Theories in Writing

Ernest Becker wrote in his book, The Denial of Death, “… [I]n order to turn out a piece of work the author has to exaggerate the emphasis of it… and he gets carried away by his own exaggeration, as his distinctive image is built on it.” Basically, Becker is explaining that with every theory or piece of work, an author must really build it up so that it gets read. At some point, the author is guilty of over-inflating the premise of what they’re writing. Their big idea can become too big.

He completes his thought by saying, “The problem is to find the truth underneath the exaggeration, to cut away the excess elaboration or distortion and include that truth where it fits.” So the task the reader is left with is reading through whatever text is in front of them and thinking critically about it.

We can’t just buy into whatever we’re reading 100%. Typically, there is going to be some argument that the author is making with anecdotal evidence (I’ll probably write a post about what I call Malcolm Gladwell books in the future). Sometimes, the argument will work and other times there will be exceptions or examples where it doesn’t apply.

For example, in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, it’s argued that sometimes our first instincts are correct, even if they aren’t based in surface level thinking. Does that mean we should always act on impulse? Of course not, and that isn’t what Gladwell is arguing. But even though he directly says not to do this, the majority of his book is arguing that there is a serious untapped potential we’re ignoring, and as long as that is mainly what the author is talking about, it comes across as an argument.

Angela Duckworth does a great job summarizing this dilemma in her book Grit: “A theory is an explanation. A theory takes a blizzard of facts and observations and explains, in the most basic terms, what the heck is going on. By necessity, a theory is incomplete. It oversimplifies. But in doing so, it helps us understand.”

What I think we, as readers, can take away from these two quotes is that not every theory explains everything away. The authors write a lot of content (and I mean a LOT) knowing full-well (unless they’re convincing themselves otherwise) that their theory cannot be applied to every facet of life. The authors write a lot of exaggerated material, but underneath all of that fluff, there will be a kernel of truth.

But C.B., you are writing to us right now. How do we know you aren’t doing it right now?

Well, dear reader, you’re very astute. You caught me. Not literally every writer must be guilty of this. However, it is good to take this idea along with you while reading whatever content lies before you. If someone makes a universal statement (every, none, all, etc.), that’s a sign that your writer may be exaggerating.

Even if it’s me.


…especially if it’s me.

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