DRMacIver's Notebook

Losing the story for the style

Losing the story for the style

From 100 Ways to Improve your Writing by Gary Provost, page 57:

There is no subject that cannot be made fascinating by a well-informed and competent writer. And there is no subject that cannot be quickly turned into a literary sleeping pill by an incompetent writer.

(This is as part of a section on style)

This isn't true, and the fact that Provost thinks it's true is heavily informed by sorts of things he writes about, which tend to be of more general interest.

Part of the problem is that fascination is a question of audience/writing fit. In a similar way that you can't teach everything to a layperson, you cannot fascinate someone who refuses to be fascinated, and some people are just never going to be fascinated by some subjects, and you may well need to write about those subjects (possibly because of the people who are going to be fascinated by it!).

It's true that there is a fascinating story to be told about most subjects for most people, but often you shouldn't tell that one because it's not the important bit. This reminds me of Zinsser's fucking terrible advice to tell a story about your engagement with the subject matter rather than the subject matter itself. There are circumstances under which that is the right thing to do, but those circumstances require me to care about you personally rather than the thing that I was expecting to learn.

It's certainly true that any story can be told in a way that fascinates the maximum number of people who are capable of being fascinated by it, and that style has a huge part to play in that. I'm in favour of good writing style, of course I am, and of not writing in a style that bores your audience, but it's important to not overstate the importance of style: You can't make people fascinated by your writing, except by writing about a subject that they will be fascinated by when properly told, and sometimes that's not the subject you're there to write about.