The Human Condition:

Quality in a Writer – November 24, 2013

View of the Alps from a glider's cockpit

Recently a Facebook friend1 posed the question of whether quality still mattered in the publishing market. Considering the number of unremarkable, badly imagined, and badly edited books that have made it into prominence—through both traditional paper publishing and independent epublishing—it’s a good question. My response was and is: “Quality of thought, imagination, and expression is all a writer has to sell.”

The quality of a writer’s thinking is, for me, the most important aspect of what he or she puts on the page. Thinking starts with having access to robust and interesting facts, which shape the essence of the writer’s views and gauge how close he or she comes to describing some kind of truth.

I say “some kind” of truth, because facts and truth both tend to be slippery things. Some facts are concrete and checkable, like who won the World Series in 1938. Get that wrong in an article or story, and it becomes difficult to climb out of the hole your error has dug for you. But many facts represent views of the world and the nature of reality that have not yet been proven or may have no undisputed referent. Every one of us is constantly building mental models of reality covering aspects of life such as human relationships, politics and economics, science and religion, and the various art forms.2 We refer to these models when we make decisions about what might be the right or wrong thing to do, what is fair and just, whom we will trust or distrust, whom we love or hate, and what the future will bring.

When a writer uses a fact with a concrete referent—like the Yankees having won the World Series in ’38—he or she had better check and confirm it before publication, because any reader can easily go to sources and check for himself. But when a fact has unclear status—like how much carbon dioxide actually contributes to global warming3—then the writer must choose carefully and buffer his or her statements with qualifying words that acknowledge uncertainty, like “might,” “could,” “probably,” and “possibly.”4 The structure of a piece of writing changes with the quality of the facts supporting it.

Having robust, influential facts on hand implies that the writer has read widely, considered deeply, weighed one view of reality against possible others, and made honest, logical, defensible choices. The depth of a writer’s information determines the versatility and viability of his or her writing.

But facts are only the starting point of a writer’s thought; more important is how he or she uses them. Every piece of writing must have an argument—in the older sense of the word, as “a coherent series of reasons, statements, or facts intended to support or establish a point of view.”5 The argument depends on linking of those reasons or facts in some logical order. One can argue from the particular to the general, or from the general to the particular, or chronologically, or by order of importance or weight, ascending or descending. The choice of logical structure depends on the nature of the argument being made and how best to overcome the reader’s natural resistance toward, or hesitancy about, the writer’s point of view or the article’s thesis. Without such logical structuring, the writing will be incoherent and the reader will not be persuaded.

These considerations obviously apply to nonfiction, where the whole purpose of the work is to engage the reader in learning something new and interesting, or agreeing with an established viewpoint or proposition, or taking some kind of action. But facts and their logical structure apply equally to fiction. Here the structure is most likely chronological—this happens, then that happens—but the writer must still be aware of how the action comes together. The writer and the characters he or she creates must function in all the tenses: what is happening now, what has happened in the past and is either known or unknown to the character, and what will happen in the future through the character’s hopes, guesses, and expectations. Where cause and effect are not clear, the writer must think through the passage from the reader’s point of view and supply any links or supporting information necessary to making the leap from what the character did or said to what might be the appropriate or expected outcome.

In the best fiction writing—whose practice I strenuously advocate—the writer must not only think like the reader, as he or she follows and absorbs the story, but also think like the character from whose point of view the story is told, as he or she experiences the action, makes decisions about it, and suffers the outcome. In my fiction, I try to stay entirely within one point of view throughout any one scene, even when other characters who have functioned as the viewpoint in other scenes may be present.6 This limits the amount and type of information I can reveal through one character’s eyes, ears, and understanding. I have no “omniscient narrator” standing by to explain the action and fill in the blanks concerning what other characters might know and remember. So, for me, fiction writing is a bit like organized schizophrenia: pushing the story forward while being simultaneously mindful of what the reader can absorb and what the viewpoint character can know and think.

The depth of the writer’s understanding and the subtlety with which he or she handles all these variables contribute to the quality of thought. The writer sits in the middle of the writing process and its choices like an airplane pilot sitting in a cockpit full of levers, switches, dials, and gauges. The skill with which he or she manipulates these tools and devices determines the success or failure of the flight … or the writing.

Quality of imagination is similar to quality of thought in that it reflects the amount of effort the writer has put into obtaining knowledge, reading in an informed manner, and sensing and reflecting on the world around us. Imagination goes beyond the structure of thought and argument to the quality of perception and the structure of dreams.

The writer of nonfiction must live not only in the closed world of his or her reasoned argument but also in the larger universe of opposing viewpoints, negating facts and contrary data, competing choices, and random occurrences. The writer of fiction must live not only within the story he or she wants to tell but also in the larger world where actions and choices by the characters have other possible outcomes, good and bad intentions and consequences, and probable or improbable occurrences. The writer must be aware of and take into consideration these larger worlds, just as every one of us must be aware of and take into consideration the actions of others and the accidents of nature as we go about our daily business. Perception of and allowance for other possibilities give a piece of writing depth and texture.

