Rob St. Amant

Rob St. Amant
December 31
My roots are in San Francisco and later Baltimore, where I went to high school and college. I stayed on the move, living for a while in Texas, several years in a small town in Germany, and then several more in Massachusetts, working on a Ph.D. in computer science. I'm now a professor at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. My book, Computing for Ordinary Mortals, will appear this fall from Oxford University Press.


MAY 28, 2012 12:00PM

The magic of writing

Rate: 9 Flag


When I was much younger I loved to read books about how to do magic. Not real magic, of course; mainly card tricks.1 I practiced doing passes, side slips, palms, and other basic sleights for hours on end. Today all that's survived of whatever skills I learned is a few card flourishes. I can manage one-handed shuffles and fans, and if the deck isn't too new, I can spring cards from one hand to the other. But I never performed, so I can't even claim to be an amateur. Still... on with the show.

When you're writing, you're performing. Your writing, for better or worse, is on public display. Let's see what a few of the rules for magic can tell us.

Pay attention to angles. For sleight of hand and for a great deal of stage magic, it makes a difference where the audience is and what they can see. In writing, do you want to show  or tell your readers everything? In a mystery, obviously not. But otherwise? You can't show everything. You work in a limited space. (Unless you're Marcel Proust, in which case you've been dead for almost a century.) The angles you make visible can be a deliberate choice.

Make it look easy. A few magicians can pull off a frenetic act, with visible flop sweat, props apparently not working, and magic effects coming off as if by accident. But this is rare. Similarly, while I love the pyrotechnics some writers can create, I generally follow Elmore Leonard's rule: "If it looks like writing, I rewrite it."

Use misdirection when you need it. Magicians need it almost all the time, of course. In writing it's not so much misdirection as directing the reader's attention to what's important or relevant. Part of this is mechanics; in an essay, for example, a topic sentence usually comes at the beginning of a paragraph, but saving it until the end can make it more prominent. There's also pacing, diction, and so forth--and then the narrative you're laying out.

Pick a style, any style. After performing a trick, some magicians seem to be as surprised as the audience. Others show little reaction beyond, "Yeah, I did that." Some magicians engage their audiences closely, others are distant. Sometimes, in writing, a shift in style can have a useful and surprising (possibly humorous) effect. Consistency is best, though.

Learn by watching others. When I watch a magician perform on TV, sometimes I'll try to figure out how it's done. I'll do the same with a good piece of writing. (And a bad piece. What went wrong? Can I avoid doing the same thing?) Some writers have enough talent not to be readers. For example, E. B. White said, "I was never a voracious reader and, in fact, have done little reading in my life." I'm not E. B. White.

Practice, practice, practice. Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, popularized the hypothesis that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in a field. You can practice writing by yourself (Renni Browne and Dave King's Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is a good guide) or with the help of friends (two OSers have read chapters of my book, Ordinary Mortals, and one read the entire thing). I think I probably have a few thousand hours to go yet.

I'd add a last rule, which is Don't explain too much, but that's exactly what I've been doing in this post. Don't be too cute? Guilty again. I'll try this, then: When you've said all you want to say, stop writing


 1 I attended a talk by the philosopher Daniel Dennett a few years ago, in which he pointed out the oddity that when we say "real magic" we're talking about something that doesn't exist; fake magic is all there is.

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Good Grief! Rules, rules, rules.

What about those of us who just write....?
But how can you know you're an iconoclast without knowing what rules you're breaking? :-)

More seriously: Of course no one needs to follow rules or even know what someone's ideas about rules are. For me, rules are just a way of expressing what I know (or rather, what I think I know). So when something I write doesn't work out, I say to myself, UR DOIN IT WRONG, and then I try to figure out what that bit of wrongness is, so I don't keep doing it.
I love reading writing on writing. Thank you.
One of my all time favorite go to references on writing and critique is Pope's "Essay on Criticism", from which I'd like to quote the following selected lines:

"These born to Judge, as well as those to Write.
Let such teach others who themselves excell,
And censure freely who have written well.
Authors are partial to their Wit, 'tis true,
But are not Criticks to their Judgment too?"
"Some valuing those of their own, Side or Mind,
Still make themselves the measure of Mankind;
Fondly we think we honour Merit then,
When we but praise Our selves in Other Men."
"The Learn'd reflect on what before they knew:
Careless of Censure, not too fond of Fame,
Still pleas'd to praise, yet not afraid to blame,
Averse alike to Flatter, or Offend,
Not free from Faults, nor yet too vain to mend. "

I enjoyed reading this post, Rob.
Care for a madeleine with your tea?
Very nice, Fusun. Thanks for the Pope. What a great source for reflection.

