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Charitable Writing

A couple of years ago Meredith Farkas wrote a post in which she introduced Josh Neff’s phrase “charitable reading” to the library blogosphere. The phrase is a good one, so it has bubbled up from time to time over the years. Essentially it means “read what people write and assume that those people meant well and that they are not stupid.” Granted, occasionally people don’t mean well, and sometimes they are stupid, but the idea is not to have those as your baseline assumptions.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the last several months (two years is an eternity in blog years but not very long in human years, so I’m allowed to still be thinking about this, right?), and I think that this is only half of what makes for productive written discussion. The other half is Charitable Writing: assume that your audience is not stupid, that they mean well, that they are probably trying to do the best they can or think carefully or otherwise conduct themselves well, and that they wouldn’t be reading and interacting with you if they didn’t want to.

Lately I’ve found myself unsubscribing from blogs and twitter feeds that, even though they have potentially useful content, present ideas in ways that sound condescending. Somehow that tone of writing screams “I’m pretty sure I’m smarter than you!” so loudly that it drowns out the calm murmur of the authors’ interesting ideas. This tone forces to me to work far harder at Charitable Reading than feels fair. It eventually wears me out. And so I unsubscribe and trust that others will point me toward the truly important posts.

Charitable Reading is hard. I fail at it frequently. But I think Charitable Writing is even harder because it it requires that authors see beyond the facts that they’re conveying, step into somebody else’s head, and hear from that other person’s perspective the tone that they probably didn’t know they were conveying… and then to do this from multiple potential readers’ perspectives. With so many potential ways of failing at this kind of writing, it’s a good thing that readers will be trying to read charitably!

3 thoughts on “Charitable Writing

  1. Great post! I just this week unsubscribed from a blog where it was becoming clear to me that the author thought he was a lot smarter than his audience. Blech! What I really wonder is if this author realizes how he comes across (or if he cares).

    You’re right that charitable writing is more difficult and I never thought about it that way until now. It often takes me a while to realize when I took a tone in a post that I totally didn’t intend, but that bothered people nonetheless. At a minimum, I hope I convey a respect for my audience — after 4 1/2 years, I’m still surprised people read my blog and I hope my appreciation of that comes through in my writing. In most of the blogs I read, it’s pretty obvious to me when someone really respects and appreciates their readers.

  2. “Respect” is a great word that I completely forgot to mention in the post. That’s absolutely what I mean.

    I remember when I was learning to write things like term papers and my dad would tell me “don’t make your reader work so hard.” He taught me the trick of deliberately mis-reading myself both in terms of grammar and in terms of tone. He would say that if I could come up with a misinterpretation, I could be absolutely sure that at least one of my readers would misinterpret me that way.

    Of course, knowing to try this trick and actually being able to carry it through every single time are two entirely different matters.

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