The fiction writer has special burdens in terms of imagination. With fiction, the writer is creating a “pocket universe”—a complete and functioning world that can fit between the covers of a book, between the two palms of the reader’s hands, and within the finite number of words being used.7 And yet the world of the story must suggest so much more than is simply stated on the page. This invented world may or may not conform in shape, color, and size to the world the reader inhabits outside the book. It may either be exactly the historical world we know or an alien planet inhabited by an alien race with subtle and strange customs, thoughts, and assumptions. In either case, the writer must provide enough detail to make this new world come alive in the reader’s mind but without using so much detail that the story bogs down in mere perception and visual, aural, and tactile experience. Oh, and it’s important that any concept or physical detail which the writer describes too lovingly—like the gun in the main character’s pocket—must at some point in the story be made real and used in the action.

The writer following the story’s thread is like a pilot flying a single route. Yet it’s a poor pilot who never takes his eyes off the instruments and the alignment of navigational beacons to see what might lie to left or right outside the canopy. Mountains and their updrafts, thunderheads and their turbulence all will shape the choice of route. The skill with which the pilot perceives these dangers, and with which the writer creates this just-glimpsed world of possibilities, will determine the success or failure of the flight or the writing.

Quality of expression is similar to quality of imagination in that it draws on the writer’s sense of other possibilities from the one he or she has in mind. A writer must use language flexibly, like a fencing master who knows all the possible attacks he or she might use against an opponent, as well as all the possible parries to use against a specific attack, and chooses from among them the appropriate way to start or end the exchange. Varying attacks and parries will keep the fencing match fresh and surprising and keep the opponent just slightly off balance. Similarly, a reader who can see where each dull sentence is coming from and the point it’s plodding toward making will quickly grow bored. The writer must vary the pace of the article or story, the structure and length of its sentences, the speed with which new ideas arise, so as to keep the reader refreshed, engaged, and just slightly off balance—so that the reader keeps guessing at the writer’s ultimate intent and wants to move forward.

The writer weighs each word and phrase for its ability to convey an exact meaning without bogging the reader down with repeated questions or sending him or her on trips to the dictionary. Quality requires the writer to use verbs that paint pictures of action and nouns that make each object glow with its own nimbus of recognition. Economy requires that the writer pare away excess words until those he or she does use vibrate with strength and tension. But mindfulness of a reader’s groping toward understanding sometimes requires the writer to use structures that slow the pace of revelation, so that key thoughts stand out in high relief.

Like the pilot of an airplane, the writer takes off fast, with flaps fully extended and landing gear retracting as soon as it leaves the pavement. And the point of the article or story comes home with precision, like the tiny but definite jolt of impact as the wheels touch down and spin up to speed. A good start and a good ending are worth half the points of the actual trip in both flying and writing.

But none of these qualities—of thought, imagination, or expression—is subject to anything so obvious as a set of rules.8 The skilled writer, like the skilled pilot, operates as much by instinct and inner sensibility as by experience of what has worked, or didn’t, in the past. That’s why every writer and every piece of writing is different. That’s why writing is an art, not a science, and never subject to formula.

1. Duncan Long, who writes science fiction and is a prolific artist, including book covers. His stuff has quality.

2. Constant readers will note that the latter three are also my favorite blog topics.

3. Everyone would agree CO2 works as a greenhouse gas, passing incoming full-spectrum solar radiation through the atmosphere but blocking a certain fraction of the outgoing infrared which is radiated from Earth’s surface. However, other gases—chiefly water vapor and methane—also work that way and usually with stronger effect. Given everything else that’s going on with the planet—sunspots and the flux in solar radiation, absorption of CO2 by green plants, natural cycles and variations based on ocean currents and the mechanics of Earth’s orbit—the exact contribution of human-made CO2 in relation to global temperatures can only be studied with computer models. Computer models, like the imaginary models we build in our heads, depend on the depth and complexity of the relationships traced and the data that are used as a starting point. Computer models may represent good scientific understanding, but they are by their nature incomplete and arbitrary—otherwise they would have to track every molecule of air and water in real time, which is impossible. A computer model, like my understanding of my relationships with other people, is an educated guess and not a proven or even provable fact.

4. Of course, an intermediate classification of facts exists. It includes approximations, conjectures, and fictitious examples that cannot be checked but “feel right” to the average reader. An example would be the claim “There are eight million stories in the naked city.” Well, maybe 7,990,000 … or perhaps 8,215,000. Populations are fluid and change all the time. The point does not suffer for presenting a rounding error.

5. From my Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary. Curiously, the word “argument” functions similarly in mathematics: “one of the independent variables upon whose value that of a function depends.” Garbage arguments in, garbage value out.

6. By playing off one character’s understanding and perceptions against those of other characters, I can let the reader triangulate on the truth and eventually come to realize what’s actually happening in the story. In my personal view, life is like that: a synthesis of what we know, what we don’t, and what others may know or perceive. It’s a mystery … and a tangle!

7. See A World Between Two Palms from September 8, 2013.

8. See Rules for Writers from October 6, 2013.