After many years of blogging, and consistent with my desire to move toward retirement, we have ended the Insights blog. Thanks to Doug Bedell for his years of blog support.

Good Writing Requires Empathy Always

Posted on April 22, 2015
Filed Under Technology, The Writing Life | Leave a Comment

The craft of writing, technical or otherwise, is a demanding one – surely you’ve heard that?

Stephen Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and chairman of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, discusses that reality in a Wall Street Journal post. Only he attributes the difficulty to the wrong source, or at least doesn’t go deeply enough into the problem.

It’s not so much that writing is so much a demanding exercise as a somewhat deluding one. You’ve gotten those words onto paper, they flow before your eyes, so they must be the delightful outcome of a trying process. Oh, really?

The difficulty in writing well – so that your output isn’t opaque or appear as next-to-gibberish to someone else – is that you, the writer, may be lacking in a sense of empathy. Relax, that’s not fatal, but it takes awareness to correct. Empathy is best defined as walking in someone else’s shoes or, in this case, reading with someone else’s eyes. How am I coming across not to myself, but to my readers, should be every writer’s question, constantly.

Forget the recognition you may have justly earned for your accomplishments. When a page with your words on it is put before someone else, all that matters at that moment, besides the basic accuracy of your expression, is how well it connects with the reader, how well it informs or inspires others.

Pinker discusses bad writing in terms of the “bamboozlement theory” of written expression. “Pseudo intellectuals,” poor writers who consider themselves good ones, let themselves off the hook too easily – if they even realize that they’re on a hook.

“The curse of knowledge,” he writes, “is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows – that they haven’t mastered the argot of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.”

In other words, he or she (sex doesn’t matter when prideful creation is underway) doesn’t empathize enough with the reader. “How am I coming across?,” “Am I being understood about what I’m trying to get across?” should be his or her recurring thought.

Walk in another’s shoes while writing and you may get to a different place than you intended, but you’ll have others with you. And it’s always great to have company, real companions, not simply assumed ones. – Doug Bedell


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