Why Writers Are Lazy (And Why That's A Good Thing)

I know what you may be thinking, and note, I am making no claims about the work habits, questionable hygiene or general ethics that may or may not be present within the writing community. Any rumors you have heard about the general cleanliness and demeanor of the writing public will find no place here. I have always operated under the assumption that some degree of separation between the reader and the author is necessary for the full effect of the writing to become apparent. In brief, this is not a piece about personal habits, but a piece about style.

ne of the first things I learned about writing at any level was to show, not tell. This may seem like a small distinction but it is the basic distinction between what could become good writing and what never will. The amateur will find that they have a knack for words, and the ability the string together a beautiful phrase, but the habit that holds them back is the temptation to rely on that ability. In short, the reader is brought along a journey by the guide, the amateur, who dictates everything. Does a character display emotion? They'll tell you. Is a scene suspenseful? If so, they'll say so. This reliance on the author to dictate every feeling, every sensation present in any type of creative work is an example of trying too hard. 

Take a look at the book you're currently reading. Does the author do all of the work? This isn't to say that books that rely on the author to illustrate everything are bad, but I believe it prevents stories from becoming great. Consider this: If you were to write a story right now, relying only on your wit and word choice to illustrate everything, would it be good enough? I think, at least for me. the answer is no. Good books embrace laziness, in the sense that the author presents the trigger, but forces the reader to conjure up the emotions and sensations. By making the reader work, a story embraces the possibility of greatness.

The Sparrow.jpg

I consider Mary Doria Russel to be an extremely underrated  author. Her book The Sparrow is one of the most beautiful, emotional books I have ever read. The story evolves around Emilio Sandez, a Jesuit priest who is the sole survivor of a mission contact new life found in another star system. The story uses both elements of science fiction and spirituality to illustrate Emilio's character, and splits between the past and present to display the radical change he goes through. I realize not everyone one enjoys science fiction, but I wouldn't put this book in that category. The only sci-fi element is the use of extra terrestrial life, but the book revolves around Emilio's return to Rome. This is an emotional novel to it's very core, and no one should be dissuaded from reading it because of the sci-fi element. Russel uses her considerable skills to bring Emilio between spiritual elation and ecstasy, all the way to into utter despair. The question is, how does she accomplish this?

For one thing, she embraces this idea of laziness. Had Russel presented Emilio in his elated form, saying 'here he is, he is delighted', some effect would be achieved, but not in the same proportion. By using contrasting timelines and settings, she juxtaposes the two versions of Emilio. This allows me, the reader, to use my ability to empathize to place myself in his place. When on the mission, Emilio feels fulfilled and realized for the first time in his life, and is brought to tears by the beauty of his surroundings. By quickly reverting to present times, Russel allows me to realize his tears here  mean something very different. 

he trick here is that Russel does not treat the reader as a child, building the pieces together so as to show us how it's done. Instead, she treats us like the rational people we are, giving us the pieces and some guidance and showing us that we are on a journey as much as the characters on these pages.  

So yes, writers are lazy, at least the great ones are. Were it any other way, we would not be treated to incredible stories like The Sparrow

Duncan Field1 Comment