Writing More Thoughtfully

On writing in a more thoughtful manner, from a pair of articles by Alan Noble and MG Siegler.
Typewriter
 (Florian Klauer)

While perusing my post-L’Abri RSS feeds, I came across two excellent articles that, while looking at two very different phenomena, still touched on some similar themes. The first article is the latest installment of Alan Noble’s ​“Citizenship Confusion” column for Christ and Pop Culture. Titled ​“Dismissing Our Opponents”, the article looks at the phenomena among Christians of using dismissiveness as a rhetorical strategy, i.e., “[D]isregarding a position or belief without hearing it fully articulated, based on the presumption that you already understand the speaker’s perspective and have judged it to be wrong.” He writes further, using an Answers In Genesis cartoon as an example:

Dismissiveness touches on several of the unloving practices of Christian discourse that I’ve already addressed in my column. It shows a lack of charity for those you disagree with. It involves a simplistic caricature of their position. And it can result in mocking them. Even more, it implies that the other person is a fool for holding their position and that they have nothing meaningful or significant to say to you. What makes it so destructive is that it involves not just disagreeing, or disagreeing confidently, but disagreeing (typically before you have heard the entirety of the other person’s perspective) with such absolute confidence as to suggest that only an idiot would believe their position.

Now, Christians certainly haven’t cornered the market when it comes to such dismissiveness — you can find it in every corner of the Internet — but it presents a significant challenge for Christians because the Bible commands us to do the exact opposite. For example, Colossians 4:6 says ​“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (ESV). Ephesians 4:29 is even more pointed: ​“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (ESV). I’m especially struck by that last phrase — ​“that it may give grace to those who hear” — because all too often, the words we choose are for our edification (e.g., to make ourselves sound smarter and better) when really, our words (plus blog entries, tweets, and Facebook updates) ought to be for the benefit of others. This is a convicting and humbling thought.

MG Siegler’s ​“Content Everywhere, But Not A Drop To Drink” isn’t so much about dismissiveness, and it’s certainly not approaching the issue from a Christian viewpoint, but it still touches on this notion of being thoughtful in our writings, albeit in Siegler’s customarily acerbic way. Siegler takes tech blogging to task, first by referencing examples of lazy tech blogging (related to the recent Path privacy situation) and then by discussing the circumstances that might give rise to such lazy blogging.

Most of what is written about the tech world — both in blog form and old school media form — is bullshit. I won’t try to put some arbitrary label on it like 80%, but it’s a lot. There’s more bullshit than there is 100% pure, legitimate information.
The problem is systemic. Print circulation is dying and pageviews are all that matter in keeping advertisers happy. This means, whether writers like it or not, there’s an underlying drive for both sensationalism and more — more — more.
Read the stories that are published in the tech blogosphere tomorrow. Are most published because the writer put in a lot of work or original thought? No, most are published because more — more — more content leads to more — more — more pageviews.
Most are stories written with little or no research done. They’re written as quickly as possible. The faster the better. Most are just rehashing information that spread by some other means. But that’s great, it means stories can be written without any burden beyond the writer having to read a little bit and type words fast. Many are written without the writer even having to think.
I’m completely serious in saying that.

I’ve noticed this as well, especially with the rise of aggregator sites like Reddit and Techmeme. You often see what is essentially the same article appearing on multiple sites and blogs. This isn’t simply limited to tech blogging, though. Go to any realm of blogosphere (e.g., music, movies, video games) and you’ll find the same phenomena: lots of shallow articles harping on the same thing, and a dearth of content that is, in a word, thoughtful.

Between these two articles, I think Nobel and Siegler discuss thoughtfulness, and the need for it, from two different perspectives. Noble focuses on the motive. I would contend that, for Noble, thoughtful writing requires being less concerned with your own right-ness, pride, etc., and being more concerned with how you are characterizing, and communicating to, others. And this requires, among other things, a desire to truly understand what someone else is saying and not dismiss it out of hand because it’s ​“obviously” wrong. This, of course, doesn’t mean that we should be afraid to excoriate or to call out foolishness where we see it. But we should do so carefully, rationally, and, well, thoughtfully. (I can’t remember who wrote it — I believe it was a Christian apologist — but I once read that we shouldn’t criticize a point that we disagree with unless we can explain it better than its own proponents.)

This is where Siegler’s article comes in, since I think he focuses on the method. For Siegler, the lack of thoughtful writing in the tech blogosphere is due to, among other things, a focus on churning out lots of articles really quickly, on pageviews over quality content. Such an approach leaves little time for the research and study needed to become truly experts on a particular topic. Without those things — without that hard work — the result is a lack of writing that is truly thoughtful, that communicates about someone or something in a truthful, fair, and honest manner, and communicates to others valuable information that is meaningful and useful.

As for myself, I’ve been blogging, more or less, for well over decade now. And I confess, I’ve still yet to be able to maintain that balance consistently. While I’d love to blog full-time, the fact is that Opus and my other blogging outlets are essentially a glorified part-time job that doesn’t pay anything. Which means that, between a family, a full-time job, and other ​“real life” activities, it’s often difficult to find the time and energy necessary to write thoughtfully. But thoughtfulness is still a goal that I always strive towards, and for what it’s worth, I hope it comes out in my writing more often than not.