Dreamers and sculptors

By | February 1, 2016

I once went to a reading by the American writer Joan Didion in a bookstore on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She’d just published a collection of political essays, not terribly popular, and the turnout was small, perhaps two dozen people. This was a few years before she published The Year of Magical Thinking, a very popular book about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.

After the reading, Didion took questions. The only one I remember is the first one.

What’s the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction, someone asked.

Didion paused for a moment, adjusted her scarf, and then said, with wonderful Didion-like precision, “Writing fiction is like transcribing a dream, and writing non-fiction is like carving a statue out of block of marble.”

That answer, word for word, has stayed with me ever since because I think it’s accurate. Fiction is a dream state which you create every time you sit down to write, and your job as a writer is to describe what happens in the dream and transcribe the words of the characters in the dream. When the dream is vivid and strong, the writing feels automatic and effortless – at times you can barely keep up.

Non-fiction is completely different, and in some ways much more difficult. The “carving” that Didion referred to is the act of selecting the useful material and rejecting the useless, unnecessary, irrelevant material. There is always too much material and most of it seems shapeless.

So this act of creating something in words with shape and form is like sculpting – cutting away, smoothing, shaping and polishing.

But shape and form in writing also refer to structure, so I think the sculpture analogy is really pointing to the importance of structure in non-fiction writing.

Business writers are non-fiction writers. So how we do tackle the challenge of structure? How do we take a massive block of material and give it an attractive and effective shape?

I like to break structure down into two types: time and logic.

Time structures can borrow from fiction because they tell stories. In a PowerPoint presentation, for example, it’s perfectly acceptable to tell a story.

The story may proceed in a straight linear progression from beginning to end. “This is a story about a new idea and what I learned from trying to take that new idea into the marketplace.”

The story may proceed like a journey that begins in location A and ends in the Location A, creating a satisfying circle for the audience. “We thought we needed a new process for West Coast sales and ended up back where we started, because the problem wasn’t in the sales department.”

The story may be like a mystery in which you play the detective who solves the case. “Who stole the profits last quarter? We did. The questions I’ll try to answer today are why and how.”

Logic structures are more common in business writing – proposals and reports, for example. One useful approach is deductive (also known as direct), where we present the main idea or conclusion right up front, and then follow with supporting evidence and arguments.

The other approach is inductive (also known as indirect), where we start with the arguments and supporting evidence and end with the main idea or conclusion. We may favour this structure if the news is bad, or the audience is skeptical, or both.

All writing, of course, whether fiction or non-fiction, has structure. Whether we’re dreamers or sculptors, an understanding of structure makes us better and more effective writers.

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