David Weinberger
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The importance of writing badly

30 July 2001

Elmore Leonard is my favorite summertime author, so I was quite interested in his instructions to writers in a recent New York Times article. Never use any verb other than "said" when your character speaks, Leonard advises us, and never modify "said" with an adverb of any sort. Skip the long descriptions. And get the dialogue right. Thus spake Leonard. But, it seems to me these are not rules about how to write but how to write like Elmore Leonard ... and, at the same time, how to write a parody of Elmore Leonard.

A few days later I was talking with a business school professor with whom I see eye to eye on most issues. But, he finds the Internet intimidating exactly where I find it liberating: he feels inhibited about sending e-mail and posting messages because such writings have a long lifetime and thus need to be composed with the same care one would give to a journal article. No, I insisted, giving him my own version of Leonard's How to Write Good: Just dash the writings off, leave in the infelicities, and try to use a freakin' cuss word or two. Why? Precisely because all of that serves as metadata that tells the reader that she's reading quick Web jottings, not a carefully considered journal article.

Obviously there are places on the Net where good writing counts and where formality is required. And, in every case, clarity of expression counts; there's a fellow on a mailing list I'm involved with who writes messages with a passion equalled only by his imprecision, so that it takes 10 follow-ups for anyone to figure out what he's talking about. "Interesting reflections," a typical response might go, "but were you talking about soy beans or empiricism?" So, of course we should write formally where required, and of course we should write clearly everywhere.

But, feeling constrained to write well can impede a Net conversation as well as propel it. Slowing it down may make it more deliberative but it is more likely to make it moribund. More important, a carefully written, flawless posting can imply a fixity of meaning that shunts the conversation from potentially useful courses. Writing hastily, accepting the inevitability of flaws, results in messages that implicitly say that the writer is thinking on her feet, is open to contradiction, is excited about taking the ideas to new places.

My business professor friend is correct in assuming that everything he writes on the Internet may be retrieved as part of his permanent record. But writing imperfectly will let future investigators know that these writings shouldn't be taken as fully formulated expressions of deeply held beliefs. The Net's great transformative power comes from its ability to connect us, but that power is thwarted if our every expression is -- or even seems to be -- fully formed. We need to see one another's inchoate ideas, the ideas that will turn out to be embarrassingly wrong. Writing them in the perfect prose of the journal article gives them a seriousness they don't deserve, like serving weiners on a silver platter. The informality conveyed by imperfect writing gives us the right metadata ... and also frees the writer to be wrong in useful ways.

David Weinberger is editor of Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization.