Steven Pinker’s 13 Rules for Good Writing

Photo by Rose Lincoln, via Wikimedia Commons

What is good writing? The question requires context. Each type of writing has its norms. Some guidelines apply across disciplines—consult your Strunk and White or any of the hundreds of handbooks recommending strong verbs and minimal use of passive voice. Still, you wouldn’t necessarily put the question to an experimental poet if your concern is informative writing (though maybe you should). Maybe better to ask a scholar who writes clear prose.

Harvard Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker could serve as such a guide, given the popularity of his books with the reading public (their debatable merits for certain critics aside). Luckily for his readers—and those generally seeking to better their writing—Pinker has offered his services free on Twitter with a 13-point list of rules. Unlikely to cause controversy among English teachers, Pinker’s guidelines enact the succinctness they recommend.

Rants about the unintelligibility of academic writing have become genre all their own, but jargon and specialized terminology have their place in certain niches, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with difficulty. Readers can argue amongst themselves about whether some kinds of writing are needlessly overcomplicated. (Fairly or not, poststructuralist French philosophers take a beating on this score, but spend some time with Kant or Hegel and see how easily you breeze through.)

Yet most of us are not professional philosophers, scientists, or theorists writing only for colleagues or coteries. When we write, we want to communicate clearly: to inform, persuade, and even entertain a general readership. In order to do that, we need to minimize abstractions, appeal to the senses, clear away clutter and make connections for our readers. Revision is key. Reading aloud gives the ear a chance to weed out clumsiness the eye can miss. All of these trusted strategies appear in Pinker’s list.

One point Pinker adds to the usual prescriptions has a suitably psychological bent, and an oddly Biblical-sounding name: the “Curse of Knowledge.” Knowing too much about a subject can make it “hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it.” For those who want to know more about clear, concise writing, or who need the inevitable refresher from which even the knowledgeable benefit, see Pinker’s 13 rules below or on Twitter.

  1. Reverse-engineer what you read. If it feels like good writing, what makes it good? If it’s awful, why? 
  2. Prose is a window onto the world. Let your readers see what you are seeing by using visual, concrete language.
  3. Don’t go meta. Minimize concepts about concepts, like “approach, assumption, concept, condition, context, framework, issue, level, model, perspective, process, range, role, strategy, tendency,” and “variable.”
  4. Let verbs be verbs. “Appear,” not “make an appearance.”
  5. Beware of the Curse of Knowledge: when you know something, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. Minimize acronyms & technical terms. Use “for example” liberally. Show a draft around, & prepare to learn that what’s obvious to you may not be obvious to anyone else.
  6. Omit needless words (Will Strunk was right about this).
  7. Avoid clichés like the plague (thanks, William Safire).
  8. Old information at the beginning of the sentence, new information at the end.
  9. Save the heaviest for last: a complex phrase should go at the end of the sentence.
  10. Prose must cohere: readers must know how each sentence is related to the preceding one. If it’s not obvious, use “that is, for example, in general, on the other hand, nevertheless, as a result, because, nonetheless,” or “despite.”
  11. Revise several times with the single goal of improving the prose.
  12. Read it aloud.
  13. Find the best word, which is not always the fanciest word. Consult a dictionary with usage notes, and a thesaurus.

via Big Think

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When William Faulkner Set the World Record for Writing the Longest Sentence in Literature: Read the 1,288-Word Sentence from Absalom, Absalom!

Image by Carl Van Vechten, via Wikimedia Commons

“How did Faulkner pull it off?” is a question many a fledgling writer has asked themselves while struggling through a period of apprenticeship like that novelist John Barth describes in his 1999 talk "My Faulkner." Barth “reorchestrated” his literary heroes, he says, “in search of my writerly self... downloading my innumerable predecessors as only an insatiable green apprentice can.” Surely a great many writers can relate when Barth says, “it was Faulkner at his most involuted and incantatory who most enchanted me.” For many a writer, the Faulknerian sentence is an irresistible labyrinth. His syntax has a way of weaving itself into the unconscious, emerging as fair to middling imitation.

