Poor Design Stymies Communication

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

Students in Creative Writing must become intimately familiar with the workshop process in writing and revising their work. We put something together under a rather intensely short deadline, get it to the teacher who photocopies it for the class, and then our peers read, dissect, and tear apart our work so they can tell us what’s wrong and help us improve.

In my experience, this has been a fairly benign process because most people are afraid to be too critical or in-depth with their comments. If you know me at all, you know that I’m a pretty blunt, straight-forward person, so though I tempered my tone and always made sure to comment on a positive aspect of the piece in question, I didn’t see anything to be gained by coddling someone. If they aren’t told what needs to be fixed, they’ll never improve.

I write this by way of introduction because there was one remark I seemed forced to make on probably half of the poems I have workshopped over the years. Poetry is a particularly ambiguous medium, one where the writer must learn all of the rules and how to conform oneself to them so that the writer can in turn break all of those rules. Strangely enough, if you start off breaking them, your poetry will suck. But if you learn what you’re doing first, you can deviate wisely and write something beautiful. Many of my peers never bothered to read much poetry or learn, though.

The primary goal of poetry, like any writing, art, or design, is to communicate something. An idea, a phrase, something and/or anything… a poem does not exist in a vaccuum. But if it isn’t structured, worded, designed, and written correctly, it will communicate nothing. And what’s worse, if the author doesn’t fully understand what they are trying to communicate, then the piece is worthless. What’s the point of creating a communicative piece when you don’t know what you are trying to communicate?

Just the same, even if you know what you are trying to communicate, if it is not designed correctly your message will be lessened. You might have the greatest idea in the world, but without the proper medium, formatting, and structure, it will either be ignored or lessened. Your impact will be less because the design did not fit the piece.

This is something with which I have been struggling in regards to the design of my web site. There are a great many things I want to do with SilverPen Publishing, but the stock theme I have been using is rather inflexible and it is difficult to cram my ideas into its borders. Looking at the year ahead, I have a number of goals I want to accomplish and several involve publishing different pieces through my website, but its current design would hamper that. I knew that if I went ahead and threw my content into and behind this design, there was a decent chance that the message would be lost.

And yet, I cannot design something wonderful myself. I have enough artistic intelligence to recognize the inherent weakness of my site, but not the skill or vision to create something evocative, communicative, and fitting for the accomplishment of my goals.

Settling is rarely, if ever, an option to me. With poetry, I can do a decent job communicating my heart and message, but I am not the greatest poet and so sometimes (read often) am completely incapable of conveying my meaning. I am perhaps better at communicating through verbal communication, where I can blend diction, volume, speed and pausing, and word choice to design a complex message to reach people’s hearts. Likewise, I am decent at non-poetical writing, and between these three, I know enough to know how to learn and improve if I am not currently able to communicate the message I desire. I can get where I need to go to reach my goals.

But with a website, I cannot. My next article in this series will focus on the recognition that we can’t all do everything, and what we should do when we realize we are incapable of designing what is needed.

If you’ve got nothing to say…

Oftentimes, when teaching aspiring poets, you will see a particular mistake repeated frequently. This mistake is one of apology or introduction, where the poet feels that their idea, their goal, or the emotion they wish to communicate is not powerful enough on its own, and so they seek to introduce the premise to garner buy-in from the reader.

To use the example of a sonnet (traditionally fourteen lines with the last two lines containing a twist), a new poet will have twelve lines of fluff and a solid idea at the end. The only advice one can give on such a piece is to cut the body of the poem, keep the idea (or perhaps the entire lines) expressed at the end, and start over. What you have is solid, cut everything that isn’t, and build anew.

Yesterday, our pastor gave a sermon about waiting on the Lord, which is all fine and well, except that he didn’t begin the sermon until 11:55 a.m., about five minutes before the official end of the service. I’m not sure how long he talked prior to that, but his sermon (as so often happens with him) touched on at least three unrelated topics and therefore could have been three different sermons. One of his statements I found wildly inaccurate (and perhaps inappropriate), and when he did get to the meat of his premise, he lacked the time necessary to really dig in and develop that idea.

I really want to talk to him about it, give him some advice, even offer to work with him on public speaking, preparation, etc. But though I think I could help him, I feel horribly conceited and arrogant even considering such a proposition, and I therefore lack the courage to actually talk to him about his sermons. Other people from our congregation have independently (I neither prompted the subject nor offered any criticism of my own) brought up complaints about his sermons to me, and while I can see where he can improve, I can’t bring myself to confront him.

At the same time, his sermons make me really not want to go to church. Or, at the least, not to stay through his part of the service. I’m really enjoying worship now, far more than I was when I first started going to First & Calvary (which I attribute both to some changes among the worship team and my own willingness to worship God no matter the setting or format), but it’s hard to motivate myself to even go to church when I know that 20-30 minutes of the service is somewhat wasted listening to a sermon I get very little out of.

We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we can offer unsolicited advice but are uncertain whether such an offering is wise or not. What was your situation, and how did you address it?