater, head designer for Magic: the Gathering. He writes weekly articles about the design of the current sets, and sometimes about game design as a whole.
Way back in 2004, he decided to write an article on Elegance. It is the most divisive article he’s ever written. I haven’t kept up with MTG very closely, but I doubt anything has matched the backlash or praise.
The structure is completely insane. The article is a home page of 50 words. Each word is a link to another 50 word snippet. It’s conceptually beautiful, but it’s also horrendously difficult for the reader. The fanmail got crazy enough that he ended up spending another article responding to the reader response to “Elegance”.
I’d recommend reading his response article by itself, but I’ll briefly summarize it here. Rosewater’s key point was that elegance was a very difficult concept to explain. It was so difficult that he felt the best way to explain elegance was to have the article itself be elegant. He wanted to highlight the gap between elegant concepts and elegant executions, so he wrote an article that showed how one didn’t imply the other. The disconnect between the elegance of its structure and its readability was the whole point of the article. The words themselves were less important.
Personally, I got sick of “Elegance” around the 7th link, but after reading his response, I have a lot of respect for the idea. It’s a fantastic example of how structure influences communication.