While studying at Johns Hopkins University, Barth found himself writing about his native Eastern Shore Maryland in a pastiche style of “middle Faulkner and late Joyce.” He may have won some praise from a visiting young William Styron, “but the finished opus didn’t fly—for one thing, because Faulkner intimately knew his Snopses and Compsons and Sartorises, as I did not know my made-up denizens of the Maryland marsh.” The advice to write only what you know may not be worth much as a universal commandment. But studying the way that Faulkner wrote when he turned to the subjects he knew best provides an object lesson on how powerful a literary resource intimacy can be.

Not only does Faulkner’s deep affiliation with his characters’ inner lives elevate his portraits far above the level of local color or regionalist curiosity, but it animates his sentences, makes them constantly move and breathe. No matter how long and twisted they get, they do not wilt, wither, or drag; they run river-like, turning around in asides, outraging themselves and doubling and tripling back. Faulkner’s intimacy is not earnestness, it is the uncanny feeling of a raw encounter with a nerve center lighting up with information, all of it seemingly critically important.

It is the extraordinary sensory quality of his prose that enabled Faulkner to get away with writing the longest sentence in literature, at least according to the 1983 Guinness Book of World Records, a passage from Absalom, Absalom! consisting of 1,288 words and who knows how many different kinds of clauses. There are now longer sentences in English writing. Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club ends with a 33-page long whopper with 13,955 words in it. Entire novels hundreds of pages long have been written in one sentence in other languages. All of Faulkner’s modernist contemporaries, including of course Joyce, Wolff, and Beckett, mastered the use of run-ons, to different effect.

But, for a time, Faulkner took the run-on as far as it could go. He may have had no intention of inspiring postmodern fiction, but one of its best-known novelists, Barth, only found his voice by first writing a “heavily Faulknerian marsh-opera.” Many hundreds of experimental writers have had almost identical experiences trying to exorcise the Oxford, Mississippi modernist’s voice from their prose. Read that onetime longest sentence in literature, all 1,288 words of it, below.

