Writing from Light to Dark

How to lead your readers from the known to the unknown.

Ben Inglis
Jun 11, 2020 · 4 min read

No one enjoys walking in on the middle of a conversation. Who knows what unspoken criteria have already been established? What inside jokes have already begun to form? What experiences have already been shared? In short, who knows what havoc your sudden intrusion will wreak on a conversation’s delicate ecosystem?

The best strategy is usually just to leave before you start. You could also try loitering nearby in the hopes that someone will eventually take pity on you and segue to the topic of your existence. If all else fails, you can always just stand there grinning like a bullfrog until the conversation slows down enough for you to make a desperate leap.

What does all this repressed social angst have to do with writing? It has to do with acknowledging the almost universal human hatred of being on the outside of something: an event . . . a decision . . . a gathered parliament of owls . . .

And writing in such a way that your readers won’t feel that.

From the Known to the Unknown

The French physiologist Claude Bernard once remarked that man can learn nothing unless he proceeds from the known to the unknown. And he wasn’t just theorizing. In fact, without the wily research of Dr. Bernard we’d still be assuming a purely ornamental function of the pancreas.

How was he able to arrive at the mystery of this fairly significant organ? At least in part because of his conviction to start from what was familiar. (So great was Bernard’s passion for physiology that he boldly took a scalpel to the family dog, who also went down in history as the first ever vivisection patient. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his wife left him soon after and went on to spearhead a successful campaign protesting the practice of vivisection.)

For example, if I start off a paragraph talking excitedly about sarcomeres, calcium blockers, and myosin, you might be entertained but you probably won’t be informed. Why? Because you aren’t a Rheumatologist, and therefore have no context from which to understand those terms.

The answer isn’t to never write about muscles, zooplankton, or string theory. Rather, it’s to invite readers onto a familiar path, and be their guide towards unfamiliar ones.

Bring People Along

It’s all well and good for Picard to “boldly going where no one has gone before,” but if you really want to write about the secret lives of astronomical objects you’ll first need to bring your readers up to speed on the mundanities of light years and crab nebulas. You might even initially have to settle for some reductionisms — like “space” and “stars” — for the greater good of helping people get to where you want them to go.

Or at least to what you want to write about.

Until you’ve established a shared foundation with your readers, you won’t be able to progress to the next stage of building. If you try to move on too early, things will start to look like they did in Inception when people started waxing on about dreams within dreams; and then suddenly someone’s dead in a hotel room. On this point, also keep in mind that the more steps it takes to bring a reader into the nuclei of your content, the more likely they are to be sucked into some unfathomable wormhole and torn to molecules on the frigid edge of space.

And you don’t want to be charged with interplanetary negligence do you?


Know What Your Talking About

Have you every felt you knew what you were talking about only to realize, in the middle of trying to explain it to someone, that you actually had no idea? Guess what — that fog won’t magically disperse when your discussion is transferred to the written word. In fact, it will almost certainly get worse.

That’s why you need to be clear right from the beginning about what exactly it is you’re trying to say.

Now, no one is expecting you to know everything there is to know about astronomy if you only want to talk about Jupiter. That being said, make sure what you do say about Jupiter is well researched. Readers are usually pretty quick to realize when you’re bluffing. And if that happens, whatever loyalty you might have earned will be wadded up and tossed down the nearest storm drain.

This isn’t just for you reader’s sake either. The more you’re able to think freely on a subject, the easier it will be for you to write about it. If you’re trying to wrestle with the nuts and bolts of a vehicle at the same time you’re trying to drive it, no one’s going to get very far.

In Conclusion?

Writers, traverse into unfamiliar territory with care. A good practice is to invite some longsuffering friends to read over your manuscript when it’s finished; or hey, you might even consider employing the services of your friendly neighborhood copyeditor (you knew that was coming.) When they’re finished, ask them, on a scale of one to ten, how confused they are.

If they give you a five, it’s back to the drawing board. If they give you a zero — well, did I ever tell you the one about Claude Bernard’s dog. . .?

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Ben Inglis

Written by

Book lover, copyeditor, sometime windbag. Peddling unconventional perspectives on life and faith.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

Ben Inglis

Written by

Book lover, copyeditor, sometime windbag. Peddling unconventional perspectives on life and faith.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

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