Character, Clarity, and the Shuffle
In Style: The art of writing well, first published in 1955 and more recently in 2012, F. L. Lucas wrote: “Literary style is simply a means by which one personality moves others.” Think about it. Isn’t moving others what every writer wants to do? Of course it is. So what’s the secret to moving others?
No charlatan, Lucas never stood in front of his students at Oxford to tell them his one-two-three, success-guaranteed, steps for affecting the minds or hearts of readers. He said, style is “personality clothed in words, character embodied in speech.” If a writer is boring, petty, judgmental, miserly, incurious, shallow—name the shortcoming—his writing will reveal the defects.
Skeptical of the importance of personality/character in writing? Enroll in a writing class. Soon, the teacher will bring up the topic of voice. Aspiring writers are encouraged to write in a strong voice. I’ve listened to a few teachers talk about voice, but no one mentioned the subject of personality or character. All the instruction about voice I received resembled a 2006 cartoon by Sidney Harris. In Harris’s masterpiece, two scientists are standing before a blackboard with a formula going from one side to the other. In the middle of the numbers and symbols a sentence appears: “Then a miracle occurs.” One scientist points to the sentence and says, “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.”
Lucas is the only person I’ve read or listened to who draws our attention to the obvious. (He mentions others, including, Aristotle, Polonius, Napoleon—yes, the General—and more.) Where else would a writer’s voice, strong or weak, come from but the depths of his personality? Ask any psychologist and she will tell you the source of personality is character.
Okay, assume one writes with a strong voice, what next? Lucas’s second principle of style is clarity. I can’t offer any advice about character or personality, but I can help with clarity. The Idea Shuffler (IS) is a diagramming tool designed to promote clear, logical thought: the basis of clarity. Initially, I responded to the idea of writing from a diagram with: “Oh, no. That’s not how I write.”
A diagram is structured and restrictive, which is incompatible with creativity, or so I thought. Thus I couldn’t be persuaded to try writing from a diagram.
Couldn’t be persuaded until one day a lawyer asked me to compose a declaration for a twenty-year-old criminal case. (Did I mention I’m a psychologist?) The defendant had a complex family history, several incarcerations, and had been evaluated by three psychologists on separate occasions spread over seven years. Of course, the professionals couldn’t agree on one diagnosis. To complicate the task further, two versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders were in use during the period in which the defendant was evaluated. A third version was in use at the time I wrote the declaration. The lawyer wanted to know whether any diagnoses pinned to the defendant would hold, if criteria from the latest version of the Manual were applied. (Each Manual contained more than eight hundred pages.)
The way the lawyer who hired me saw it, everything could be compressed under three categories—about a page per category. The lawyer’s take made sense until I started sorting through the material. Maybe a good note-taking app would rescue me. Evernote kept popping up so I downloaded the free version. As I studied how to use the app, Ron Isaacson suggested IS would be easier to master and more useful than Evernote. “Fine,” I said, more than a little testy.
Overwhelmed by the task of writing the declaration, I considered IS. I started a diagram with the three concepts the lawyer wanted covered. I pondered the three, then more concepts came to me, and with little effort five more concepts popped into my head. Next, I began connecting some concepts, using lines labeled to identify the associations among concepts. For example, two concepts, Defendant’s Survival Strategy and Exposure to Domestic Violence, were connected. The association was labeled “initiated.” The two concepts and the association between them expressed the idea that exposure to domestic violence initiated the defendant’s survival strategy. By looking at the diagram, a reader could grasp the link between the two concepts in the context of the whole.
I find the experience of creating a diagram intense, but orderly. I begin with what seems a blank mind, but concepts pop into my head. Sometimes I realize I will need more than one diagram to cover all the concepts in my mind. IS accommodates multiple diagrams. Double left click on a concept, and a new diagram will appear using the title of the concept as a heading. If I want to include written material pertinent to a concept, I right click on a concept, and I’m delivered to a blank page where I can paste material or write original text. Links to online videos and articles can appear on a document page.
The IS diagram for the declaration included twenty-two separate word documents of multiple pages layered under the main diagram. Additional diagrams representing new ideas associated with the original concepts formed more layers. Different clicks on the mouse brought up layers. The layers revealed the complexity of the declaration assignment. Show me a note-taking app worthy of this challenge.
My first draft of the declaration consisted of twenty-four pages—many pages, but easy to put together because of the organization provided by IS and the availability of copy/paste. I gathered far more information than needed. The next step: eliminating unnecessary material. The lawyer grew impatient and wanted to review my work product.
He said nothing, but must have winced at the length of the first draft. He put the draft into a declaration format and returned it to me. That he left most of the document intact surprised me. The request to review my rough work irritated me, but each of us benefited from the action. He gave me the gift of time by identifying text important to him, so I didn’t labor over refining useless text. By reviewing the whole of what I expressed, he gained insight into my logic. Because of the thought poured into the diagram, the declaration was clear and compelling. An interested party with too many demands on her time—the judge—could easily digest the declaration, even though the legal document rested on a mound of complexity.
So when faced with an overwhelming writing task, I opened my mind to IS, and a miracle happened: I produced a well-written, perhaps effective declaration. What about essays and fiction pieces? Using IS, I’ve written several published essays, and I’m revising a short novel self-published on Amazon. Before writing this blog article, I created a diagram as a guide. The act of creating a diagram stimulates ideas and associations among ideas. IS supports imagination and provides the structure necessary for lucidity, two elements every writer counts on.
Now the Shuffle. At its best, science sometimes hints of magic. With all the concepts chosen and the associations in place, the designer may click the Shuffle button. The screen erupts into flashing concepts and association lines as various arrangements of objects flicker by. Depending on the number of concepts, millions or many billions of arrangements are possible. (Ten concepts have over three point six million possible arrangements; fourteen concepts have over eighty-seven billion possibilities.) When the Shuffle stops, the result may lead to new insight. The kid in me loves to hit the Shuffle button because the result is a mystery unfolding before my eyes. The adult loves the button because of the possibility of a new way of seeing something. Sometimes the Shuffle confirms my original perspective, and confirmation can be comforting even when the comforter is a robot.
Give IS a try, and write to me about your experience.
 I can’t tell you how this story ends because this life and death saga isn’t over yet. When a final decision is made, I’ll update readers on this web site.