Elements of Critique: Nuance

My eight year old is in a phase where he starts every story with “It’s funny because…”

He loves to make us laugh, and I wonder if he thinks that warning us like a verbal cue card will elicit the reaction he seeks.

On one of my deployments, I worked with a Lieutenant who did the same thing. After someone made a joke, he would frequently say, “See, it’s funny, because you’re old” or whatever explanation fit. The ridiculousness of him needlessly explaining the jokes was almost as funny as the jokes themselves.

This is something to avoid in writing. In one way, it’s emotional “telling,” flashing cue cards to the reader. In another way, it doesn’t trust the reader to grasp the underlying meaning or humor… or perhaps it doesn’t trust that the writer did a good enough job communicating that meaning.

Therefore, when critiquing, I look for Nuance.

If I have to explain a joke, it’s not funny. If I have to explain my subtlety, it’s no longer subtle.
The power of a good twist of phrase is lost when we unpack it all in the next sentence. I have to trust the reader to figure some things out.

So I look for instances where the writer beats the reader over the head stating the obvious.

I’m reading a book aloud with my wife and kids each night as a family activity. There’s a character named the Wit who is sort of the court jester, and his job is to ridicule the nobility in the King’s court. Some of the best lines are the ones with a subtle or clever twist. My teenagers hear them and think through what’s actually being said. Then they laugh, and it’s genuine.

If each of those lines ended calling attention to how clever the Wit was, the nuance and humor would be lost.

In a non-fiction piece, like a self-help or lifestyle article, this issue of nuance can reveal itself in its opposite: a preachy tone that sets readers off. I could write down a lot of facts and a coherent, logical argument telling my reader directly to cut down the fat in their diet and get to the gym. I could list all the benefits they’ll see. But in most cases, when I club the reader over the head with my point, they lose interest.

Consider why we see so many articles where someone relates their success along the lines of “This is what worked for me.” This subtle change of relationship between writer and reader gets us out of preacher-sinner territory and brings us into a sort of collaboration. The writer is now a friend coming alongside, offering indirect advice, using their own life experience as a parable, letting the reader take from it the meaning they need.

If I am critiquing such a piece, I look for the tone. Am I being preached at? Or am I reading an encouraging “I’ve been there” note from a friend?

Finally, there are some cases where nuance should be avoided. If I am writing a research paper or academic project, laying out a case using factual evidence, then nuance and subtlety obscure my point.

In a recent post, I used the example from World War II of the 82nd Airborne preparing the way for the Normandy invasion on D-Day. If I’m critiquing a paper or article recounting their exploits, I want to see the details and facts laid out plain. I want to be persuaded of the importance of their actions by the true accounts. The point of the paper in this case is to make its case. Nuance gets in the way of that.

Overall, nuance is another example like a spice in cooking where – if we use it at all – we sprinkle, not pour. With light seasoning, the reader will catch the subtle flavors and enjoy the meal. And if they don’t, the meal is not ruined. But if I dump out a bottle of minced garlic into the pan, the spice overwhelms the enjoyment one might get from the meal.

Now that I think of it, my wife would probably accuse me of doing that very thing: pouring on the minced garlic when I cook.

“It’s funny, because” in this case, it’s true.

Today marks over halfway through the A to Z blogging challenge. Judging by the feedback, people are enjoying these Elements of Critique posts. If you have time and inclination, that link will lead to the list of other bloggers participating this year. There’s a wide variety (about 2000 last time I checked), so I bet there’s a unique title or original topic that might pique anyone’s interest. Take a look. Maybe you’ll find a new voice worthy of your “Follow.”

And speaking of originality, that will be the topic for tomorrow. Thanks for reading!

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