A Toast to Balance

Imagine your perfect kitchen.

You have an oven.  You have a stove.  You have a microwave.  Between the toaster and the refrigerator is a clock radio that plays your favorite tunes.  Special lighting illuminates every inch of countertop.  This kitchen is basically the Ikea model; functionality, variety, and brushed aluminum everywhere.

Unfortunately, this kitchen has no electrical outlets.  When you go to make toast, you might be disappointed.

Now imagine the opposite.  Your friend has a kitchen.  It has electrical outlets every six inches.  No matter how many beaters, blenders, or bread machines your friend owns, each one has an outlet.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t have any of those appliances.  In fact, despite all her outlets, she has nothing to plug in.

Yours might be the Ikea model kitchen, but hers is the Home Depot electrical showcase.  (“Choose the outlet that fits your personality!!”)

Will either kitchen work if you want toast?  Probably not.  What kind of kitchen would give you toast?  That’s pretty easy to imagine: the kitchen with the best of both worlds.  Enough appliances to do the job, with enough outlets to power them all.  Perfection.

Before I lose you, I promise I’m not going into kitchen design.  I’d like to twist this metaphor to talk about speaking and writing (especially nonfiction).  Despite the appliances, this is a “show don’t tell” kind of post.

Your kitchen = your paper, your speech, your book.  Whatever you’re writing.

Your appliances = the examples you use to prove a point or reinforce something.

Your outlets = the transitions connecting and explaining those examples.

We all know the advice “show don’t tell”.  I’ve talked about it a lot.  Others have talked about it more.  Essentially, in a story you want to show the emotion instead of telling what’s going on inside people’s heads— show through senses or actions or whatever needs to happen.  The story feels more real when shown that way, rather than feeling flat and boring.

The same thing goes for nonfiction, such as essays or speeches.  I have, in the past, written posts about 500 words explaining the bare bones of what I’m thinking— the concepts, the procedures— but no examples.  They’re hard to read.  They might be short, but they’re thick with information.  It takes a lot of thought to write, to read, and to digest.  I hate it when I do that.

When I force myself to use examples, such as Bill, Dave, and Sally on their epic quest, things run more smoothly.  I also write more.  I can make posts funnier.  Everybody wins, unless you really don’t want my posts to be any longer.

Showing versus telling— showing takes more time, telling takes less.  An abridged book can tell the same story in fewer words by telling instead of showing.  A movie has to cut out events because showing takes so much more time than telling (movies have problems with telling, so they don’t have much choice).

Think of your friend’s kitchen again, with nothing but outlets.  Could you make toast in that kitchen?  Yes, theoretically, you could— with a lot of time, experimentation, and electrical equipment, you could probably rig up something to zap your bread into charred goodness.  Are you satisfied with your toast?  Was it easy to make?  No.  Without examples, the reader has to spend their time and energy figuring out what you’re saying.  Is it possible?  Yes.  Is it easy?  No.  Furthermore, which takes up more space, appliances or outlets?   Showing takes up more space than telling, and makes the job much easier for both writer and reader.

It’s easy to go too far with this.  You know what you want to talk about, and you know you should show, not tell— so you show.  You give example after example until your socks fall off.  What happens?  Is the reader aided in their efforts to understand?

Absolutely!  They understand much better now— example are really easy.  But… after the speech is over, after they finish reading the essay, they come up to you.  What was the topic again?  What were you talking about?  I heard the examples, but… what?

This is the kitchen with all appliances and no outlets.  They have a million useful things to apply to their lives, but they have nothing connecting it all.  They have no idea what each one does.  Sure, with enough time they can figure it all out— run an extension cord from their neighbor’s kitchen into yours, for example— but that doesn’t work.  Every writer wants their readers to be smart, thinking and figuring things out ahead of time, but there’s a point where even smart readers get bored with being not smart enough.

If it takes the readers fifteen minutes to unpack every paragraph and connect it to the next, your readers are unhappy and few.

We need to balance examples with exposition— balance our appliances with our outlets.  Too much exposition means density of information, forcing people to stop and digest every nuance before moving on.  Too many examples means obfuscation of information, forcing people to dig through layers of stories and anecdotes to figure out how your worst beach visit equates to buying a gecko.  Different writers find different balances.  It’s up to you and what you like to write.

A final imagining: close your eyes and imagine your kitchen.  Your real kitchen, that is.  Think of the appliances you have that you use every day.  You can imagine them, can’t you?  You can name, off the top of your head, at least five appliances you use in a day.  (Microwave, microwave, refrigerator, microwave, refrigerator…)  You know roughly where they are in your kitchen as well.  You can remember them.

