Form and Content, Briefly.

Bad spellers are a breed apart from good ones. A writer with a mind that doesn’t register how words are spelled tends to see through the words he encounters — straight to the things, characters, ideas, images and emotions they conjure. A good speller, by contrast — the kind who never fails to clock the idiosyncratic orthography of “algorithm” or “Albert Pujols” — tends to see language as a system. Good spellers are often drawn to poetry and wordplay, while bad spellers, for whom language is a conduit and not an end in itself, can excel at representation and reportage. (NYT via The Awl)

This is an old form vs. content debate, although I don’t think that anyone will completely deny the importance of one part or the other. Rather, we all tend to drift to one side or the other. Like any other technology, writing provides many interesting cases for extremity, but also many balanced examples as well, although many of them are quite mundane. In 2006, Kitty Burns Florey put together an interesting homage to the lost art of sentence diagramming, Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, and brought to light the joys and idiosyncrasies of a highly technical approach to language. While the book’s  illustrations of how the division of form and content slowly erodes legibility are hugely entertaining, the whole project is driven by the idea that it is no longer acceptable to say something interesting in a boring way.

Consider Snail Mail My Email. Their stated mission: “In a culture overrun with instant gratification and on-demand services, this project cultivates appreciation for the lost art of letter writing.” It’s a super-warm-and-fuzzy idea, and likely cultivates the appreciation for that art, but looking at the examples, they read like emails, not like letters. It’s a difference that anyone can experience firsthand, and SMME acts as a strange hybrid. It makes sense that the project is only a month long: that’s all you need to make the point. It is entertaining, but it also moves too far to the pole of “form,” if only because the tension it sets up is part of the project’s mission. It makes me wonder about how we teach information literacy, which is all about the form of information resources, but never consider the way that the form and the content relate to each other.

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