writing jargon: quoting, understanding, and teaching it

I believe the English definitions of jargonistic writing terms mentioned in a past post is how “there are no rules” went from exceptional work can violate any rule it likes to conventional work doesn’t need conventions.

The analogy I use to explain it is a young child with only one piece of paper who wants to make a perfect card for their parent and/or guardian. A folded paper can never be unfolded again, so the child must learn how to know when they fold the paper, it will make the ideal width fold instead of the elongated height fold for maximum image and text card shape.

So the child learns first that they can pre-bend the paper to ensure that the card will be card-shaped and not too long and narrow shaped. Then this hypothetical child starts to call the long-and-narrow card less than ideal shape a hot dog bun fold, while the card shape is more of a hamburger bun.

The child created their own mnemonic they attached their own meaning that they will never forget because creating the mnemonic was the last stage in the process, not the first. So, let’s say that calling one fold hot dog and the other hamburger takes off in the creative space of card-making. When the concept is first introduced, anyone who struggled with remembering the way the paper should be folded to ensure the text of the card wouldn’t read like an e.e. cummings poem greatly appreciated a much easier way to remember which direction to fold the paper.

If the instructor of the method demonstrates what a hamburger fold *is*, the mnemonic works. If the instructor only tells the class to “make a hamburger fold,” a hamburger fold will become a scrunched-up piece of paper because “a hamburger” can technically be made in any shape.

The instructor must compare what was learned against what was taught to evaluate their pedagogical approach. If anything is an ideal card shape, then the reason for the fold — to produce a card that provides the most room to write a meaningful message — gets lost.

But let’s say that the easiest way to make an ideal card shape is a metaphor for the concept that a reader must understand the importance of the events before they can attach a meaning to them independent of the character’s understanding. Let’s say a writer came to the critique group and told their fellow writers why they should show the reader the significance of an event and not rely on telling them why something was important through dialogue or exposition. That gets shortened to “show, don’t tell.”

As long as every writer in the critique group understands that if the reader is told of the significance instead of being shown them, the reader is only asked to remember the significance, “show, don’t tell” is common sense. No author can create dramatic irony when the reader only knows what the character does.

“Show, don’t tell” is writing jargon that means a story that shows the readers the world, problem, and character has more emotional resonance than a story that tells the reader about the world, problem, or character. There may be a time in the work when telling the reader something can have enormous emotional significance if the story, but that doesn’t happen until the reader understands the world’s context.

Familiarity breeds contempt across all things. “Show, don’t tell” is the single most important piece of writing advice learners must understand before they can start to see the loss of potential reader engagement as characters keep arriving so late that they must be told what just happened.

A layperson only has to understand the basic concept of skillsets if they want to. A learner must acquire the skillsets a professional will require in the field. A professional must use the skillsets as a profession, and an expert assists the learner in honing the skillsets they have and acquiring the skillsets they don’t.

A professional may not have the expertise required to state their process simply enough for a non-professional to understand correctly because they don’t share the same knowledge base. If a professional states, “Conflict is important,” they assume the listener hears …enough to learn how to use it effectively so the author can focus on making that conflict resonate with the reader.

The average underpublished writer will hear, “Conflict is important,” and assume they know enough about writing to think they also heard an unspoken but not enough to learn how to use it to engage readers because there are no rules at the end of it. When professionals end their talk on craft with “Of course, there are no rules,” the unspoken misunderstanding is said aloud by a professional in a position of authority.

The survivorship bias in creative writing pedagogy is strong. If 1000 writers use “there are no rules” as a methodology, and only 1% of them succeed, at least one of those 10 writers will become an instructor teaching their “very successful” method because it worked for them.

It goes unnoticed that their success has far more to do with the opportunities they’ve been given to hone their raw talent and creative intelligence. The invisible — and not so invisible — privileges of a successful writer can be anything from a supportive spouse — emotionally or financially — to being abnormally tenacious to having the advantage of an education that allows for a job that still provides them with the time and energy to pursue a passion as a career while still financially supporting the family. Which partner is the primary caregiver matters when it comes to writing as a career.

A student in one of my classes asked a question to the instructor responsible for teaching writers to become professionals in one of the most demanding and competitive genres of fiction. They wanted to know how they could have escalated the tension better in their submitted work.

“Escalating tension” is writing jargon. I’m not saying this instructor didn’t know how to escalate tension in her work, but she had no clue how to explain it to a learner. You might think I’m speculating, but she told me that when she asked me to explain it for her.

So I did. Escalating tension is the idea that the work starts with tension beyond the character’s grasp. Just as they seem to somewhat have a handle on it, a new source of tension adds more complications.

But that doesn’t explain why or how it’s done or what changes the learner has to make in their work to escalate their tension. It doesn’t state the most accessible source of tension is conflict. All writers have been cultured among our jargon, so it appears to be the plain English definition. But these words define specific terms for the professionals who use them.

My institution instructed learners to understand that “conflict” only means “characters arguing or fighting” because that’s what that term means to a general population. To professional writers, “conflict” is jargon that means anything that prevents your character from progressing closer to their objective in the story. Interpersonal conflict between characters is only one form of conflict.

But current creative writing pedagogy assumes any learner who can quote the terms professionals use also possesses the knowledge base required to come to the rational conclusion that they do not need to learn how to use the terms used so often by professionals that they’ve been reduced to jargon.

My instructors didn’t just fail to instruct their learners on how to produce work to professional standards.

They banned any discussion of professional standards.

I would have liked to have had this conversation privately. But it was easier to believe and required much less work to be convinced I hadn’t liked how the class was taught.

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