Writing is like magic: only not in the way you expect

A few months ago, I overheard one of our peer consultant, Chris, speaking excitedly about the end stages of a paper. “I just love that moment when it all comes together,” he said. “It’s like magic.”

I agreed that those end stages of a paper can feel magical. When connections between

Image Source: Flicker user Christophe Verdier

different ideas appear and the work you put into research and writing starts to pay off, it can feel exhilarating. I recall Seamus Heaney noting these feelings at a reading some years ago. An audience member asked Heaney what his favorite part of writing a poem was and Heaney said that it was when the poem could get up on its own two legs, move around, and surprise him, showing him ideas or meanings he hadn’t thought of before.

When I tell that Heaney story to classes, some students struggle with the idea that any piece of writing could surprise them. For these writers, that magical moment seems impossible. The end stages of a paper seem at best a relief of stress and frustration. At worst, they confirm the writer’s feelings of self doubt and failure. In these cases, the idea that there is a magic to writing can have a negative effect. If writing is magic, then those writers who don’t feel that mystical exhilaration may give up too soon, imagining that they just can’t cut it.

For all, writing can be like magic, but it won’t be the kind of magic that appears in fairy tales. The magic in writing shares much more in common with the magic you might see on stage at a Vegas nightclub. It may look slick, as if it defies the laws of physics, but it’s all a well practiced illusion. As writers, understanding the basis of these illusions provides us with a lot that we can steal to improve on our own texts.

These parallels between writing and magic struck me after seeing this video of Teller (the silent half of Penn and Teller) explaining the science behind his illusions:

Writers can gain a lot from Teller’s explanations of how he plans out his tricks. Every step of each of the two illusions Teller performs has a purpose, and usually that purpose is to spark the audiences’ intellectual desire to figure things out. The initial appearance of a coin out of thin air creates a puzzle because we know that is not physically possible. The audience continues to watch because it wants to pick up the pattern.

As writers who are trying to engage our reader’s sense of curiosity, we can perform our own magic if we begin everything we write by presenting a picture of the world that is slightly different from our readers’ expectations. The goal is to create a puzzle in the readers’ minds and get them asking questions. Finding the right questions to ask usually means going through a lot of potential questions until you find one with an answer complex enough that it is neither too obvious nor too complicated to fit within the allotted space.

For example, in this post, I chose to compare writing and magic because the two topics seem to have little in common. Because a reader glancing quickly at that title might think that I’m waxing poetic about the joy of writing, a topic that I don’t imagine is as interesting to those readers whom I imagine are my target, I added the subtitle, “only not in the way you expect,” to suggest that the post presents a hopefully new way of thinking about the topic.

The types of puzzles and their presentation within the essay vary depending on the genre of writing. In some academic writing, especially within the humanities, introductions often start with an anecdote. The purpose of that anecdote is not only to engage the readers’ attentions by telling them a story, but also to present the reader, usually an expert in the field, with a piece of information that challenges the way s/he would understand the topic. Scientific writing is usually more direct. It describes how a phenomenon is understood with the purpose of relating what still needs to be investigated. Fiction writing has an altogether different bag of tricks, which usually depends on a reader’s desire to identify with characters.

No matter the genre, all successful writers, like great magicians, understand that their key task is to take their readers by the hand and guide them through the process of understanding their topic, feeding them just enough information at just the right time to get them to come to the same conclusions about their puzzle. The video above demonstrates how careful Teller is in focusing his audiences’ attentions on each individual aspect of the trick. Motions that appear to be done without thought, such as carrying a paper to start or dropping the foam ball in the second trick, play a vital if unexpected role within the trick. Because he is an illusionist, Teller’s goal is to frustrate his audiences’ pattern recognition, providing them just enough information to think they’ve got it figured out and then changing the elements of the trick to complicate that understanding. Fiction, especially mystery and detective fiction, functions in the same way, giving readers enough clues to follow along before leading them down several false paths to delay the moment of gratification.

Academic or journalistic writing must function in a slightly different way. These writers name the solution to their problem up front in their thesis statement, which gives the solution to the problem before the analysis. Because the presentation of the solution before analysis of the problem seems counterintuitive, many novice writers gravitate more towards the fiction model of delaying the presentation of the statement that pulls everything together. What these writers misunderstand is how vital the thesis is in helping to spark the audiences’ curiosity. With apologies for potentially mixing metaphors, academic writers work like those illusionists who name their trick before they actually perform it. Doing so helps to create curiosity because the audience is anxious to see if it can be done. The best academic articles do something very similar; by presenting a thesis that challenges past interpretation, they encourage readers to follow their train of thought, and upon finishing the paper, the readers feel that they’ve learned something new and unexpected.

This stringing together of puzzles takes advantage of the audiences’ psychological and physiological responses. We want to see patterns and look for them unconsciously, reacting with wonder when things aren’t the way they seem. When we solve a puzzle, our brain releases a tiny shot of dopamine, a chemical associated with feelings of pleasure. Both writers and magicians take advantage of these responses to present an opportunity for such wonder and pleasure.

The key to developing  these skills is practice. In the Teller video, each of the sleight of hand manipulations looks clean and natural because he has practiced it until it has become second nature to him. Teller is also a practiced showman who understands how audiences will react to each of these moves. He knows that his audiences will be able to figure out that he’s palming a bunch of coins in his hand, so when that thought occurs to them, he performs a grab that shows his empty palm. The key to the trick’s success depends as much on a deliberate directing of the audiences’ thoughts as it does on misdirection.

Writers also need to practice developing puzzles and learn to present enough information in a way that gets the reader engaged and keeps them thinking along the lines the writer wants. Such skilled guidance requires that the writer knows his/her readers and how they’ll think about a topic. The importance of that understanding of the reader can’t be underestimated. While solving puzzles that are just hard enough causes readers to feel pleasure, the brain reacts very differently if the puzzle presented is too easy, or conversely, too hard, usually leading to a loss of attention or focus.

To develop these skills to the point that a writer can feel the magic of writing that Chris and Seamus Heaney describe in the opening, writers are often best served by reading with an eye towards how other writing is constructed and how that construction affects them. There are enough master writers out there who continue to invent new tricks that I can assure you that knowing the basics behind the magic does little to temper the enjoyment of sussing out the way those tricks are accomplished.


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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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