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Tell, Don’t Tell (Revisited)

collateral tales

collateral tales

Keeping your urge to explain in check is one of the essential tools for good & healthy creative writing. For a doctoral thesis, not so much.

When, eventually, the full force of my thesis advisor’s feedback hit my mailbox last weekend, it wasn’t remotely as dramatic as I had made it out to be in my imagination. Instead, his feedback’s general gist reminded me of my high-flying entry on “show, don’t tell,” i.e., my advice to suppress the urge to explain: everything my Ph.D. advisor suggested rewriting or rearranging was about making my arguments clearer and more comprehensible—in other words, to explain.

So what he told me is to do way more introductory work for readers not exhaustively privy to my field, and explain before each chapter and subchapter what I’m going to do, and after each chapter and subchapter what I just did. He told me to explain, not allude; be up-front, not climactic; be straight-in-your-face, not subtle and clever.

He’s right, of course. A doctoral thesis is not a genre novel, after all.

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