Thursday, July 31, 2014

Lost in Transcription?—Leaving Out the Why in Non-Fiction

So. You probably know and understand all about transcribing and translating a gene. People, presumably trained biologists, transcribe a DNA sequence and translate it into a protein.

Yeah, I don’t understand it either. I read about it on-line, and it's no surprise I didn't understand much of anything said. But to boot, I have no idea Why scientists go through this process because the article I read didn't say. To be fair, the author probably knows his main audience already knows Why. But what if the Why could help an interested layperson?

Writing is more up my alley than genes and proteins. You see, transcribing (and yes, I am making this up) is writing about what you think, or know, or think you know. Translation (still fabricating here) is turning that information into a complete message that entertains, informs, inspires, or all three.

Occasionally as I edit, however, I notice that an author leaves out a Why. Not Who, What, Where, and When (see self-editing what’s not there), perhaps, but Why. For example, I edited a piece that promised a certain benefit if three specific entities are present in a person’s life. But Why (or the oft-related How) would those two entities create that benefit? He did not say. Why ask the reader to ponder the Why on their own when a few more words transcribed from the author's brain could enhance the reader's experience in the first place, helping to translate the intended message?

So as you review your work as a writer, be mindful of whether or not you have included a Why. Consider whether a Why will enhance your reader’s experience. Sometimes the Why is not necessary, but it is still better to leave it out deliberately, after some thought, not inadvertently.

For readers, have you ever read a book that never explained a Why? How did that change your experience?

For writers, do you already have a process for ensuring everything your reader needs to know is included in your work?


  1. I wonder about the whys of biographies. I just finished Brendan Gill's 1989 bio of Frank Lloyd Wright. Great book, good info, all the whos, whats and wheres, even a lot of hows. But the question I was hoping would be answered was not: why did this genius of an architect fail so miserably socially, morally, spiritually? The book reports on the failure, but spends little to no time on why it was so. As I think about it, many (most?) biographies I've read do likewise with the why. Is why not in the purview of the biographer?

    1. Interesting thought. Thanks for posting.


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