How reading about paleolimnology can improve your writing

I’ve been enjoying BLDGblog for a while, and if you’ve got a few minutes to spare, while eating your sandwich or sipping your coffee, I’d urge you to have a quick read.

Its author, Geoff Manaugh, is a contributing editor to Wired Magazine, and I like the blog because of its sharp take on architecture, design and the urban landscape. It’s also a good example of using clear, friendly language to make specialist (OK, geeky) subjects accessible to the general reader. The writing’s not always top notch, but it is always interesting.

Try this chunk for size, from a post on what he terms “paleolimnology”, or the study of puddles in Manhattan (note: I’ve left the Americanisms):

“What monstrous puddles have existed in your neighborhood, and how have the urban circumstances of their existence changed over time? Did curb-cuts or new drains eliminate these hydro-geographies—or even make them worse? And whose lives have been affected by these unmapped bodies of water, whether through hydroplaning, sidewalk splashes, or even an expensive pair of ruined shoes?

“Whole personal histories of human contact with puddles, and the effects such exposure might have, could be produced or recorded. This is extraordinary: we live beside temporary lakes and inland seas in cities all over the planet, yet these landmarks never make it onto our maps.”

Yes, he uses technical or academic words, which some might call jargon. But whereas business jargon often masks a lack of precision, obfuscates or passes off vague thoughts as clever ones, I think he uses these words to make his meaning more precise, or to make his reader stop and think. Most importantly, Manaugh approaches his subject with imagination and humour. His use of “paleolimnology”, an unusual word denoting the study of how inland waters change over time, shows all these things. It helps the reader think about puddles in the city in a new way.

You may not care for his specialism, but I’d recommend finding a regular source of good writing outside yours. It can help you to see things from a different perspective, and inspire you to write better.