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The morality of writing ‘well’

When I talk to people about their writing, there’s a lot of guilt and shame about the way they write. They believe they write in the ‘wrong’ way, that other people’s writing processes are ‘good’ but theirs aren’t. You may feel this!

My PhD was about how people make writing, and then I spent more than a decade asking people about their writing processes and how their writing gets done. I’ve talked to academics, successful authors, PhD candidates in every discipline, and first year undergraduates. And the same patterns come up again and again.

Some of the issues are caused by people believing damaging writing myths. Some of them are caused by comparing your insides to other people’s outsides (as the always insightful Anne Lamott said in her TEDTalk, see 4:20 onwards but the whole thing is worth watching). Your draft is never going to look as good someone else’s published article!

But some of the reasons people feel they are ‘bad’ writers is about the perceived morality of writing.

I still research quite a bit on morality. I research and write a lot about unethical art, which means reading and thinking a lot of philosophy, theology, ethics, propaganda, politics and oppression. My co-author in this research has a day job that is literally arbitrating morality and deciding if your sins can be forgiven (apparently they can). My recent work involved looking at woodcuts of who Luther thought would be burning in hell. The question as to ‘who is a bad person’ or ‘what is a bad thing to do’ is in no way ever answered by ‘people who split infinitives’ or ‘who write the conclusion first’.

In the grand picture of things, Oxford commas and quantitative research (or the opposite) are not what matters in writing ‘well’, in being a ‘good writer’, nor in being a ‘good person’ or a ‘good researcher’.

It turns out I have views, and there will be mild swearing.

Let me say more.

Writing is amoral

Writing is a thing in the universe, like naps and hugs and bicycles. They are just things that people choose to do sometimes, and in themselves are neither good nor bad. In the right circumstances they can be delightful, and in other circumstances they might be unpleasant. You can use them for good, or for ill. (Hugs, from someone you love, are awesome. Hugs from your creepy boss are sexual harassment.) They can be a treat, or a punishment, or a threat, or something that needs to get done.

Writing is not good. Books are not good. Libraries are not good. There are books that I read that I loved, books I read that weren’t for me and I gave them to the second hand bookstore, and books that I threw out because I didn’t believe anyone else should ever read them (I threw them in the recycling bin though!).

The outcome of your writing matters. The choices you make in the books you read and the books you write matter. The collection and access and support decisions your library makes matter. But the writing-thing is not inherently a goodness.

Your writing process doesn’t matter, morally speaking

People write however they write. You might love a ‘shitty first draft‘ (more Anne Lamott!), or 500 good words a day. You might love writing every day, or writing in ‘feasts‘. You might prefer to write in a group, or alone. You might like to write to music with words, or music without words, or white noise or silence.

These writing processes may stop working for you, or they may make you unhappy, or you might be able to make them more efficient. And so, your writing process might not be working for you right now, and then it’s worth making some changes. Writing processes might not be right for you, or right for you now, but that doesn’t make them bad.

Or your writing process might be good enough, do the job.

Your writing process is unlikely to be perfect, because academic writing is always a compromise between what can be known, what can be explained in academic prose, what can be published, what you have time for, where you are in your research journey, where the rest of the field is. If your process if perfect, you often aren’t meeting deadlines, making word-counts, or getting enough sleep (in other words, you may be dealing with perfectionism). So it’s a compromise either way.

There is no good way to write, only ways to write that help you, today, put words on the paper and make them readable.

It’s nobody’s business how you write

People talk to me about how they write, but I’m a professional. It’s like telling your doctor about your digestion. It is literally no-one else’s business how you get your writing done, and personally I think it’s inappropriate for them to make comments about it if they notice. You may chose to share your tips, like everyone who discovers the magic of probiotics. And you might want to talk to a professional if writing is causing you pain or distress or you are really stuck.

But you are totally free to ignore other people’s advice if you are doing okay. If you are writing, and the words are okay, and you are mostly meeting your deadlines… you are WINNING. Also use spellcheck and eat fermented food, see if that gives you a mini-boost.

What you write does matter

Weirdly, some people are more worried about their writing style than the content of their writing. They come to ask me if their commas are good, but they are writing projects with shaky ethics frameworks, or lacking distance from their funding lobby, or with inequitable citation practices. I honestly don’t care if you know how to use a semi-colon if you are researching marginalised groups in ways that further diminishes them.

Passive voice is fine when it doesn’t matter who did the research. Scientific ‘objectivity’ is bullshit when it’s a way to hide power. Overuse of ‘filler words‘ is something to tweak, maybe. Overgeneralisation of results, plagiarism, failure to properly anonymise participants, ‘salami slicing’, ‘p hacking’ and other forms of research misconduct are just bad.

It doesn’t matter if your first draft is ‘shitty’; it does matter if your attitude to your research and colleagues is ‘shitty’. But, like a messy first draft, everything can be worked on and improved and made better.

Just as writing has a structural editing and a polishing phase, so your attitudes, research methods and research focuses can be improved structurally and then stylistically.

Structural improvements can include:

  • removing racial, gendered, or other biases from your research;
  • working in research teams that treat all their members equitably and well;
  • honouring your need for self-care;
  • not being an ‘academic asshole‘;
  • giving credit where credit is due;
  • working with generosity when talking to other researchers;
  • and much much more.

Once you are writing from a place that is trying to do good, you can worry about questions of citation style.

***

There is plenty that is wrong with the world; many of us are doing research to try to make the world a better place. On the whole, don’t waste energy on feeling bad about your writing process. Spend that energy on being good to others, living up to your values, and being kind to yourself.

Sometimes writing while angry is an effective writing process. Take a break before you hit publish to check you haven’t hurt any innocent bystanders by accident though.

And let this rant about writing free you to do the research, write that paper, and get it out into the world so I can read it and learn from it and learn from you.

Photo by Thom Milkovic on Unsplash

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