3

I'm a journalist, and my writing work often involves writing reviews. Similar work in the field often focuses down on the mechanical, objective qualities of the thing being reviewed and that's been my approach for many years.

Now, however, I'm starting to try something different. I want to take a more subtle approach which implies things for the audience, rather than spelling it out to them.

I've started to do this by writing narratives about my personal experiences with products, rather than the more traditional objective, third person assessment. So, for example, in a recent piece I wrote:

Soon, I'm surrounded by small stacks of cards. Shortly after that, two hours have shot by into hyperspace and I'm sated with my own cleverness and creativity. I haven't looked at the internet once.

Wheres once upon a time I might have written:

Making a deck with a limited selection of cards has unexpected charm. Everyone just copies ideas from the internet nowadays. But without everything I needed, I had to plan my own instead, and it proved surprisingly satisfying.

The trouble is that I don't really trust what I'm writing to get the point across. When I'm editing my work, I find it difficult to resist the urge to take my narrative and hit my audience over the head with the point I'm trying to make.

This isn't a matter of not trusting the audience, it's a matter of not trusting myself to write prose that achieves the intended effect. What can I do to learn better, or to evaluate my attempts at subtlety so I can be more certain they'll get the point across?

  • 9
    "I want to take a more subtle approach which infers things for the audience" I think you mean implies things to the audience. But I suppose that's a minor subtlety in the context of the whole question. BTW, your second quote is much clearer. You might think twice about your plans to change your writing style. – Todd Wilcox Feb 2 '18 at 17:39
  • 1
    As Mark said the value of indirection is in getting the reader to make their own conclusions. In fact, it requires that. Making conclusions is unreliable and adds cognitive load. Use it when it adds value that the reader makes the conclusion himself and can follow the events even if that fails. It is a value add, not something to use for narrative (usually). If you are a journalist you are likely good at giving clear and readable narrative. That is your strength, use it. Add the indirection on top of it, do not use indirection instead of your strong point. – Ville Niemi Feb 2 '18 at 17:41
  • 5
    FWIW, at least reading your first quote out of context, I'm utterly confused about the point you're trying to make. Maybe it is clearer in context, but it seems to me that the only real takeaways from the first quote is that you have stacks of cards, and have spent two hours without "looking at the Internet" (whatever that means, but then I'm a technical person; "the Internet" is like "the roads", not "that purple delivery truck speeding past the civilian police car" -- Facebook, say, or Stack Exchange, or the New York Times, that you seem to be going for). What's the point you're making? – a CVn Feb 2 '18 at 18:19
13

Well, to start with, what you are describing is not subtlety. Subtlety is paying attention to the small but significant details of something -- making a subtle point or a subtle distinction.

What you are talking about is indirection: suggesting one thing by saying another. It is closely related to the old saw "show don't tell". What show don't tell means is that instead of telling us, for example, "Tom was nervous", you tell us something about Tom which may lead us to conclude Tom was nervous such as "Tom chewed his fingernails and shuffled his feet." This is still telling, of course. But you are telling us one thing in order to get us to conclude another thing.

The advantage of this indirection is that people are more apt to accept conclusions they arrive at themselves than propositions you make outright. This can be particularly true where there is an element of opinion or judgement involved. If you can get someone to a make a judgement by telling them concrete non-controversial things, they are more likely to accept what you say and then to arrive at the same conclusion for themselves.

But there is a downside to this. While the reader may be more accepting of the conclusion if they arrive at it themselves, you can't guarantee that that they will actually reach the same conclusion as you. You may believe that if told A and B, the reader must necessarily conclude C, but some portion of your audience is going to conclude D, and one or two wingnuts are going to go on social media and castigate you for saying E.

The trade off for the power of leading the reader to draw their own conclusions is that some will draw a different conclusion. There is nothing you can do about that. It's the risk you take when you practice indirection.

Some authors will hedge their bets by tacking on the desired conclusion: "Tom chewed his fingernails and shuffled his feet nervously." But here you have given up much of the power of indirection. By taking the reader directly to the desired conclusion you have prevented them from discovering it for themselves and therefore weakened their attachment to it.

Not, of course, that there is anything wrong with stating a conclusion and the evidence to support it. This helps bolster your argument when you argue directly. But if you want to write with indirection and lead the reader to an unstated conclusion, you give up the certainty of their reaching the conclusion you intend.

Incidentally, this is perhaps the reason the adverbs get such a bad rap in fiction writing. The are often used to force the implication of "showing" into the open, a kind of showing with a chaser of telling. And yes, that is precisely a case of not trusting the audience and/or of not trusting yourself to tell the things that will lead the reader where you want them to go.

Learning to lead people more reliably is not really a matter of writing technique but of understanding how people think and form conclusions. If I tell people A and B, will the majority conclude C? While this question is at the heart of rhetoric, nothing in writing technique is going to tell you. That comes from experience and possibly from the study of other disciplines.

The one thing we could perhaps suggest as a writing technique is that indirection works by a kind of ven diagram. If A and B don't get everyone to C, maybe you can fix some of that by adding another statement D. The overlap of A, B, and D is smaller than the overlap of A and B leaving less room for the reader to reach different conclusions. But this technique has its limits. The reader can only hold so many ideas in their head at once and, because they are seeking a conclusion, they are likely to make up their minds after A and B, or possibly after D, and either dismiss or falsely integrate statements E F and G into the conclusion they have already reached. Choosing the best possible A and B, therefore, is usually better than parading out A B D E F and G (though again, this can have its place.)

0

I feel that what you're talking about is shifting from straight nonfiction to narrative nonfiction. It's a hot sub-genre right now, and a lot of journalism is heading that direction. However, I think you've misdiagnosed what you need to make that transition. Instead of adding subtlety, what you really need for narrative nonfiction is to add a storyline. Essentially, you'll be writing a short story, but a fact-based one, that carries an extra burden of carrying useful information.

I think your second quote, the one you would have originally written, is still okay. You just want to surround it with some context.

I've been an internet addict for several years now. Somewhere along the way I lost touch with my own creativity. I needed something to get me out of my rut... Making a deck with a limited selection of cards had unexpected charm. Everyone just copies ideas from the internet nowadays. But without everything I needed, I had to plan my own instead, and it proved surprisingly satisfying... And that's how a deck of cards saved my relationship with my family.

Obviously the elided parts are the important parts, but the idea is that you give your reader a little personal storyline to help them understand this product --and not necessarily that you replace the hard facts of your story with tone poems.

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.