Don’t Tell Them What They Already Know

I spend way too much time doing what I’m doing now – sitting at this computer. It’s usually unproductive time. (OK, let’s be honest. It’s wasted time.)

But sometimes there’s a payoff. I just came across a wonderful essay by Paul McHenry Roberts called How to Say Nothing in 500 Words. OMG. It’s an oldie-but-goodie piece that goes back to the 1950’s.

The article brought back memories of the countless dull essays I’ve read during my career as an English teacher. And – happily – it also revived memories of some of the great ones. (It also tickled me with a reference to a portable typewriter – ye cats, that was my life for many years.)

I wish I’d read it at the beginning of my teaching career. I started out teaching writing the way I’d been taught – a lot of rules and advice – instead of emphasizing the most important thing: having something to say.

But I digress. This is the first of two or three posts about McHenry’s advice. Here are two rules from him that get to right to the heart of the matter: 

Avoid the Obvious Content

Take the Less Usual Side

Here’s my version: Never tell them what they already know.

It is a rule I strive mightily to live by right here on WritewithJean. There are websites galore about writing (I’ve visited them.) They will solemnly tell you how to differentiate between its and it’s – how to use subordinating conjunctions – how to write an introductory paragraph – and so on.


I’m a Shaw scholar, so I keep up with the new work being done in my field. So much of it is ponderous and heavy – a straightforward idea dressed up in fancy words to impress me. No, I am not impressed. Please – tell me something interesting – surprising – thought provoking.

Suzanne Farrell (world-class ballet dancer who was also George Balanchine’s muse) once said something about pirouettes (fast spins) that has stuck in my head ever since.  Any dancer, she said, can do a pirouette. The problem was to make it interesting. Bravo, Suzanne! (Or perhaps I should say Brava!)

My blog has – I’m happy to say – some loyal visitors who tell me they enjoy my posts. My #1 rule is that I won’t sit down to write unless I have something to say that you haven’t heard before. Or – if you have heard it (today’s topic, for example), I’ll strive mightily to keep you reading anyway.

That pretty much sums up my writing philosophy – and my practice. It should be your policy and practice as well. 

Yes, it’s difficult sometimes. But the upside is that if I stumble across your piece while I’m wasting time at my computer, I’ll probably read the whole thing – eagerly. And that’s been your goal all along, hasn’t it?

Bored bulldog at a computer desk


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