Too Much Me

Many writers of nonfiction have scant training in the craft beyond work-related missives. That doesn’t mean that their writing is terrible, because plenty of the  manuscripts feature perfectly serviceable prose. How fancy do you need to get when you’re pitching, for instance, a new weight-loss program?

Their lack of journalistic training may be revealed in another key area, though. Reporters know not to insert themselves too much in their articles. The primary reason is the reader’s concern that a slant is being cast on what should be an impartial narrative. Even in our era of gross calumny in politics, we want to believe that the coverage is based on facts. When the word “I” appears too often, readers reasonably can doubt whether personal opinions are outweighing the facts.

A related reason comes from the grammar-class maxim not to use “I” in exposition. The fact that you are speaking directly to the reader calls attention to itself. That can detract from the information you are trying to relay. A more neutral form of expression keeps the reader trained on the facts.

What I find the largest problem, however, concerns the subject matter being covered. When the author was personally involved in the book’s subject—to use an extended example, let’s say a murder case—the tendency is to write down all of the memories related to it. That includes not only interactions with police officers, witnesses, and relatives of victims, but a great many peripheral incidents as well.

These are not limited to such items as an intense argument the author had with the main detective. The narrative can stray into unfounded suppositions by ambulance chasers who want to be involved in a notorious case. The author can record chilling dreams people had. The worst, from my standpoint, are the psychics. As a case grows cold, inevitably some flashily dressed seer steps forward with their outlandish predictions. Call it woo-woo worship.

Because the author is immersed in their recollections, they don’t realize the damage that such unfounded material has on their narrative. The truth factor is obvious. But I also resent that in having to read this stuff, the author is wasting my time. That underlying anger is then carried forward as the reader goes on, even if most of the subsequent material is factual. “Just the facts, ma’am,” should be graven in stone for such authors.

Exercise: Check your manuscript for personal anecdotes. Many times they are on point, and the reader appreciates the personal example. Yet if the story has little bearing on the matter at hand, or the book in general, you have to be strict with yourself. Cut it out, no matter how much it makes you chuckle.

“I have wandered all my life, and I have also traveled; the difference between the two being this, that we wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.”
—Hilaire Belloc

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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