You Shouldn't Write Poorly
And not always for 3rd graders
Across the universe and the history of writing, there have been many challenging reads, one of them being Being and Time.
(Heidegger) also gained near-instant notoriety for its indigestible prose and bewildering neologisms. (His most notorious: 'ahead-of-itself-already-being-in [a world] as Being-alongside [entities encountered within-the-world]'; mercifully, he shortened this concept to 'care').
The quote above is from an amazingly written philosophy article by Sam Dresser for Aeon. The quote in question is from the infamous Heidegger.
Martin Heidegger was renowned for his rude and unpleasant demeanour, and the author of the most convoluted and complex sentences possible. He was also a bit of a recluse as he got more and more into a symbiotic relationship with his ruminations until he lived all alone in a hut in the black forest. He was also a Nazi at some point.
Now, this essay is more about writing than Heidegger as a philosopher. In fact, it is not about Heidegger at all. However, I will use the example of another philosopher.
Foucault wrote prolifically. And he wrote about much: systems, politics, sexuality, and more. Foucault is also not easy to read, in fact, I have always thought that was the reason why Umberto Eco wrote one of his most complex stories with his name (Foucault's Pendulum). Alas, I didn't read Eco's book, so I'm not sure it even references that Foucault.
I have been reading Foucault for the second time in my life. The first time, I attempted to read - in Italian - The Archaeology of Knowledge; this time I am managing - ever so slowly - to read his History of Sexuality.
The point is: I find it difficult to read. I have in the past abandoned my goals to finish TAoK, but am going through the History of Sexuality now. I have found that while I sometimes need to read the same sentence a couple of times to be able to interpret it as correctly as possible, I am understanding most of the ideas and references. I am able to talk about what I have just learned, and I am probably re-training my brain to read things that are a bit more challenging than the writing on Medium (yes, mine included).
It is in my opinion that there are many reasons one should read outside of their comfort zone, as well as writing outside of it. Or, outside of one's readers' comfort zone.
For instance, one may make the case of reading (and writing) as training. Here, we can think of one's reading ability as ever-evolving, much like a muscle. After all, scholars have been arguing the possibility of readings skills improving as adults, since the 50s, if not even earlier.
In a publication for the journal Brain Connectivity, researchers from Emory University compared the impact to "muscle memory." In other words, challenging yourself with reading not only enhances your reading abilities (and expands the range of material you can read) but also alters the structure of your brain.
I have toyed with the idea that one cannot improve after a certain point. However, that is not only a bad example of fixed mindset thinking but unsupported. In other words, unless we suffer from some form of learning disability or altered brain function, it's difficult to believe we cannot gradually learn to read more complex material. Surely, we don't need writers to "write for 8th graders". Unless their audience is 8th graders.
But one should always write to the best of their capabilities. After all, there are times in which form must adhere to content, and times in which form - even as embellishments - help convey the content (think metaphors).
To rein in more anecdotes, let me tell you more about my experience reading Philosophers "direttamente dalla fonte". But first, let me digress.
Painting with pointillism involves applying small, distinct dots of colour in patterns to create an image. The technique depends on the audience's capacity to combine the colour spots into a wider variety of tones with their eyes and minds.
The Gestalt movement has it right: the brain creates whole pictures from discrete elements and patterns in order to understand (i.e., how to behave) the environment and how to perceive it.
At the stage of the reading journey where I find myself, reading Foucault - however slowly - is not so different from admiring a painting made of colourful dots.
When I read, I try to minimise my attempts at understanding and interpreting correctly every single little sentence, but I try to evaluate my understanding of passages. In other words, I ask myself: am I able to see bigger parts of the picture? Do I get the meaning of this?
And surely, at some point - if I don't give up - I will understand more and more details. Maybe at some point, I will know that 'ahead-of-itself-already-being-in as Being-alongside' means to care for others who are here, being with us.
The same goes for writing. The more you write, the more you should be able to handle complex syntaxes or whatnot. And, in my humble opinion, this should often be the case. Improving. But not always.
There surely are instances in which the reading and writing community benefits from simplified material.
When implementing knowledge translation (e.g. health communication)
When trying to make money with listicles (guilty as charged)
When writing for a much younger, or diverse audience (neurodiversity, English-as-second-language, and more)
I know, I know. Many writers on writing, bloggers on writing, and bloggers on "side-hustling" will disagree with me. And, to be fair, they might have a point, at least on platforms such as Medium and Vocal. Readers may still prefer reading material written in ways that "even an 8th grader could read and comprehend", and as I said, there is value in spreading knowledge. Additionally - and because of the previous point - you will likely earn a couple more bucks doing so.
But what about artistry? What about improvement, challenges, and the aesthetic of a beautifully written sentence?
I'm here to get there.
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