Sturgis’s Law #7

ink blot 2Last spring I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #7:

It’s hard to see the whole when you’re up too close, and easy to see unity when you’re too far away.

Notice how some people will make sweeping generalizations about huge groups of people they know very little about, then call you on every generalization you make about their people?

That’s what Sturgis’s Law #7 is about. This is a presidential election year in the United States — lucky you if you haven’t noticed — and generalizations are running amok. Generalizations are often made about groups of people the generalizer doesn’t particularly like. Conservatives generalize about liberals, liberals about conservatives, Democrats about Trump supporters, Sanders supporters about Clinton supporters, gun control advocates about gun owners . . .

When anyone generalizes about “Americans,” all 320 million of us, I look around my town of fewer than 3,000 souls and realize I’d have a hard time making a generalization about us, other than “we all live in West Tisbury.”

Sturgis’s Law #7 has several applications for writers and editors. Here’s one: You’ve got a grand idea for a story or novel or essay. You map it out in your head. Then you sit down to write it — and you immediately realize how little you know about the details necessary to create images in the reader’s mind.

Here’s another: You’re so fascinated by the research you’re doing for your project that you lose sight of, and maybe interest in, the project itself.

And here’s yet another, this time from the editorial side: When I’m copyediting — reading line by line watching for typos, pronouns with unclear referents, sentences that swallow their own tails — I probably won’t notice that a compelling scene in chapter 4 really needs to come earlier. But if I’m critiquing, considering the work as a whole, I’ll probably skip over the typos or even miss them completely. In fact, if I’m too conscious of typos, it’s either because I’m not paying enough attention to the big picture or because the typos are so numerous they’re distracting me from my job.

Many editors specialize in either “big picture” structural editing or sentence-by-sentence language editing, but even those who do both won’t try to do both at the same time. Wise writers do likewise. When you start revising, don’t obsess about typos and subject-verb agreement. Deal with those when the work’s structure is solid. If you share your near-final drafts with volunteer readers, make it clear that you want them to read, not proofread — unless one of them is a crackerjack speller, in which case you may want to let him or her have at it.

In traditional publishing, a manuscript passed through several editors on its way to becoming a book. Once the structure was sound, the focus moved on to the paragraphs and sentences, then to the words, and finally the proofreader went hunting for the details that had eluded everyone else. The result probably wasn’t error-free, but it came pretty close.

Such attentiveness, however, is time-consuming and expensive, beyond the reach of most self-publishers and many small and not-so-small presses. Still, it’s possible to get excellent results by keeping Sturgis’s Law #7 in mind. Both distance vision and tight focus are important, but don’t expect yourself or your editor to catch everything on one pass through your manuscript.

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Serendipitously, I just came across this passage in The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the Twentieth Century’s Preeminent Writers, edited by George Plimpton (New York: Random House, 1999). It’s full of pithy comments by all sorts of writers on all sorts of writing-related subjects. It’s also out of print, alas. I got it on interlibrary loan. Anyway, this bit from novelist Michael Crichton illustrates what Sturgis’s Law #7 is about:

In my experience of writing, you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you’re in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room, and you have to assume the ship’s exterior. What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say, Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.

The Charles W. Morgan, restored 19th century whaling ship, seen from the dock. Vineyard Haven, Mass., June 2014.

The Charles W. Morgan, restored 19th century whaling ship, seen from the dock. Vineyard Haven, Mass., June 2014.

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5 thoughts on “Sturgis’s Law #7

  1. Thank you for the sensible and important “alert” regarding how we view the world and the people in it, as well as how one can best assess his/her creative efforts. Distance vision and tight focus . . I’m making a note.

    Also: I need to track down Sturgis’s Laws #s 1 – 6. And, I need to track down that book interlibrarily.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you look up at the menu bar, you’ll see a link for Sturgis’s Laws. I’ve been adding them to the list as I blog about them, with links to each blog post. I’ve got to get cracking, because there are 18 or 19 of them at this point. Sneaky things keep proliferating when my back is turned.

      I really like A Writer’s Chapbook and have started looking for a used copy. (Advance warning: The prices on Amazon are ridiculous.) I’m reading it straight through, but it’s the kind of book you want to have around to dip in and out of. All the quotes come from interviews published in the Paris Review over several decades. Many of them are long enough that the writer’s personality and experience come through. They’re not the sort of disembodied aphorisms you find in “inspirational” quote books.

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  2. Excellent post! And as always, perfectly timely. Drowning in my chaotic project and its notecards, file folders, clippings and quotes, I left the whole mess on my desk and went to another room with just paper and pen where the story revealed itself. From now on, I will travel back and forth between the dock and the boiler room.

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  3. This post is timely for me, too. I’m in the middle of a high-level revision pass and I’m noticing how many things I missed in a previous revision because I’d been too “zoomed in.” Law #7 is definitely true. With writing, I feel like it’s less about finding a perfect distance and more about remembering to switch between “far away” and “up close” so you capture both the big and small things.

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    • Bifocals! 🙂 In my WIP two long-estranged sisters are having a very intense conversation that extends through several scenes while one sister is taking the other sight-seeing. The interplay of wide-angle (place) and tight focus (people) is making it happen. I think it’ll make it more readable too..

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