David Weinberger
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Writing as Empathy

11 January 2020

For everyone except Mozart, most of writing is rewriting. And rewriting, at least for me, has three strands that only unravel in thought, not in practice. All three require a type of cognitive empathy that is common to every form of communication. In fact, cognitive empathy isn’t an add-on to communication. It is what communication is essentially about.

Three strands

The three strands show up as questions when I’m rereading and editing a work in progress:

First, does the piece make sense? Are there holes in it? Does one idea follow from another the way that I thought they did? Does it need to be reordered? Will it be clear enough to someone whose interest is casual?

Second, do the words and sentences work or get in the way of the reader? Does a particular paragraph really need a topic sentence, or would it be more interesting if it didn’t announce its point? Will a reader be confused by some sentence until they get to the end of it? If so, can I move the words around to make it flow better? Why does this particular word seem not quite right, and is there a better word I could use?

Third, how will all this sound to someone who doesn’t share my context and interests? What premises, spoken and tacit, can I assume the reader already shares? Which ones need to be spelled out and defended? How alien will the conclusion be? And if I’m going to write about the process of writing—guilty!—is there something I can say at the beginning to promise the reader that the topic is actually going to be broader than that? For example, can I end the first paragraph with some vague hand-waving about “cognitive empathy”?

Communication considerations

The first question, about the logic of the piece, writers address primarily to themselves. But not entirely, for the expression of the logic is guided by assumptions about the readers. An academic research article assumes not only that its readers are experts but that it should adhere to one of the standard forms of argument in such papers. But a Malcolm Gladwell piece brings people through the argument by taking unexpected turns—the opposite of how a research paper works. So, this first question may be addressed by the author to the author, but the answer still is filtered through the expected readers.

The second question, about the words and sentences, is similar to a tailor checking to make sure that the seams are hidden, the clothing is draping properly, and nothing else will get in the way of the customer appreciating the work when they try it on in front of a mirror.

The third question—how will this sound to someone who doesn’t share my context?—affects the other two questions. If the text is arguing against an assumption widely held, what are the defenses the reader will bring to the article? Does the specific idea being challenged exist within readers’ deeper intellectual, emotional, and personal context? If so, what else is the essay tacitly challenging? How can the reader’s context be acknowledged, addressed, and perhaps even subverted?

I personally don’t rewrite with those three questions explicitly in mind, and obviously I never succeed at addressing all or even most of them. In truth, I’ve never explicitly formulated them before. But they seem true to my lived experience of editing something until I’m ready to put it out with no ability to take it back.

Cognitive empathy

It turns out that each of these three questions is ultimately about cognitive empathy: that is, understanding the intellectual context of the person you’re talking with. It’s not surprising to find cognitive empathy at the root of editing because it underlies most, if not all, idea-based communication.

The fundamental job of communication is to show people the world in the way the world shows itself to you. If you see business as a type of gladiatorial sport, then that’s the business world you’re trying to reveal to your book’s readers. If you think avocados are overrated, then your essay is going to try to reveal what about them is actually quite disappointing.

This is different from our standard model that says communication is about putting your ideas into other people’s heads. Instead, communication is about revealing something about the world that the other person hasn’t noticed—and often hasn’t been able to notice because their ideas get in the way.

That’s why cognitive empathy is crucial to communication. How can a writer get readers to see the world in a different way if the writer doesn’t have any sense of the readers’ frameworks that provide their coherent view of the world? To enable others to see some aspect of the world the way that you do, you have to also have a sense of how the world already looks to readers.

Turning people to the world as it reveals itself to you, being turned to the world as it reveals itself to others: That is the cognitive empathy that enables communication.

It is also what communication is for. Isn’t it?

I’m all in favor of digital literacy. In fact, I’m in favor of all three types (which I am making up), each one more meta than the one before. And I am especially in favor of the third, which is meta about being meta. If there were a fourth, which is meta about being meta about being meta, I’d be in favor of that one even more.

The first level of digital literacy is knowing how to handle a computer. Can you use Word? Photoshop? Connect to a wifi signal? Congratulations! You’ve earned your bronze Digital Literacy badge. (If you know how to adjust your privacy settings at Facebook, put an exclamation point at the end of that badge.)

At the second level, you know how to apply your critical thinking skills to the digital medium. In the old days, a critical thinking course would teach you how to avoid being suckered by advertisers and politicians. “Stephen Hawking says Puddin’ Pops are out of this world” isn’t really a good reason to buy Puddin’ Pops. If he said “Alpha Centauri is out of this world,” that’d be different.

To be digitally literate in this second sense you need to apply these traditional critical thinking skills to the networked world where some particular traps are more common than in the real world. For example, we need to be especially wary of believing something because the people we hang out with on the Net believe it. Falling prey to confirmation bias, as it is known, is especially easy online because our social apps work by putting us together with people who share most of our opinions. Get good at avoiding these online traps and you win your silver Digital Literacy badge.

Holders of the gold badge go up a level of meta-ness. For example, they routinely click on the “Talk” tab that accompanies every Wikipedia article. There they can see the arguments that got all the contributors onto the same page. They have also been known to click on the name of a reviewer at Amazon to see what other reviews she has written in order to judge her biases. These are the folks at Reddit who report that a comment is suspicious because the commenter always leaves positive comments about a particular product or company. These people are the Ninjas of Meta.

Going meta is especially important online for two reasons.

First, physical embodiments of ideas and knowledge usually carry implicit marks of their authority. If you’re reading a printed book, you know that it’s gone through some extensive set of filters because printing books is expensive. We all know how error-prone and subject those processes are, and we of course pay a terrible price for entrusting our culture to so few hands, but there’s also some value in it. On the other hand, that something is online can mean only that one person thought that there was some reason to post it…perhaps as an example of a post not worth posting.

Printed material also usually has an indication of its source of authority physically bound to it: The title page tells you which publisher invested in it. The cover of the magazine tells you which journal sent it around for peer review, etc. Online material often does not have any such marks on it, and when it does they can be lost as the piece is circulated.

Second, going meta is especially important online because the Web is worldwide and thus includes many local ways of talking about things and many local customs about what constitutes authority and evidence. This forces us to go up a level to consider what the authority or evidence is, and also what our own local norms are. It’s as if a witness from one judicial system is being interrogated within another country’s system. You have to get pretty darn meta to start unraveling that.

“Meta” sounds like you’re going up, but in fact it means going down: looking underneath beliefs and the evidence for those beliefs to see the assumed context, values and processes that make them seem credible. That’s why it’s good to go meta. In fact, the pursuit of truth—on or off the Net—almost always leads to the meta.