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Fluff and How to Avoid It

By Dr. Douglas Groothuis


Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true (Ecclesiastes 12:9-10, NIV).

 

I taught a course for nearly thirty years at Denver Seminary called “Writing for Publication.” We evaluate Harry Frankfurt’s classic essay (made into a tiny book), called On Bullshit. BS is a kind of discourse in which the speaker or writer doesn’t care about communicating truth, but has some other goal. BS is not necessarily a lie. Liars have to be more careful, since they must deny what they take to be true. BS purveyors are not concerned with truth at all—getting it right or getting it wrong. They communicate for other purposes, such as influence, seduction (of one kind or another), or for financial gain. This is how Frankfurt puts it:


The bullshitter…is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.[1]


From BS to Fluff


Of all people, Christians should avoid BS, since they should be people of truth and integrity who desire to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) in a world desperate for the truth of Jesus Christ (John 14:6). Fluff poses a similar problem, if less severe. Good writers, such as Francis Schaeffer, Os Guinness, and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, avoid “fluff.” But I recently realized that fluff needed some explanation in order to avoid it. Avoiding fluff is a necessary condition for good writing, but not sufficient, since the writing may suffer from other flaws. So, what follows is an analysis of fluff, inspired by Frankfurt’s good work on bovine excrement.


What is Fluff?


Fluff is whatever is extraneous, superfluous, or unseemly. (Since no one needs BS, then BS is a kind of fluff, but not all fluff is BS. Unlike BS, fluff might aim at truth or be a lie.) Fluff is the opposite of the substantial or the fundamental. Physical fluff is never desired and easily floats away. No one wants it, unless it is in a pillow, perhaps.


Not all repetition is fluff. Francis Schaeffer repeated himself fairly often in writing (and I sometimes wish the editor had caught it), but his points were so strong, earnest, and needful that he always avoided fluff. Sometimes repetition is powerful.[2] Consider Schaeffer’s concluding comment to a chapter in Death in the City.


My concluding sentence is simply this: The world is lost, the God of the Bible does exist; the world is lost, but truth is truth. Keep on! And for how long? I’ll tell you. Keep on, keep on, keep on, keep on, and then KEEP ON![3]


Some students pad their papers in order to meet word requirements. Such padding is always fluff and may involve going down rabbit trails unrelated to the thesis of the writing. Much fluff today is autobiographical, and there are far too many memoirs.[4] Entire books may be autobiographical fluff, such as the egregious Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller and myriad others[5] Contemporary writers often cannot resist talking about themselves even when it is irrelevant to the point they should be making. One of the great principles of the classic writing guide, Elements of Style, is to keep yourself in the background. This is what Strunk and White write:


Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the work. Therefore, the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none—that is, place yourself in the background.[6]


That is, instead of subjective feelings, focus on objective truth. Be shy about revealing much about yourself. What you are writing is not a counseling session or a confessional.

Exhibitionism is one of the great sins and blind spots of our age. Consider Victor Frankl’s comments about why he reluctantly decided to not anonymously publish his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning.


I had intended to write this book anonymously, using my prison number only. But when the manuscript was completed, I saw that as an anonymous publication it would lose half its value, and that I must have the courage to state my convictions openly. I therefore refrained from deleting any of the passages, in spite of an intense dislike of exhibitionism.[7]


Few today have “an intense dislike of exhibitionism.” On the contrary, more have an intense love of exhibitionism, which is usually unconsciousness, given its ubiquity. We live in the great age of ego-casting, whether on Facebook, X, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, or the like.  As Os Guinness put it, “The age of the Internet, it is said, is the age of the self and the selfie. The world is full of people full of themselves. In such an age, ‘I post, therefore I am.’”[8] Jesus condemned the religious exhibitionism of hypocrites who loved to parade their religiosity (their charitable giving, prayer, and fasting) for all to see (Matthew 6:1-5). His judgment holds for exhibition in self-revelation as well, in print or otherwise.


Fluff may also be unseemly, which may or may not include gratuitous personal references. The unseemly is what is inappropriate—the lude, crude, or rude. We can call this “dirty fluff.” Needless profanity fits under this category, as does any lurid detail unnecessary for the point. Put positively: be polite in your writing. Why muck up the mix with what is off-putting or nauseating? What Paul applies to speech should be applied to writing. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).


To tighten it up: Fluff is what is unnecessary in a piece of writing, either due to BS, redundancy, exhibitionism, or literary boorishness. Fluff can be avoided by excising unnecessary content, by keeping yourself in the background, and by being polite. To avoid fluff, ask yourself these questions:


1.      Am I aiming at objective truth?

2.     Have I written more than is needed?

3.     Have I said too much about myself?

4.    Have I been off-putting or offensive to my reader?

 


[1] Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit (p. 56). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] The Apostle Paul repeats himself in his condemnation of false gospels in Galatians 1:8-9.

[3] Schaeffer, Francis A. Death in the City (p. 92). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[4] I wrote a memoir, which I attempted to justify in the first chapter. Douglas Groothuis, “Introduction,” Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2017).

[5] Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz (New York: Harper Horizon, 2003). The first paragraph of page 103 is the most absurd and egregious collection of falsehoods I have encountered.

[6] Strunk JR., William; White, E.B. The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition. Pandora's Box. Kindle Edition.

[7] Frankl, Viktor E. Man's Search for Meaning (pp. 6-7). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

[8] Guinness, Os. Fool's Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (p. 15). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

 

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