Just exactly like Father if Father had known as much about it the night before I went out there as he did the day after I came back thinking Mad impotent old man who realized at last that there must be some limit even to the capabilities of a demon for doing harm, who must have seen his situation as that of the show girl, the pony, who realizes that the principal tune she prances to comes not from horn and fiddle and drum but from a clock and calendar, must have seen himself as the old wornout cannon which realizes that it can deliver just one more fierce shot and crumble to dust in its own furious blast and recoil, who looked about upon the scene which was still within his scope and compass and saw son gone, vanished, more insuperable to him now than if the son were dead since now (if the son still lived) his name would be different and those to call him by it strangers and whatever dragon’s outcropping of Sutpen blood the son might sow on the body of whatever strange woman would therefore carry on the tradition, accomplish the hereditary evil and harm under another name and upon and among people who will never have heard the right one; daughter doomed to spinsterhood who had chosen spinsterhood already before there was anyone named Charles Bon since the aunt who came to succor her in bereavement and sorrow found neither but instead that calm absolutely impenetrable face between a homespun dress and sunbonnet seen before a closed door and again in a cloudy swirl of chickens while Jones was building the coffin and which she wore during the next year while the aunt lived there and the three women wove their own garments and raised their own food and cut the wood they cooked it with (excusing what help they had from Jones who lived with his granddaughter in the abandoned fishing camp with its collapsing roof and rotting porch against which the rusty scythe which Sutpen was to lend him, make him borrow to cut away the weeds from the door-and at last forced him to use though not to cut weeds, at least not vegetable weeds -would lean for two years) and wore still after the aunt’s indignation had swept her back to town to live on stolen garden truck and out o f anonymous baskets left on her front steps at night, the three of them, the two daughters negro and white and the aunt twelve miles away watching from her distance as the two daughters watched from theirs the old demon, the ancient varicose and despairing Faustus fling his final main now with the Creditor’s hand already on his shoulder, running his little country store now for his bread and meat, haggling tediously over nickels and dimes with rapacious and poverty-stricken whites and negroes, who at one time could have galloped for ten miles in any direction without crossing his own boundary, using out of his meagre stock the cheap ribbons and beads and the stale violently-colored candy with which even an old man can seduce a fifteen-year-old country girl, to ruin the granddaughter o f his partner, this Jones-this gangling malaria-ridden white man whom he had given permission fourteen years ago to squat in the abandoned fishing camp with the year-old grandchild-Jones, partner porter and clerk who at the demon’s command removed with his own hand (and maybe delivered too) from the showcase the candy beads and ribbons, measured the very cloth from which Judith (who had not been bereaved and did not mourn) helped the granddaughter to fashion a dress to walk past the lounging men in, the side-looking and the tongues, until her increasing belly taught her embarrassment-or perhaps fear;-Jones who before ’61 had not even been allowed to approach the front of the house and who during the next four years got no nearer than the kitchen door and that only when he brought the game and fish and vegetables on which the seducer-to-be’s wife and daughter (and Clytie too, the one remaining servant, negro, the one who would forbid him to pass the kitchen door with what he brought) depended on to keep life in them, but who now entered the house itself on the (quite frequent now) afternoons when the demon would suddenly curse the store empty of customers and lock the door and repair to the rear and in the same tone in which he used to address his orderly or even his house servants when he had them (and in which he doubtless ordered Jones to fetch from the showcase the ribbons and beads and candy) direct Jones to fetch the jug, the two of them (and Jones even sitting now who in the old days, the old dead Sunday afternoons of monotonous peace which they spent beneath the scuppernong arbor in the back yard, the demon lying in the hammock while Jones squatted against a post, rising from time to time to pour for the demon from the demijohn and the bucket of spring water which he had fetched from the spring more than a mile away then squatting again, chortling and chuckling and saying `Sho, Mister Tawm’ each time the demon paused)-the two of them drinking turn and turn about from the jug and the demon not lying down now nor even sitting but reaching after the third or second drink that old man’s state of impotent and furious undefeat in which he would rise, swaying and plunging and shouting for his horse and pistols to ride single-handed into Washington and shoot Lincoln (a year or so too late here) and Sherman both, shouting, ‘Kill them! Shoot them down like the dogs they are!’ and Jones: ‘Sho, Kernel; sho now’ and catching him as he fell and commandeering the first passing wagon to take him to the house and carry him up the front steps and through the paintless formal door beneath its fanlight imported pane by pane from Europe which Judith held open for him to enter with no change, no alteration in that calm frozen face which she had worn for four years now, and on up the stairs and into the bedroom and put him to bed like a baby and then lie down himself on the floor beside the bed though not to sleep since before dawn the man on the bed would stir and groan and Jones would say, ‘flyer I am, Kernel. Hit’s all right. They aint whupped us yit, air they?’ this Jones who after the demon rode away with the regiment when the granddaughter was only eight years old would tell people that he ‘was lookin after Major’s place and niggers’ even before they had time to ask him why he was not with the troops and perhaps in time came to believe the lie himself, who was among the first to greet the demon when he returned, to meet him at the gate and say, ‘Well, Kernel, they kilt us but they aint whupped us yit, air they?’ who even worked, labored, sweat at the demon’s behest during that first furious period while the demon believed he could restore by sheer indomitable willing the Sutpen’s Hundred which he remembered and had lost, labored with no hope of pay or reward who must have seen long before the demon did (or would admit it) that the task was hopeless-blind Jones who apparently saw still in that furious lecherous wreck the old fine figure of the man who once galloped on the black thoroughbred about that domain two boundaries of which the eye could not see from any point.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Alice in Wonderland, Hamlet, and A Christmas Carol Written in Shorthand (Circa 1919)

For hundreds of years before the regular use of dictation machines, word processors, and computers, many thousands of court records, correspondence, journalism, and so on circulated in translation. All of these texts were originally in their native language, but they were transcribed in a different writing system, then translated back into the standard orthography, by stenographers using various kinds of shorthand. In English, this meant that a mess of irregular, phonetically nonsensical spellings turned into a streamlined, orderly symbolic system, impenetrable to anyone who hadn't studied it thoroughly.

