I’m tempted to write a microreview of Microstyle, the new book about “the art of writing little” by Christopher Johnson. Something Twitter-length, perhaps:
Linguist/blogger/name developer Chris Johnson unpacks meaning and discovers poetry in slogans, company names, six-word memoirs, tweets.
That’s 136 characters, which makes it a legal tweet but a somewhat unsatisfying review. And as Chris—I’ll call him Chris, since we’ve been Internet friends for a few years*—says in his Microstyle blog: “Short is good, but shorter isn’t always better.” So I’ll be longer, but not too long.
Despite the title, Microstyle isn’t a conventional style guide. Instead, Chris says in the introduction, it’s a “field guide” that “can help you survive in the verbal wilderness, but … can also help you explore and enjoy.”
Is microstyle just regular old style applied to short messages? No, not really. Think about it this way: if extended prose writing is like painting or illustration, microstyle is like graphic design. It employs a subset of the techniques used in the more detailed arts, and because it serves different ends, it involves techniques and conventions of its own.
And it’s not just for professionals: anyone who composes a tweet, writes an eBay listing, sets up an Etsy storefront, or even sends a text message is a microstylist.
Microstyle may not lay out rules, but it does make strong suggestions. In fact, each chapter title is an imperative statement: “Paint a Picture,” “Give It Rhythm,” “Make the Sound Fit,” “Use Grammar Expressively,” “Say the Wrong Thing.” Some of the suggestions are intentionally contradictory; the first chapter is “Be Clear” and the eighth is “Use Ambiguity for Good, Not Evil.” (How can ambiguity be used for good? With “meanings that are clearly distinct, equally natural with the same pronunciation, and equally appropriate to the situation.” An example Chris offers of good ambiguity—it’s one of my own favorites, too—is the original Viagra slogan, “Love Life Again.”)
The most enjoyable parts of Microstyle are its many examples of successful and failed micromessages. On the successful end of the spectrum is “Feeding curiosity daily,” the tagline of a little company called Lilipip, which makes children’s educational videos. Chris devotes four paragraphs to explaining why this tagline works so well: for example, using curiosity instead of education made Lilipip’s videos “something people wanted to watch, not something they felt they should watch.”
Chris’s dissections of the bad examples are just as revealing. An electric motorcycle called Enertia? “No one wants a motorcycle that has a tendency to remain at rest.” Dress Barn? “Certainly no dress shopper wants to be described as a cow, horse, goat, or pig.” Teensurance flops as a name not because of meaning but because of awkward syllable emphasis. And then there’s the online music service called Fairtilizer, coined from fertilizer—another word for bullshit, Chris points out—and fair, which can mean “so-so.” That’s using ambiguity for evil.
And speaking of egregious ambiguity, I’m thrilled that Chris singled out a slogan that’s been setting my teeth on edge for almost two years: Droid’s “bare-knuckled bucket of does”:
Lack of clarity is an aesthetic offense as well as a communicative one. It may be true that no one really believes the slogan A BARE-KNUCKLED BUCKET OF DOES refers to female deer, but that interpretation is just hanging around, distractingly, like an annoying coworker. The incorrect reading affects the way the slogan feels.
“Like an annoying coworker”: that’s mighty fine microstylin’!
Microstyle has useful tips not just for namers and copywriters but also for bloggers and other Internet participants. “Keep a notebook where you record interesting slogans, headlines, tweets, sound bites, and other micromessages,” Chris suggests. In the chapter called “Create a Microvoice,” Chris uses his own blog, The Name Inspector, as an example:
I adopt a persona that’s a sort of cartoon version of myself. It highlights certain aspects of my training and experience and a certain side of my sense of humor. I always refer to “The Name Inspector” in the third person, distancing myself from the persona and poking a little fun at the authority he claims.
That’s a wonderful concept; I wish he had followed up with examples and analysis of other blogs that have mastered the consistently engaging microvoice. (Dooce is one of the most successful, by every standard. The Assimilated Negro makes it look enviably easy. The Hairpin pulls it off with multiple authors!) In fact, I’d have preferred a few more micro-case studies and a little less linguistic theory (e.g., “The distinction between transitive and intransitive is largely a matter of meaning, because it has to do with the number of participants and props involved in the situation represented by a verb”). Granted, Chris Johnson is a linguist, and to his credit he made the Deep Linguistic Stuff skippable. Unless you’re academically inclined, I suggest you skip it.
These quibbles aside, I found Microstyle thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening. It has plenty of practical value for me as a name developer, but I also recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who’s interested in what Chris Johnson calls “everyday verbal creativity, the poetics of the vernacular.” Instead of fretting about rules, try gamboling through the wordscape. As Chris puts it:
Paying attention to microstyle can help you establish a more positive relationship with language, one based on the appreciation of what works, not on insecurity about what’s right and wrong.
* Although we’re Internet friends, and although, to my surprise and pleasure, I’m quoted a couple of times in the book—thank you, Chris!—I paid the full cover price for Microstyle.