Zen And The Art Of [DATA EXPUNGED] (Archived)


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Hello, folks. Eskobar here. I'd like to talk to you today about redactions, expungements, and blackboxes. Let's first settle a couple of very quick questions that may be occurring to you.


Q: Eskobar, you're not senior staff! What are you doing writing a Guide?
A: Yes, I am. I was promoted since I wrote this. I'm now a moderator and a remarkably well-respected writer and member of the community.

Q: This community clearly has low standards.
A: I think so, definitely. But that's not a question.

Q: Oh, sorry. Please, continue.
A: This is obviously advice, nothing more, nothing less. I've made some observations regarding expungements and redactions over the last few months, and I'd like to share them. In those places where I don't expressly say "this is my opinion and I can be completely wrong but what I think is blah," consider that said now. Remember this, and know that any author worth their salt will agree with this in almost all instances:

There is no bad idea that cannot be saved through very, VERY good execution.

That said, rules are rules because 99.9% of people can't pull certain things off, and you should know what they are. So read with that frame of mind in place.

Q: But Eskobar, you abjectly suck at using expungements! I have seen it with my own eyes!
A: Yes, and that's part of why I'm writing this guide. Because I am someone who's written a not-inconsiderable body of work, the end result of which having very few expungements. Those expungements I have used have largely been blackboxes to take out a few numbers here and there. What other expungements I've added at various points in time, I've removed due to people informing me, in no uncertain terms, that they were stupid and didn't belong there. In short, I have misused expungements enough to know why people do it. And I have appreciated enough well-written ones (by others) to recognize good ones when I see them. So it's sort of like being good at doing something, only with the humility of knowing that I'm really, really not. Call it applied objectivity.

Q: So this guide will make me good at expunging things? Good, because I have this really neat idea for the next SCP-231 that—
A: Whoa, pause the movie a minute. If I knew what made you good at expunging things, I would be better at doing it. As is, this guide is intended to give you a rough-and-ready set of examples of good expungement, to maybe give you an idea of when you shouldn't do it.

Q: But really, what's the big deal?
A: Short of a complete inability to write fluent English, the gross misuse of expungements is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for many people's enjoyment of an SCP. It can be even worse for some people; a well-conceived and otherwise well-written article can be edited to have good grammar and syntax or better clinical tone, but the only cure for an expungement is for the author to go in and spackle in some actual writing. As we will discuss in a minute, it is fairly easy to see through a badly-written expungement and know exactly why the author did it. It's jarring, it destroys immersion, and it can ruin one's opinion of even otherwise decent SCPs.

Q: Wait, what's the difference between [REDACTED] and [DATA EXPUNGED]? And what are these black boxes, anyway?
A: I'll let you read the guides to see how to make the black boxes (hint: most people just copy and paste from somewhere that has them, like, say, ████). As for [REDACTED] vs. [DATA EXPUNGED], there are many schools of thought. EchoFourDelta's rule is "Redacted means that the information has simply been withheld from that iteration; expunging something is completely deleting it, the data no longer exists." Anqxyr says to "use redacted when it's redacted for in-character reason, and expunged when it's not." For purposes of this Guide, however, Adam Smascher said it best:

No organization dedicated to obsessive record-keeping of objects, entities, and locales seething with fhtagn is going to confuse people by using the same word for information that is totally obliterated from record and what's simply withheld. It needlessly confuses people. My $.02 cents on that debate.

In short, if your writing is good enough, people generally won't care about conflating the two terms. Blackboxes, meanwhile, are generally only used for short sections of text; redacting dates (see more on that later), names of researchers, towns, etc. As verb, "expunge" and "redact" can typically be used interchangeably when discussing the matter.

So with that said, let's get into Zen and the Art of [DATA EXPUNGED].

Chapter One: Rancid Reasons to Redact

There are many, many, many reasons to redact data. Some of them are good, some of them aren't so much. Let's run through everything I can think of at present (and I'll update as new ones come to mind/are suggested):

1. You can't think of anything to put here. God, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, don't. Just don't bother considering something finished or publishable until you've worked out what all of the words of it are. If you're writing something in a sandbox and haven't figured out how to finish it or a detail to be included, and you're showing it to people, just go ahead and say something like [[GONNA PUT SOMETHING HERE LATER, GUYS]] or something that makes it clear that you have no intent of leaving it as is. But that's sandbox etiquette, and mostly up to you and whoever is reading it for you. Since we all know not to publish unfinished work, that's not an excuse.