I do not know the rates of accuracy in shorthand writing or translation. Nor do I know how many original shorthand manuscripts still exist for comparison’s sake. But for centuries, shorthand systems were used to record lectures, letters, and interviews, and to write edicts, essays, articles, etc., in Imperial China, ancient Greece and Rome, and modern Europe, North America, and Japan.

The practice reached a peak in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries, when stenography became a growth industry. Jack El-Hai at Wonders and Marvels explains.

A century ago, hundreds of thousands of people around the world regularly used shorthand. Secretaries, stenographers, court reporters, journalists and others depended on the elaborate shorthand systems that Isaac Pitman and John Robert Gregg developed in the nineteenth century, and countless schools and publishers seized the business opportunity to train them. Talented practitioners could write at speeds up to 280 words per minute.

The texts of systems like Pitman and Gregg’s “grew increasingly complex,” then increasingly simplified during latter half of the 20th century. “In 1903, the publishers of the Gregg method released the first novel entirely rendered in shorthand—an 87-page edition of Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son by George Horace Latimer."

More literature in shorthand followed, marking the Gregg system's most baroque period. Ten years later saw the publication of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, then, in 1918, with Alice in Wonderland, Hamlet, and A Christmas Carol, and stories like Guy de Maupassant’s “The Diamond Necklace,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelström." All of this literary shorthand is written in what is known as “Pre-Anniversary” Gregg, which contained the largest number of symbols and devices. In 1929, a year-late “Anniversary Edition” began a period of simplification that culminated in 1988, a century after the system’s first publication.

The literature published in Gregg shorthand joined in a history of shorthand “used by (or to preserve the work of) everyone from Cicero to Luther to Shakespeare to Pepys,” writes the Public Domain Review. And yet, the “utilitarian function of shorthand sits a little oddly perhaps with literature, given the novel or the poem is a form associated with a different realm: that of leisure.” One should not have to train in a specialized phonemic orthography to read and enjoy Alice in Wonderland, but, on the off chance that you did so train, there is at least much enjoyable and edifying material with which to practice, or show off, your skills.

It would, I maintain, be a fascinating exercise to compare translations of these well-known works from the shorthand with their originals manuscripts written in the phonetic chaos of the English we recognize. Whether or not you have the skill to undertake this experiment, you can see many of these Gregg’s shorthand editions here and at the Internet Archive. Just click on the embeds above to see larger images and view and download a variety of formats.

via The Public Domain Review

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets: A Free Online Atlas That Helps Preserve Writing Systems That May Soon Disappear

The United Nations, as you may or may not know, has designated 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages. By fortunate coincidence, this year also happens to mark the tenth anniversary of the Endangered Alphabets Project. In 2009, its founder writes, "times were dark for indigenous and minority cultures." Television and the internet had driven "a kind of cultural imperialism into every corner of the world. Everyone had a screen or wanted a screen, and the English language and the Latin alphabet (or one of the half-dozen other major writing systems) were on every screen and every keyboard" — putting at a great disadvantage those who could only read and write, say, Mandombe, Wancho, or Hanifi Rohingya.

2019, by contrast, turns out to be "a remarkable time in the history of writing systems" when, "in spite of creeping globalization, political oppression, and economic inequalities, minority cultures are starting to revive interest in their traditional scripts."

