The joy of writing

December 5, 2009

Writing can be difficult. No, for me it is always difficult, frustrating at best. So why call this the joy of writing?

While the actual act can be experienced as “painful”, the result is rewarding. For me the reward lies not so much in the actual artifact (although clearly that may also be the case), but in the side product: the development of the writer’s mind. To express ones thoughts clearly, concisely and logically takes time and effort.  But, once done, your thoughts are organized, your understanding enhanced and your opinions better expressed.

Why is this? Well seldom, if ever, is one’s first formulation of a point the best. Instead committing a thought to paper forces one to think about the thought and how precisely that written representation reflect the actual thought. More often than not there is a degree of mismatch. It becomes the writer’s decision to decide whether that mismatch is small enough…

Like with most things in life, this decision relies on a kind of risk assessment.  Essentially we compare the ‘cost’ of possible mis-/ non-understandings to the ‘cost’ of removing the mismatch. The context of the writing would play a role. While writing this blog the opportunity to provide clarity exists later in the form of comments and the cost of prolonged editing might not be justifiable. On the other hand, when preparing a doctoral thesis misunderstanding from an examiner can render years worth of work useless; clearly the cost of revisiting the written text numerous times is quite small compared to the cost of the consequences.

While the concept of removing possible misunderstandings is simple, its execution is all but.  Afterall, to remove a possible interpretation one must be able to foresee that intpretation. This is often difficult for reasons related to both reader and writer.

Consider, firstly, the reader. The unknown context of reader may make it difficult to predict even the most obvious questions in the reader’s mind.  If you cannot know the question you cannot answer it in text. Of course, in academic writing one can often predict a certain kind of reader. This implies that you may be able to rely on a specific background knowledge and lingua franca.  This, of course,  is one of the reasons why it is so important to read widely in your field of interest: you build not only extend your knowledge-base of the field, but also a acquire familiarity with the ways of the field: how people do things, what kind of questions they ask. This in can clearly help in pre-empting questions and concerns your readers would have.

Consider, secondly, the writer. Working from the assumption that the writer knows what he/she wants to say, it might be difficult to see that the writer can be a hurdle, except obviously in the sense of general linguistic capabilities.  In academic writing one of the problems is that the writer has typically spent a considerable amount of time researching the field. Often PhD students would doubt their contribution, because they say ‘it is so simple… anybody could do this…’. This (hopefully) cannot be further from the truth. Truth is that familiarity breeds contempt. From a writing perspective there is an inherent danger that you would then not write things ‘because everybody knows it’.

It is from finding a balance between these two forces that the true value of writing emerge – a mind that is clear, an argument that is concise and a reader who gets the message. I suppose to get maximum value out of your writing, you need to in the often quoted words of Albert Einstein: “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Thinking about the joy and value of writing, prompted me to also start doing my bit in the blogosphere…  Putting my ideas and thoughts in writing may have value to others (I’ll have to see), but, for certain, it will have value for me!