2. You're publishing unfinished work. Oh, for Christ's sake.

Other people have written that you should not do this. Many people have written that you must not, on pain of suffering or ridicule, do this. I am above such pettiness as big, glowing red letters, so I will say this in a whisper.

Do. Not. Publish. Unfinished. Work. On. The. Wiki.

If you're doing this, you have ignored all of the newbie guides and other writing guides, and need to stop reading this and go read those instead. Big red letters, right side of the page under "New Members and Info." No, seriously, go read it NOW. Come back and start from here with the understanding that this should not be something that needs to be said.

3. Other people do it. We'll discuss this motive in other forms later, but in this sense of the idea, no. This falls under the category of "writing based on a gimmick." This would have worked once upon a time when the Foundation was young, and maybe did; we'll talk about those articles later as well. SCPs do not need expungement as a genre of writing. They do, however, need sparsity, or at least to have the quality that every sentence, every word, needs to be there for a purpose (like poetry). Again, my opinion. [DATA EXPUNGED] are two words that definitely need a purpose to be there.

Chapter Two: Mediocre Motives to Minimize


4. Covering up extraneous details. This is where things get tricky. There are details that the reader may or may not need to know to enhance their enjoyment of the article, things like exact directions for reaching a particular location relevant to an SCP's backstory. For example, take this sentence from SCP-382:

D-382-gtf87i was chosen for his age (only ██ years) and because he had been a physical trainer prior to [DATA EXPUNGED], and kept in shape throughout his incarceration at [REDACTED].

This sentence is meant to tell you things about D-382-gtf87i that you do need to know, while subtracting a series of things (age, location prior to recruitment, crime) that don't really matter for the purposes of the article. There are three redactions in just this sentence, which is more than many people use in whole articles, but they're redacting things that wouldn't contribute to your enjoyment of the article. I like it.

Now, contrast it with this sentence from [a previous and now deleted version of] SCP-392:

SCP-392 was discovered when [DATA REDACTED] leading to the discovery of a seemingly abandoned physics research facility.

Here's the thing. It's most likely that the author (who's not a regular writer here and thus couldn't be reached for comment) has a headcanonical backstory for exactly what led from "SCP-392 was discovered when" to "the discovery of a seemingly abandoned physics research facility." The sentence needs to be here, given that the story of how the SCP was discovered is, y'know, important for the Foundation to have on record. Nevertheless, again, the details are something you don't necessarily need to know, justifying the redaction. How you get from Site 19 to this lab doesn't really affect the lab's importance.

HOWEVER, in order for an extraneous-detail redaction to function optimally, it's imperative that you don't draw more attention to the extraneous details in their absence than you would have with their presence. This redaction is so jarring that it draws more attention to the [DATA REDACTED] than if he had said

SCP-392 was discovered when Evander Holyfield got drunk on turnip liquor and drove his 1988 Chrysler LeBaron into the door of a warehouse in a secluded New Mexico town, leading to the discovery of a seemingly abandoned physics research facility.

Expungements that are so vague that they could be reasonably replaced with Evander Holyfield, a turnip, or a 1988 LeBaron don't work—expungements should let your mind roam reasonably free, to a set of predetermined possibilities that keep the tone of the article intact. I call this the HTL rule. The specific point here, however, remains: if you redact extraneous detail, don't accidentally make it more important than it was before you redacted it.

5. A better article did it. Now, this is similar to #3, but distinct in a couple of ways. First, redacting to imitate one better article at least shows that you read that article and recognize what it did correctly. Second, as a general newbie error, there are worse things you can do than try to write something similar to something that inspired you to join the site in the first place. Moreover, in terms of "newbie error," I'd say it's understandable to read a few articles in particular and get the idea that certain ways of doing things are standard or set-in-stone rules.

Okay, personal confession time. The reason I chose the username I did on the wiki (rather than my usual EskimoFreeState that I have on SA and other places) is because after reading all of the character-heavy tales with Clef, Kondraki, Strelnikov, and the others, I thought it was literally required that each author have a personal avatar that they use in-canon. For those of you who aren't aware of the irony, this is literally the opposite of the truth; I found out later, after writing my super awesome amazing first tale (an entry for Game Day, since burned to the ground and deleted) about a researcher named Eskobar who bribes Foundation security into letting him take a bunch of SCPs and turn himself into a quasi-superhuman terrorist killer.

Just so you know, personal improvement in writing skill is possible. I am living proof.

Anyway, as for the general point: the reason why imitating particular aspects of a better article frequently doesn't work is because that article does something very unique with those aspects, something that comes off as cheap when you copy it for yourself. The most obvious example is SCP-231, which has more expungements and blackboxes than almost any other article.

