Breaking the Spell

A major nonfiction field consists of books filled with the opinions of experts. This sort of narrative uses a rhythm that I roughly call “theory, proof.” The author advances an idea and then verifies it by referring to another source. Often that is an example that shows a person or company in an illustration of the point being advanced. Other times the proof is supplied by the writing of another expert in the field. The author is not just going out on a limb; there are others who support the theory.

The marshaling of these other voices can provide great pleasure to an author inclined to read widely. The discovery of a case study focused on the trauma caused by a lost limb, say, can fit wonderfully into a chapter on a like subject. Given enough time and diligence, an author can find sources that back up every theory in the book. So many, in fact, that the book can start to feel like a rocky passage between a multitude of expert voices. I have read books where the theory aspect frequently consists of a short paragraph, outdone on the same page by a lengthy quote from an apparently more knowledgeable soul. 

In this case, the collector has been crowded out by their menagerie. An author may protest such an idea. Of course it’s their book; they’re in control of what’s being presented. Yet a reader may not feel the same way. The motive behind reading the book usually is gaining knowledge of a subject. An expert collator of greatest hits might be better termed an editor.

A worse fate yet might befall the too deferential author. One reason authors become known in a field is their ability to write well. That’s what separates an Atul Gawande from all the other doctors. The reader may experience great pleasure while reading a long passage of his and decide they really should read that book, not yours. Your book may be put down while the other is explored—and never be retrieved again. 

Put bluntly, you wrote the book so you could become an expert. That happens when the reader is caught in the sway of your words. You need to balance the amount of text you compose with the quotations produced by your chorus. Otherwise, you may be merely a guide that introduces readers to all of those better writers.

Exercise: The easiest way to reduce the amount of text supplied by others is to paraphrase part or all of a quotation. That method keeps the narrative more in your voice, with your rhythms, making the points you are directing the reader toward. It also shows the reader that the quote is merely a cog in your greater design. 

“There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.”  —Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.