Why


Yesterday I talked about how you can take some of the best from parenting and apply it to your writing. Today I want to warn you against one of the worst.

Do you remember when you were a kid and you mom or dad told you to do something that was just stupid? All you wanted was a reason. Why are they asking you to do this? They might have tried one explanation or another before reaching for the inevitable:

"Because I said so."

Do you remember how frustrating that was? I want you to remember how that made you feel and promise me that you’lll never do that to your readers.

There is a technical book that I’ve read several times that is a study in this. The author really knows his stuff. I’ve talked to him in person and have been impressed by the depth of his knowledge. Any time I ask him "why" in person he gives me great background—his insight is amazing. And yet none of it is on the page. When he writes he tells me to type this and click that but I have no idea what my goal is.

I struggle when it’s time to apply the lessons from his book and his examples to my own projects because he hasn’t given me context. He’s walked me through a bunch of content. He’s the teacher who can say to his colleagues "I taught them that." I want you to be the teacher who says "they learned that."

My daughter’s math book teaches her a technique and then asks her to do two dozen problems using that technique. She knows what to do because if a question is in chapter 6 section 3 then the technique for solving it is in chapter 6 section 3. She has no real context for what she’s doing. I ask her why she is solving for x.

"Because the book says so."

"But," I continue, "what does x represent."

She looks at me like I’m an idiot. Math books have been this bad throughout her school career she doesn’t see why she needs to be given a reason or a setting.

I want you to make sure you’ve answered "why" to your reader’s satisfaction. "Because I told you so" is not an acceptable answer.

This post originally appeared in the Pragmatic Life blog.