In the previous post in the Everyday Writing series—“The Difficulty of Writing, Part 1”—I discussed some of the pressures that many of us feel when we write, and used teenagers as examples of those who suffer crippling self-consciousness in part because of misplaced pressure that parents and other adults place on them, particularly by focusing on the small details of punctuation and mechanics, which, though important, are less important than, say, logical construction.
Teenagers are not the only ones who suffer from this kind of misplaced pressure, however. You know that, as well. How destructive can poor punctuation be in a resumé or corporate memo or an ad campaign. (Many of you even read the previous sentence and are judging me for not including a question mark.) Let some public person post a statement that includes a spelling or grammar or punctuation error and watch the pundits pounce.
I said in the previous post that the little details matter, and I meant it. Sure, the missing punctuation or misspelled word really does matter, but it also matters proportionally to other things. A misspelled word is nothing next to a word intended as an insult. If I write that you’re a jurk, which is a bigger deal: that I misspelled “jerk” or that I called you a jerk?
Fill in the blank here with whatever worse insult you care to. There are certain words that I won’t be filling in the blank with for you, because, after all, this is a family series, but you’ve probably already thought of at least three far worse than jerk. Misspelling a word when you’re calling someone a nasty name isn’t the problem; the nasty name-calling is the problem. So: do the little details matter? Of course. The question is how much they matter.
And which of us hasn’t felt the pressure of performing every detail perfectly for fear of ridicule? The temptation to embarrassment is powerful, and though embarrassment is an internal emotion which no one can ever cause within us, it is a stumbling block that most of us have placed in another’s way at one time or another. So we can empathize with those for whom embarrassment is a real struggle, those who—likely unwittingly—choose to feel the stress rooted in pride that we call embarrassment.
And we can take a long look in the figurative mirror and ask ourselves how often we have applied misplaced pressure to perform every detail perfectly on another person. How often have we been the guilty party, placing that stumbling block of embarrassment in another person’s path? How often have we embarrassed someone else by ridiculing them for a minor mistake? Writing is difficult enough without someone adding the emotional pressure of ridicule.
Even if we weren’t afraid of embarrassing ourselves, we usually have another form of pride-rooted pressure making writing more difficult than it needs to be: the desire to look intelligent. This is the pressure to impress. Forget potential embarrassment; there may be nothing more destructive of sound thought and therefore good writing than our desire to be seen as knowledgeable, well-educated, and clear-headed.
How many people have you ever met—no matter how ignorant, no matter how illogical, no matter how irrational—who were willing to admit their ignorance, illogic, or irrationality? How many of them were even aware that they lacked those hallmark features of intelligence? (Just spend a few on Twitter and see how this plays out.) In every conversation, the majority of participants are there to show how much they know. They aren’t there to see how much you know. I suspect that it is not a very simple majority of conversants who behave this way; I suspect the majority is rather overwhelming.
Instead of seeking every opportunity to learn, most people enter a group of conversants to gain accolades for their performance. They usually know it isn’t good form to enter with a detailed monologue, so they start more simply: “What’s up?” There’s nothing showy about that, right? I’ll sidle up here innocuously and ask a question so they think I’m interested. (Unintelligent people always use words like sidle and innocuous, right?) When your goal is performance, the bar to entering a conversation is quite low. “What’s up?” is, in the very best use case, a real question of interest, expressing a desire to know what has taken place in your life recently. Most of the time, it is merely a verbal tick, expressing nothing more than your mere presence already does. You might as well be saying, “I’m here.” But much of the time it’s more than an announcement of your presence; it’s an attempt to draw attention to yourself and away from whoever currently holds attention in the conversation.
The fear of embarrassment and the desire to impress are two different manifestations of the same problem: our pride. And there is nothing more likely to derail our ability to think—and therefore to write—clearly than our pride.
So far we have discussed only psychological reasons for the difficulty of writing, but there are others, some of which are inherent to the act of writing. For example, choosing the exact right word to express exactly what you mean is difficult at any time, regardless of psychological pressures. Even if we aren’t feeling undue pressure from others, or putting too much pressure on ourselves for fear of embarrassment, or stifling our insight by trying to impress—we still must wrestle with the language itself. How do we bend our language to our will? How do we express what we think we want to say? Is there just one way to say exactly what we mean, or are there several ways to say it? How well do we even understand what we think we understand, regardless of whether we can find the right words to express it?
Writing isn’t difficult only because of pressures put on us by ourselves or someone else. Writing is simply difficult—at least writing well is difficult. Writing badly isn’t as difficult. Popping out a quick text message isn’t hard compared to poetry. Writing an article to send to your subscribers isn’t as hard as writing a book. But these examples aren’t necessarily examples of bad writing versus good writing; they are really examples of different contexts, and what constitutes good writing in the context of a text message will likely be very different than what constitutes good writing in the context of a poem. Better examples would need to compare like with like—a bad poem to a good poem, a bad email to a good email.
What constitutes bad and what constitutes good writing requires explanation. It isn’t enough to say, “You can tell good writing when you see it.” Those who have discerning taste certainly know good writing when they see it, but how do you know if you have good taste? One person likes Book A; another person hates it. Both hate Book B. But both love Book C. Who has good taste?
Much like the question of intelligence, the question of good taste can be difficult—especially for those who lack it. Have you ever heard someone declare that they don’t have good taste? I have heard people say that they don’t have a discerning ear or eye or nose, thereby admitting that they lack a certain sense that is related to artistic taste, but what these honest people usually mean is that they have little interest or at least little upon which to render a verdict regarding the artistry of something. Usually they do not mean that they love something but they have horrible taste so you should disregard what they say. Nearly everyone who loves something is convinced that their taste—their sense of what is bad or good—is above reproach. So what criteria are there for determining whether writing is bad or good? In the next article in the Everyday Writing series, we will look at some basic criteria for how to determine whether writing is bad or good.
For this series, Everyday Writing, we are partnering with our sister sites WriteGoods.com and RealManners.Work to assemble not just a series of articles to be mentally considered, but also a series of steps to be physically completed, so that, together, we can more fully enjoy the everyday and glory in the mundane.