So brilliant you’re Blinded by Your Own Light
“Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness but come down into the green valleys of silliness.” Ludwig Wittgenstein.
In other words, stop showing off. Wittgenstein, whose very name and philosophy sends undergraduates into black panics, was surprisingly resistant to showing off – the good doctor was wary of anyone who tried to elevate themselves above others by sounding smart. Instead, he preferred the authenticity of those willing to laugh at themselves.
In researching for a class I teach, I purchased a recommended book related to my field. This new book promised to deliver new, new information and insights and I was eager to learn from it. Not so eager after the first chapter. Downright perplexed after the second chapter. Halfway through the third chapter, I dropped the book into the Goodwill pile.
I can get through a lot, but life is precious and time is often short, and there are mountains not worth the climb.
In this book: the sentences were long and meandering, the paragraphs did stay with their stated themes and the writing was turgid. It was hard going. This is from a reader who managed to read James Joyce’s Ulysses over a weekend (Okay, okay, a COVID weekend).
This book was not written for me, the common reader. This was a PhD dissertation fixed up with a new cover. With this in mind, the author’s goal then was not to help a reader understand a damn thing, it was written to show how much the author knew . . . about everything.
Showing off is not the same as sharing.
How can you prevent showing off? How do you know if you have drifted from delivering clear information and have jumped into the bright lights and happy chaos of a three-ring circus? In this ring, the ostensible subject of the book, but in this second ring, here is everything I know about hydroponics and in this third ring is a treatise on pet care.
A subset of showing off is resistance to edits. An author who is busy showing off will naturally insist that everything she writes is important, every word is critical, and every subject needs airing no matter how tangential or distracting it is to the main plot or theme..
Know something about Renaissance art? Great, in Ring Two you will find five paragraphs on the Medici even though the thesis of the essay is Avant Guard publications of the late 19th century.
Know a bit about the beheading of minor members of the aristocracy during the French Revolution? Yeah, set up the guillotine in the third ring, even though your story begins with a conversation with Picasso.
When we research for our books, we always unearth stunning photos, inspiring ideas, and interesting tidbits and it is natural to want to share, but we need to remember that one of the key arts to writing both fiction and non-fiction is the art is knowing what to choose.
During the second and third edits of an essay or book, consider the research, the examples, and case studies. Do they serve to highlight the center ring of your circus? Or are they merely distractions?
But, you cry, unleashing the lions into Ring Number Three. Aren’t we just dumbing down our work? Shouldn’t we elevate the conversation and inform the reader? Teach the reader?
Of course: set up the Lion tamer in Ring Number One. Explain what you know about Africa in Ring Two and then unleash the Lions into Ring Three. Combined, they demonstrate the behavior of lions. Applause.
If you introduce the lion tamer in the center ring and shoo Penguins into Ring Number Three, then spend ten minutes justifying the choice to the audience, the audience will leave.
As I compared biographies and history books written in the fifties and sixties against those written in the nineties to today, the difference between the decades is, well, worthy of a blog. For once, market forces helped improve writing. A densely written, difficult-to-follow book simply won’t sell. These dissatisfied readers will most certainly post reviews on Amazon highlighting how difficult, and yes, boring this book was with the result that future readers will stay away. And if readers stay away from book number one in droves, no one will purchase book number 2.
What sells the first book is intrigue, novelty, and maybe some fun. That first book sells the second and third. If your reader enjoys your first performance, they will sign up for season tickets.
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