Aug 11, 2014

The Problem of "Unconscious Writing"

Every now and again, I meander through my bookshelves. While doing this the other day, I noticed a slim volume on writing and my curiosity got the better of me. In it, I found the following observations to be true of much of what I read in biblical studies and uncomfortably close to the mark in some of my own work.

"Most of the novice's difficulties start with the simple fact that the paper he writes on is mute. Because it never talks back to him, and he because he's concentrating  so hard on generating ideas, he readily forgets—unlike the veteran—that another human being will eventually be trying to make sense of what he's saying. The result? His natural tendency as a writer is to think primarily of himself—hence to write primarily for himself. Here, in a nutshell, lies the ultimate reason for most bad writing.

"He isn't aware of his egocentrism, of course, but all the symptoms are of his root problem are there: he thinks through an idea only until it is passably clear to him, since for his purposes, it needn't be any clearer; he dispenses with transitions because it's enough that he knows how his ideas connect; he uses a private system—or no system—of punctuation; he doesn't trouble to define his terms because he understands perfectly well what he means by them; he writes page after page without bothering to vary his sentence structure; he leaves off page numbers and footnotes; he paragraphs only when the mood strikes him; he ends abruptly when he decides he's had enough; he neglects to proofread the final job because the writing is over . . . Given his total self-orientation, its no wonder that he fails repeatedly as a writer. Actually, he's not writing at all; he's merely communing with privately with himself—that is, he's simply putting thoughts down on paper.

"I call this 'unconscious writing.' The unconscious writer is like a person who turns his chair away fro a listener, mumbles at length to the wall, and then heads for home without a backward glance."     

John R. Trimble, Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000), 4-5.

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