Brain coral from senokulvitre.

As someone with little formal training in creative writing and literature, I’m learning a lot by submitting stories and getting feedback. (When I get any feedback on my submissions, which is rare but not never). And this morning I had an insight which may prove helpful.

In my teaching on scientific writing, I’m constantly telling my students to avoid conversational writing. That is, to not describe the mental states and motivations for activity (e.g. want, feel, need, believe) but simply to objectively describe the rationale and activity directly (e.g. “To facilitate meaningful comparisons, I used a matched-pair experimental design…”) In looking at my fiction, I find that I’m reluctant to describe characters’ intentions or mental states.

Part of this is probably also a reaction to the “show don’t tell” mantra. I don’t want to merely describe the character’s emotional state — instead, I want to demonstrate through their actions how the character is feeling. But a few comments I’ve seen from editors suggest that readers want more about what characters are thinking.

It doesn’t seem like it ought to be that hard to do. And yet… It reminds me of a philosophy class I took as a sophomore where I struggled with a similar issue. The professor wanted us to write essays that included, not just arguments based on reason, but also based on feelings and intentions. I failed for half a semester before I realized that I just needed to write a bunch of stream-of-consciousness bullshit. The professor was happy and I ended up with a C. Maybe the same approach will work here.

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