Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Writing with a Goal

Of course I ought to be doing other things, like preparing for bedtime or working on grad school applications or not drinking caffeinated beverages, but instead of being responsible or something stupid like that I will write a blog post.

In writing text documents for the on-line exhibit I'm working on, I have stumbled upon a fact or few about writing itself. The fact-cluster is one which most of you already knew on some level, but I am going to augment your knowledge with fresh examples. I hope you find it useful.

1. Writing is usually done with a goal, or a purpose, or a win-scenerio in mind. A person does not simply write things willy-nilly. One writes toward something.

2. Different projects are written with different goals in mind. Take popular books. You can generally get a sense--but only an imperfect one--of the goals that authors wrote their novels towards in author interviews. The goal of a horror book is usually to scare the reader in a way that the reader finds enjoyable, though a bonus is to make the author think about things somewhat. Stephen King expresses this interest; mainly he's concerned with the story, but if you read On Writing you'll see he is nonetheless interested in what the story's "about." Science fiction's goal is often to explore ideas and, most importantly, possibilities--both in the sense of 'things we could do' and 'things that might happen if we don't wise up.' The goal of a romance book is, as far as I can tell, to provide a form of escape or distraction through titillation, sometimes outright arousal. Other books, those labelled "literature" by those who do such labelling, have some sort of critique or education as a goal, perhaps, though often it's a challenge.
The goal of an essay or argumentative book is different; the goal there is to persuade the reader. Perhaps they want to persuade the reader of a theoretical concept; perhaps they want to persuade the reader to a course of action; perhaps they want to persuade the reader (ie. grader) to give them a high mark. Sometimes it is to persuade the public to stop hating the reader so badly--this is a defence.
There is sometimes overlap here: a novel may be an attempt by the author to persuade the reader to respect the author. This would be "writing for fame."
Or, perhaps the writing is not reader- but self-directed. This is writing as celebration, writing as therapy, writing as discipline, writing as reasoning, writing as documenting. Or it is writing as exorcism, because the story burns to come out. Or it is writing for the sheer joy of wordsmithery.

3. Writing, when done well, is shaped by its goal. In English class they explain how, in a good story, each chapter, each scene, each sentence, each word somehow contributes to or drives the plot. This is only true if the goal is to move that plot along. As we have seen, this is not the only goal. A romance novel may include graphic sex scenes which move well past advancing the plot; they are obviously there for some reason all their own. This is because the plot is secondary to the response the author wants to elicit in the reader; usually, this is the same response the reader wants elicited in her, since she bought the romance knowing what would likely contain. (Or perhaps she does care more for the story and skips over these bits as silly. But at rate I think the author can expect that the reader will be buying the book at least to some extent for the sexy bits.) In a horror novel, a scary scene might be included not because it appreciably advances the plot but because it appreciably advances the suspense. In an 'idea' novel, a scene may be included not because it advances the plot but because it explores some new angle to or establishes some important groudwork for the ideas being analyzed. The goal shapes the story, in other words.
Essays are more obviously goal-driven. If you know this, I needn't explain it; if you don't know this, you likely don't want to.
Journals are shaped by their goals more nebulously; in this case it's how it serves the writer.

4. Writing which has no clear goal would be bizarre. Witness things written by children who do not yet have a sense of narrative flair. A friend of mine, for an assignment in our grade five class, wrote a story based on one of the pictures in the Chris Van Allsburg book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. The picture dictated that the story have as a moment in it a house which was lifting off. The title was something like "The House on Maple Street." I read the story for him, as an editor, I suppose. I cleaned up some grammar and spelling errors, trying to persuade him that because SpellCheck approved, "The dog was baking," didn't make it correct. Anyway, even then I recognized that there were some serious structural problems with the story. Namely, the house-lifting-off part happened in the last page of a five-page story. That would have been fine, of course, if the preceding four pages hadn't been devoted to an account of the protagonist's dirt-biking. What happened, clearly, was that he had to write about the house on Maple Street, but really he was more interested in dirt biking, so he attached the house bit at the end. Which isn't to say that he didn't think a space-going house wasn't cool. It just wasn't as cool as dirt-biking. His story failed as a story because it's goal was unclear. The first part was writing for himself, but the last part was writing for the teacher. He'd have been better off writing for himself, and then going back and "editing like a mofo," as Kay once put it, so that the whole story worked for the teacher. But it was grade five.

So that's the system I have discovered.
1) We write towards a goal.
2) Different writing projects have different goals. (enlightenment, $$$, arousal, pleasurable fear)
3) Writing projects, when done well, are shaped by their goals.
4) Writing projects with muddled or no goals have unsatisfying structures.

Now why I am discussing this?

Well. As I said, I am working on the virtual exhibit. This involves writing "Storylines," or blocks of text and old-timey photographs and new-timey photographs of old-timey things strung out in a narrative fashion. The point of these storylines, according to my instructions, are to lead the virtual visitor through my exhibit and give them something coherent to follow. This is unhelpful, as a great number of things could do that. What we have to keep in mind is that the visitor is at the exhibit because they want to learn, probably as a form of entertainment. That at least is our ideal visitor; it is also possible that there are high school students who want to extract specific information as quickly, painlessly, and thoughtlessly as possible for an assignment, but they will have to deal with the fact that I am not writing for them alone.

Which means my goal is to provide an information dump of assorted trinket-like facts and anecdotes. It's like a rummage sale: I don't expect everyone to find each piece of information interesting, but I'll only include it if I think someone will.

And that leads of course to my list of points, namely #3: Writing, when done well, is shaped by its goal. What is the goal of a narrative (it has to be a narrative) that functions as an information-dump, meant to entertain and inform?
It is a narrative with lots of tangents and anecdotes that don't advance the 'plot' one bit. It's an interesting genre, one which I could do again, but I can tell you that I didn't find it easy. The best thing about it was the fact that I was allowed to include things for no other reason than that they're "cool" (and on topic).

(If you want to see what this 'genre' is like, read A Brief History of Nearly Everything or Rats or The Serpent and the Rainbow or another popular-audience non-persuasive non-analytical non-fiction book. (Of course all non-fiction has some sort of thesis, but some have more than others. My theses in the exhibit are largely 1) this topic is worth writing about, 2) the overarching structure/topic is in fact an authentic claim/category, and 3) we--that being the museum in general and me in particular--are not idiots. This also acts to shape the narrative.) This can be an excellent and enjoyable genre to read.)

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