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Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Power of Knowledge, the Privilege to Learn

One of the things I love about writing is that writers never stop learning. We learn about crafting a great sentence, paragraph, chapter, article, novel, or nonfiction book. We learn how to make our sentences more powerful. We create new expressions. We learn what to delete from our writing. We also have to learn about the rest of the world. The fact that we’re writers gives us complete freedom to ask anything, look up anything, learn anything we want, and question anything, because it may very well show up in our next article, short story, or book.

I enjoy checking facts when I edit for clients, although it’s not supposed to be part of the editor’s job. Recently a client referred to the shrimp as the only being with its skeleton on the outside. No, I thought, I’ve heard the term “exoskeleton,” so there must be more beings with external skeletons, although nothing immediately came to mind. A quick Internet search for “exoskeleton” turned up the obvious: clams, oysters, and mussels. Of course! I learned something and could repair the sentence in the book I was editing to read that shrimp are one of several beings with its skeleton on the outside.

I’ve always had a natural curiosity, and I think that’s what originally led me into journalism. I love to hear new facts, new figures, and new findings. Today I read about a research team in Denmark that analyzed more than three million checkout receipts from ninety-eight supermarkets and found that wine buyers bought more fruits, vegetables, olives, poultry, milk, and low-fat cheese, on average than those who bought beer. Hmm. Beer buyers, it turns out, bought more chips, soft drinks, cold cuts, sausages, and sugar. If you say this information has nothing to do with writing, you’re dead wrong. Look at the juicy information I gleaned for characters in a short story or novel! Look how I can use that information to differentiate characters and make each one unique, based on his or her supermarket purchases.

At the Christian Author’s Guild where I spoke recently, one of my topics was “Build Characters; Don’t Just Describe Them.” The type of information I learned from reading about that research in Denmark can be put to good use when I’m next building characters, even if I don’t show them in a supermarket. Still, I can show what they serve guests who drop by. The beer drinker will serve chips and Vienna sausages; the wine drinker will serve apples and cheese. Such behaviors will ring true with readers, because the habits of wine drinkers versus beer drinkers are probably obvious to all of us, yet no one had confirmed it before.

Ah, the power of knowledge, the privilege to ask and learn, and the bonus of getting paid for it: could anything be better than being a writer?

Yours in writing,
Bobbie Christmas (Bobbie@zebraeditor.com or bzebra@aol.com )
Author of triple-award-winning _Write In Style_ (Union Square Publishing), owner of Zebra Communications, and director of The Writers Network