Writing | Quality as a Function of Utility


Everybody writes. Emails, blogs, papers, journal articles, book chapters, theses, dissertations, books… So at the draft stage of writing, how do you know enough is enough? This question popped into my head today as I was sending a draft of a section of a paper to my co-author. I wrote to him via email something along the lines of, “… I’m glad that I wrote something; that I gave us material to work with. but i also don’t know if what i wrote gives us enough.”

I regret having wrote that because all I was doing was qualifying the quality of the writing. In other words, “This draft sucks, so prepare thyself for a slog…” This is a crumby way to frame any writing.

Stuff just “is” for better or worse no matter how you choose to measure it. Would it be better if I got closer to “final draft” quality the first time around? Maybe. But, among other things, that assumes the goodness of badness of writing is a function of quality and speed.

See any standardized test for examples of how this assumption surfaces in reality. “Write 500-700 words in 25 minutes… etc.” Don’t mistake this as a criticism of touting speed as a key factor in the quality of writing. It may very well be important.

I want to put forth a different assumption about writing, which, in and of itself, is not incommensurable with speed as a component of quality, but which emphasizes another aspect of writing. The goodness or badness of writing is a function of its utility and its utility is inextricably linked with its context. 

I’ll try and explain with a design analogy.

We talk about iteration a lot in design. Sketch quickly. Sketch often. And always be in dialogue with and about your sketches. The same principle can be applied to writing. Write quickly. Write often. And always be in dialogue with your writing. A designer doesn’t have to be great at sketching. They don’t even need to be good at it, whatever “good” might mean to you. They need to be an adequate sketch artist, meaning that when someone else looks at their sketch they need to be able to be able to converse with it (even if the designer-creator of the sketch isn’t there). In other words, their sketches need to be useful given their spatio-temporally constrained role. Sketches need to be different things at different times in the design process. And maybe the same is true with writing.

I’ve read some pretty bad writing and been able to converse with it, and at the early stages of writing perhaps we all need to relax the “selection criteria” for what gets out of the brain and onto the page. You’ll write something useful. Guaranteed.

If you sketch a lot, you’re going to get better because you’ll (hopefully) come to understand at a deeper level (1) what it means for a sketch to be good and (2) how you can improve as a sketch artist. I think the same is probably true of writing.

If you write a lot, you’re going to get better because, through your own dialogue with your writing and through your dialogue with others about your writing, you’ll (hopefully) come to understand at a deeper level what it means, to you and to others, (1) for writing to be good, and (2) how to get from where you are to where you want to be (as a writer).

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