Ventilated Prose

In the 1930s Buckminster Fuller (he of the domes, but also of many other things) was doing research for the Phelps Dodge Corporation. His boss could not read Fuller’s reports, but found them perfectly intelligible when read aloud by the author. Fuller thought he remedied the problem by breaking up the text in the same way he read it aloud. Though this made the written text readable, it was not acceptable: it looked like … eh, well, poetry, and the Phelps Dodge Corporation was not into poetry. As a compromise, Fuller called his text format “ventilated prose”. In this article I show examples of Fuller’s writing and report how I use it to get over “writer’s block” in my own practice.

For Fuller’s own account, see below.

Fuller called the presentation method “Ventilated Prose”. After this episode Fuller published at least two volumes in ventilated prose format: “No More Secondhand God”, and “Untitled Epic Poem On the History of Industrialization”.

Recently Ventilated Prose has not only been rediscovered but also made the subject of a paper claiming it as a sensational technological advance, buttressed by numerous patents (not all pending), and adorned with the acronym VSTF.

For Fuller and the VSTF people, the importance of ventilating is to make the prose more easily readable. In the case of Fuller the readability problem arose from the unusual nature of his writing. The VSTF people address the problem of the many people who failed to learn to read in school.

The reason I am writing this is that I find Ventilated Prose a valuable aid to composition of text intended for presentation in conventional, unventilated format. In this essay I first present an example of Ventilated Prose as an aid to reading and then describe my use of it in composition.

As conventionally composed text I have selected the first paragraph of Alexander Hamilton’s introduction to the Federalist Papers:

AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.

To me this is excellent, and beautiful, writing, though contemporary teachers of writing might not assign it a passing grade. My method of ventilating changes it to:

AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency
of the subsisting federal government,
you are called upon to deliberate
on a new Constitution for the United States of America.
The subject speaks its own importance;
comprehending in its consequences nothing less
than the existence of the UNION,
the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed,
the fate of an empire
in many respects the most interesting in the world.

It has been frequently remarked
that it seems to have been reserved
to the people of this country,
by their conduct and example,
to decide the important question,
whether societies of men are really capable or not
of establishing good government from reflection and choice,
or whether they are forever destined
to depend for their political constitutions
on accident and force.
If there be any truth in the remark,
the crisis at which we are arrived
may with propriety be regarded as the era
in which that decision is to be made;
and a wrong election of the part we shall act may,
in this view, deserve to be considered
as the general misfortune of mankind.

I am not the kind of handicapped reader who has trouble with the long, stately sentences that are the hallmark of a good writer of the 18th century. Yet I agree with contemporary fashion that a bit of help is needed to bring out the rhythm of the prose. Ventilation can serve as this help.

I can see it as an interesting technical challenge to automate the ventilation process. Yet I am skeptical of the value of VSTF: I feel that all advantage there is to be gained of the process is demonstrated in the above passage, and it is easy to do by hand, as I now proceed to describe.

I have no hard-and-fast rules for breaking up lines. As soon as I have a phrase that is grammatically self-contained and is neither much too long nor too short, I break. I care more about the integrity of the earlier line than about that of the following one. In this way I can do it quickly, not having to worry about the future.

The reason I am writing this is to report my own invention: Ventilated Prose as an aid to composition. I have been doing this effortlessly ever since I first thought of it a few years ago. Take for example, the first paragraph of my “Elements of Programming”:

Programming is part of information technology, which, in turn, is part of the larger phenomenon of automation. We speak of “automation” whenever a machine is used to replace the work of a human. Scholars will find undoubtedly examples of automation in antiquity, in the middle ages, in the renaissance … Let’s skip all that and use as natural starting point the time when automation first became a problem: the early 19th century, when Ned Ludd and his gangs of cottagers rampaged through the land to smash the spinning and weaving machines that had deprived them of their living.

Granted, it’s not a work of art. But noticed the simple, short sentences? That the whole paragraph has a pleasant kind of rhythm? Believe me, I don’t naturally write like this. What I did write was a mess, which was then subjected to a single pass of ventilation:

Programming is part of information technology,
which, in turn,
is part of the larger phenomenon of automation.
We speak of “automation”
whenever a machine is used
to replace the work of a human.
Scholars will find undoubtedly examples of automation
in antiquity, in the middle ages, in the renaissance …
Let’s skip all that
and use as natural starting point the time
when automation first became a problem:
the early 19th century,
when Ned Ludd and his gangs of cottagers
rampaged through the land
to smash the spinning and weaving machines
that had deprived them of their living.

