The Value of Forgetfulness

I never understood the purpose of describing, in prose, information evident in tables and charts. Methodology, yes; data, no. However, some put great stock in it, so one of my last tasks in forecasting is to type up what’s called the narrative.

You’d think it’s just a matter of summarizing changes using the previous year’s narrative as a boilerplate. Yet, excepting the first narrative I wrote long ago, not a year goes by that I don’t find myself revising sentences for clarity, removing a paragraph here and adding another there, and in general edit the thing anew. Some of this is increasing skill, which is good: I almost quit writing when I thought I wasn’t grasping the basics. But a large part is forgetting all but the generalities of the narrative. This is a plus, because when I pick it up a year later, I’m seeing it much as a first time reader. That’s because every writer, from a school student turning out a report to a big-name author, essentially has two trains of thought when writing. One is what we want we’re trying to say while the other is what actually goes onto the paper. You’d think that the two are one in the same, but they can be quite different.

The reason is that, as the writer, we already know what we’re want to convey. All our reasoning; all our clever plot twists; how a character looks or where a story takes place. The problem is that, since we know all this, we unconsciously assume the reader does as well. The reader doesn’t, of course, and only knows what we tell him. The result is we sometimes can have passages that seem perfectly clear to us but make readers go “What?” all because they don’t have all the information they need.

In the case of a report, such as the forecast narrative, this includes interpreting the data and the reasoning behind the forecast figures. We can write “We anticipate a change of thus and so over X number of years,” but that doesn’t tell the reader why. We know why, of course, but our reader won’t unless we tell him.

The same holds for fiction, but is complicated in that we also have to hold the reader’s interest. A good example is the novel I want to have out by Christmas. I’ve revised and revised the thing, but this time, due to life happening, I let it sit four years before picking it up again. Seeing that first chapter again was a revelation, because, as written, no one would buy the book. I, of course, know it was to set up things that surface later in the novel, but the reader doesn’t. Things don’t get interesting until the last paragraphs of the chapter, and don’t start holding attention until Chapter 2. If I publish this novel as-is, it will sink like a stone, because a reader, not knowing what’s ahead, is going to find that first chapter boring. This gets into the issue of the hook, that which grabs the reader’s attention by the lapels and says “Look at this.” Yet that lack of a strong hook comes from already knowing what you intend and assuming the reader will, too. That’s not going to happen.

I’ve forgotten the exact train of thought I had writing that first chapter, and that helps me see it as a reader would picking up the book for the first time. It also helps me see the fix: Get rid of the first chapter and start it off in the second, when something’s happening, and include the important information as the events unfold.

This is why it’s often important to let a manuscript sit in a desk drawer for a time. Not the four years I let this one sit, but long enough to be able to see it with a reader’s eyes and not as an author’s, when the world we’ve created is faded in memory and we’re picking it up again from our own words. It becomes more like evaluating someone else’s work than our own.

There’s some tricks you can do when pressed for time, such as reading a manuscript aloud. This helps in detecting clunky sentences, and gives some of the first reader experience. Another way is to change the font and zoom in a little closer, which helps in catching typos. But neither is as effective as setting it aside and working on something else, then returning later for revisions.

If you’ve never done this, you might want to give it a try. If time allows, put your manuscript away for a time, work on something else, and return to it later for your edits. You might be surprised at the things that leap out at you.

Sometimes it’s good to just forget it. For a little while, at least.