Dost Protest Too Much

A nonfiction writer who sets out to alert the world of a new advance needs to keep one maxim in mind. A book is an argument you’re making. The cause célèbre does matter, and the ignorance of the powers that be does need to be considered. Yet all of the good intentions in the world won’t matter if the author fails to obey this dictum.

If you went to a party, how would you persuade others that your cause is right? You would line up the conditions around the problem. To give an example, let’s pick one that caused so much consternation, and hilarity, last year: a cure for a virus. You might list scientific knowledge, such as how the spokes of a virus penetrate cellular walls. You see your audience nodding their heads. Yet the moment you raise your voice, to declaim the FDA are jerks for not recognizing your cure, you suddenly find people needing to refresh their drink or heed the call of nature.

In a book, you type out the arguments, and you have the space to lay out all of the possible reasons you’re right. Yet the moment you insert an exclamation point—what idiots!—the reader cringes. A book is different in that a reader will give you some leeway. After all, they probably picked up the book because they were hoping you’d make a good case, and they have invested all that time reading up to the exclamation. In the age-old calculus a reader has—should I stay or should I go?—they start to lean the wrong way. More exclamation points put down more strikes against, and if you then include a pages-long passage about how corrupt the FDA is, they put down the book. Another maniac, they decide, with a screed. I can get that on the subway.

You should follow the wisdom of a salesperson. The more outrageous the claim, the more you undersell. You can turn that provocative exclamation into a rhetorical question: Isn’t it funny how the FDA works? I mean, we all know that every government institution is on the verge of incompetence at all times. So go easy. Use the sly jab of the elbow and a wink. The reader may still decide against you in the end, but at least they won’t slam down the book.

Exercise: Review your manuscript, and categorize all of your statements by how factual they are. Any argument will contain claims, and those are the ones you need to focus on. Are you allowing your outrage to show? That’s where to clamp down. Keep the tone easy, realize you have to get over—and let the reader decide.

“I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”  —Stephen Hawking

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.