Philosophy and Writing Well: What’s Bad about Bad Writing

As an editor, a teacher, and sometimes simply an obliging friend, I am always reviewing someone’s writing. When I come to a passage that’s not clear, I usually call the author to ask what he or she is getting at. Almost invariably, the author is able to explain things in speaking with a clarity and precision nowhere to be found on the page. And invariably I reply: “Why didn’t you just say that?”

Why is there this disconnect between speaking and writing? What makes us forget everything we know about how to communicate, about how to use language, when we sit down to write?

This question dogged me for years, but I finally found an answer in a story a friend relates. The company he works for—let’s call it Cognate Appurtenances, Inc.—hired a new contractor to produce some reports. The contractor began by reviewing previous reports to get a sense of the company’s house style and the industry’s stylistic conventions—a reasonable place to start. In the draft report, however, the contractor imitated everything that was bad and nothing that was good about the company’s earlier reports.

Instead of trying to communicate clearly, the contractor was more focused on reflecting the corporate culture there at Cognate Appurtenances, Inc., on making the report look like the kind of thing people are accustomed to seeing from Cognate Appurtenances. And, indeed, the report sounded like a typical “Cognate Appurtenances” report: it was badly written.

College teachers see this all the time in papers by first-year students, who tend to utilize big words—like “utilize,” instead of using more common words like “use”: We utilized a battering ram to knock down the door.

Why not “use”? Because they’re not choosing the word best suited to what they’re trying to say. They harbor some abstract idea about how sophisticated writing sounds and try to impress their profs by sounding that way. Surely, the word “use” is too common for a sophisticated college student to utilize.

(Incidentally, the word “utilize” also means to use something for an unintended purpose: “We didn’t have a battering ram, so we utilized our heads.” If we had used our heads—i.e., for their intended purpose, thinking—we would have used something else to knock down the door.

College students eventually return to “use” and reserve its high-falutin’ cousin for when it really is the right word. But then they graduate and go to work for Cognate Appurtenances and imitate reports produced by some contractor and start utilizing “utilize” again, because, well, you know, that’s just the way we write here at Cognate.

And good writing gets shunted off to perdition in a pannier—or some other cognate appurtenance.

Existential philosophers argue that we fail to live “authentically,” to freely act as the moment requires, when we identify too completely with a limited (and limiting) ego. I may be an atheist, but I can’t live authentically if I always behave according to some abstract idea of how atheists behave and always think the way I believe atheists are supposed to think. And the same if I call myself a Christian: I can’t live authentically if I always try to live according to some reductive caricature of a Christian. And so with being a waiter or a fisherman or an existentialist. Or a woman or a man. If we always behave according to some idea of how members of our group should behave, we are unlikely to live authentically and respond freely to the present moment. Jean-Paul Sartre calls such inauthenticity “bad faith.”

When we write badly, it’s often not because we don’t know any better, but because we write in bad faith. We assume default positions that predetermine which words we use, how we construct sentences, etc. We try to sound intellectually sophisticated; we try to sound like scientists or bureaucrats or college students; we try to sound like employees of Cognate Appurtenances. In so doing, we betray communication itself by not choosing how to make each paragraph, sentence, and word a deliberate response to the only three questions that matter in writing:

What am I trying to say?

Who am I talking to?

And why?

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