Thanks for the offer, Poor Woman. As long as we have time to savor it.
Is there any better way to enjoy one's tea?
how to approach writing as a computer scientist :)

My rules for writing can be summed up in one line from DH Lawrence's Song of a Man Who Has Come Through: "Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!"
It's entirely basement burbling, like dreaming. I control it not. The only thing I have control over is whether or not to show it to anyone. *shrug* It's actually a relief NOT to have control over it...perhaps that's why I don't. But if that is true, it's a choice I made before puberty. (my first poem was about a unicorn...really.)
how to approach writing as a computer scientist :)


Julie, I think you and skypixie (and others, from past exchanges here) would say that detailed rules don't matter, and they clearly don't work for everyone. So if I argued that people internalize whatever rules they rely on (and even that "rule" is just a shorthand for "things one generally does") it probably wouldn't be to convincing... I think rules are useful, though. If someone asks for writing advice, rules are a good start for expressing advice.
h - Julie,
My poetical scribblin's comes from the same source!! It is indeed like a wind that blows through me. Or bubbles that rise to the surface and burst. If I were religious I'd call it divine inspiration or something icky like that.

In my non-poetical scribblings, I just try to "talk natural" usually; except when I'm lecturing folks - then I want it to sound like a lecture.
Yup. And I'm as guilty as anyone since I too quote the rule book over and over to people. However, I try to distinguish between "rules of grammar" as opposed to "rules of writing", a whole different thing in my mind.
Those who have a set of rules for writing may examine anything that I write and judge me by those rules if they like. I neither write for them nor care about their opinion of my writing.

I write for the same purpose that I talk; to say something I want to say. I write a bit better than I talk since I have time to think a little more when writing than when talking. I also have more time to give full consideration to the responses that I get when others respond in writing.

Still.... this post has made some of us think about this and that is a good thing. Good post.
This is a good's the old "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" Practice. Or, as Red Smith said, "Writing is easy. You simply take a blank sheet of paper and open up a vein." Thanks for this and congrats on your book.
I've always subscribed to the notion that it's okay to ignore the rules -- as long as you know them. And better yet, if your writing provides evidence to your reader that you are deliberately ignoring the rules.

For me, bad spelling (particularly with the advent of spell-check), bad or no punctuation, mixed tense, mixed case -- and worst of all misuse of a big word -- don't automatically disqualify writing, but they sure do raise the antenna of anyone who works hard not to commit those sorts of errors.

Yes, excellent writing can overcome such errors -- and the converse is equally true -- the best grammar can't overcome dull, stilted formal writing. Still, if you're writing is sloppy, it better be VERY good -- if you expect anyone to wade thru the mud to get to the jewels.
(Must be why I can't shut up!) Nice synopsis, Rob...I think I feel a post coming on...
Tom, you're a man after my own heart. That's exactly the way I should have put it. Joyce is probably the best example of someone who knew the rules and deliberately broke them (I've never gotten through Finnegans Wake, though; not enough patience). I remember reading somewhere that Joyce insisted on using dashes for dialog, rather than the usual quotation marks, despite that style being quite unusual. A writer should know what he or she is doing, in my not-very-humble opinion.

KC, go for it. I like what you write about.
Clever analogy. Yet, it doesn't address the relationship between intuition and theory, or which is the more important. I would argue the former's closer to what we consider "talent." while the latter nurtures the craft that showcases and refines the talent. The two in concert are, to me, what bring the greatest satisfaction. But if I had to choose between them, give me the intuitive every time.
You're right, Chicken Mãâàn, the intuitive part is missing entirely from my analogy. (I was going to write "is missing from the equation," but that kind of prejudges the nature of writing, doesn't it?) I've described writing from a largely mechanical perspective, but no one would write at all if that were all it was. Pushing my analogy further, I might say that intuition is needed to come up with a new illusion, to guess at its effect on the audience--but the analogy does break down. A great deal of writing is self-expression, and being too analytical can hamper that.