Saturday, November 5, 2011

Show, Don't Tell - Even in Academic Writing!

Every creative writer has heard the mantra: "show, don't tell."  And in that venue, we can glean some meaning from the phrase.  (This ignores that no one has ever called a writer a "great story shower," but I will leave coining words for another day.)  A reader should see a story unfolding, if only to compete with the latest television offerings, however generally meager.  Even so, the phrase fails to access fully what great writing does.  A great story shows vivid images, colors, and movements, but keeps going.  Engaging a reader's inner eye matters, but the ear, the nose, the tongue, and the skin matter as well.  Great writing engages all five senses.  Eliciting emotion, empathy, and the like stems from that full engagement.  Consider J.K. Rowling.  I arrived late to reading and admiring Harry Potter, but when I finally picked up the series, I found books with light, sound, smell, touch, and taste, creating an entire world for me as reader.  Given that world, Rowling freed my mind to feel metaphorically, to enter emotionally into the characters' "lives" and engage on that emotional level.

So what does this have to do with academic writing, the realm of rigorous intellect and antiseptic logic?  Simply put, writing is writing.  The ivory tower of academia, a construct whose foundations have been, in various ways, crumbling for decades, does not create an inherently different kind of writing.  Readers' minds do not operate differently simply because their location changes.  We may condition ourselves to read differently, to expect different elements to what we read in different venues.  The more we engage the senses, though, the more fully we can engage a broader readership.

As anyone steeped in poststructural theory knows (to the extent a poststructuralist can admit to the capability of "knowing" anything), different experiences and perspectives create different reading experiences.  Writing creates problems, then, because each reader experiences the words they read differently.  This gap, as Derrida might have said, always already exists.  Nonetheless, we can begin to build a bridge across that gap by connecting to the senses.  This will not fully create a common reading for all; different readers will envision the bridge of the previous sentence in different ways: a Golden Gate, a Mackinac, or a covered bridge traversed by a horse and buggy.  If we describe the gap as a chasm, wind whipping below and shifting the bridge under us, a rainstorm washing sheets of rain roaring like white noise to obscure our vision through the windshield, we come closer to a common experience, having eliminated the footbridge and built in a vehicle, a particular set of sounds, and some tangible feeling of the bridge moving below.  From that set of sensory details, we can immerse ourselves further into the reading, guiding the reader's mind to join in the experience we have created.

Engaging the senses improves any style of writing: poetry or prose, academic writing or creative fiction.  After all, writing begins at a point of detachment.  The writer experiences something, whether intellectual or visceral, and puts that experience--already individual rather than communal--into words, and hopes readers can take the words and travel through them to reach a common point with the writer, which may already be a different point than that of the writer's original experience.  By grounding those words in the senses, the writer can enhance the reading experience, building more common ground for reader and writer to engage together.  And as an added bonus, the lexicological route they travel together becomes much more interesting for both.