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How does modern technical writing stack up against Medieval Spanish?

Gentle reader, please bear with me as we revisit a passage shown you only a month previous. There are many lessons in this brief text and here I wish to consider a second one.

I have heard honest men swear that they have killed and cut open tiburons [sharks] and found so many things in their bellies that they would have considered it impossible if they had not seen it; for example, they say that a tiburon will swallow whole one, two, or more whole sheepskins, complete with head and horns, just as they had been thrown into the sea, to save the bother of dressing them. The tiburon is a long, thick fish, some of them measuring eight spans through the middle and twelve feet long. Many of them have two rows of teeth, one behind the other, which look like a saw or crenellation. Its mouth is proportionate to its body, monstrously huge. Its skin is like that of the dogfish. The male has two reproductive organs, the female only one, but she will bear as many as twenty, thirty, or forty little tiburons at one time. This fish will attack a cow or horse that may be grazing or drinking on the bank of a river, and will eat a man, as one tried to eat the calachuni [chief] of Cozumel but did not entirely succeed, because he was rescued, but not before losing two of his toes. The tiburon is so voracious that it will follow a ship for five hundred or even one thousand leagues, swallowing whatever is thrown overboard; and it is so swift that it swims faster than a ship can sail… Its flesh is not very good to eat, being tough and tasteless, although when it is cut into strips and dried it will add greatly to a ship’s provisions.

(Francisco Lopez de Gómara. 1552. La Crónica de la Nueva España. (I use the 1964 English translation of Lesley Byrd Simpson, Cortés: the life of the conqueror. By his secretary Francisco Lopez de Gómara).

Below I have rewritten this prose into modern technical writing, assuming Gómara is describing the bull shark as described in last month’s blog.

The Bull Shark (Carcharhinus leucas) will eat a large variety of objects as sharks are opportunistic feeders. Pelagic sharks are known to follow ships eating garbage and detritus discharged overboard. Though swimming speeds for Bull Shark are undocumented, other species (Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias)) can swim up to 35 mph (56 kph). Bull sharks grow up to 12 feet long (3.7 m). Sharks have multiple rows of teeth, one row behind the other, and these break off easily and are replaced conveyor belt-like by the row behind. The mouth is large and skin rough like sandpaper. The male has two reproductive organs (claspers). The female may give birth to as many as 50 or more young. The shark is known to attack livestock and man. The palatability of this animal is considered low, usually due to ammonia storage in the tissues degrading the flavour.

What are your impressions of the two passages? Is one more enjoyable to read than the other? More critically, the question is: “Is the passage of an English translation from late Medieval Spanish easier to read than modern technical writing?”

Just for fun I will assume that you agree that Gómara’s writing is better than the example I created for comparison, though I do want to point out my example represents average to better quality modern technical writing (I even included a complex sentence; a true rarity in todays writing). The reasons Gómara’s is more readable, more interesting, and more engaging are manifold with some of the key ones described here.

Use of specifics and imagery: The fish’s teeth look like a saw or crenellation1; its mouth is monstrously huge; the calachuni lost two of his toes. This imagery allows us to share a common picture in our minds eye to that which the writer is forming. These images can emotionally engage us: the poor chief that lost two toes must have had a very close call indeed; we can visualize his retainers frantically pulling him from the water and the shark getting in one final snap and taking the toes. These are powerful and engaging images, and hence effective use of words.

Clever use of language: The original Spanish writer could have said in sentence four: “Its mouth is large”, but instead he created an interesting, though more wordy, sentence “Its mouth is proportionate to its body, monstrously huge.” It is that phrase ‘monstrously huge’ that catches our attention. This is particularly so as later it is reinforced by the idea of this fish eating large animals such as cows and horses.

Sentence type and length: Gómara, in a nine sentence passage, uses five simple sentences, and two each of compound and complex. His sentences range in length from nine to seventy three words with a great variety between the extremes.2 In contrast my passage, ten sentences, is made up of nine simple and one complex. The modern example has sentences of much greater monotony, and they all range between seven and twenty five words. The more wordy prose of the first example creates flow that carries the reader along: repetition of sentence type and length in the second example replaces flow with frequent interruptions. This makes for dreary and dragging reading.

Punctuation: The original text includes two semi colons as well as commas; my re-written passage includes commas only. Further, in the second passage there is an overuse of parentheses (though not excessive as compared with some writing out there). These break up the flow. The repeated use of only one or two forms of punctuation limits our ability to create sentences of greater interest and variety. Imagine being responsible for baking a treat for an important guest, but only being allowed flour, milk, and eggs. Pretty bland and flavorless. Our punctuation allows us to create more attractive and delicious prose.

Use of interesting (Spanish) words: The translator of Gómara’s original work chose to retain the Spanish words tiburon and calachuni, presumably for accuracy and fidelity to the original manuscript. A side effect though is the retention of interesting words that add to the flavour of the writing. Rarely is this done in modern technical writing, instead relying solely on repeating the same mundane word over and over. Language is beautiful and evocative, use of interesting words makes our words interesting.

Improper capitalization: Capital letters are very distracting to the eye – that is kinda their entire purpose. Every time we use them we interfere with smooth flow of reading. Naming each shark species with capitals creates a speed bump in our reading… once or twice may be okay, but imagine three kilometres of speed bumps – would you want to drive over that? So too with our writing; occasional capital is okay, a littering of them is uncomfortable and slowing. Gómara capitalized appropriately… which allows flow an the reader to focus on the meaning of the sentence.

Numbers in line. Like capital letters, numerical digits in line text are distracting to the reader. Look carefully at Gómara’s passage, he includes fifteen different values, ranging from one to one thousand. Did it interfere with the reading or did you just glide effortlessly over these references to numbers? 

I hope, kind consumer of my blogs, that these examples help you to appreciate some of the failings of modern technical writing. Each of these failings though is an opportunity for you to write better, with greater clarity and persuasion. A failing is merely an opportunity to learn and do it better in the future. 

This blog allows only limited space for a topic of infinite depth and breadth. If, however, you would like to write better (even if that means like a sixteenth century Iberian padre) there are uncounted resources available to help you. NRTG offers a series of writing courses which include this information and far more, and I have published a book, available on Amazon, encapsulating the fundamentals of good writing titled “Strategic Creativity: Technical Writing to Engage your Audience”.

Sean Mitchell

 1 Crenallations are the rectangular gaps in the parapet of a battlement or castle wall allowing defenders openings to fire down on attackers. Pretty good visual description of shark toothrow for a medieval and early Renaissance audience

2 Number of words per sentence for Gómara are: 73, 20, 19, 9, 8, 26, 52, 38, 29. For the technical writing example words per sentence are: 17, 13, 23, 11, 25, 9, 7, 13, 9, 19.