A variety of these scripts have found new lives as the material for works of art and design, and they've also received new waves of preservation-minded attention from activist groups and governments alike. But that doesn't guarantee their survival through the 21st century, an unfortunate fact toward which the Endangered Alphabets Project's Atlas of Endangered Alphabets exists to draw attention.

Not all the scripts included in the Atlas are alphabets — "some are abjads, or abugidas, or syllabaries. A couple are even pictographic systems" — but all lack "official status in their country, state, or province" and "are not taught in government-funded schools." All once enjoyed "widespread acceptance and use within their cultural and linguistic community," but none do any longer, and though none are actually extinct, all suffer from endangerment as a consequence of their declining or emerging status (as well as, often, of "being dominated, bullied, ignored, or actively persecuted by another, more powerful culture"). You can explore the endangered languages by scrolling, zooming, and clicking the world map on the atlas' front page.

Or you can browse them all, from Adlam to Zo, on an alphabetically ordered list — ordered, of course, by the Roman alphabet, but full of examples of writing systems that differ in many and often surprising ways from it. Take, for example, the African Ditema tsa Dinoko script, which allows the writer to express with not just shape but color. Developed between 2010 and 2015 to write southern Bantu languages, it takes its forms from southern African murals of the kind painted by Esther Mahlangu, whose BMW art car appears in the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets' gallery. BMW might consider commissioning another one emblazoned with official Ditema tsa Dinoko letters. With promotion that snazzy, what writing system could possibly go extinct?

via Kottke

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling in His New Online Course

How has Neil Gaiman, author of fiction in a variety of forms ranging from novels and short stories to comic books, radio plays, and films, managed to win over such a large and devoted fan base? Ask a member of that fan base, and you'll more than likely hear an explanation along the lines of, "He knows how to tell a story." That may sound like a simple skill, but telling a story at Gaiman's level requires a deep-rooted expertise in the essential nature and still-unexplored possibilities of storytelling itself — an expertise that Gaiman himself has lately proven more than willing to share. A few years ago we featured his lecture "How Stories Last" here on Open Culture; now, he's come out with an online course on the art of storytelling at MasterClass.

"Human beings are storytelling creatures," Gaiman says in the course's trailer above. "Stories are vital. We convey truth with stories. That is the magic of fiction." But even the author of stories like The SandmanNeverwhereStardust, American Gods, Coraline, and much more besides has certain admissions to make about the practice of writing them: "Writing a novel is like driving through the fog with one headlight out," for example.

"You can't see very far ahead of yourself. But every now and again, the mists will clear." And when it comes time to revise, he explains, "the process of doing your second draft is the process of making it look like you knew what you were doing all along." What do you need most to make it through this harrowing process? The "conviction that you are brilliant."

Not that you don't need anything else. The nineteen lessons of Gaiman's MasterClass cover everything from "using the 'lie' of a made-up story to tell a human truth," to "how to overcome the fear of making mistakes," to techniques like "cold opens, withholding information, finding emotional weight, and choosing memorable details," to the art of worldbuilding, which Gaiman describes as "honestly, the joy of getting to play god." Other lessons provide case studies focusing on his short stories, novels, and comic books, all of which have no doubt inspired many to tell stories themselves. But who, hearing Gaiman talk about storytelling, could possibly resist trying their hand at it?

You can take his course for $90. Or if you if pay $180, you can access his course, plus every other course in the MasterClass catalogue, for a year.

FYI: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Daily Routine: The Discipline That Fueled Her Imagination

ursula k le guin writing advice

Image by Gorthian, via Wikimedia Commons

"Some of us are Norman Mailer," said Ursula K. LeGuin in a 1976 interview with science-fiction fanzine Luna Monthly, "but others of us are middle-aged Portland housewives." And though Le Guin may have thought of herself as one of the latter, "middle-aged Portland housewife" is hardly the way the rest of us would describe her. Over a nearly 60-year-long career, Le Guin produced an enormous body of literary work, including but not limited to the six books in which she created the world of Earthsea and other acclaimed sci-fi novels like The Left Hand of DarknessThe Dispossessed, and The Lathe of Heaven. And somehow she managed to write all of it between 7:15 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. each day.

