What’s The Point of Writing?

The two most important books that influenced my writing are Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. I have also been influenced by reading wonderful prose stylists like Bertrand Russell and Will Durant, as well as by a graduate school mentor William Charron, who forced me to rewrite my master’s thesis about ten times. I sometimes think he overdid it—seeking perfection in one’s writing causes paralysis—but he taught me the invaluable lesson of rewriting, which is the single best secret to good writing that I know of.

Unfortunately, the time constraints of researching and writing a blog make it impossible to continuously rewrite. I certainly reread my posts and make quick changes before publication, but I don’t have the time for the five or ten rewrites that are necessary for really good prose. So it’s a tradeoff. I substitute quantity for quality, but I think there is value in not over-analyzing a topic too. Stream-of-consciousness writing, being less constrained than obsessive rewriting, allows one to proceed without undue delay and is more revelatory of one’s true feelings.

Recently I read the interview about writing with psychologist Steven Pinker at edge.org. Pinker reasons that writing is a psychological phenomenon, “a way that one mind can cause ideas to happen in another mind.” But writing is also “cognitively unnatural,” according to Pinker. For almost the entire time there have been modern human beings, no one wrote anything until the last few millennia. In fact, it is an odd way to communicate. You don’t see your audience, you don’t know who they are or what they know, and they don’t ask you questions. It is so different from face-to-face conversation.

Pinker thinks we write to draw another’s attention to something. “When you write … you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, and that you’re directing the attention of your reader to that thing.” This may seem obvious but consider how much writing is done to impress others or to protect oneself. So while we write for ourselves—to learn and understand—we write for our audience too. Not to impress them, protect ourselves, or shove dogma down their throat—but to see new things with them. To point out things that both the writer and the reader may have missed.

Leaving a small part of myself after I am gone—a legacy of the best of me—motivates my writing. It’s not as good as real immortality, and I may still get a cryonics policy, but it is something. To leave a small part of yourself in this electronic cloud. To leave a soft whisper in the air that someone might hear.

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4 thoughts on “What’s The Point of Writing?

  1. “You don’t see your audience, you don’t know who they are or what they know, and they don’t ask you questions. It is so different from face-to-face conversation.”

    Socrates rejecting writing because it did not allow interaction between speaker and listener. Ironically, though, it is Plato’s written record of Socrates’ dialogues that made his impact. Without those written records, Socrates would have been quickly forgotten.

  2. Spoken and written words are tools from the communications toolkit. Likewise are art, drama and music. Those among us who believe we have something to communicate to others; something they may want to know, avail ourselves of the various means offered by the kit. Some writers, renowned and/or revered left me unmoved by their otherwise respected masterworks. Renown and reverence are rarely universal and some of us are harder to please. I have read of Robert Ingersoll, an orator in the 1800s. He was neither universally loved or hated from what I have read from Jacoby. But, he made a living, near as I can ascertain. A folk hero, who was a living, breathing human being.

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