In his book On Bullshit Harry G. Frankfurt wrote, “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.”
Something magical happens when people are called upon to give information they don’t have: rather than admit the limits of their knowledge they give it the old college try. We all know what decisive conclusions sound like. We need not know what we’re talking about to draw them. So we riff to buy ourselves time until we stumble upon a point.
This article is going to explore this phenomenon, identify how it shows up in fiction writing, and what can be done to fix it so that would-be authors can seem like they actually know what they’re doing.
How to Write an Essay With No Understanding of the Material
Have you ever taken a test you haven’t studied for and come to an essay question you didn’t understand? Did you end up giving a bloated answer to compensate for your lack of comprehension?
Maybe the writing prompt made the mistake of telling you to give an opinion so you gave a passionate non-answer. The instructions told you to be persuasive so you made an emphatic plea for ambivalence. The guidelines said to back up your conclusions so you made a point not to make any.
Without knowing if you were for or against the proposition you preached balance. You didn’t understand either side of the argument so you endorsed the middle. You disagreed with anyone with a strong opinion. You claimed nothing could be observed without being influenced, said that all truth was subjective, and denied the existence of facts. You said there was no such thing as absolutes therefor nothing could be known for certain therefor no answer to the question was wrong. Your point of view was that your eyes were to remain closed the entire time.
You came to no conclusion and showed your work. You solved for X with a question mark. X = the unknown known. X = the dark field of study. X = the great mystery.
You moonwalked around the issue, questioned the question, and hit the nail on the length.
Rather than prove you were on the ball you proved you were in the same ballpark, choosing to address a subject that was adjacent. You broadened a nuanced topic so you could compare and contrast generalizations about it. You made false comparisons.
You cited references who weren’t available for comment, as in, “Some people say that…” You deferred to a bandwagon filled with your own clones, “Everybody knows that,” and made appeals to anonymous authorities “Experts recommend that…”
You had a vague idea of what your professor was looking for so you threw out as many key words as you could free associate in the hopes that some would stick. You didn’t persuade so much as you persisted. You wrote a carefully considered checklist. Your word count grew with each revision as you fluffed out any language that seemed too pointed.
You rhetorically restated the prompt query and ended on the line, “Is a controversial question, but an important one that must be critically considered.”
Your conclusion made up for its weak conviction with a strong tone. Ninety percent of what you say is how you say it and you said nothing loudly.
How Bogus Essay Answers Show Up in Fiction Writing
So many of these bloated essay answers show up in places outside of the classroom: from political debates to corporate apologies, from gossip bloggers to corespondents on TV. The empty non-statement even weasels its way into narrative writing.
I’m in the process of editing my novel We The Damned and I’m finding these bloated essay answers everywhere. I wrote one every time I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I let my narrator openly debate the risks of the story movie forward. That had to get cut. I let the narrator review everything that happened so far. That got cut. I let the narrator share personal philosophies that had nothing to do with the story. That got cut too.
I had to call my past self out on his bullshit. On days I didn’t know what to write I typed the literary equivalent of an overlong essay answer to meet my word count goals.
If you find yourself over justifying a statement, not by supporting it but by rephrasing it, you’re giving yourself something to edit. If your hero meanders without momentum commenting on their surroundings, you’re giving yourself something to edit. If your characters have conflict free conversations, for the sheer love of banter, you’re giving yourself something to edit.
If you find a lot of essay answers creeping into your writing you a few options to handle them:
Option 1: Get the essay out of your system
If you’re uncertain about what you’re about to write hit RETURN several times so you can put some distance between your stronger writing and your experiment. This is where you can write unwieldy descriptions of the surroundings, describe the internal emotions of your cast, and riff with some conversational dialogue.
Go nuts until something catches. If you get then sense that you’ve stumbled onto something substantial, find where it starts and hit RETURN a few times to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Then go back to your literary essay answer, highlight it, and put it in italics. Add a comment in the margins that says, “REVISE THIS MESS.”
Option 2: Give yourself some material to mine through
With your inflated essay answer quarantined between several spaces go back and see if you wrote anything clever. Ignore the forest of text and focus on the sentences. Perhaps there’s a one-liner worth copying and pasting into a better passage.
Option 3: Spare your darlings
Keep a folder labeled CUT SCENES in the same folder as your work in progress. Highlight the offending block of text, cut that sucker out of their, and paste it into a new document. Save that document with the Chapter number it came from so that you have some material to dig through if you feel something is missing when you’re editing. Odds are that you won’t, but saving your essay somewhere else will make it easier for you to slice it out.
Option 4: Forget your word count goals until you dig yourself out of the hole
Focus on outlining the next few scenes to build a sequence. Find a threw line that will get you through the act and point you toward the end. If you plot developments with momentum you’ll have no room to write these bloated essay answers. Focus on linking causes and effects. This event happens, therefore this event has to happen next. This was meant to happens, but this happens to stop it, therefore this has to happen.
Form a chain.
No author can be confident about what they’re writing a hundred percent of the time. Working through writer’s block means abandoning the notion of perfection. You might start your writing day with no clue where your story is going and eventually find your footing. You might press on only to find you’ve written 2,000 words of an empty essay answer, not swimming forward so much as just treading water.
Fiction has many forms of this phenomenon: from describing details that add nothing to scenes to character portraits that never become relevant. Let’s face it, you’re going to write fluff like this. The trick is to mark it in your document so your future self knows to revise it, cherry pick the good lines out, or just plain gut it.