Be Courageous When You Write

            Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives for most of the 1940s and the 1950s, famously explained success in politics. Dishing up his words with his smooth Texas drawl, the old school dealmaker said, “If you want to get along, go along.”

            There is a lot of truth in this adage. Generally, we affirm individuals and work product that we view as “constructive.” By “constructive,” what we really mean most of the time is an explanation or a defense of a worldview we already have. It can also refer to innovation, but that is usually when the innovation is something that we are inclined to support. For example, a self-described environmentalist is not as likely as an oil industry executive to characterize as “constructive” a technological innovation that makes it easier and cheaper to do fracking.

            We want to be liked, and so we are more inclined to support what we like. On the surface, this may appear obvious, and not all that insightful, but what this means for a writer trying to attract readers in the marketplace turns out to be critical. It is a truism a writer needs to recognize but also guard against.

            In “Why Do We Like People Who Are Similar to Us?” (Psychology Today), the Psychology Professor Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D., writes:

            “Perceived similarity [has] a large effect on liking. So it is more important to think that you have a lot in common with someone than it is actually to have a lot in common.”

            Unless a writer only intends to write for himself or his immediate family and friends, he understands that for the most part he is writing for strangers. A stranger is a person with no vested interest in the writer. She does not care all that much if he is about to lose his home to foreclosure, nor on the plus side if he managed recently to reach the top of Mount Everest. It is all about the work, and if she is not intrigued, entertained, or compelled enough to keep reading after the first paragraph, most of the time she will not. That does not make her intellectually lazy. Nor does that make her ungrateful for all that the writer has put into his masterpiece. All it means is that she is a stranger among billions of others.

            Because the writer realizes this, he is inclined to try to get as many strangers as possible to like his work. He will attempt ahead of time to conjure the overriding intellectual and cultural predispositions of his intended audience. He will study, and perhaps even mimic, the style and the content of several other authors that audience apparently has liked. He will attempt to appeal to as many members of that intended audience as possible by reinforcing the values or the biases most common to them.

            If the writer happens to share the predominant mindset of his audience with respect to his topic, then he will find it relatively easy to be “constructive.” He is not going to have many qualms about getting along to go along.

            What if the writer’s point of view on a given topic is very different from what he perceives to be the dominant mindset of his audience? What if his style of writing does not conform enough with what is usually published in the journal or periodical to which he is submitting? He can try to refine his views, or he can try to submit to a more compatible publication. In other words, he can try “to get along [to] go along.”

            Oftentimes, to some degree at least, this is the best course. After all, a writer is never going to butter his bread with unread material.

            Still, every writer should guard against the pitfalls from focusing too much on being liked and approved by the gatekeepers out there in the marketplace. It is very critical first to know what those pitfalls are and then to figure out how to avoid them as much as possible.

            The first problem is that in reinforcing the mindset of his audience the writer may be “liked,” but paradoxically he is much less likely to be noticed. Until lightning strikes and the writer gets noticed among his peers, he is a needle in the haystack. It is hard enough to notice any needle, let alone a needle that is going out of its way to be the same texture and color as the hay.

            I recommend exploring a nuanced take on a topic that is not completely out of bounds with the intended audience, but at the same time is asking them to think about something familiar in a new way. Returning to the example above, instead of writing an article to an environmentalist journal about how fracking threatens the water supply, I may focus instead on how the Saudi government is funding much of the anti-fracking material out there. I may acknowledge the various problems with fracking, and urge legislation to curtail it, but also implore environmentalists not to be duped by a scare campaign funded by oil industry competitors. In this example, I have reaffirmed my bona fides as a “pro-environmentalist” writer, but I have taken a nuanced approach to the material that allows me to stand out from the crowd.

            The second problem is that in reinforcing the most common values or biases of his audience the writer is contributing to a prevailing groupthink approach to his topic. The work comes across as propagandistic instead of scholarly, no matter what the writer may have intended. The topic is characterized as “black” or “white,” when more often than not the truth is a more nuanced shade of gray. This is not a problem if the writer is a propagandist, but if he actually wants to explore the truth then this approach will undercut the credibility of whatever truth he may highlight.

            The journalist James Surowiecki writes:

            “The important thing about groupthink is that it works not so much by censoring dissent as by making dissent seem somehow improbable.”

            Dissent is the father of innovation. If a writer really wants to stand out from the crowd, then he should be free to dissent from the predominant opinion when he has determined that that is where the truth is. This takes courage, especially when a writer has started to find some success with his audience. This approach moreover is also closer to the truth. While groupthink may suggest that dissent is not likely to uncover any new or countervailing truths, the history of science and of reason very often proves the opposite. The rabble-rousers not only make history. In retrospect, they are often right and ahead of their time.

            For a new writer still trying to cultivate an audience, I recommend exploring a dissenting view, when possible, but also respecting the predominant point of view of the audience. Until a writer has had a chance to establish his credibility over time, he is not likely to be published or read if he is too much of a contrarian. For the most part, readers do not want to be told constantly that they are wrong to think or to act a certain way, and even more so they are not going to stomach dissent from a writer who is virtually unknown and untested. Returning to the example above, if I want to champion a dissenting view, but also maintain my bona fides as an environmentalist concerned about our reliance on fossil fuels, I may write an article explaining how it is necessary to outlaw fracking, but then also advocate more funding for safe nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels. This is definitely a dissenting view among the majority of environmentalists, but until renewable energy sources are really able to supplant our need for fossil fuels it can be argued that safe nuclear power is the only viable alternative absent a serious reduction in our use of energy. Even though I am dissenting from the orthodox view on this topic, I am respecting the prevailing view of my audience in favoring clean energy.

            It is important for a new writer to figure out how to appeal to the preferences in the marketplace. To some extent, he needs to conform. In the end, it is better to be “liked” than to remain unread. At the same time, being respected is even better than being liked. It takes a while to earn respect in the marketplace as a credible voice for a particular topic or point of view. It also takes courage to buck the trend every now and then. A good writer pushes the envelope. The key is to figure out just how much.  

Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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