What does your writing say about you?

magnifying glassI got a hit on my blog based on the search, “Do you think it is appropriate for people to be judged based on their writing?” It’s a great question from a philosophical standpoint. But it may be an even better question from a technical perspective. What does your writing say about you?

Magazines make it seem so simple. Tell them your favorite dessert or 90s rock band, and they’ll tell you what sort of person you are. Maybe there will be some science behind it. Maybe the descriptions will be just general enough to have a sliver of truth that applies to everyone. But writing is more complex and personal. It should be a better indicator of personality, right?

The short answer is, probably not. Students and beginning writers don’t have the skills to control their message. Their work lacks subtlety and nuance. As a result, their expressions may sound much stronger on the page than they intend—stronger, in fact, than the writer feels. Newbies also have little understanding of audience reaction, so their prose can elicit a negative response that they never expected. And by definition, they’re still learning grammar, usage, style, and form. Mistakes are natural, and not a good indicator of potential.

Intermediate writers have a better sense of their strengths and weaknesses. They understand audience reaction, but they haven’t yet mastered all the skills needed to create the desired effect. They may overcompensate—for instance, by adding too much sensory detail because they naturally tend toward the abstract. And in areas where they excel, their writing is polished to suit the purpose of their prose. It may sound natural, but chances are, they crafted it to sound that way.

Experienced writers may adopt a persona in their writing. They may appear to reveal private details about themselves or their mindset, when in fact they’re using practiced techniques to create an impression or to manipulate audience reaction. They may play devil’s advocate. They may use irony or satire. They may express an opinion that’s the opposite of their own because someone’s paying them to do it. (After all, writers have to eat.) They may be writing according to the requirements of a particular genre that doesn’t allow them to reveal their true self. Or maybe they’re private people who don’t want to reveal their true self.

Writing is controlled communication. It’s impossible to tell which elements of a written work express the writer’s personality; which are the product of craft; and which are artifacts of the writing process. To judge someone based on their writing is misguided at best. The purpose of writing isn’t self-revelation. The purpose is to transfer knowledge from the writer to the reader. And in that space between writer and reader are truths and falsehoods that neither could have imagined on their own.

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5 thoughts on “What does your writing say about you?

  1. Andrea, I read this article and found myself agreeing with every word. Yet I still do judge people by their writing. For example:

    If I see a lot of misspellings and grammatical errors, I conclude that the writer is careless.

    If the tone is preachy or shrill, if the argument uses false premises or faulty logic, I conclude that the writer is dishonest.

    In both instances I walk away thinking that the writer has been disrespectful toward me. I guess that’s a form of judgment.

    1. Larry, thanks for your comment. In those circumstances, I would also feel disrespected. Technical communicators are conditioned to focus on audience needs. But that isn’t necessarily true of writers in other fields. When faced with situations such as you describe, I conclude that I’m not part of the writer’s target audience because the writer’s approach wasn’t effective for me. I place no credence in the writer’s work, because the writer hasn’t proven trustworthy. Yet perhaps the author is not careless, but instead lacks skill or believes that copy-editing is unimportant. (Many bloggers seem to feel this way.) Perhaps the author is not dishonest, but naive or inept at logical thinking. (Many people don’t understand the scientific method and place great faith in anecdotal evidence.)

      I try to separate my reactions from the author’s intentions. It isn’t always easy. But in a world where text messaging is a common form of communication, I think it’s critical. I suspect that the increasing severity of school bullying may be tied to text messaging. Quick communications via the written word, absent of nonverbal cues like facial expressions and tone of voice, can lead to misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and escalating tension. Children simply aren’t equipped to handle this. Perhaps English curricula for 6th and 7th graders should include how to write effective text messages, to instill in students an understanding of audience reaction. (It’s a useful skill for adults as well.)

  2. *Their work lacks subtlety and nuance.*

    Great point. And subtlety and nuance are so important in writing – I think. They allow the reader to fill in the details from their own experience and knowledge base, drawing them deeper into the work. Subtlety makes the reader think the writer created what they’re actually creating themselves. It inspires imagination.

    I love your blog. 🙂

    – Corra

  3. Thanks, Corra, I love your blog, too. 🙂

    Whether in technical or creative writing, I take a minimalist approach: give readers the least amount of information they need to be successful. In creative writing, that means trusting the reader, and also trusting your own ability. Of course, you also need beta readers to make sure you’re doing the job!

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