Erica Cresswell's Reviews > Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little

Microstyle by Christopher  Johnson
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's review
Jun 25, 2012

really liked it

This review refers to the 2011 copy of “Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little” by Christopher Johnson, PhD. It was printed by W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

Here's an excerpt from the book jacket: “Once the province of professional wordsmiths, the art of the short message now is not only available to everyone but also increasingly important to our personal and professional lives.” I picked up the book because I wanted to learn how to tweet better.

I found the book incredibly interesting. It was a bit more technical than I thought it would be, though I should have expected it to be since it was written by a linguist expert. Johnson is a a verbal branding consultant. He works at a top naming firm that developed the names Pentium, PowerBook, BlackBerry among others.

The book starts out by explaining what “Big Style” is. Essentially our culture “conflates grammar and style with correctness because, until recently, most people wrote only when they were being formally evaluated: in school, in cover letters for job applications, and perhaps at work.” (p. 13) We really only think of language when we are worrying about getting it wrong. According to Johnson, style guides are essentially negative because they play on our insecurities. Language then is a source of potential humiliation rather than a source of pleasure.

Microstyle is quite different from “Big Style” in that it is really about “language at play” -- even when it's employed at work. We use it all the time – whether it's for the purpose of coming up with a business name, or a baby name, or just anything that has a “nice ring to it.”

Johnson maintains that Graphic design and copywriting are perhaps the most highly advanced form of microstyle. They “grew up together in the print ad, as developed by the creative team – an artist and a wordsmith working together to come up with a creative ad concept.”

The “story” of microstyle really got started with the development of mass media in the 19th century. As an example Johnson tells us that author Oscar Wilde was a prominent figure in microstyle. The author was known as much for his witty epigrams as for his more “standard literary output.” For another literary example of microstyle at work look no further than William Carlos William's sparse poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

One might assume that the short messages are a result of an ADD culture but the author writes that microstyle is rather about simple economics. He calls it “metaphorical economics” (He makes reference to the book “The Attention Economy. Soundbite Culture: The death of discourse in a Wired World.”)

Because the web removes “economic, editorial, and temporal barrier[s] to mass publication and is creating a landscape of verbal messages that's competitive in the extreme.” We read differently on the web than we do when we sit down with a book in hand. Johnson explains that on the web we “scan, skim, and click around” in an effort to make sure we aren't wasting our attention on things that don't deserve it. Microstyle is about grabbing the reader's attention.

Micromessages often feature the formal traits of poetry: rhyme, alliteration, assonance, structural parallelism. Micromessages also employ metonymy which evokes “complex situations via simple details” such as meaning, sounds, structure and social context.

Microstyle's medium is “informal language, and its success is determined by passing attention and memory in an environment where countless micromessages compete.” So what makes a micromessage successful? Often it is the very same thing that makes a comment stand out in a conversation: unusual perspicacity or wit (p.209)

Johnson explains that a microstyle message isn't a “treasure chest full of meaning” but rather that it is a message that “starts a mental journey and meaning is the destination.” It isn't a story but it hints at a story.

Microstyle employs metaphor. Metaphor brings big concepts down to a manageable scale. It makes the abstract real and the complex simple. Metaphor “enables us to use ideas that are easy to think about as a way to understand more difficult ideas.” Metaphor is a staple of microstyle because it packs a lot of idea into a little message. Metaphor usually involves a kind of “implicit comparison”. Sometimes micromessages make their comparisons more explicit.

Johnson discusses good metaphors as opposed to “bad” metaphors. He writes that a bad metaphor is one that either leads to undesirable inferences or fails to illuminate the target. A good metaphor leads people to make the inferences you want them to make. Often we're told not to mix metaphors but Johnson maintains that metaphors are in fact mixed all the time to great affect (p.100).

A great example of microstyle is a quote by Ernest Hemingway: “Baby Shoes. For Sale. Never Worn.” This short little phrase raises so many questions for the reader. Why were the shoes never worn? Is the seller desperate for money and so on. Hemingway's “baby shoes” story inspired what are now called 6 word memoirs. The book “Microstyle” is replete with great examples of thoughtful 6 word memoirs.

The book focuses a lot on branding as well. Whether you want to create your own personal brand or you're just interested in finding out why some slogans and brand names “stick” and others don't this book is an excellent resource. There is even a section on coining new words -- whether you're doing it just for fun, or because you're trying to find a name for your business or URL this book will teach you how to coin words that stick.

The book is filled with humour as well. It's not all serious linguistics. For example, here's a quote about the “most ridiculous euphemism” Johnson has encountered as of late that being the term “pre-reclined” used by Spirit Airlines. He writes that the term is used “to describe the non-adjustable seats in its new Airbus A320s. Just imagine a flight attendant dealing with a confused customer asking how to make his seat go down: 'Sir, our seats are pre-reclined, which means you're already comfortable!'” Ridiculous, right? There are plenty of examples of brand failures in the book and success stories too --from little brands to big brands like Saatchi & Saatchi to Apple computers.

One section I found interesting was when Johnson explains why Internet flamewars almost always degenerate into nitpicking about spelling and punctuation. I'm sure you're familiar with the term “flame war” but if not it is essentially an argument on the internet that usually begins with a negative or controversial comment and spurns many negative follow up comments.

Johnson explains that the flamewar “online obsession” with grammar and style might be a sign of “the deep anxiety about communication that the web creates.” When “conversing” with people on the web we often know little about them beyond what they convey through their text so therefore the text is an easy target, an easy means to knock down someone's argument. For example, “how do you know anything about microstyle anyway? You misspelled the author's name!” It's an interesting absurd and childish phenomenon but maybe Johnson is correct that there's more to it – that we really do have deep anxiety about communication on the web.

I totally recommend this book for everyone interested in language, personal branding, corporate branding, semiotics or just looking to make their tweets more attention-grabbing. It's also a fun read. Check out the website at Microstyle.Org and Christopher Johnson's blog

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