Writing: Hearing You Loud and Clear

One of the most influential classes I took at Yale was my English 115 class… a class intended for Freshmen and Sophomores who wanted to learn to write very clearly and concisely.

I took it as a senior while I was writing and editing my thesis. It was funny — I was the “class senior.” The other students asked me about my thesis with curiosity and interest (I was writing about cartel activity in Colombian politics and other black market activities). I appreciated the enthusiasm, after spending months with other seniors huddled in 24 hour cafes, surrounded by our respective piles of books and rarely sharing more than “please pass the coffee/pen/goodnight I’m going home.” In this respect, it was definitely refreshing.

The other piece of it was that this very demanding class was extremely helpful to me while I was editing. Professor Andrew Ehrgood is an amazing professor, editor and listener for the period in which I was only able to complete the homework for his class (I really cared about learning and doing good work in this class, despite taking it Credit/D/Fail) and cranking through rounds and rounds of edits and improvements on my thesis.

Perhaps the best part is that I still think about the class and the principles it taught me… now that I am learning to program. This is the poem written about Python by one of the language’s core developers:

The Zen of Python, by Tim Peters

Beautiful is better than ugly.

Explicit is better than implicit.

Simple is better than complex.

Complex is better than complicated.

Flat is better than nested.

Sparse is better than dense.

Readability counts.

Special cases aren't special enough to break the rules.

Although practicality beats purity.

Errors should never pass silently.

Unless explicitly silenced.

In the face of ambiguity, refuse the temptation to guess.

There should be one-- and preferably only one --obvious way to do it.

Although that way may not be obvious at first unless you're Dutch.

Now is better than never.

Although never is often better than *right* now.

If the implementation is hard to explain, it's a bad idea.

If the implementation is easy to explain, it may be a good idea.

Namespaces are one honking great idea -- let's do more of those!

Apart from the very code specific pieces… this sounds a lot like the principles we used in Ehrgood’s English course.

The same principles matter beyond English papers — I think about them when I am writing emails, explaining my research in a presentation and now programming. I am a huge advocate for clear, concise language. I’m not perfect with it; it’s something that I am constantly learning to do better.

Especially in a city where no one has time to read through overly wordy, imprecise project proposals or emails. New York is an interesting city. Words are thrown around to make projects, jobs, events, and places seems more appealing than they are in real time experience. Marketing language argues that more is better. Brighter words, more description, over the top compliments…

But I’d rather be loud and clear.        

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