Book Review: Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little
By Christopher Johnson
2011, Hardback, 246 pages, W.W. Norton & Company $21.95
Omit needless words.
That phrase is the age-old writing wisdom given by Strunk & White, in The Elements of Style. Little did Strunk know when his advice was first published in 1918 that this maxim would become an indispensable truth in the social media era when anything written over 140 characters is seen as information overload.
Microstyle, Christopher Johnson’s new book, takes a look at these brief, but powerful expressions.
“Microstyle is a guide to verbal strategies that make very short messages effective, interesting and memorable,” says Johnson. “But this isn’t a style guide…. style guides focus on what not to do.” The Chicago Manual of Style and The AP Stylebook are a powerful business and writing authority that Johnson playfully terms “Big Style.”
Why this matters is because Johnson sees our society getting away from traditional grammar structures and formal-sounding communications. He focuses on why language works, even if a particular sentence structure is theoretically unsound.
Johnson’s focus on what the usefulness of communication emphasizes the importance of the content rather than why one shouldn’t end a sentence in a preposition or whether or not to split infinitives. His view of Big Style is that it is something of an archaic way of imposing form onto the little ways our natural methods of communication are easily received, processed and understood intuitively.
Think about it: The news one gets from CNN is almost always going to be different in form from the grapevine gossip one gets about other people. The essential core of the message is carried out and transmitted to others whether through memes or the way timeless wisdom has a way of losing its impact through an oft-repeated cliché or trite saying.
Johnson, who has a Ph.D. in linguistics, isn’t kidding around with his love of brevity. The book has four sections: Meaning, Sound, Structure and Social Context. Plus, the lessons of each section are there in plain English in the table of contents if you ever need to circle back and think about what to focus on in your messaging.
Starting with a rundown of the current state of messaging, the book delves heavy into theory throughout the introduction. Anyone who has taken a mass communications class in college might find the scholarly references familiar, though Johnson has a knack for making them more interesting to non-scholars than any of the books one reads at University.
Johnson believes that our ways of communicating have surprisingly become more complex while they have become shorter and shorter. Through status updates, instant messages, and “tweets,” we have all had to adopted new ways of getting the word out as briefly and as memorable as possible.
Johnson clearly is fond of advertisements, and he successfully draws our attention to the everyday slogans and taglines that we subconsciously absorb every time we turn on the radio or television, and reveals the talent that it takes to come up with a great turn of phrase.
Johnson, is also a verbal branding consultant, and writes a blog called “The Name Inspector,” where he has helped create product and company names BlackBerry, PowerBook and Pentium. His insight into why certain brand names work or not is priceless, because few of us have ever taken the time to actually think about why we can recall a successful product name from one that fails. (Fortunately the sales volume is a good metric to know if the brand is achieving its goals.)
Microstyle certainly runs long in some places, especially for a self-professed minimalist, which makes one wonder if Johnson practices what he preaches (the likely reason being a business one by the publisher of whether someone would pay good money for an overly slim volume.) That being said, the book is a pleasurable and easy read and tackles its subject in a direct and to-the-point fashion.
As Johnson puts it, as much social progress has been made from the Mad Men era of the 1950s, we have all evolved into the man-of-his-time protagonist Don Draper since “we can all relate to his search for the perfect concept and the perfect phrase to express it. He’s one of us. Or we’re one of him.”
Through explorations of poets and pundits, Onion headlines and punk rock stage names, Johnson reminds us that Microstyle writing is nothing new, but has become something that is increasingly important.
The information revolution has resulted in elevating the status of our trivial thoughts and expressions to a high level of importance, and we have all become marketers, advertisers and branding consultants in our everyday communications; yet, our success in getting the word out is clearly based upon how much thought we’ve put behind it — and leaving the irrelevant information behind.