Thin Ice and Rabbit Trails

by Stephen R. Clark

Have you ever been in a lively discussion when you realize that you’ve talked past what you know on the topic? Or else you took a conversational wrong turn with no clue how to get back to the main topic?

You’re on conversational thin ice or lost on a rabbit trail . . . and in good company with the Peanuts gang!

These same things happen in writing. When imagination or material runs thin, the temptation is to resort to embellishing with unnecessary words and repetition of ideas, or to wander off on a loosely related tangent.

To pad or divert: That becomes the question! Neither is a good choice.

In the song “The Book Report,” from the musical You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown*, the Peanuts gang is assigned a 100-word report on Peter Rabbit. Each chooses a different and legitimate approach for their report, but all get tripped up by some form of padding or diverting.

Opinion & Commentary

Lucy begins, “Peter Rabbit is this stupid book about this stupid rabbit who steals vegetables from other peoples’ gardens . . .” She counts 17 words. “Hmm. 83 to go.” She continues with a long and pointless list of vegetables, stopping now and then to count the words.

Lucy started what could have been a solid critique and opinion piece. Her opinion is valid, but now she needs to substantiate it and articulate her reasons for finding the book “stupid.”

What’s Lucy’s problem? Her focus is on the word count and not on the words or the content. Plus, she probably hasn’t bothered to assess why she thinks the book is stupid.

  • TIP #1: When writing opinion or commentary, think first! Know why you believe or feel the way you do. Research a bit to gather material to support your view.
  • TIP #2: When writing to a specified word count, instead of writing up to the count, write past it and then edit. Write until you have nothing left to say, then cut, trim, and rewrite to fit.

Comparing & Contrasting

Schroeder flounders, decides to compare and contrast, then gets diverted big time! “The name of the book about which this book report is about is Peter Rabbit which is about this rabbit. I found it very . . . I liked the part where . . . It was a . . . It reminded me of Robin Hood! And the part where Little John jumped from the rock to the Sheriff of Nottingham’s back. And then Robin and everyone swung from the trees, in a sudden surprise attack.”

Instead of taking elements of each story and explaining how they were similar or different by comparing and contrasting, Schroeder shares one scene about Robin Hood. The point was to provide further insight into the story of Peter Rabbit.

  • TIP #3: When comparing and contrasting, your main subject needs to be your main focus. Always point back to and make sure that your examples support your main focus.

Analysis & Exposition

Linus attempts to go deep, but it’s clearly a stretch: “In examining a book such as Peter Rabbit, it is important that the superficial characteristics of its deceptively simple plot should not be allowed to blind the reader to the more substantial fabric of its deeper motivations . . .”

  • TIP #4: Analysis and exposition aims to peel back the layers of your subject, rendering a complex topic more accessible. Why didn’t this work for Linus? The story was relatively simple to begin with. His method, while valid, wasn’t appropriate for the material.


All three failed to make any connection between the story and life, or practical application. In other words, showing why what they had to say was important to me and you. They also really didn’t seem to understand their subject! As is typical with book reports, too often the books being reported on have either not been read at all or read only in part.

  • TIP #5: Connect with your audience. Offer a practical application whenever possible.
  • TIP #6: Know something! You just can’t write about what you don’t know.

So how does Charlie Brown deal with the problem? The way many of us do: procrastination! “If I start writing now, when I’m not really rested, it could upset my thinking, which is no good at all. I’ll get a fresh start tomorrow, and it’s not due till Wednesday, so I’ll have all of Tuesday, unless something should happen.”

How can you avoid these pitfalls when writing? Know your material and be clear on what you want to say. Stay on track and on topic. Say what you want to say, then stop. Don’t over-complicate the simple or over-simplify the complicated. If you’re unsure about something, do more research. Never stray from the truth. And don’t procrastinate! The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll be done.

* Lyrics for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown were written by Clark Gesner


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