The Art of X-Ray Reading

I picked up Roy Peter Clark’s The Art of X-Ray Reading at Mosaic Books in Kelowna last weekend.  While the book seems tailored more to writers of fiction, I read it mainly to improve my railroad writing.

There are so many suggestions in the book that even if I ignore the ones about naming characters and punishing heroes, there is a lot to keep in mind.  It’s probably like learning to play golf: head down, arm straight, grip relaxed but firm, and shank the ball into the rough!  I’ll probably make my writing stilted and pretentious by trying to keep everything in mind all at once.

Even so, here are the notes I took, and how I think the lessons in the book can apply to railroad writing.

  • “Your writing should move, move, move. From concrete to abstract.  From specific to general. from idea to example. From information to anecdote.  From exposition to dialogue.”   Painters say that you shouldn’t go an inch without varying the at least one of tone, intensity or value.  This sounds like the same idea, applied to writing.  It improved my painting. (p25)
  • Sounds are important. Writing should have a rhythm and tone, play like music.  Watch for dissonance between hard, percussive sounds and round ideas.  I should read my own writing out loud more often.  (p38)
  • Name things. I’ve always sought out the right name for parts of my models as I wrote about them.  Some recent discoveries were “pintle” and “purlin,” which provide more economy and clarity than “L-shaped rod part of a strap hinge” and “horizontal timber.”  Beyond clarity, names have power; once you know the true name of something you own its essence. (p39, p231)
  • “Ask yourself if your work has an engine, a question that can only be answered by continuing to read the story to its end.”  (p39) This is the great failing of most of the writing in our hobby, and I don’t know how to resolve it in the context of a construction article or a layout tour – the two dominant formats we see.  However, Clark suggests later that “readers will make a journey with you if you help them solve a mystery or expose a secret.”  (p195)
  • Clark points out how various authors use repetition and even redundancy to make their points, connote feelings or create rhythm.  I suspect this – like a golfer’s hip wiggle – can be overdone, and I should continue to seek alternative words rather than repeat the same one when I can.  (p49, p99)
  • To illustrate that “friction between opposites generates the most dazzling effects,” Clark uses an example from King Lear that mixes comedy with tragedy (p134).   Interestingly my failures are often comic in nature.  If you can’t laugh, then you would cry.
  • Model railroad authors, myself included, tend to write in a straightforward, chronological manner.  Clark encourages us to explore time inversions to make the story more engaging (p141).  However, when we’re expressing complex ideas, we should build up the explanation in a logical order (p252).
  • Think about what the story is really about and express it in as few words as possible.  Once you know the theme, you should align your writing to support the theme. (p159)
  • Place the most emphatic word or idea at end of sentence/paragraph/work.  The whitespace makes the reader pause and complete the thought.  (p25, p173)
  • When readers encounter very short sentences, they treat them as the truth.  Place important ideas in short sentences (p191)
  • I hadn’t thought about it before, but recipes are exactly like our construction articles.  Clark holds up MFK Fisher as a writer who “appropriates a form of instructional writing … and kicks it up a notch in the literary sense.”  I should put her on my reading list to see what I can learn from her writing.
  • Finally, we occasionally have to explain complex things, but as railroad authors, we tend to jump in with two feet.  Clark holds up a beautiful passage by Rachel Carson that warms the reader up with simple language before introducing scientific jargon in the second sentence, and ultimately the most complex ideas in the third sentence.  As Clark says, “if the tough parts come too soon, the reader can become discouraged.”  I certainly find myself in that camp in many construction articles, and without an “engine” to pull me along, I often abandon them.  (p251)

Okay, that was a bit of a litany.  This, I’m afraid, is one of those posts I’ve created mostly so that I can remember later.  Ironically, it is hardly my most literary work!


4 thoughts on “The Art of X-Ray Reading

  1. I finished reading the copy I borrowed from our library, last night.

    It’s an interesting idea for a book and I enjoyed, at least feeling, like the author’s conviction for this central idea becomes evident even in the construction of the book itself.

    Now I find myself a bit keen to re-read a few of the works he cited in the book to revisit those, to review his observations within the context of the complete story to see if they affect my appreciation of those stories, more or less.

    Thanks again for the recommendation.


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