Showing Off by Catharine Bramkamp
Let’s welcome back monthly columnist Catharine Bramkamp as she shares with us “Showing Off.” Enjoy!
So brilliant you’re blinded by your own light.
“Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness but come down into the green valleys of silliness.” Ludwig Wittgenstein
In other words, stop showing off.
Wittgenstein, whose very name and philosophy sends undergraduates into black panics, was surprisingly resistant to showing off– the good doctor was wary of anyone who tried to elevate themselves above others by sounding smart.
Instead, he preferred the authenticity of those willing to laugh at themselves.
What is showing off?
In researching for a class, I purchased a recommended book related to my field. This new book promised to deliver new, new information and insights and I was eager to learn from it.
Not so eager after the first chapter.
Downright perplexed after the second chapter.
Halfway through the third chapter, I was done and dropped the book into the Goodwill pile.
Why was the book abandoned?
The writing was difficult. The sentences were long and meandering. The paragraphs did not stick to their stated themes and the writing was turgid.
It was hard going.
This from a reader who managed to read Ulysses over a weekend.
I suspected that this book was not written for me, the common reader, rather it was written in service of the author and five of his academic friends one of whom was likely the chair of the author’s PhD committee.
The author’s goal was not to help the reader understand a difficult subject, it was to show off how much he knew about- – everything.
How can you prevent showing off?
How do you know if you have drifted from delivering clear information and have jumped into the bright lights and happy chaos of a three-ring circus?
In this ring, the ostensible subject of the book, but in this second ring, here is everything I know about hydroponics and in this third ring is a treatise on pet care.
The author insists that everything she writes is important, every word is critical, every subject needs airing no matter how tangential or distracting it is to the main plot or theme.
Know something about Renaissance art?
Great, in Ring Two you will find five paragraphs on the Medici even though the thesis of the essay is Avant Guard publications of the late 19th century.
Know a bit about the beheading of minor members of the aristocracy during the French Revolution?
Yeah, set up the guillotine in the third ring, even though your story begins with a conversation with Picasso.
A subset of showing off is resistance to edits.
Why do we show off?
When we research for our books, we always unearth stunning photos, inspiring ideas, interesting tidbits.
It is natural to want to share but we need to remember that the art is knowing what to choose, and we cannot choose it all.
Showing off your prodigious knowledge is not the same as sharing knowledge.
During the second and third edits of an essay or book, consider the research, the examples, and the case studies.
Do they serve to highlight the center ring of your circus? Or are they merely distractions?
Even PhD dissertations, classic vehicles for showing off (see the story of the rejected book above) are now edited for more public consumption.
For which we should all be grateful.
But, you cry, unleashing the lions into Ring Number Three, aren’t we just dumbing down our work? Shouldn’t we elevate the conversation and inform the reader? Teach the reader?
Of course, set up the Lion tamer in Ring Number One. Explain what you know about Africa in Ring Two and then unleash the Lions into Ring Three.
Combined, they demonstrate the behavior of lions.
If you introduce the lion tamer in the center ring, and shoo penguins into Ring Number Three, then spend ten minutes justifying the choice to the audience- – the audience will leave.
Ideally, an author can pick up her flaming ring and encourage difficult lions to jump through.
One hundred percent of the trick it to make it look easy.
As I compared biographies and history books written in the fifties and sixties against those written in the nineties to today, I discovered that the difference between the decades is, well, worthy of a blog.
For once, market forces helped improve writing.
A densely written, difficult to follow book simply won’t sell.
The crowd and chaos of information packed into a book will not awe the reader, it will only frustrate the reader because they are unable to follow the show.
These dissatisfied readers will most certainly post reviews on Amazon highlighting how difficult, and yes, boring this book was with the result that future readers will stay away. And no one will purchase the author’s second book.
What can you do about your own Three Ring Circus?
Reduce the circus acts to one big center ring. Shine the spotlight on what you know and what you want to explain.
Reduce the size of the other two rings so those acts (Information) enhance the main event rather than distract from it.
The easier we make it for the reader (audience) to follow the show, the more that reader will like us.
We want to be seen as intelligent and caring, not arrogant and unreachable.
What sells the first book is intrigue, novelty, maybe some fun. That first book sells the second and third.
Make sure your reader enjoys your first performance, so they sign up for season tickets.
Need a little writing boost? Check out one-hour classes at www.Catharine-Bramkamp.com.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Catharine Bramkamp is a successful writing coach, Chief Storytelling Officer, former co-producer of Newbie Writers Podcast, and author of a dozen books including the Real Estate Diva Mysteries series, and The Future Girls series. She holds two degrees in English and is an adjunct university professor. After fracturing her wrist, she has figured out there is very little she is able to do with one hand tied behind her back.