Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Controlling the Message

I feel like a complete slacker!

I'd intended to post here at least once a week, but it's been about a month since my last post. Even worse, in the interim I didn't look to see if anyone had left me any new comments. Shame on me!

(I'll do better in the future, honest!)

I'm thrilled to have some feedback -- and now that I know I have a reader who's interested in academic writing, I'm going to talk about something that's critical when it comes to this type of work. But don't turn away if you're not into academia! At the end I'm going to connect this discussion to other types of writing as well.

So what am I going to talk about? Bias.

All of us have biases, prejudices, strong opinions . . . but many publishers of academic materials insist that authors hide their biases. "Be completely neutral," these publishers say. "Let readers form their own opinions, instead of pushing them to adopt yours." This is particularly important when writing nonfiction for kids. In fact, if you can develop a knack for discussing both sides of an issue without showing which side is your side, you'll probably have schoolbook publishers waving writing contracts under your nose while shouting, "Please sign this! Please!"

The demand for truly objective writers is high because, in an age of Internet blogs and the like, people just can't seem to keep from sharing their opinions anymore. And even when they try, little signs of their opinions creep into their writing anyway. To test whether you can write without showing your biases, write a short pro/con essay on some political or social issue -- censorship, for example, or global warming -- quoting experts on both sides of the issue without intentionally giving your own views on the subject. Then show the essay to six people and ask if they can tell what you believe. If they say they can't, great! If they say they can, but no more than three people get it right and the rest say you believe the exact opposite, also great! Otherwise, examine your writing more closely to see what words might have given you away. (We can talk more in the future, if you like, about words that tend to do this.) And while you're at it, count the quotes on each side of the issue to see whether you've unintentionally provided more, or better, fuel to one side of the argument than the other.

But what about other types of writing? Didn't I promise to take this discussion outside of the realm of academia?

Yup! And here's how: by saying, "No matter what you're writing, it's important for you to be in complete control of your message." It's fine to let people know what you think -- but only if you want them to know what you think. It's terrific to let people know you care deeply about a subject -- but only if you want people to know just how much you care. So any time you put pen to paper, ask yourself: Am I saying what I intend to say? Am I letting unintentional messages creep into my work? It's okay to share your opinions passionately -- but not sloppily. Choose your words carefully and know exactly where, how, and to what degree you're presenting your bias.

(And when it comes to deciding just how much bias you want to show, be aware that many people don't take strongly biased writing as seriously as less biased or neutral writing. To understand what I mean, consider a strongly biased political commentary in which the author paints his own candidate as a saint and the other as a sinner. The typical response to such a commentary is a dismissive remark: "Oh, you're just saying that because you're such a partisan!")

We can talk more about controlled writing if you like -- or about any other aspect of writing, nonfiction or fiction. I look forward to seeing more comments that might guide our discussions. But I promise that even if I don't get any, I'll still be back next week with another post.

In the meantime, happy writing!