RUE (i.e., resist the urge to explain) is a brilliant yet common-sense concept from Browne and King, the authors of one my favorite editing resources, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print. Importantly, this is not just a wise warning for fiction writers but a principle to be observed by nonfiction and academic writers as well.
What resist the urge to explain means is (hopefully) self-evident, but the grounds for RUE may be less so. There are plenty of reasons to avoid unnecessary explanation, but let’s skip the mindless enumeration and take a look at an example of R.U.E. in action.
Last night I watched Hidden Figures, a nonfiction-book-based film1 that follows three female African-American mathematicians working for NASA during the Space Race with the USSR and, importantly, the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Let’s explore R.U.E. using my favorite line from the film, a simple yet powerful response delivered by Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan, an acting computer supervisor who is repeatedly denied an official promotion and the corresponding raise. After a brief but icy exchange that follows weeks of sharpening tension, her immediate supervisor, played by Kirsten Dunst, stops Spencer on her way out of the newly desegregated ladies’ room:
“Despite what you may think,” Dunst says, “I have nothing against y’all.”
Spencer stops. Turning to look at Dunst, she says, “I know you probably believe that.”
Bazinga! Simple, yet powerful. As Spencer exits (leaving behind a thoughtful Ms. Dunst), I’m grinning like a buffoon and throwing a million mental high-fives in Spencer’s direction from my beanbag.
But what’s this got to do with R.U.E.? Let’s explore another take of this exchange:
“Despite what you may think,” Dunst says defensively, “I have nothing against y’all.”
Annoyed by the fact that Dunst clearly doesn’t get it, Spencer stops and turns to face her. “I know you probably believe that,” she says ironically. “Maybe you think you’re not racist, and maybe you aren’t consciously, but if being Black means that I’m less fit to be a supervisor than you, then I’d say, yes, you’re holding something against me: my skin color.”
Dunst was bewildered by Spencer’s accusation. She stood in stunned silence as she watched her leave.
Okay, I added a bunch of rubbish here, but hopefully I made my point. Not only have the explanations (of emotion, manner, and the meaning of the utterance) insulted our intelligence by assuming that (a) we wouldn’t have been able to figure it out on our own and (b) our imaginations wouldn’t have been able to fill in the blanks, the exchange has also completely lost its bazinga! factor. By adding “defensively,” I’ve intruded upon your interpretation of Dunst’s character and her statement. I’ve made it one-dimensional and “boxed it in” by limiting the way the readers’ imaginations may have played the scene out. Furthermore, we certainly didn’t need clarification that Dorothy’s statement was ironic or that her supervisor’s cluelessness really ground her gears.
In the case of fiction and creative writing, Browne and King’s discussion of RUE specifically addresses the naming of the emotion behind a character’s behavior or language, as in the addition of defensively and ironically to the dialogue tags and the description of the emotional states bewildered and annoyed. The trouble with descriptions like these are connected to the Show, Don’t Tell rule:
[The] tendency to describe a character’s emotion may reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the writer. And more often than not, writers tell their readers things already shown by dialogue and action. It’s as if they’re repeating themselves to make sure their readers get the point. So when you come across an explanation of a character’s emotion, simply cut the explanation. If the emotion is still shown, then the explanation wasn’t needed. If the emotion isn’t shown, rewrite the passage so that it is. (Browne & King, 1993, p. 17)
In nonfiction and other genres, writers have to be cautious to avoid providing unnecessary explanations (like my addition of the meaning behind Spencer’s original line). Yes, of course, you should explain concepts or arguments that won’t be clear to your readers otherwise, but every reader can be assumed to have some level of critical-thinking ability, so don’t think for them.
A final quote from Browne and King on the work of a writer who managed to RUE throughout her novel. Although they’re still talking about fiction, the principle applies equally to all genres of writing:
Also, by never explaining her situations, by trusting her readers to keep up her, [the author] pays her readers the compliment of assuming them to be intelligent. And that’s a compliment any writer would do well to pass along. (Browne & King, 1993, p. 37)
1based on the autobiographical novel by Margot Lee Shetterly