Writing Secrets: Prepare for a volcano

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

I was listening to a podcast the other day about two guys who’ve created an app which generates inspirational messages from random phrases.

First they fed it vast numbers of inspirational aphorisms, so it would get the idea about the structure and form of such things. Then they left it to find their own. The discussion circled around the idea of how the computer often did come up with a maxim which people seemed to find helpful or profound. Thousands of people, if the hits are anything to go by.

“For a friendship, prepare for a volcano.”

That’s one of them. Meaningless? Or does it say something about the nature of friendship?

Are we pathetic, the host asked, that we humans can find something profound in inspirational adages randomly generated by a machine?

The thing is, of course, the saying itself is not profound. It’s a mix of random words. We humans create the profundity, not the machine.

We shouldn’t be surprised. We are never passive. Our entire survival through the centuries has depended on our reading sparse signals and taking meaning from them.

Without even being aware of it, we watch people for clues: facial expressions, body language, things said or unsaid … and we draw conclusions. He’s angry. He doesn’t like us. He’s keen on me. We’re so used to doing it, we hardly take note of the evidence which leads us to the interpretation.

That’s how we read too. The writer gives us an outline; a few brush strokes. We fill them in – in technicolour. We’re used to picking up clues and signs and creating meaning from them.

Reading is active. It’s a two-way process. It’s an important fact to remember in the attempt to write well. Don’t underestimate readers. Trust them. They’ve been primed by thousands of years of evolution to take meaning from the barest clues.

Don’t hammer things home. You’re insulting them by doing so. Give them a friendship. They’ll prepare for a volcano all by themselves.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: Irresponsible and risky – but we do it anyway

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