A few weeks ago I took the Gopen writing course. It was an intensive course in expository writing from a readers’ perspective. The course ran two consecutive Saturdays from 7:30am to 5pm. For me it was mandatory.
I have to admit, when I received the email from my boss insisting that I register for the course, I was a bit miffed. Wasn’t he the one who told me I was a good writer? Am I not a published author? Of course he didn’t know that, but I still complained to a few of my co-workers that I didn’t need the course. And I felt justified in not wanting to attend. That was two Saturdays that I had to spend away from my kids. And I had to drive on the highway to get there (I am terrified of highways).
Well I did take the course, reluctantly deciding I was going to ditch it the following week. Was I in for a surprise! Not only was it interesting and entertaining but it was indeed helpful and necessary for my development as a writer.
The instructor, Dr George Gopen from Duke University gave us one rule to writing from a readers’ perspective: there is no rule. That immediately got my attention. He went on to discuss about the importance of context and sentence structure that would make it clear to the reader. One thing he said that really made an impact on me was, “No matter how good a writer you are, if your reader cannot understand you, you have not done the job.”
So true! How many times have I read scientific papers three and four times and still could not understand what they were saying? I just thought I was dumb. But Dr. Gopen is right. When we write, the reader should not have to use up all his/her energy in understanding what we are communicating. We did some exercises that really drove home the point. They involved rearranging sentence structure to make it much clearer for the reader.
When I went home I re-examined some of my scientific writing and I was appalled. I had fallen into the trap of so many scientists writing long sentences with a million and one sub-clauses before getting to the point. It made it unclear for the reader.
I couldn’t wait to attend the next class. And it did not disappoint. At the end of the course I asked Dr. Gopen if offered courses like this for fiction writers. He said no, because fiction is for the interpretation of the reader, while expository writing, be it legal, journalistic, political, or scientific is to provide information for the reader. Therefore a writer of expository writing should write from the reader’s perspective.
I am happy I took that class. I spoke about it so much that my boss joined me for the second session. Now he’s still talking about it.
I don’t agree with Dr. Gopen about the utility of his course in fiction writing. I’ve read some fiction that are so hard to follow that I gave up reading midway. Yes fiction can have multiple interpretations. But unless the reader comprehends, or if that reader has to expend too much energy reading the material, it becomes unrewarding.
So I’ve begun to apply some of the clarity in my fiction writing. I think I am a better writer for it, both in the non-fiction writing required for my day job and in my fiction writing.