This week at the critique group I attend an interesting topic came up. It appeared as the group was critiquing the submission of one of our members. He (in the interests of back story) is a newer member of our group, both in terms of attendance and writing experience. He is a novice and has no pretensions of being anything more. As such, we are all more than willing to help.
The particular issue in this writing sample was a marked tendency he has to qualify his statements in his writing. To his credit, he’s writing a genealogy, so there is a great deal of murkiness surrounding the historical data he’s working with. Yet, as the author of this genealogy—or any work—(we told him), he needs to cut back on the qualifiers accompanying his statements.
There are a few reasons. First, it detracts from the power of the prose. “The car drove down the road.” Is a much more powerful statement than, “A car, or maybe it was a truck, but the evidence points to it being a car, drove down the road.” It dilutes the message of the statement: that a vehicle drove down the road. In the English language simple is powerful.
Second, it makes the prose overly complicated. Take the second example from the previous paragraph: “A car, or maybe it was a truck, but the evidence points to it being a car, drove down the road.” Now imagine reading a paragraph composed of four or five sentences like that. It will have two immediate effects, none of them good. It will bring the pace of the narrative (even in nonfiction there is a story being told) to a full stop. It risks confusing the reader.
Perhaps most important of all, it damages the author’s authority. If our authority as authors is lost, we have lost our readers. It’s over. Might as well hang up our word processor and play solitaire.
Why is this so important? Because the reader of our works needs to believe the author of the book (or article, story, or poem) is more knowledgeable about the subject than they are.
Think about it. How often do you go to the bookstore or library for a book about something you already know? How many times have you bought a book by someone who has no qualifications to write it? Probably not often. I know I seek out books that either increase my knowledge, provide new experiences, or both. I’m looking for experts. I’m looking for authorities on the subject matter, whatever it is.
I think it’s pretty much universal. (It’s one of the reasons new and self-published authors have so much trouble selling their books, no matter how good they might be; they have not established themselves as experts).
All writers need to be authorities on whatever they’re writing about. They need to be experts and their writing needs to reflect this. They need to write with authority. They need to write like they know what they’re talking about.
This is true for fiction writers as much as nonfiction. I have personally had to fight this (which I take as a manifestation as self-doubt) myself, most often in description. Often in first drafts I will find myself using two or three similes to describe something, like I wasn’t sure the first one was effective and added a second for insurance. It isn’t that I doubt the readers’ ability to understand my simile; I doubt my ability to effectively communicate with the simile, so I play the odds and add another, or maybe two.
This only makes the writing weaker. As an author, I have to be the ultimate authority. If I choose to use a simile, I need to use the best one I can devise to communicate the idea and then go with it. The reader—whatever image the simile conjures in their imaginations—will assume that is the image the writer wanted.
Because there is a little secret you need to know. Most devout readers would really like to be authors themselves, but either don’t have the talent, or haven’t put in the work needed to become one. So they already admire you. Write like you deserve that admiration.
You have something to say. You’ve worked hard on the skills you need to give your ideas form and structure. Now take what you have to say and say it like you mean it.