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April 10th, 2020
Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written that the art of writing is the ability to repeat one’s self without anyone noticing.
Meanwhile teachers of writing caution against repetitive writing. No one wants to read the same sentence over and over.
So what is going on here? Should books be much shorter, with their main point distilled down to a sentence? Do books exist as a giant repetitive elaboration just to have something of “substance” to sell as a product?
Or is there a point to repeating your point?
Taleb’s prescription at first seems cheeky, like a paradoxical joke. However, it’s better interpreted as a riddle with a concrete solution. The point isn’t to fool the reader into reading the same thing over and over. The point of repetition is to account for the fact that all readers are different, and what resonates with one reader will go unnoticed by another, and that second reader might find the same idea in a different incarnation within the same pages.
The purpose of kneading the same point over and over is to present it in as many lights as possible from as many angles as possible. Great fiction writers will describe a scene using all the senses. Visual people will clue into the visual, described scents will light up in the brains of people with good noses, and the musical among us will hear the rhythms and melodies of the author’s imagination. At the end of the day, it’s all the same scene, but every scene evokes a different experience in each person.
The author with a point to make attempts to repackage their idea in as many ways as possible so that it has a chance to land with as many different kinds of people as possible.
Tinkered Thinking, for example, only has one core idea. This idea is encapsulated in a single sentence, and each of the hundreds of episodes is an attempt to approach that idea from a slightly different angle.
We might imagine an idea in the center of a circle. As a reader and a thinker, we can imagine stepping on to this circle and looking at the idea in the middle. We can then take a step to the side and see the same idea from a slightly different angle. We can keep taking steps until we’ve gone around the entire circle. But of course, a circle has infinite points. We can go around the circle again taking half steps and technically see the same idea in a new and nuanced way with each new step.
On top of this issue of nuance and iterative presentation is the fact that we humans don’t get the obvious point until it’s been made obvious. It perhaps does well to note that the word ‘obvious’ means ‘frequently encountered’. Burying the sole point of a book into one single sentence makes it likely that very few readers will actually catch it. Most are often too distracted by the desire to take another sip of that latte. But state it again, preferably in a new way, and you’re likely to catch the reader while they notice.
On top of this, perhaps a reader picks up on the point quickly, but is unimpressed. It’s not until later that this reader sees the same idea described within the parameters of a specific application that the true profundity of the idea finally hits home.
It’s not just a matter of different people, but a matter of different attitudes, emotions and perspectives that take place within a single person.
To catch someone at just the right moment, when that person is in just the right state of mind, to understand some subtle idea is indeed more rare than we’re perhaps prepared to admit. But spin the chamber again and pull the trigger, and after enough tries, the point will land home.
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