For my master’s degree I wrote a thesis on the Puritan practice of conference. As a non-historian, I was surprised to learn how complicated it is to merely define the term Puritan. I could have spent much more time and ink exploring this definition. But eventually I had to make some assumptions about how to identify Puritanism for the sake of my paper and get on with the work.
A big part of writing is knowing what to leave out.
Simplifying and Oversimplifying
Good writing requires focus around a chosen theme. It can present the results of careful thought and research in an accessible, concise form. But in some sense writing also necessarily involves oversimplification. Most concepts I write about are bigger and more complex than I can practically address, even when I fill dozens of pages.
I want to make it clear I’m aware of complexity; I don’t want to sound arrogant or say anything wrong. So I often include qualifications and acknowledge different views. Yet too much qualifying can water down my writing and blunt the force of any argument I want to make. It can also be a defense mechanism: I want to protect myself from criticism or looking ignorant. (Many writers have explored how women in particular tend to use hedging or undermining language, which is another complex issue!)
To Half Reveal
In his poem “In Memoriam,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote:
“I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.”
Tennyson was writing a lament for a beloved friend, but I think these lines convey a deep truth about the vocation of writing. Putting words on a page not only simplifies ideas, it simplifies emotions.
Whenever we write about things we care deeply about and are invested in, our words convey something of ourselves — even in the most data-driven academic writing. Powerful writing often engages the emotions of the writer, the people she’s writing about, and her readers. Sometimes in writing I feel free to express things I wouldn’t say to most people in person. But even when I am writing from the soul, I get to choose what to disclose. When I reveal something about myself, there’s often a “Yes, but,” or “On the other hand” that I simply can’t put into words or have to hold back for the sake of writing something coherent.
Most of us are used to sharing different aspects of ourselves in different contexts. It takes time, trust, careful listening, and shared experiences to truly get to know another person. We might assume we know more about someone than we really do. Especially when that person is writing in public. But not only does every social media post, profile, article, or book present a small snippet of a person; the very process of putting thoughts into a specific format can conceal complex realities and inspire readers to make faulty assumptions. We must be careful about passing judgment too quickly based on what we read.
As a reader, I have felt powerful resonance with other people’s writing. But I need to remember that their words, even if they’re honest, are only half revealing.
The Courage to Write Anyway
I continue to feel compelled to write, however, because I want to connect with more people and perhaps help them think about things in a different way. Writing can feel vulnerable and daunting, whether it’s academic work or a personal blog post. It takes effort to do it well and as truthfully as possible. Sometimes I wonder whether I have anything worthwhile to say, or whether I should take up more space in a word-crowded world. It’s risky to say anything when people are so quick to criticize and nearly every issue seems sensitive.
But I believe writing is a gift, and I want to find ways to invest it — not just for self-satisfaction or to meet career expectations, but to serve others. And maybe also to honor God, who I think enjoys watching me create things.
Of course, various settings involve particular limitations and expectations. Even in academic writing, however, revealing something of the writer is valuable. Helen Sword writes in Stylish Academic Writing, “When we muzzle the personal voice, we risk subverting our whole purpose as researchers, which is to foster change by communicating new knowledge to our intended audience in the most effective and persuasive ways possible.” She encourages writers to picture target readers following along and respond to their imagined questions. Finding tasteful ways to speak of one’s own experience with the research and to connect with the reader makes writing concrete, engaging, and memorable.
All of us moved to write in some fashion must appreciate the power and limitations of writing. Writing requires humility and courage, fear and trembling, precision and curiosity. We have to trust our own knowledge and authority while continuing to learn. It takes discernment to know when to write more words or fewer words, the right words at the right time, and when to stop.
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on StockSnap.