Writing Right with Dmitri: On How You're Not Alone in the Chatroom
The other night, I was watching a documentary about a controversial topic. The documentarian was interviewing people with very different viewpoints. At one point, I found myself watching a rather soft-spoken middle-aged man whose conference had been interrupted by a protest group, trying to talk to a very strident group of opponents who kept shouting him down. Their leader, a younger woman with startlingly dyed red hair, kept shouting, 'Shut the (bleep) up! Shut the (bleep) up! I'M talking!'
Um, hm, I thought. Not much communication going on there.
I deliberately omitted to tell you the name of the documentary, the controversial issue involved, or which group was doing the interrupting and shouting. Why? Because if I did, how you feel about the issue and its advocates would colour how you viewed the exchange. You might find the crimson-haired woman more or less rude depending on what you thought about the rights and wrongs of the discussion. That wasn't my point.
The point is, if you shout at people, you're unlikely to elicit any other response than, 'Let me out of here.'
The problem with the woman and her group was not that she didn't have something to say on an issue, and a perfect right to say it. It was that she couldn't bear for anyone else to have a view on the issue that conflicted with hers. She was unwilling to tolerate dialogue. When we've reached that point, friends, we need to step away and do something useful, like sort our sock drawers. Something that won't hurt another person. Because words can wound.
We all know that. We all know, also, that the internet has caused a proliferation of shouting matches between perfect strangers. Why in the world does this happen? Why does this happen, when we realise that most of those rude shouters are perfectly nice people in everyday life, who would never shout at a stranger on the street? They probably hate violence as much as the next human. They aren't at all like the noisy woman cursing out loud on the street. Why are they shouting with their fingers? I think we know the answer to that question, too.
They don't realise they aren't alone on the internet. After all, it's just a webpage. It's just a parser box. It's just virtual paper. They're just venting their frustrations. They forget, at least for the moment, that they aren't talking to themselves. They agree with themselves, at least most of the time.
Do We Ever Write Like We're Alone?
When we write 'for ourselves' – and by this I mean, without a contract or hope of monetary or other gain – we tend to indulge. After all, nobody's paying for this. We write 'out of the goodness of our hearts', right? Well, okay…if we're honest, we write because we're getting something out of it. That something could be the reward of praise. It could be the sense of satisfaction at organising our thoughts. It could be the chance to share ideas with like-minded people. It could simply be the desire to help other people's kids with their homework. Whatever it is, we've got a reason for writing here. That reason alone tells us that we're not alone. We're writing for someone else: the reader we want to engage, the kid with the homework assignment, the person who stumbles upon our perfectly-organised thoughts…
But let's face it, sometimes we still write like we're alone in the chatroom. We take things for granted that make sense to us, but not to others. We fail to explain. We take shortcuts in our thinking. Then, we're really surprised that what the reader read is not what we think we wrote.
Here's an exercise: write something, anything. Put it away for a couple of days. Then go back and read it again. But this time, pretend you're someone else. If you can manage it, pick a particular someone else – a friend, coworker, acquaintance from down the street or online, whoever you like. Try to read what you've written as if you were the other person. Would it make sense to them? Could they understand it? Would some part of it confuse, or offend, so that they'd never get your point? Maybe a tweak is needed here and there?
Now, before anybody says it, no. No, no, no, no to what somebody, somewhere, is about to write on the bottom of this page. I'm not advocating 'self-censorship'. Not in the least. I grew up with the necessity for self-censorship, I'm an expert at it (and getting around it), and that's not what I'm talking about. I'm saying, keep the reader in mind, and recognise that the reader is not you. If you don't, you run the danger of ending up like that red-haired woman, shouting for everyone else to shut up while you talk.
Much more on that later.