In the first draft I concentrate on what I want to say. As a result I type any which way. Sometimes lines spill over and are broken by the text processor. Sometimes I hit the enter key after a sentence (not always), sometimes in mid-sentence.

The experts on writing are unanimous about the importance of revising, revising again, and yet more revising. But what are you supposed to do? Eyeball the text till you are blue in the face? Sure that helps, especially if you can afford to leave it till the next day, or week, or month.

But with my new method I have something to do right after that messy first draft: I edit the mess into ventilated format. It’s fast (especially if you use the “vi” text processor), yet it forces me to go over every word. It immediately shows up sentences that got too long or have an awkward structure. I rarely have to puzzle about how to rewrite.

Fuller’s “mental mouthfulls” seem to lead automatically to simple, clear sentences.

(from the preface of No More Second-Hand God” by Buckminster Fuller, Southern Illinois University Press, 1963.)

… I have found myself from time to time spontaneously and almost unrestrainedly pre-occupied in writing out my thoughts, which as I reconsidered them and redefined them eventuated in the present volume, which I call “mental mouthfouls and ventilated prose” which may be poetry also. The form of their expression developed fortuitously at an earlier occasion when, in 1936, I was preparing a technical paper on forward research strategies for a major industrial corporation.

Though the preparation for that mid-nineteen-thirties presentation had been developed under the close observation of the corporation’s Director of Research, my final written presentation of it was declared by the Director to be incomprehensible. Disgruntled, I re-read it carefully and returned to the Director saying, “Please listen to this,” and proceeded to read in spontaneously metered “doses” from my manuscript. As I read I also watched for expressions of comprehension on the Director’s face. The Director pondered each verbal dose, and when his face signalled “that is clear” I would intuitively measure out the next portion. Finally, the Director said, “Why don’t you write it that way?” I said, “I am reading directly and without skipping from my original text”; so the Director said, “It just doesn’t read that way.” The explanation was that the intuitive doses did not correspond to conventional syntax.

When the re-written report was submitted, the Director said, “This is lucid, but it is poetry, and I cannot possibly hand it to the President of the Corporation for submission to the Board of Directors.” I insisted that it was obviously not poetry, since both he and I knew how I had chopped up a conventional prose report. The Director said, “I am having two poets for dinner tonight and I will take this to them and see what they say.” He returned the next day and said, “It’s too bad — it’s poetry.”

6 Responses to “Ventilated Prose”

  1. Rowley Says:

    And yet, there is no Wikipedia entry on Ventilated Prose.

    Excellent article.

  2. Jason Says:

    Wow. Cool. I’m writing text for comics and I see how helpful this may be. Though, since I spend a lot of time writing one-liners to accompany pictures, I’m already halfway there. Thanks for the post.

  3. JM Says:

    “It’s too bad — it’s poetry” has to be one of the world’s greatest put-downs. “Well it’s very nice you see, but, as it turns out, it’s poetry.”

    And I *swear* I didn’t intend that to rhyme just now.

  4. Maarten van Emden Says:

    Kragen Javier Sitaker wanted to post this comment. I have done it here at his request.

    In 2008, I suggested using indented ventilated prose as a standard reform of English (along with other proposals which have even less chance of being adopted, one based on comics), pointing to the “VSTF” folks. I actually quoted Fuller from one of your web pages to illustrate that post! Dave Long wrote a brilliant reply, touching on the history of 20th-century orthographic reforms in the Netherlands and Switzerland, and the origins of word spacing (a topic previously discussed on kragen-tol and replied to with ASCII-art illuminations and comparison with Japanese) Long also pointed out that if you’re writing text for HTML, Wikis, troff, or format=flowed email, you can fearlessly ventilate as you please to aid your composition process, without alarming the reader with unconventional formatting.

  5. me Says:

    there is one section that you ventilated incorrectly.

    the fate of an empire in many respects
    the most interesting in the world.

    should be

    the fate of an empire
    in many respects the most interesting in the world.

    If it is broken up the first way I have to back up and re-parse.

  6. Yigal rachman Says:

    Fabulous idea!
    My wife teaches English
    and I am sending her this article
    right away

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