Opinions are not Facts. Write it that Way.
There is a measurable difference between opinion and fact. Why do so many writers fail to reflect this in the words they choose?
If you ask your cadre of friends if they liked movie “x” or book “y”, chances are you will get a range of responses. If you check multiple reviews of a movie, you would also see different opinions. Yet, if you read any one review, that reviewer will likely write with certainty about that movie. Reviewers often use statements such as “The film did this…”, “The film never…” and other absolutes. It is clear, given we collectively hold many opinions, there are no absolutes. So why do reviewers not reflect this in their writing?
The many listicles you are likely to encounter each day are full of this certainty. A litany of experts are out there, ready to tell you “Ten things that will…”, “Five things you must do now to…” or “45 ways to make…”. Again, statements that assume certainty and do not consider the ideas may not be right or, at least, not right all the time or for all readers.
General writing is no different. Here we see so many titles laden with certainty, “The Truth About…”, “Blah Blah Blah isn’t the problem, Yada Yada Yada is.” Not only are basic positions given as absolutes, the narrative presumes unassailable fact. Writers choose words like “is”, “does” or “makes”. There is no room for “might”, “could” or “appears to”. The writer is right and knows more than you.
While writing with absolute certainty seems wrong for many reasons, it appears two ideas are at the root of this practice. First, an assumption by the writer that their perception of reality is the correct one. Second, that the reader is a passive receptor of ideas and meaning.
Our current cultural obsession with always being right appears to drive the need to write in absolutes. To reviewers, it seems critical that the reader accept the reviewer is more knowledgeable than the reader. Reviewers, not readers, know authors’ intent and how writing functions. It is the same with many of the life experts writing what seem to be endless streams of listicles telling you how to fix your life. This appears particularly true of those who’s livelihood depends on acceptance of their ideas by the reader.
Writing from a position of certainty assumes the reader is a passive receptor of ideas. We know this isn’t true of most readers. Ultimately, the response of the reader determines determines the writing’s effect or outcome. Each reader builds their response to an article or story word by word based on their values, their experience, their cognitive processes, their reality, not the arguments of the author. Assuming the author is writing to bring about change, that change is only possible at the interpretation. Until then, it is what the writing might do.
When we most need the salon, we get soapboxes.
Why is it a problem people write in absolutes? When it comes to dialogue, we appear to live in an increasingly fractured world. Positions on so many topics are highly partisan with no middle ground. Many have observed how we no longer have discussions but polarized yelling matches where neither party is open to listening. Actual discussion or, dare I say it, changing of minds seems like a wishful dream. When we most need the salon, we get soapboxes.
Social media in particular pushes us to respond to ideas with short, trite answers. Most commenters state a position as an absolute and without any supporting reasoning. No matter what media, it is the way we communicate that is important to discussion. Writing in unsubstantiated absolutes implies no room for movement in the mind of the writer and shuts down dialogue. We need writing that invites reflection and response not commandments that demand agreement.
As writers this gives us two choices. One, embed uncertainty in the sentences we build. Two, make it clear it is our experience we are writing about and that that experience may or may not be that of the reader. This is challenging in an age that drives us to grab the reader’s attention, keep them excited and engage them beyond a few seconds. It also fights against the principles of direct writing. Passive voice is a good writing device to signal uncertainty but a great way to blow your Hemingway score. Society seems to value the forceful writer. The journalist class, which drives much of our collective perception of things, often heaps praise and attention on the outrageous blowhards of the world.
In the end, I believe it comes down to why you want to write. Are you after believers and followers? Do you write to start conversations? Do you write to get people thinking? Or, like me, do you write to make sense in your own head of the thousands of ideas and events you experience every day? I have less and less time for the evangelist and bail out of even the shortest of essays when I feel lectured to.
There is a sea of possibility between “I believe you are wrong and here’s why” and “You are wrong”.
So, bring on the reviewers brave and honest enough to write “I found the movie did…” or “the book left me…”. Let’s heap praise on the writer who amazes us and pens, “Ten things that might improve your life”. We can dream big and hope for writers who have the skill to write about their own experiences in such a way as to invite the reader into a discussion or prod them to reflect on their own experience.
Writing in a way that opens discussion and reflects uncertainty may lead to actual dialogue. Dialogue may lead to an opening of minds. Opening minds may lead us to solutions for many of the problems that seem to hold society in a paralytic grip. If nothing else, it may lead to somewhat civil discussion. Or a nice Sunday morning with your tablet and coffee.
Perhaps I should have titled this piece, “One way changing your writing style might turn society around.”?
James Britton writes reflections on his experiences in an attempt to become a better writer, a deeper thinker and to make sense of life. He is lucky enough to have a very satisfying day job, so there is no newsletter to sign up for. That said, he welcomes thoughtful comment, engaging private notes or a sign that what he writes may be interesting to someone (a heart click, a private note…the odd follow???).