The key is twofold: first, the author has specific details in mind that are being expunged, rather than simply "plot plot plot [IMAGINAAAAAAATIOOOOOOON] plot plot plot". It's important that at least you know the details that you aren't telling the reader; it often comes off as obvious when you just use expungement to cover up the fact that you don't know what you want to say. Second, the expungements are placed in such a way that you can fill in a great amount of detail, but not an unlimited amount of detail. Regardless of the expungements, there is no way that everybody reading this article will not draw a few specific conclusions: first, SCP-231 does something very, very bad, and potentially life-on-Earth ending; second, SCP-231 has broken containment when protocols were not followed to the letter; third, the containment protocols are very, very disturbing. All jokes about 110-Montauk being an amateur shadowcast of the Rocky Horror Show aside, your first thought is going to be violent gang rape, and any thoughts you have other than that require a deliberate effort to fill in something other than violent gang rape. You have the freedom to reach whatever conclusion you want, but the expungements encourage you to reach one conclusion. That's good fucking writing.

6. Covering up something obscene or squicky. Some people would place this in the nearly-always-unacceptable category. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt here. However, it's almost always going to annoy people to no end when you write "Subject then threatened to [REDACTED] Agent Thomas in the [EXPUNGED] with his thirteen-inch █████." First of all, an official report would either report what the subject said or couch it in more detached language, i.e. "Subject then made several (inappropriate/violent/sexual/intimate) threats towards Agent Thomas, which were ignored." Second of all, the Foundation uses metric. Don't ever say thirteen-inch █████.

Squick falls into the same category. Either write it out or don't write it. Redacting squick just makes it look like you don't know what to say, so you want the audience to do the work for you. We don't like that. You can get away with it in a good article if you do it rarely enough and if you make the action obvious, as with SCP-426:

The younger Mr. ████████ died of severe blood loss after attempting [REDACTED] with me.

Dude fucked a toaster. I wouldn't have used that expungement, but you know that this guy died because he fucked a toaster. It's barely expunged at all.

Chapter Three: Excellent Explanations for Expungement

7. Artistic use of absence over presence. Look, I suck at expungements, so I don't know how to do this very well. But the best, possibly the only, possible good use of expungement is when you know the audience will do your work as a writer better than you can. This is not the same as #6 because of a very delicate balance that I don't fully comprehend in my own application, but you can see it in the works of others. Again, go read SCP-231 if you haven't, or reread it for a reminder. Alternately, this paragraph from SCP-1000:

Addendum 1000-466-X: Update to Special Containment Procedures: As of ██/██/████, SCP-1000's Special Containment Procedures no longer include Procedure 516-Lumina. [DATA EXPUNGED] indicates that SCP-1000 may be developing a resistance to the sonic element [DATA EXPUNGED] will not develop further, so that Procedure 516-Lumina can still be used in emergency situations. Investigation into alternate means of reliably keeping SCP-1000 away from human population centers is underway. Whether SCP-1000 resistance to Procedure 516-Lumina was calculated (and as such may be a sign of SCP-1000 [REDACTED]) or coincidental (by chance of natural species variation) is not known at this time.

There are three expungements here. The first covers up a method of detecting and tracking SCP-1000, the second serves to give the impression (again, through absence) that the Foundation is losing ground against SCP-1000, the third one implies intelligence among the SCP-1000 community. These expungements directly impact the way you read the paragraph; they introduce a very measured level of confusion into the document that is designed to throw the reader off base, make the reader uncomfortable. This principle is the core of what expungement looks like when done correctly.

8. Realism. This is a key factor to keep in mind. The reason there is any expungement in the first place is because real government documents expunge things, and their reason for doing so is to keep unauthorized readers from learning details they aren't authorized to know. Specific dates, names, and locations can be expunged (usually blackboxed, since that both shows what you're removing and makes it clear that you're not removing more) pretty much at will. This is typically considered the only appropriate use of expungements in the Special Containment Procedures section.

Chapter Four: Soft and Slow Rules for Expungement

As opposed to hard-and-fast rules. These are general guidelines that many successful articles deviate from, but that many more unsuccessful articles break to their detriment. Again, they can be broken, but you'd better be a damn good author if you expect to survive it.

1. Don't expunge anything in the Special Containment Procedures. It doesn't make sense that you would be a person with access to this document but without access to the means by which the object in the document would be contained. Specifically, in a real Foundation, if you suddenly had this document thrown into your hands and had to read it, there could literally be nothing else but the SCP section and you could be okay, because you'd know how to react in an emergency with this object or entity. Redacting them is doubleplus ungood.