Now imagine your outlets.  How many do you have in your kitchen?  Which one is the special one with the test buttons and the little green light?  Can you remember them?  Probably, yes.  But can you remember them as clearly as your appliances?  I’m going to guess not.

Examples and exposition are the same way.  What will you remember tomorrow about this post?  Maybe you’ll remember the points I made about showing and telling.  Maybe you’ll remember each individual argument.  Most likely (and I’m basing your memory off of mine, which is horrible), you’ll remember that it had a lot to do with kitchen appliances.  Using that memory, you can then remember what the post was about.

If I had written this post with just an explanation of showing versus telling, you might not remember it.  Examples stick, though.  You’ll remember my kitchen post.  I’ll remember my kitchen post, which is probably more amazing.  That’s what showing does.  But try as I might, I will never get you to remember all of a post.  Just by making it all examples doesn’t mean you’ll remember all of it— you might just remember less.

Balance is the key word here.  Balance your appliances with your outlets.  Your goal is to allow someone into your kitchen, let them make toast, and let them enjoy that toast.  Then, after it’s all over, let them remember that toast.

The average kitchen has far too few memorable pieces of toast.


4 thoughts on “A Toast to Balance

  1. Toast is good. Cinnamon toast made in the oven is excellent. Sugar toast is good when you just have plain white bread and don’t want to fool with cinnamon. Then there’s fairy bread, which isn’t toast at all and I’m still not sure why someone would want to put sprinkles on buttered bread, but that’s just my opinion.

    But anyway. Balance is very important when it comes to writing and kitchens. And I don’t believe any of the electrical outlets in our kitchen have test buttons. I think I’ve only ever seen those in our bathrooms, in fact.

    You could go into kitchen design, if you wanted. Judging from this post, you seem like you’d be very good at it.

  2. Admittedly I’m slightly lost in the metaphor (I guess I’m missing a few of those appliance cords), but I think you’re right–I will indeed remember tomorrow that today I read a post having something to do with kitchen appliances.

    Other than that, examples! Yes! I love them! Examples are how I figure things out most times. Chemistry this year has made that very evident. I’ll read through the explanation of something, only understand about 72% of it, but I don’t panic because–oh, look, there’s an example ahead. Let’s just look at that. And the vast majority of the time, that does the trick.

    And the goofier the better, for examples, most times. It helps them stick. Mnemonics are a great, well, example of this. I had a brief fascination with Japanese during the summer and managed to learn all the Hiragana (one of the Japanese syllabaries) in about two days. I still remember most of them months later. Why? Mnemonics. Goofy mnemonics. Like this: き which is “ki.” What does it look like? A key. And that’s how you pronounce it. Easy peasy. (Here’s the link, by the way. http://www.tofugu.com/guides/learn-hiragana/)

    Sometimes at work I do this for short term memory as well. Let’s say I have a complicated order. I need to remember that I need to make a kid’s lemonade; a large Arnold Palmer with lemons; a medium cherry coke with no ice; a small chocolate milkshake with no whipped cream, only a cherry; one large ice cream cone; and one small ice cream cone. I also need to gather six packets of ketchup, two mayonnaise, two barbecue, and a honey mustard. How on earth am I going to remember this without constantly having to come back and check the screen?

    My internal monologue goes something like this: “Okay, so it was a tall lady with a small kid and a bigger kid. The tall lady gets the large Arnold Palmer. And the small kid is having lemonade. Lemonade–I need to get lemons>i>, too, for that Arnold Palmer. The other kid wants cherry coke to go with that chocolate milk shake with only a cherry. And since he’s got a cold milk shake, he wants no ice in his drink. And then the tall lady gets the large cone, and the small kid gets the small cone.”

    For the sauces, I haven’t really come up with much of a system yet, unfortunately. Typically I’ll put them in order from most to least in my head and give them a tune. And I do other things to keep the drinks straight, too, like grabbing the correct size cup as the person is ordering and sticking it in front of the drink spout for what they want (as long as it’s nearby). But the point is, goofy examples and associations.

    And this is practically a post itself…oh well. Thanks for the kitchen example.

  3. I made toast on the stove once. It was…like somewhat burnt and somewhat…not actually toasted. At the same time. Maybe even in the same places. It was weird.

    Good post. Balance is difficult to…balance. Sometimes, it feels like you constantly have to relearn how to balance things. Balance very much is not at all a one-size-fits-all. Or even one-size-fits-most.

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