Or that's what her ideal writing schedule dictates, anyway. Recently tweeted out by writer Michael J. Seidlinger as "the ideal writing routine," it first appeared in an interview she gave in 1988 (and more recently reappeared in Ursula Le Guin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations).

Beginning at the early hour of 5:30 in the morning, the time to "wake up and lie there and think," it continues on to breakfast — and "lots" of it — at 6:15, and the commencement of the day's "writing, writing, writing" an hour later, which lasts until lunch at noon. After that, Le Guin considered what we consider her main work to be done, moving on to such pursuits as reading, music, correspondence, "maybe house cleaning," and dinner. Past 8:15, she said, "I tend to be very stupid," a state in which nobody could write the sort of books we remember her for.

But however originally she wrote, Le Guin was hardly exceptional in living this way while doing it. "Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work," said Gustave Flaubert, a maxim true for enough writers that we also worked it in when we featured an infographic on the daily routines of famous creative people. In both Flaubert and Le Guin's case (or in the case of a writer like Haruki Murakami, who rises famously early and runs famously hard when working on a book), their domestic lives, well-ordered to the point that an outside observer would find them boring, facilitated the creation of literature like none that had ever come before. This despite the fact that, on the surface, few novels could seem more dissimilar than Flaubert and Le Guin's, but each writer would have seen what the other had in common: specifically, that they knew what it took to get the imagination well and truly fired up.

via Michael J. Seidlinger

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Ancient Egyptian Homework Assignment from 1800 Years Ago: Some Things Are Truly Timeless

Every generation of schoolchildren no doubt first assumes homework to be a historically distinct form of punishment, developed expressly to be inflicted on them. But the parents of today's miserable homework-doers also, of course, had to do homework themselves, as did their parents' parents. It turns out that you can go back surprisingly far in history and still find examples of the menace of homework, as far back as ancient Egypt, a civilization from which one example of an out-of-classroom assignment will go on display at the British Library's exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, which opens this spring.

"Beginning with the origins of writing in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and the Americas, the exhibition will explore the many manifestations, purposes and forms of writing, demonstrating how writing has continually enabled human progress and questioning the role it plays in an increasingly digital world," says the British Library's press release.

"From an ancient wax tablet containing a schoolchild’s homework as they struggle to learn their Greek letters to a Chinese typewriter from the 1970s, Writing: Making Your Mark will showcase over 30 different writing systems to reveal that every mark made – whether on paper or on a screen – is the continuation of a 5,000 year story and is a step towards determining how writing will be used in the future."

That wax tablet, preserved since the second century A.D., bears Greek words that Livescience's Mindy Weisberger describes as "familiar to any kid whose parents worry about them falling in with a bad crowd": "You should accept advice from a wise man only" and "You cannot trust all your friends." First acquired by the British Library in 1892 but not publicly displayed since the 1970s, the tablet's surface preserves "a two-part lesson in Greek that provides a snapshot of daily life for a pupil attending primary school in Egypt about 1,800 years ago." Its lines, "copied by this long-ago student were not just for practicing penmanship; they were also intended to impart moral lessons."

But why Greek? "In the 2nd century A.D., when this lesson was written," writes's Jason Daley, "Egypt had been under Roman rule for almost 200 years following 300 years of Greek and Macedonian rule under the Ptolemy dynasty. Greeks in Egypt held a special status below Roman citizens but higher than those of Egyptian descent. Any educated person in the Roman world, however, would be expected to know Latin, Greek and — depending on where they lived — local or regional languages." It was a bit like the situation today with the English language, which has become a requirement for educated people in a variety of cultures — and a subject especially loathed by many a homework-burdened student the world over.

via Livescience

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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