Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Invented Ideologies And Lexica

My blog series on the most common problems I found in the self-published, non-fiction books I recently judged for The Next Generation Indie Book Awards continues. In part one, I discussed books written by authors who are not qualified experts in their chosen subjects. In part two, I wrote about authors who come across as dabblers or flakes in their author bio. Part three was about memoirs masquerading as reference books. In today’s post, the last in the series, I’ll address the type of book that introduces an author-invented ideology and a new lexicon to go with it.

An ideology is a body of belief that guides an individual, group or social movement. For example, Freemasonry, veganism and all the religions of the world are based in ideologies. Many more ideologies are introduced in self-help books; Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus is one example. An ideology often has its own lexicon, or vocabulary. For instance, Scientologists are on a quest to become “clear” and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) practitioners use “tapping” to eliminate negative feelings.

Obviously, all ideologies were ‘invented’ by some person or group and if you’ve hit on a new body of belief about something, you may have to develop new terminology to explain it. However, your new concepts and ideas can only resonate with the reader if the reader understands them. Successful education in any new subject always begins with a foundation of basic ideas and concepts, ideally using examples drawn from the learner’s everyday life or experience. If you intend to teach the reader an entirely new way of thinking or being, it’s critical that you make it as easy as possible for the reader to learn and comprehend.

Several of the books I read were filled with needlessly complicated explanations of relatively simple concepts. I’m not sure if the authors were trying to impress readers with their huge vocabularies (or huge Thesauruses), or were genuinely incapable of communicating their ideas more simply. In either case the resulting books were a chore to read, difficult to understand, and not at all likely to inspire me to adopt the author’s professed ideology—assuming I could ever figure it out. The following two sentences should illustrate my point:

Track your resting cardiac and pulmonary throughput, as elevated rates of cardiovascular and respiratory activity in a resting state are often indicative of incumbent physical, mental or emotional demands on a systemic level.

Pay attention to your heart rate and breathing when you’re not being physically active, as an elevated pulse or labored breathing at such times may be a sign of physical, mental or emotional stress.

Believe it or not, both sentences communicate the same thing. Which one would you rather read? Now imagine 2-300 pages of the first type of sentence; would you want to read that book?

The poor choices with existing language were challenging enough in these books, but a couple of the authors went a step further by introducing positively baroque terminology of their own—with the words and phrases frequently bearing trademarks. I realize there are instances where an invented word or phrase is needed to make a strong impact, or to describe something that’s never been described before. I also know that inventing and trademarking a name for some concept is a way of laying claim to the discovery of that concept.

Nevertheless, the reader of a mass-market self-help book isn’t expecting to learn a whole new language, and probably has no desire to do so. She bought Freedom to Imagine* in the hope of learning how to spark her creativity, not to be told that her Creative Collective of Pattern Recognition (CCPR)™ is an Imaginational Oppositional Hindrance (IOH)™ to her ability to Futuretask™ and achieve a Creatively Cooperative Psycho-State (CCPS)™. None of those terms are real (as far as I know), but I saw equally annoying jargon in some of the books I read. There are several problems here.

First and most important is the fact that the author didn’t have to invent any new terms. All that the above sentence says is that old habits and patterns can prevent people from being open to new ways of thinking and doing. Rather than communicate this idea in plain English, the author forces his readers to decipher and memorize new terms and acronyms.

Secondly, if new acronyms are introduced every few pages, it’s only a matter of time before the reader begins confusing them or forgetting what they stand for. The author’s use of new terms and acronyms hasn’t made his ideology easier to understand, and in fact he’s made confusion and wrong conclusions much more likely.

Third is the risk that the author’s made-up lexicon will just seem silly to the reader. Seriously, didn’t you have to stifle a giggle while reading the jargon-heavy sentence?

Finally, all that invented terminology makes the book hard and unpleasant to read. Persistent use of unfamiliar terms and acronyms breaks up the flow of sentences and paragraphs, often forcing the reader to re-read entire sections of the book.

Sometimes it truly is necessary to develop new terms and teach them to readers, but only when the thing you’re trying to explain cannot possibly be explained any more clearly with words already in use. In the books I’m talking about, it seemed to me that the authors’ motives had nothing to do with clear explanation. Rather, it seemed they were trying to lay claim to concepts by naming them (and sometimes, trademarking the names).

What the authors fail to recognize is that there will never be a need to defend their claim to this or that term if nobody wants to read their books in the first place. Moreover, the authors can only defend their claim to the invented (and/or trademarked) name, not the concept described by the name. And how likely is it that some other author will make the fortune that was rightfully the first author's by throwing around terms like Imaginational Oppositional Hindrance (IOH)? Not very.

*not a real book

1 comment:

Doug Toft said...

May all the major and minor gods shower blessings on your head. Every word in this 4-part series needs to be said over and over again—especially as self-publishing expands. Above all, I treasure your perspective that we "hire" authors to educate us. As such, we have every right to look for experience and education.