Eliminating cliches through careful observation

I previously posted a version of this piece on a defunct blog of mine, so I’m sharing it here.

Cliches often result from a lack of attention or from indifference. They’re readymade and easy to grab at as you write.

While they save you effort or time, they cost you in other ways. If you use too many cliches, your writing becomes less memorable. Your voice seems more dull, your thoughts less worthy of attention and distinction.

One of the ways to limit cliches in your writing is to carefully pay attention to the world. Specific details and concrete examples can deepen your writing. Observations of texture, shape, and color can enrich the text and give it more flavor.

As an example, let’s consider Sightlines, a collection of essays by Kathleen Jamie. Her book inspired this post, because of how present she is in the world of each essay. From “The Gannetry,” on a colony of gannets in Scotland:

The cliffs were south-facing, full in the sun, and five hundred foot high. They formed promontories and bowls, so we walked out onto the broadest promontory and from there looked back into the cauldron the birds had commandeered for themselves.

And from “Moon,” an observation of an eclipse:

The moon does us a great service, metaphorically and literally, and this is part of it – occasionally she allows us to appreciate the shadow cast by our own planet. She shows us that the earth, for all the cacophony of life on its surface, is firstly an object, bigger than we are, magisterial enough to cast a shadow thousands and thousands of miles into space.

In this piece, she describes the moon ripening like fruit, even as the Earth becomes more strikingly rock-like. Although people have compared the moon to food before, she constructs the imagery with delicacy and care, and in a way that’s unique to her. She doesn’t make a lazy comparison. It’s borne of observation and imagination.

Before describing people as having nerves of steel or being weak as a kitten, study them. Reflect on who they are in a specific moment. Do you want to say something about emotions or economics or how beautiful your backyard looks at dawn? Don’t lean too hard on the readymade phrases. What are you really trying to say?

Reading good writing reminds you to observe the world more carefully. So does being present in the moment as you write or edit your work. Think about what you’re trying to write and how to write it precisely and memorably.

What would a GSR bracelet do?

Months ago I read a short story, “Dead Space for the Unexpected,” by Geoff Ryman in a short fiction anthology Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories. In the story corporate managers are hooked up to and monitored by various technologies that measure not only their verbal and behavioral actions in the course of their job but also their physiological responses (things like heart rate and blood pressure and Galvanic Skin Response). It then gives them constantly updated scores on their calmness, effectiveness, and efficiency (down to millisecond-long reaction times) in the face of stressful situations, such as having to lay off an employee.

From what I remember, the monitoring technology didn’t make the main character a better manager. He was pretty obsessed about checking his scores and was anxious about them and about what would happen if he were to lose his edge as he gets older. I don’t remember if he or anyone else in the company ever came up with a better product or service (I’m not even sure what the company did). I do remember an atmosphere of excessive tension and competitiveness heightened by the technology, which, along with the scoring system, was abused during the course of the story. Nothing about the workplace seemed any better – no spirit of innovation and creativity for instance, or a genuine feeling of community and teamwork. No inspiring leadership.

The idea of monitoring technology probably sounded good on paper to the corporate head honchos who decided on it – not least because it gave them the means to more closely control and scrutinize their mid-level managers, who had little privacy – but what were its overall positive results? Just because a technology gives us a window into the responses of the brain and body doesn’t mean it’s worth the money or produces long-term benefit. It can instead be a waste of money that also distorts the human spirit.

I thought of this story after reading an article from a Washington Post blog on the hundreds of thousands of dollars of Gates Foundation grant money invested in the study of Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) bracelets that are meant to measure students’ engagement in the classroom.

GSR is a measure of physiological and psychological arousal involving the amount of moisture (sweat) on your skin. Ok, then. Many kinds of emotions can be picked up by GSR devices (which are used in lie-detection); if someone is afraid or angry or sexually aroused, the device shows an increase in arousal without telling you anything about the underlying cause.

How will the bracelet measure classroom engagement? Students could be excited about the lesson, sure, or they could be excited about the person sitting next to them, or worried about the test that’s coming up or afraid the teacher will call on them or interested in something they spotted out the window, or caught up in thoughts (exciting or unexciting) that have nothing to do with school.

Also assuming we could somehow isolate the underlying cause of arousal and pinpoint it to intellectual engagement (which is a complex state of mind in and of itself) does this tell us anything about how the students are learning? I can be engaged with a particular topic but still not understand it fully; I could find aspects of it puzzling or draw incorrect conclusions, excitedly thinking that I get it when I really don’t. Granted, the GSR bracelets would only be one measurement of student engagement, but what’s the point? If the bracelets tell the teacher that the students are fully attentive, the teacher would still have to make sure the wide-eyed interest translates into comprehension.

Other less expensive, less formal and more potent measures of attention and engagement exist – are students asking questions for instance? Are they asleep? Staring at the clock? Taking notes? Passing notes? Raising their hands? What does a bracelet add to all of this except to give schools a feeling of being cutting-edge and slick? (Reminds me of a number of fMRI studies I read through years ago that were poorly designed and didn’t measure what they claimed to but got published in peer-reviewed journals, one suspects, because fMRI was cutting-edge and a “window into the brain.”)

Then there’s the potential for abuse and gaming the system. From Diane Ravitch’s blog:

…a reader noted that the GSR bracelet was unable to distinguish between “electrodermal activity that grows higher during states such as excitement, attention or anxiety and lower during states such as boredom or relaxation.”

Thus a teacher might be highly effective if his students were in a statement of excitement or anxiety; and a teacher might be considered ineffective if her students were either bored or relaxed. The reader concluded, quite rightly, that the meter would be useless since a teacher might inspire anxiety by keeping students in constant fear and might look ineffective if students were silently reading a satisfying story.

So again, what would be the potential benefit of these bracelets? I’d like to see a copy of the grant proposal submitted by the researchers at Clemson University; how did they justify this study?