Tuesday, May 02, 2006

On Basics, Boredom, and Breeding Contempt

When Robert and I were first married, we took a month-long honeymoon. We had no money. We had no jobs. We had just graduated university, had no commitments -- nowhere we needed to be. We rented a cabin near the Finger Lakes of upstate New York and did absolutely nothing of consequence for 4 glorious weeks.

The area was gorgeous. We hiked and explored in the state parks and wandered up and down some of the lakeshores. We went up to Canada--to Niagra Falls--for a weekend, but for the most part, we stayed fairly close to home. It was delightful. Calm. Quiet. Serene. Beautiful. And inexpensive. Perfect.

No one we talked to could believe we were on our honeymoon. We were asked "Why come here?" more times than we could count. We saw beautiful trees, historical sites, and quiet streets. All those who lived there could see were factories closing, imminent job shortages, and roads in need of repair.

Familiarity, the adage tells us, breeds contempt.

It happens when we know something so well, so intimately, so thoroughly that we see it only through jaded eyes that have become blind to its charms. We are actually surprised to discover that someone else finds mystery or consequence in something with which we have become hopelessly familiar.

The contempt of familiarity is a very real danger to any work of non-fiction. Since the writer is an expert on the subject matter, he or she is so well-versed, so up-to-date, and has such a complete grasp of the material that the reader is often not given all the information necessary to understand what is written.

Excessive familiarity blinds the author to an understanding of what the average reader may not know before reading the book. It can lead the author to assume that everyone knows a thing when, in fact, only masters of the craft are aware of it. It causes authors to use jargon, acronyms, and "inside terminology," rather than defining a word or explaining a phrase.

The last few projects I've worked on have been at risk for this. In every instance, the projects benefitted from the clear, unclouded eye of someone who was completely unversed in the subject at hand.

(That "someone," incidentally, wasn't always me. I, too, find it easy to assume that the reader is more knowledgeable about a subject. If I'm co-authoring a project about which I know nothing, I'm pretty good at eliminating jargon. If I know something about the subject matter, however, I try to get the opinion of someone else.)

This topic has arisen somewhat as we're working on Dr. Warson's Back Book. A portion of the book covers what happens during a typical back exam. It tells about certain physical movements and diagnostic tools. It explains what the patient can expect. It also illuminates what the physician does, and what he's looking for.

Neurological exams are not a part of the average person's day. So, we're taking great care to define any anatomical or diagnostic terms, to include a lot of illustrations, and to explain exactly what happens. Dr. Warson voiced a concern that the information in this chapter might be a little... well... dull.

Upon re-reading it to see if he had a point, I had to laugh. It's not boring, it's thorough. It's not dull, it's detailed. When the final edit comes, we'll take pains to make the reading as interesting and engaging as possible. But the information contained in the chapter so far must stay. Only a neurosurgeon with 30 years of practice would find it contemptuously familiar. The rest of us need to read it.