Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Curse of Knowledge - Writers Mantra #7

This is my writers' mantra #7. If you are curious about 1 thru 6, I link them below. Oh, and here's a trailer for Finding Time here.

Writers' Mantra #7: A conjunction weakens an utterance.

In the universe of hard-hitting dialog, you will seldom find a laundry list.

I have a friend who doesn't quite trust his readers to get what he's saying. He quite reasonably thinks he can get his point across by coming at the same point from multiple directions. He's a college professor, and this is a good thing for teachers to do in class. That's why he acquired this habit. Some students learn at different rates and their learning styles differ. Writing is not lecturing. The technique that works in the classroom does not work in prose.

Moreover, there are more handicaps that bedevil the college professor who writes. I have another writer-friend who also possesses a PhD. He teaches at a different college, writes in a different genre. My two friends do not know each other. Nevertheless, they have similar writing affectations that I struggle to avoid.

It's part of the curse of knowledge. When you know more, you know the exceptions. This is because truth is complicated. When you know more, you know the little corollaries that tag along with any proposition.

And another thing: academics have to defend their academic writing. They build walls of disclaimers and qualifiers around their assertions

Writing is not lecturing.

Say anything you have to say directly and simply.

No! Say anything you have to say directly and simply.

If you think of many words that contribute to what you or your character is trying to get across, rank them in descending order of importance. If one word stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, use it and lose the rest. If you have two equally important words, pick one.

The many words interfere with one another. The second word diminishes the impact of the first, or vice versa. That last sentence would be stronger without "or vice versa" because I was worried about the case when the first word diminishes the impact of the second. Screw it. This isn't a law with loopholes that must be closed, but prose that must work.

I'm advocating a sort of brutality of composition. Get the job done with maximal effectiveness using the fewest moving parts. This is good design.
Curious about prior writing mantras? Start here. And scope out my book trailer, too.

You can jump to the next two writers mantras here.


  1. The perfect example of this is J.R.R. Tolkien. His writing is scholarly, even when he's doing fiction. Don't misunderstand me--I'm a professor as well, so I love his writing, but in terms of publishing, he got lucky.

  2. And please don't get the idea I'm in any way advocating anti-intellectualism. Just that academic writing doesn't work as well in non-academic settings.

    1. The trick is finding the balance. I like intelligently written stories, but a lot of popular fiction is careful not to challenge the reading skills of a fourth grader. Ultimately, though, I write in my own voice, and if that means that I'll be a niche author, so be it.


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