November 24, 2012

"We write ethically when, as a matter of principle, we would trade places with our intended readers..."

"... and experience the consequences they do after they read our writing...."
Those who write in ways that seem dense and convoluted rarely think they do....

The ethics of writing are clearer when writers knowingly use language not to further their readers’ interests but to disguise their own....

A more complicated ethical issue is how we should respond to those who know they write in a complex style, but claim they must, because they are breaking new intellectual ground. Are they right, or is that self-serving rationalization? This is a vexing question, not just because we can settle it only case-by-case, but because we may not be able to settle some cases at all, at least not to everyone’s satisfaction.
Joseph M. Williams, "Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace."

This makes me think about legal opinions, but there is so much more. Imagine if, whenever we wrote, we thought about ethics.

40 comments:

Bob Ellison said...

"Write ethically" is a silly concept. My mother says her piano teacher taught her to define music as "a sound that is pleasing to the ear". If you write or sing unethically or in an unpleasing manner, are you committing a sin?

I intend to cleverly, ethically, and fantastically order pizza tonight.

Hagar said...

I think my writing tends to become convoluted if I have not quite figured out what I am writing about yet.

Scott said...

The way a lot of technical writers write, I think they must really hate the people they're writing for.

rhhardin said...

Not being boring counts too.

SomeoneHasToSayIt said...

Here's my standard, which I first heard expressed by someone who was describing what they felt when reading Schopenhauer: "it's like being in Church".

Good authors will evoke just that.

Kenneth Burns said...

I took Joe Williams' class in college and think about his writing techniques every day. He was a brilliant man.

Lem said...

We write ethically when, as a matter of principle, we would trade places with our intended readers...

Just when I thought we had exhausted every possible reason why Roberts went nuts...

The Godfather said...

I haven't read the book, and the excerpt is intriguing but not definitive. But here's what I think after writing legal stuff (briefs, contracts, memoranda, etc. for 44 years:

The writer's worst sin is forgetting that you have a duty to convey your meaning to the reader. You MUST think about the reader and how he/she will perceive what you write. Much too often we (particularly lawyers I'm sorry to say) write so that WE understand what we've written, which isn't the objective.

I suspect that teachers face the same challenge.

The Godfather said...

I haven't read the book, and the excerpt is intriguing but not definitive. But here's what I think after writing legal stuff (briefs, contracts, memoranda, etc. for 44 years:

The writer's worst sin is forgetting that you have a duty to convey your meaning to the reader. You MUST think about the reader and how he/she will perceive what you write. Much too often we (particularly lawyers I'm sorry to say) write so that WE understand what we've written, which isn't the objective.

I suspect that teachers face the same challenge.

McGehee said...

It's always safest to assume the originator of a message is serving his own interests and not yours. He may believe sincerely that his interests and yours are aligned, but that can never be more than supposition because he can't read your mind any more than you can read his.

It's one thing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and another thing altogether to surrender all doubt because of sentiment on your part.

tiger said...

So writing clearly and succinctly now = 'ethical writing'?

That's a load of crap.

leslyn said...

No, tiger, you failed to read AND understand the excerpt.

Unethical of you, given the premise.

edutcher said...

If people were ethical when they write, there'd be no trolls.

There's a thought.

Clyde said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clyde said...

One good example of unethical writing is the bills that come from our Congress. Not only would they not exchange places with the readers who would be affected by the laws they write, they expressly exempt themselves from having to do so! They stuff the bills so full of obfuscation that clarity becomes impossible. And then they tell us, "We'll have to pass the bill to find out what's in it." When a pol says something like that, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Crimso said...

I think Hugh Howey knows damned good and well what he's doing to his readers, and they know just as surely what is being done to them (helpless as we are to avert our eyes and minds). And really, it's for our own good (just finished "I, Zombie" about 30 minutes ago; ready to hit Wool 6). "Tough love?" Then I'd call his work "Tough ethical writing." It really is for your own good, though some of it is very difficult to get through (emotionally; he is a great writer).

XRay said...
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Robert Cook said...

Do writers who write in a complicated way defend themselves by claiming they're "breaking new intellectual ground?" Or might they more likely claim they're writing in the voice that seems natural to them?

I can't read William Faulkner because of his baroque style, and I don't like Thomas Pynchon for the same reason, yet both are exalted by the literary critics, and, in Faulkner's case, by literary posterity.

On the other hand, I do enjoy Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, whose style is quite dense and repetitive...to a point that seems compulsive, crazily so, rather than considered and carefully crafted.

Prose, whether dense or spare, can be good or bad for many reasons, and neither style should be prescribed or proscribed.

XRay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NotquiteunBuckley said...

Election the movie with M. Broderick and Witherspoon asks "What's the difference between ethics and morals?"

My own private answer, about to become public, you lucky *&*^*s, is ethics is how we ascertain and morals are why we ascertain what is proper.

Ralph L said...

I can't read William Faulkner because of his baroque style
Try some of his short stories. The "Knight's Gambit" collection is reasonably clear. "The Bear" is a bear. "Tall Men" is one of my favorites. You have to read several of the Sartoris or Town stories to get a feel for the whole locale Faulkner created.

McTriumph said...

The only ethnic writing I ever see is on Al Sharpton's blog. Oh, never mind.

lorentjd said...

All lawyers should familiarize themselves with the work Bryan Garner. He is, in my opinion, the preeminent authority on legal prose.

