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Robert's Rules of Writing #59: Ham It Up

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Following up on his essay about personage, Masello takes on the questions of using first person and/or putting yourself into your work -- when you're writing nonfiction.

Ah, the perennial question. Although in these responses to Masello's rules I'm mostly concerned with writing fiction, I've written nonfiction as well. Usually the question of how much you can put of yourself into a nonfiction piece depends on what the editor wants. For example, when I wrote autobiographical pieces, it was obvious that I was supposed to put myself in them. It was a little harder to figure out how much of myself to put in the articles I wrote about Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine. On the one hand, if I hadn't been enthusiastic about those shows, I wouldn't have wanted to write the articles. On the other hand, since the articles weren't about me, there was little reason to use first person for them.

Two perfect examples of the different approaches to take can be found in the two essays I've written so far for the BenBella SmartPop Books. The first essay is "We Find the One Quite Adequate: Religious Attitudes in Star Trek" in the new book Boarding the Enterprise: Transporters, Tribbles and the Vulcan Death Grip in Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek edited by Robert J. Sawyer and David Gerrold (August 2006). The essay concerns itself with how religion and religious behavior comes across in the original Star Trek series. Now, while it was true that I chose to write this essay because of my own religious behavior, I made a conscious choice to keep myself out of it. The point of the essay is to look at religion in Star Trek, not at my own attitudes towards religion in Star Trek. Even though there is opinion in the essay, there's also objctive analysis and discussion.

On the other hand, in my essay "The Friendly Neighborhood of Peter Parker" that will be published in Webslinger: SF and Comic Writers on Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, I took a decidedly different approach. The whole point of the essay is to illuminate the real Forest Hills, as opposed to the fictional one of the Marvel universe. In the essay, I endeavor to show how Peter Parker's life would have been like had he grown up in the real Forest Hills. And because I myself grew up in Forest Hills, the essay is inevitably infused with my own personal experience. It would have made no sense to leave my own persona out of that essay, since its very appeal is the author's presence. (Or so I would hope.)

The question of just how personal to make one's nonfiction reminds me of a story about the physicist N. David Mermin. In the 1980s, he had submitted a paper to the journal Physical Review B, and near the end, he had cited a "charming" monograph as a reference. Now, scientific journals tend to eschew informal language; scientists are encouraged to write their papers using third-person and passive voice (i.e. The experiment was started on a Tuesday). I think it has something to do with the ideal that science is objective; writing something like "I started the experiment on a Tuesday" would make the paper sound too subjective. (The idea, of course, is that anyone performing the same experiment should get the same results.)

Mermin, however, wanted to be more personal, which was one of the reasons he described the monograph as he did. The paper was accepted for publication, but the editor asked him if he could change the adjective to something like "important." Mermin's reply was that the monograph wasn't particularly important, but it was charming. And so the editor let it go through.

(By the way, if you want to read Mermin's own thoughts on writing about science, check out his essay/lecture Writing Physics.)

In the end, I'd have to say that the more personal you make your nonfiction, the more appealing it will be. But in general, it's going to boil down to the type of nonfiction you are writing.

Copyright © Michael Burstein



December 2016

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