2. Don't expunge all of something. The sentence "Addendum XXXX-01: [DATA REDACTED]" makes me pee blood a little. There is no point to that and it contributes nothing to your article. EXCEPTION: SCP-087 redacts the final exploration log, but that comes after a series of increasingly pants-pissingly scary explorations of the same SCP. This is a very large expungement (an entire log), but it again allows you to fill in your own details about what the hell happened during that last mission, based on the extensive amount of writing done about the other missions. It works. Also, having been done once, doing it again is not unlikely to draw some negative comparisons. Tread with caution, or not at all.

3. Regarding redactions with numbers: Quoting user "murphy_slaw" in chat: "█5% is effectively no information, and 9█% is as good as just saying it." This is something I'm guilty of from time to time. It makes sense in theory, since numbers trigger the sense of "quantitative information" and thus "maybe the public shouldn't know this." Nevertheless, you're simultaneously either hiding everything or hiding nothing with this. Furthermore, regarding redactions with significant figures, you should read Drewbear's Guide to Technical Writing to see how numbers and science go together. Censoring years is tricky; ██66 is likewise meaningless, 198█ says comparatively little, and 11██ is only useful when you want to imply a time period that happened fairly long ago, which would be better accomplished with "sometime in the twelfth century." "██/██/88" is a bit better, as it falls more in line with "redacting extraneous detail" than making a big deal of covering information up. Either way, this falls into the "judgment call" area more than anything.

I have never written a paragraph with more quotation marks than that.

4. Expungements should allow the reader to fill in a variable, yet limited, amount of information. This is the Holyfield-LeBaron-Turnip rule from earlier. Again, SCP-231 is the golden example of an article with lots of expungements, which should make it very easy for lots of different people to have lots of different ideas about what happens during containment. And while people do have lots of those ideas, and talk about those ideas very often, the article always leaves you with exactly one impression. And that's fucking beautiful.

Chapter Five: Assigned Reading

These are SCPs or Tales that do interesting things with redaction. Not all of them good.

1. Acquisition Log SCP-███-█ As the title would imply, heavy, heavy use of redaction, but in a good way. This in particular is the use of redaction for artistic absence more than anything. Look at how the document uses principally blackboxes, and metric fucking tons of them; when you see this, your mind immediately gets a sense of "I am reading something very disturbing" before you actually read a word of it. Most of the blackboxes are covering up names of people and towns, dates, and Site locations, which is completely in keeping with what the Foundation or any other organization would do. The writing style shifts between log and prose forms, throwing the reader off and adding more discomfort. The fact that the document is successfully scary as hell allows for the breaking of Rule Two from the last section: an entire section, called "Agent Hachigan's ████████", is expunged, along with a key event in the first log that presumably is responsible for most of the rest of the situation in the log. This reinforces a key caveat to the entire guide: if you do it well enough, you can handle expungements however the hell you like. Or, as the warrior-poet Lil' Wayne once put it, "Be good, or be good at it." See SCP-354 for the same thing.

2. SCP-579 is rated in the low teens at the time of this writing after, I believe, well over a hundred votes1. It is also the SCP most likely to cause violent transvulval silical bruxation2, judging from the comments section here and multiple discussions in several other forums, including Something Awful. People alternately adore or despise this one, specifically because it expunges goddamn near everything. There is no description section. The entire article describes various ways that the Foundation has tried and failed to contain whatever the hell SCP-579 is. I will guarantee you that the author has no idea what's behind most of those expungements. Most of them are expunging whole sections of something. I love it, but a lot of people don't. Love it or hate it, but don't copy this one.

3. SCP-087 for the reasons mentioned previously. Also, because you're not a real member of the site until you've read it.

4. SCP-565 contains an example of the Yoricspungment, in which one cuts off words in mid-sentence while expunging materials. This is, again, a stylistic choice, affecting the flow of the narrative and thus the experience the reader has; however, given that PoorYoric is sort of renowned for it, you might just leave the technique to him. As with SCP-579, it's one of those things that can make or break an article for some readers.

5. SCP-093 is rated over 2500 and has no redactions in the main article, and very few in the supplementary materials. Moreover, all of the redactions fall into the categories of reasons 7 and 8, Artistic Absence and Realism. I'm not saying the use of redactions is the reason why 093 has been so successful, but I think it points to the fact that doing redactions perfectly certainly helps your case.

6. SCP-835 is almost a love letter to the redaction. Technically, if you read it all the way through, there are no expungements (since everything is revealed by the end of the supplemental documents), but that provides insight into just how many fucked up details might not be making it to the finished product of the other articles.

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