Form Versus Function

18 November, 2021

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the Andrei Tarkovsky movie Stalker. Like Tarkovsky’s other venture into the realm of SF, Solaris, Stalker is a very stark and spare film. There were no special effects to speak of and the use of special sets was minimal. The key was the story.

Thinking about that movie reminded me of a conversation that I had back in the late 1990s about form versus function in writing. The thrust of that conversation is still relevant today.

Admittedly, I’m not a stylist with my writing. I like to think what my fingers tap out is occasionally interesting,. But I’ll never be accused of breaking new ground when it comes to literary forms.

But many people like flash. They like convoluted descriptions and funky layouts. And that was the starting point of the conversation I mentioned.

Back then, I was helping write articles for a newsletter put out by a small company. The newsletter itself wasn’t anything spectacular to look at. The layout was functional, the articles fairly well written. Someone from the company’s support team, who had an opinion on everything, constantly berated the folks doing the newsletter. It wasn’t dynamic enough, it didn’t have enough colour or images.

Of course, he wouldn’t listen — or, at least, answer — when I asked him how all of that would make the newsletter better. Even without all of those extras, a majority of the people who received the newsletter actually read it.

One lesson that I learned was that there are people who care about how a published piece of writing looks. They might also care about the writing itself but for them the appearance of something helps determine its quality.

Does that mean you need to make everything look like a professionally-designed magazine? Do you have to write over-the-top prose that catches peoples’ attention but which they either promptly forget or give up reading part way through?

I don’t think so. To paraphrase a former co-worker, you’re not going to hang anything you write on your wall. What you write doesn’t have to be art to be effective. Worry about making what you write clear, complete, accurate, engaging, and readable.

Keep your writing simple. Complex systems tend to break down. They require a lot of maintenance. Simple systems, on the other hand, can last a long time.

How do you keep things simple when writing? Find a format or three and stick to them. It’s OK to deviate from whatever format(s) you choose, but always keep the basics of good writing in mind. Deathless prose doesn’t have to be flash. It just needs to be interesting.

Just as Tarkovsky eschewed big bang special effects in favour of telling a story, focus your efforts on keeping your writing accurate and useful. That’s the main reason people are reading what you’re writing. If you use a bit of flair to draw the reader in further, then that’s a bonus. Just don’t overdo it.

Scott Nesbitt