Unnecessary Details

Some days, weird things occur to me. (“Some days” may be an understatement there.)

I subscribe to a few websites, and occasionally participate in the comment community until some moment or another of hostility makes it less appealing to be there. One of those sites has been dark through most of the summer, its author dealing with family and professional crises, but now she’s back, and the feed has reappeared.

I left that comment community a little more than two years ago, when the playground violence took most of the fun out of it. But seeing it come up again today led me to go back through those six months or so when I was a near-daily participant, re-reading my old posts. It’s really fascinating to look at something you’ve written two years ago, now that it’s nearly forgotten and you can see it from the outside.

They’re really good.

Not like Eudora Welty, let’s publish it immediately good, but they’re thoughtful, careful, tightly composed. Each of those two- or three-paragraph commentaries took about an hour, as I edited on the fly, pruned unruly ideas, thought carefully about how to shape an emotional as well as a logical path.

That’s one of the things about being a writer: you’re never not a writer. When you write the minutes to a meeting, when you respond to an e-mail, when you write a message on your local community bulletin board… every time you use words, you’re thinking with care and precision about their sequence, their sound, their second meanings that might be misread.

Gmail now has an automated feature that recommends three alternative quick responses to the messages in the inbox. For one message this morning, Gmail offered “OK, thanks.” “Thanks.” and “Will do!” I know that those kinds of clipped responses are economical, and I have a lot of friends in administrative positions who reply like that, giving quick acknowledgement that a message has been received and moved forward. I admire the economy, even as I recoil from the practice.

I value the inefficiency of good writing. It’s a truism that we write in order to find out what we think. That’s kind of right, of course, but there’s also craft involved: we write in order to find out how a sentence sounds, how it feels, how it might be rebuilt in order to sound and feel different. We write ideas to find out what sequence makes them most appealing, most engaging. We surprise ourselves. We go past the content to the meaning.

When Tom Wolfe passed away a little over a year ago, the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote “as with any good writer, the mannerisms were the bearers of the morality.” That’s the best description I’ve ever read of the ineffable concept of the writer’s “voice:” that the simple organization of letters and sounds adds up to a personality, and that the personality is clearly the kind of thinker who’d be interested in that particular material. There’s a sense of inevitability to good writing when it’s read, hours or months or decades after its creation, but it’s absolutely not inevitable when it’s being made.


Nora has spent six years studying the spinning wheels of Samuel Morison (1775-1862), and she’s identified innumerable tools that he must have employed in his woodworking practice to make those wheels and their elaborate, precise components. She’s been struck by the clear joy he took in aesthetic decisions, even as he attempted to hold true to his Quaker principles of modesty and plainness.

Writers have an elaborate toolbox as well, drawers and drawers of tools ready for specific use. A punctuation drawer. A syntax drawer. An auditory drawer. A rack of scales against which we measure paragraphs. The stylesheets of headers and block quotes and section division devices. We collect tools, and admire the tools of others, even those we’d never use ourselves.

So when we compose even something as simple as a workplace email, that toolbox is right there at hand, suggesting possibilities to tune up an edge or turn a corner more gracefully. It takes a little longer, but I think it’s a gift well received, and it’s a practice that makes us more attentive to the world. It’s a gift we give ourselves, too.

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