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The Truth, But Not the Whole Truth

Jeevan Sivasubramaniam Posted by Jeevan Sivasubramaniam, Managing Director, Editorial, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

The Truth, But Not the Whole Truth

I doubt you’ve heard of Olav Hauge, the Norwegian poet. Not many people know him, but he was a master of minimalism. He wrote a poem titled “Don’t Come to Me With the Entire Truth” which I have quoted (literally) hundreds of times to convey to authors how really powerful writing doesn’t “force feed” the reader but supplies just the basics. A skilled writer makes the reader think for him or herself, and if that writer does a good enough job of conveying the core idea, the reader can infer the rest without having to be told nor needing to be well-versed in the history and development of that idea.

You don’t need to explain an idea and then spell out how that idea can be used in one’s personal life, professional life, spiritual beliefs, etc. If you do a good enough job of explaining the core premise, the reader can figure out for him or herself how to apply it wherever else. You see, the most powerful truths are not just universal, but universally applicable. You may not like Gladwell, but his book Blink is a fine example of a general truth with no specifics because Gladwell explains the theory but doesn't go on to say, "This is how you can use my theory at the workplace, and here's how to use it at the gym, and here's how..." because the more you have to explain it, the less universal it really is.

And secondly, the history of an idealogy, its development, current usage parameters, and all that? Unless you're writing a textbook, no one cares. Your book aims to help people get from A to B and that instruction remains the only crucial component. The rest is just the sort of stuff that may have impressed your college professor who praised you for your "thorough coverage" but in truth has not practical purpose.

Too often authors write these awful hefty tomes where they feel they have to account for and explain everything – and the more justification and explication I see, the more I believe that the idea lacks any real fortitude or heft. The result is a force-fed bland gruel of mediocrity and tedium. Supply just the essence, and let the readers’ palates interpret, experience, and apply it. Don’t give them the entire truth, give them the choice to discover it in their own time.

Here’s the poem:

Don’t Come to Me With the Entire Truth

Don’t come to me with the entire truth.
Don’t bring me the ocean if I feel thirsty,
nor heaven if I ask for light;
but bring a hint, some dew, a particle,
as birds carry only drops away from water,
and the wind a grain of salt.

–Olav Hauge