There are two distinct approaches to writing, I’ve found. This applies mostly to writing about ideas, so it encompasses technical authorship as well as most punditry and texts about complex subjects, like economics, philosophy, popular science and so on. You get the gist.
The two approaches are descriptive versus explanatory. They’re very different approaches to telling a complicated story and one is apparently in the ascendant, while finding excellent examples of the other is becoming increasingly rare.
Strangely, the two approaches to writing about things seldom overlap. You don’t find very much highly descriptive explanation or very much explanatory description. It’s like they’re poles apart and created by two very different writing practitioners, with different aesthetic approaches to storytelling and narrative.
Too much news reporting and commercial communication (especially in technical user manuals) is all about describing, instead of explaining. It’s done in the name of non-committal balance, but it’s also obfuscation and we should call it out as such. The author thinks that if he expresses no preferences or viewpoint and simply lays out the ideas, like some sort of smorgasbord, the reader can do the hard work of interpretation and mental modelling, without the blame attaching to the descriptive author. In not revealing the underlying purpose, goals and schema, or even a damned opinion, the author obscures the point they are trying to make. You are supposed to be able to discern it, as a reader, but the more controversial or debatable the idea, the less likely it is that you will guess correctly, given the description alone.
Authors who lack courage often hide behind reams of technically correct description, without committing to exposing their own analysis and viewpoint, regarding the evidence they have just presented. I find that frustrating. Reading a descriptive work like that leaves me cold – cold and baffled. I feel like my time has been wasted and that the author has done his best to leave me confused, rather than enlightened. Maybe that was the author’s unstated intention.
Describing is often about cataloguing, stating the readily observable without revealing the underlying logic or connecting framework of thought. Explanation, on the other hand, is about providing a framework of understanding, sufficient to extrapolate the particular from the general.
For example, user manuals that tell you everything you can do, with a device, without explaining why the feature was added or what you might want to do with it, in the context of a real world workflow or task, are simply catalogues of available buttons to push. The sequence of operations and what to do if exceptions are encountered remain opaque and must be discovered, through experimentation and error, by the user. The user must spend time, much of which is wasted, trying to figure out how to use the device, despite having read a thick manual full of description. The underlying reasons why you might wish to push certain buttons, in a particular sequence or order, are rarely even alluded to in the manual, let alone discussed in adequate depth. The consequences of particular sequences of action, or what happens when things go wrong, are seldom described. How to back yourself out of a corner is almost never described. You’re left with no idea why the feature was dreamt up and whether or not it was added by committee, on the whim of marketing or just to fill an embarrassing space on the panel.
The reason we don’t read history as a simple bullet point list of catalogued events is because that description of history doesn’t really tell you anything useful about history, from which you can learn and act accordingly. The date of occurrence of one historical event, in isolation, tells you very little. Context is incredibly important and so are the motivations and forces that led up to the event. Historians are rarely informative and accurate about the real reasons for historical events occurring. In fact, they’re often completely naive and simplistic in their analysis, such as it is. The consequences of the events are never fully explored, connections with other people and events never investigated and the extrapolated, underlying meaning of the sum of the causes never alluded to. You also seldom find discussion about how history could have worked itself out alternatively, or what other options were not taken.
In descriptive history, things just happen. They’re acts of God: isolated “events”. In explanatory history, the reasons why, the people who decided to cause the events and their deeper motivations and allegiances are revealed. You get a thread that weaves itself, via sequences of connected and related events and people, back to a hidden agenda. Without that discourse, the description of the event is incomplete and the real perpetrators remain obscure, but that is, all too often, how history is presented to us. Descriptive history is a great way to propagate lies.
Knowing everything about something, at a descriptive level, can still leave you none the wiser about the thing itself, because you have no coherent explanation for it. On the other hand, once you have a credible explanation, the seemingly mystifying observed events can suddenly make perfect sense. Explanation can be illuminating.
