Assume Authority

“The author assumes authority to propose a readily available course of study, indicated in a set of drawings by the author, together with directions, explanations and comment based upon his observation and experience.” (Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands)

Oliver Senior’s How to Draw Hands is one of my favorite books. It has long been my hope to write a book about writing that is as clear and confident. “This is an instruction book,” he begins, and it sets the tone throughout.

It is grounded in two important assumptions that I’ve tried to adhere to also in my own work as a writing instructor and writer about writing. The first is the one quoted above: Senior assumes that his reader believes that he, Senior, knows what he’s doing when it comes to drawing hands and that the reader will therefore follow his instructions. That’s the essence of an instruction book, of course. If the writer assumed the reader was only going to the read the book for pleasure and not as a guide to action it would be written very differently.

Second, Senior believes that he is “entitled to assume that you are never at a loss for an authentic model to study; that, even when drawing, you have a hand to spare to serve in that capacity as faithfully as you choose.” In the same way, I assume that people who attend my workshops or read my posts are coming to me for “instruction”, i.e., for advice about what they can do to become better writers. I also assume that they have something on their minds — more specifically, that they know something — that can serve as a “model to study”. I’m trying to teach them how to write down what they know.

I presume to know how to do this myself. Just as Oliver Senior demonstrates his mastery in the art of drawing hands (there are very instructive pictures), and therefore the authority to propose exercises for the reader, I presume to know how to present things I know in such a way that other people, who are also knowledgeable on the subject, can correct me if I’m wrong. Of course, in both cases, we’re trying to bring our readers into that mastery too. One day, I hope, my readers will instruct their students in how to write, and use their writing effectively to open themselves to criticism. But it’s important to remember that I’m bound to my assumptions. I assume, always, that my reader thinks I know what I’m doing. And I assume also that my reader knows something worth writing about. If I can’t take this for granted, the task simply becomes too difficult.

In the closing pages of his book, Senior emphasizes three important things. The first is that the “style” or “manner” of drawing is highly personal and not something he says a great deal about. His instructions are mainly to look at your hand and draw, emphasizing different features in different exercises. But how you make your lines is up to you; you’ll find your own way of doing it and that way is more right than anything he might tell you. You have to find out how to make your hands do the work. This definitely goes for writing paragraphs. I can tell you to try to support, elaborate or defend a key sentence you know to be true, but exactly how your sentences will do this is very much up to you, as is how you spend the moment at the machine working. Senior actually makes the comparison to writing himself. As with writing, so with drawing, he says, “style makes the man”.

He also de-emphasizes materials — the sort of paper and pencils you work with. Try all sorts of different things, he says, in pursuit of a wide variety of effects. Even the materials you don’t ultimately like will teach you something about how to use the ones you do. That’s also true of writing, where, as long as you confine yourself to things you know, you can make use of all kind of materials to make your case. I won’t even mention the question of whether you should be typing on a computer or writing by hand. Whatever works for you is fine.

Finally, Senior and I both agree that you’ll learn nothing that we’re trying to teach you if you don’t practice. You have to follow our instructions, again and again and again. Eventually, we hope, you’ll write without them. We’re only trying to show you how you might get better. We assume a few things, to be sure, but I hope we’re not being presumptuous.

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