Language

On Writing

It’s almost tautological to say that you can make something better by removing the bad or unnecessary parts. When we apply this advice to writing it means crossing things out with a red pen, or pressing the delete key, hoping that we’ve properly identified the pieces of text that aren’t essential to the whole. I used to try to improve my writing by combing over each sentence in search of “needless words” to remove. I came to realize that apparently needless words can serve a purpose that’s easy to overlook: they can improve the rhythm and pacing of a sentence and can contribute to subtle changes in inflection. I also came to realize that if my goal is to use the reader’s attention well, it’s more valuable to cut out entire paragraphs, pages, or chapters that are unnecessary than it is to worry about individual words. So how can a writer go for the really big prize, eliminating whole paragraphs, pages, and chapters as opposed to a few words here and there? Every piece of writing is different but there are common causes of bloat. I’ll venture to say that the biggest cause of bloat is anxiety – specifically, the writer’s anxiety manifested on the page. Basically, if you can cut the anxiety out of your writing you can make it shorter by, I don’t know, thirty, fifty, ninety percent without sacrificing your message.

When one sits down to write, it’s common to feel a swirl of emotions, and many of these are negative. Writing is hard! The thing you want to discuss might be very complicated. You might not even be sure what you want to say or fully convinced of the point you hope to make. Perhaps you’ve missed something important? You might not feel worthy of writing about your chosen topic, considering that you don’t have credentials X, Y, and Z. Perhaps your point is very serious and you worry that you won’t do it justice. Any time you write something, you expose yourself to criticism. People might misunderstand you. They might question you. They might think you’re naive or stupid. They might think your message is obvious, or that it’s unoriginal, or that you’re wasting their time, or that you haven’t done your homework, or that you’re an imposter.

You want to guard against imagined criticism and ridicule, so you start hedging, making disclaimers, trying to anticipate and preemptively respond to all possible lines of attack. You talk about how dauntingly complex it is to broach this particular topic. You move to establish your authority on the topic while also making sure that no one could accuse you of inflating your credentials. You move to defend your position while also making clear that you’ve considered all other sides of the matter and that you’re aware that nothing can be known for sure. Writing becomes an adversarial project where your goal is to score some points without losing more than you’ve gained. Writing becomes more about you than it is about subject at hand. You think you’re writing about your topic but really you’re manifesting your own personal anxiety through your ramblings on the topic.

If you can eliminate the anxiety, and the gunk it creates in your writing, you’ll be left with something that really shines… or maybe something that doesn’t shine… but you won’t know until you try. Imagine the reader likes you, respects you, trusts you, and is ready to understand your point. Imagine you’re a good writer and you have unfettered access to the truth. Now tell it as simply and vividly as you can. That’s your mission.

What I’m saying here is the product of my own quest as a writer and the insights I’ve gained from one remarkable book: Clear and simple as the truth by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner.

I’ll give an example from my own recent experience. Over the past four years, I’ve done a lot of thinking about how America has gotten so polarized and I’ve wanted to summarize my observations in an essay. But I’m not a social scientist, I don’t have a degree that’s applicable to this topic, and I haven’t done any formal research. I’m just a guy who’s spent some time reading, watching, and thinking. I could have started my essay by making disclaimers and explaining why the reader should still take me – a layperson, an average citizen – seriously as a commentator on the nation’s affairs. But I realized that no reader stands to benefit from my justification for why I should be taken seriously. That justification contributes nothing of value to their lives or their knowledge. If they’ve stumbled upon my essay, they’re ready to spend a few seconds or minutes trying to ascertain my point and decide if it’s interesting enough to pursue, so I better make the point efficiently and let them judge it for themselves. The more I hedge and defend and qualify what I’m saying, the harder that’s going to be for them. Expressing my own doubts about what I’m saying doesn’t help the reader either. It’s better that I speak with full confidence and let them decide if I’m right or wrong.

I make one particular assertion in my Polarization essay: I say that people tend to ascribe good intentions to those who share their gut reactions and bad intentions to those who don’t. This is something I happen to believe. Of course I’m aware that it’s the kind of claim that researchers in psychology and sociology might study and write papers about and gather data to support or refute. Because I respect expertise, I feel that I should either find references to support this claim or let the reader know that it’s just a hunch that I can’t support in any formal way. Maybe I encountered the claim sometime in the past and forgot the source — I had better look it up. If I were writing a paper for a college class I’d indeed have to do that. But an academic mindset is actually my enemy when it comes to writing effective personal essays. If I get quickly to saying what I really think, without the justification, the hedging, the pugilistic citations, the defenses, the reader will sooner be able to make their own judgement, and guess what… so will I! If I manage to get my point down on paper without the gunk of self-defense and reified anxiety, I’ll be able to discover what I actually think and then I’ll be able to decide whether I really believe it. Cut the fear, keep the meat. In this way, the goal of “Writing to learn,” named by William Zinsser, might come to fruition.