Often, with the first sentence out of his or her mouth, you know the difference between a great conversationalist and an insufferable bore. You’re drawn to one, and think of your exchange with them long after they’ve gone. When you’re done with the other, you’re left wondering if you were simply solicited to listen to all the melancholy twists and turns of their life story, or worse, were just pressed into service as an on-the-spot therapist.
Insufferable bores leave you depleted, unfulfilled and weary, because he or she has taken more than what you were willing to give during the conversation, and given you nothing in return; you had no chance to express your thoughts or hear them answered, except when they were used as a springboard back to their personal monologue. There was no awareness of your perspective, no acknowledgment of your growing discomfort, no there there.
Right now I’m reading some of Walter Benjamin’s works on media criticism, which have been collected in a neat and hefty volume by a group of three scholarly editors; editors so scholarly, in fact, that the second sentence in the introduction employed no less than three semicolons, segmenting a ponderously complex series of list items that I had to re-read several times to properly arrange them in my mind. Not knowing anything about Walter Benjamin’s life, I forced my way through this introduction until, very tired, I tumbled to the foot of Chapter 1 and thought I’d arrived at the essay by Walter Benjamin I’d hoped for. Instead, I arrived at yet another introduction—to that particular essay, written by the same three editors.
I didn’t read it and skipped to where Benjamin’s text actually began.
Immediately, I was dropped into the teeth of his analysis about art during the ascendance of Marxism, no introduction, no definitions, just a forthright presentation of ideas. Splat. There they were.
Actually arriving at the author’s work, after that exhausting treatment by the host of scholars who took it upon themselves to defend their interpretation of what my interpretation of the work should be, felt like hacking through tall wheatgrass with a dull machete, and then suddenly coming upon a cliff overlooking a shining ocean—my mind was free, and I could breathe and calmly survey the landscape, once again.
The moral of the story is this: If you don’t trust your reader to let them be affected by your work however they may, you risk losing them to authors who are better at making them feel at home. Here are a few things to keep your readers planted right where they ought to be—in front of your book, and not someone else’s (at least, until yours is finished).
Leave out passive details that support other details. Have you ever written a sentence like, “Cool under the rustling shade of a leafy chestnut tree, Kate closed her eyes,” and then felt the need to follow that up with something like, “She dozed off”? I know that, unless Kate’s hiding from the guy that supplies her crystal meth habit, she’s going to doze off if she closes her eyes.
Keep an eye on your work, and pluck out the supporting details that support other details that are supposed to help prop up the image you want to make sure is absolutely crystal clear in your reader’s mind, and let the reader superimpose a little of his or her experiences onto your words. You’ll be more relatable, with a greater give-and-take—like a great conversationalist.
Wear your learning lightly. Toward the end of the introduction to my book on Walter Benjamin, I found this sentence:
“Reproducibility is thus finally a political capacity of the work of art; its very reproducibility shatters its aura and enables a reception of a very different kind in a very spectatorial space: it is precisely the shattering of the aura that enables the construction, in the cinema, of a political body through ‘simultaneous collective reception’ of its object.”
Seriously, there’s no reason to inflict that kind of torture on your readers. Ever. Simply saying “The fact that great works of art, especially in film, can often be reproduced changes the way they’re perceived through a political or cultural lens,” (that’s my sophomoric attempt; I’m sure there are even more succinct summaries) says much the same thing. But it happily lacks the torturous precision that allows the reader no dancing space, no place to remember the last time you saw a reproduction of the Mona Lisa in a cheap plastic frame at Marshall’s, and nod along in agreement. Wear your learning lightly; don’t beat your audience over the head with it—they can just close your book and put it back on the shelf.
Simplify. Contrast the horrible sentence quoted above to an actual sentence Walter Benjamin wrote later on in that essay: “Good foreign films are rarely seen in Russia.”
Easy, simple, declarative and evocative. Even when done through a translator, that’s good writing.