Elements of Critique: X

When thinking through my list, I came to X and wondered what to choose. Algebra came to mind first:

7 + 2x = 19
Solve for x.

X, or some other letter, is substituted for a number. And that made me remember times when numbers in writing stand out.

X also means the missing piece of information, the solution we need. That calls to mind times when there’s something missing in a piece of writing.

So today, let’s solve for x.

First, what are the rules for using numbers in text?

The Air Force rule of thumb is to write out single-digit numbers in words, and type numerals for anything double-digits or above. That makes great sense in professional or academic writing, where figures and statistics might come into play. It also works in personal writing like blogs where a sudden appearance of numerals won’t likely distract the reader.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire took place 200 years ago. Eight nations sprang up in the ensuing chaos.

I started writing 35 years ago, working for two different newspapers, earning 12 cents an article.

In fiction, however, the reader’s attention is on the words telling a story. Interjecting numerals in the text sucks away the reader’s focus. We expect words but find numbers. It looks wrong. For example:

The ancient Cerune empire collapsed 10,000 years ago after a 500 year war with the barbarians of the north.

Compare with:

The Bloodsworn hordes crawled over the mountains, ten thousand strong, racing toward formations of Aulivar’s finest. The militia lined up in Suns of five hundred spears, shifting and trembling at the oncoming threat.

Oddly enough, the general rule is that the professional style writing can handle numerals, while the entertainment style of a story requires a more formal spelled-out number.

So when I critique, I pay close attention to the way numbers are used, because they will get the attention of readers.

I also try to notice when x is missing. Writing shouldn’t feel like an algebra problem where the reader is not provided crucial information.

To clarify, I don’t mean that stories cannot have an element of mystery. No detective story could meet that standard. Good storytelling in most cases leaves juicy tidbits, a breadcrumb trail that consumes the reader’s interest, a question that needs an answer. That’s required.

What I mean is when a piece of writing feels off.

It doesn’t connect. It feels flat. Maybe there’s no clear symptom or issue, but the reader is left with a general feeling of “bleh” like a case of a common cold. Perhaps “common” is the problem–the writing feels just like something familiar and expected, nothing that stands out.

I may not be able to identify the cause, but I know x is lacking in the piece. So I will at least highlight that sensation.

However, unlike math, critique is sometimes subjective. (Expect a post on this once A-Z is done.) I may feel that this piece has a fundamental yet unidentified flaw, and point that out. But I will clearly state this is merely my opinion.

It’s like ranch dressing. I hate it. Plenty of people love it. If I feel it’s wrong, I’ll offer my take, while recognizing my take’s value.

How much is that? Solving for x, I come up with an answer of “two cents.”

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