When It Comes to Writing Technique, One Size Does Not Fit All


contradictionWe have been caught in a contradiction. A reader has pointed out to us that in November, 2012, we praised author Erik Larson to the skies for the way he used teases in his book, IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS, to create suspense and keep the reader turning the pages. Two weeks ago, we criticized another author for doing the same thing. We said that Scott Anderson jumped ahead in his book, LAWRENCE IN ARABIA, “to tell the reader bits and pieces of what is coming next, like tease lines on a news cast: Coming up, one man’s battle against the system. Stay tuned.”

So okay, we are not a perfect filter, but it is interesting that we loved this technique in one book and were irritated by it in another. Both of these books are historical non-fiction, but the similarity ends there. Larson is really good at creating suspense. He is very smooth, maybe too smooth. When we finish his books, we wonder a little what all the hype was about.

Scott Anderson’s book is more ambitious. He is telling a huge, sweeping story that requires concentration and lots of recourse to the map in the front of the book. When he interrupts the narrative to jump ahead, it has the opposite effect that he intends. We aren’t titillated; we are irritated.

What it all boils down to is this thing called author intrusion. Simply put this is when an author inserts something in a book that doesn’t feel like it fits and makes the reader aware of the writer behind the scenes. We get this all the time from clients, who often step out of the narrative to give their opinions or comment. It is like they are waving their arms and yelling, “Here I am; forget about the book, pay attention to me.” To the reader, this is an interruption and it’s annoying.

Author intrusion can happen in many, many ways. Here are some examples:

Using words or phrases that come from you, the writer, rather than the character or subject from whose point of view you are writing. An obvious example of this is using current slang when your subject or character is historical.

Inserting your opinions, especially if you are taking a strong stand on something.

Putting in too much background. Taking time out to explain say, the history of football when your character or subject just has to make a certain play.

Including knowledge your point-of-view subject/character can’t possibly possess. Or having your POV-subject/character see something or hear something, he/she can’t possibly see or hear.

Making things happen just to fit the story rather than letting them evolve with the story.

Getting ahead of yourself to preview what is going to happen.

Since your writing very much involves you, it can be very difficult to know when you are intruding and when you are telling a good story. This is where an editor or a reader can help.


Thank you, Steven E. Condon for pointing out our contradictions!