I first took a writing course from him about twenty years ago and his approach to writing positively affects everything I write.

He emails a quote-of-the-day to those on his mailing list and one of my favorites is this:

"Anyone who translates knowledge from the technical into the popular language is disregarding the rules of caste, and is thus taboo. Technical terms, long words, learned-sounding phrases, are the means by which second-rate intellectuals 'inflate their egos' and feed their sense of superiority to the multitude. If an idea can be expressed in two ways, one of which involves a barbarous technical jargon, while the other needs nothing but a few simple words of one syllable which everyone can understand, this kind of person definitely prefers the barbarous technical jargon. He wishes to be thought, and above all to think himself, a person who understands profound and difficult things which common folk cannot comprehend."

From my observations, the biggest offenders are lawyers and academics.

Kirk Parker said...

"Try some of his short stories."

Bah, humbug. Why read Faulkner, when you can read Flannery O'Connor instead?

Zach said...

A more complicated ethical issue is how we should respond to those who know they write in a complex style, but claim they must, because they are breaking new intellectual ground.

Quite aside from ethics, this is wrong from the perspective of tactics. People are incredibly conservative about the intellectual techniques and approaches they are willing to use. If you want to get them to change, you have to make the decision as simple as possible. That means explaining your perspective in plain English and giving worked examples that highlight the benefits of your approach.

The worst thing you can do when breaking new ground is simply to produce the finished product without explanation or justification. You will simply be overlooked and forgotten. The best you can hope for then is to be rediscovered after someone else gets all the credit for your innovation.

Robert Cook said...

"Bah, humbug. Why read Faulkner, when you can read Flannery O'Connor instead?"

I've never read her, but for some time now I've been considering trying her out. Any recommendations?

Michael said...

Robert Cook. Start with the stories in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"

Michael said...

Robert Cook. Start with the stories in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"

TML said...

Good time to trot out Chomsky on these frauds in academia:

There are lots of things I don't understand -- say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. --- even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out.

TML said...

Plus, Judith Butler.

TML said...

More good stuff and discussion here on bullshit writing from perfessers

http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2008/06/the-obscurity-o.html

TML said...

OK, sorry, one more. I'd forgotten the link. I'll bet Ann and Denis would've been kindred spirits. Man, I loathe these phonies. Too bad Button died some years ago. Resurrecting this contest is a PERFECT Althouse undertaking and she has the authority to pull it off.

http://denisdutton.com/bad_writing.htm

Yer head will throb from these entries.

FleetUSA said...

Despite years of legal, etc. education I learned how to write clearly on board a US carrier because intership communications had to be brief and clear.

When in practice likewise I knew I had to write tax and financial recommendations so the client clearly understood the purpose. If the client didn't understand the whole effort would be futile.

Skookum John said...

There are only two really indispensable guides to writing, and neither Strunk and White nor the MLA guide qualify.

The shorter and more important is Churchill's advice never to use a Latin word when a French one will do, nor to use a French word when an Anglo-Saxon one will do.

The second is George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language."

https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

lge said...

I think it was Einstein who said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." That's a good rule for writing, too.

A lot of writers try to "snow" their readers, i.e., to impress them by using abstract, high-falutin' language.

Complex topics may require a specialized, complex vocabulary. But what can be expressed simply, I like to say simply. It's better to aim for clarity, not to impress people.

Kirk Parker said...

Robert,

Anything Michael tells you twice, you can surely rely on. :-)

Kirk Parker said...

Oh--and also, Walker Percy.

Synova said...

My current (one of them) English professor assigned The Basics of Clarity and Grace by Williams and told us to forget Strunk and White. He also teaches a grammar course that I plan to take from him in the spring because I heard a rumor he was retiring after this year.

My other English instructor (PhD candidate, not prof) doesn't talk about sentence structure or writing. She talks about ethics and rhetoric and literacy communities and discourse analysis. Some of that is interesting but I actually told her that I thought whoever wrote the book on discourse analysis got paid by the word.

I suppose it's like Shakespeare and poetry or reading old english... you learn that "literacy" and then it seems transparent to you while to everyone else it's opaque. And while I'm appalled by the convoluted nature of her job application letters (she shared because we were writing those ourselves for class) I can accept that this is, indeed, what the English departments she is applying to expect to receive.

It doesn't make me think more of English departments, however.



Synova said...

I should clarify: Both of my English classes are essentially repeats of the other. We're learning to write documents. The difference is that one class is for professional writing majors and minors and the other is for everyone.

AmericanWoman said...

Godfather wisely said this:

"The writer's worst sin is forgetting that you have a duty to convey your meaning to the reader. You MUST think about the reader and how he/she will perceive what you write. Much too often we (particularly lawyers I'm sorry to say) write so that WE understand what we've written, which isn't the objective."

The rhetorical triangle - the relation between three things: writer, text and audience (reception of text) has always mattered since Aristotle taught us all.

It always has and it always will. Lawyers and especially Supreme Court elitists who get to write without remembering they write for a widely diverse American audience need to revisit Freshman Composition or Speech 101 to understand this.

Lawyers (like college profs and other areas of life) all too often write for their little group of readers. Their "interpretive discourse community" (Gee). They need to shift to write for the kind of people who sit on juries and vote and apply for citizenship and long for a more cohesive, understandable and accessible (text they can apply) message.