The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Explainer, Elucidator, Enchanter: A Gradation of Great Writing

In a recent conversation with a friend, I found myself struggling to convey the hierarchy of good writing, particularly of good science writing — a hierarchy experienced so concretely in the act of reading but inexpressible as soon as one tries to dismantle the magic of enthralling prose. The difference between good writing and great writing is always palpable and rarely articulable, but the stakes are even higher in science writing, where the standards of truth and beauty are such that the precise and the poetic must converge in order to yield both comprehension and enchantment.

Since my recent diagrammatic taxonomy of platonic relationships had helped me map the multiple levels of friendship, I decided to use a similar visual taxonomy to concretize this intuitive gradation of writing.


Explainers make information clear and comprehensible. Good textbooks are the work of good explainers.

Elucidators go beyond explanation and into illumination — they transmute information into understanding by revealing the interconnectedness of the universe and integrating various bits of knowledge into a larger framework of comprehension. At their best, they embody what pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff addressed in his beautiful 1978 meditation on the poetics of curiosity, in which he discussed the crucial difference between explanation and understanding.

Enchanters do all of the above, but go beyond the realm of knowledge and into the realm of wisdom. They don’t work merely toward superior levels of understanding, but toward a wholly different order of meaning — an embodiment of Schopenhauer’s famous distinction between talent and genius, in which he asserted that talent hits a target no one else can hit, whereas genius hits a target no one else can see.

Enchanters bend the beam of illumination through a singular lens that furnishes something richer and greater than the sum total of knowledge — a kaleidoscopic view of previously hidden layers of reality, or an integration of previously fragmented insights and shards of awareness. The result is nothing less than a firmer grasp of one’s place in the universe, producing in turn a transcendent enlargement of being.

The greatest enchanters are creators of distinctive aesthetics — of writing, of storytelling, of thought itself. Among them are writers like Oliver Sacks, James Gleick, Diane Ackerman, Alan Lightman and Janna Levin, and trailblazing storytellers like Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolab.

Complement with Oliver Sacks on the curious psychology of writing and William Zinsser on the art of science communication, then revisit this growing library of celebrated writers’ advice on the craft.

Published October 26, 2016




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