Readers’ minds

On thing teaching writing does for you is that you see the same issues over and over in students’ work. “Rule of Thumb: Anyone worth mentioning needs a short physical description,” I hear myself saying, “even though the person readers picture in their minds will look nothing like your Aunt Sally.” Or, “It’s strange how rewarded readers are by understanding something because of information you’ve given them previously.” Or you see again in a workshop, along with a rapt circle of students, the weird power of showing versus telling. Of scene and image over exposition and mere rhetoric.

Lois on her interesting blog Narrative Nonfiction had a great post April 4 on “Parsing Writing for Info” in which she points out how much readers love adding two and two for themselves. That is, filling in the image in their minds from details the writer has provided: “Let’s consider how much you can impart to a reader without spelling everything out,” she writes. “The human brain doesn’t need a lot of data to come up with assumptions. For whatever reason, the brain dislikes blanks the way radio dislikes empty air.” She then recounts everything she did in five minutes and uses asides in brackets to indicate what the reader learns about her that isn’t overtly or specifically told. Her inspired post is illustrative and a great teaching tool.

(Incidentally, I named my blog before I knew about Lois’s so didn’t copy hers—actually I stole my title from Narrative Magazine after a friend complained about my first title, Theme, a passe word in many creative writing circles. I got the idea for Theme from teaching, too: students often don’t consciously realize what they are really writing about.)

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