Needless, repetitious complexity results from exact, detailed description, whereas explanation can greatly simplify and aid understanding. Understanding aids utility. Explanation provides insight. Description just provides a long list of observable facts, which you can easily observe for yourself.
Descriptions omit important details and fail to tell you what to do in the case of exceptional circumstances, because to describe all details and all possible exceptions is an onerous task. However, an explanation that leads to an understanding doesn’t have to describe every possible scenario in detail, because knowing how it works, via the explanation, is all the information you need to predict how something will react in your own particular circumstances. The particular case is predictable from the mental model of how it works that an explanation gives you (and a description does not). Mental models tell you what to expect, when different circumstances apply
In reading about ideas, understanding the motivations, connections and reasons is vitally important. Without those things being illuminated for you, it is tragically easy to be misled, often deliberately. How was it possible to fire so many shots in such quick succession? If it is not physically possible, then what does that tell you about the lone gunman? What were the motivations and connections of other people that could have fired the other shots? These are important questions to think about. The plausible explanation is missing.
Most government enquiries fail to explain the reasons for the events they examine and describe. All they try to do is make the observable events fit a set-piece narrative. When the observable events do not fit the suggested narrative, we’re left with an intellectual stalemate. Things are left as open, unexplained mysteries. Clearly, the description of the events does not fit any plausible explanation proposed. If no plausible explanation is offered, then the reader must infer one. The real explanation has been hidden.
Mysteries are actually exceedingly rare, in the real world. What they are markers of is an explanation that has not been revealed. The true explanation, more often than not, resolves the open mysteries perfectly, yet remains consistent with the description. In fact, that’s a good acid test for an explanation. If the proposed explanation fits the description and resolves the mysteries, it is said to “ring true”. It’s the moment when everything makes sense and intuitive understanding is achieved.
Insight and analysis beat straight repetition of observable facts. Knowing why is much more important than knowing what. Our innate curiosity and thirst for truth seems to indicate that we’re more or less hard-wired to seek the reasons why. It is an evolved, survival strategy that prevented us from future, surprise ambushes.
Today, many people have lost that early warning facility. They are lied to, deliberately and repeatedly, by people that take advantage of descriptive prose, who insist you accept their description, without question or an underlying understanding, or a plausible explanation for the observed facts. These are discordant pieces of information, uploaded into our brains. They do not ring true.
Description, on its own, makes understanding more difficult, because you have to provide your own analysis of the observations described and the description you’re given to work with may be incomplete, partially or fully fabricated or state-dependent, without revealing itself to be so. They’re hard to trust, because it is only through direct observation of your own that you can verify a description. If we’re meant to accept the description, without explanation and with many open mysteries attaching to it, then we’re open to being manipulated. If we cannot see the evidence directly, we’re dependent on the author’s integrity and honesty to describe it accurately, completely and without bias. Omission of inconvenient facts is a favourite and age old method of hiding the truth.
The motivations and connections of purely descriptive authors should always be questioned. This is how they pull the wool over your eyes. If they can bury you in spurious detail, without allowing you to examine underlying explanations and you take it all at face value, based on your trust in the author, they can easily betray that trust and convince you of anything they want. Selecting what to describe and what to omit is a subtle way of distorting understanding.
Description can be complete and still tell you nothing relevant, because it may bury you in specious details. Always beware of becoming mired in the details. What matters more is to understand why the details are as they are. You don’t need to necessarily examine them all, to trust in the underlying explanation, if it rings true, though for complete rigour, you should test each one against your explanation. So-called “conspiracy theories”, whose explanation is consistent with all the observed facts described and which resolve open mysteries are worth more than official explanations which do not and which leave open mysteries. Also you can’t treat facts as opinions, which are open to debate. Facts ought not to be changed according to popular opinion. The most complete and comprehensive explanation, on the other hand, should always be preferred over the others.
Beware of descriptions. Always seek explanations.