If the Pen Is Indeed a Sword, No Wonder They Taught Us to Write Rough Drafts In Pencil

Imagine a husband and wife who argue more than usual. After one profoundly bitter episode, the husband trollops off to another room and slams the door. Days quickly pass by, and no reconciliation takes place. Tired of the tension, the wife sits at her desk one night scribbling away on her personal stationery. After a long while, she finally completes an apology letter to her husband. In it, she strives to hold herself accountable for her part in their conflicts while also referencing his transgressions. And she does not hold back in expressing her love and care for him, naming off the traits she most loves about him that she knows he loves to hear her name. She happily skirts off to the spare bedroom where he is sleeping and slips it under the door. Later, she slips into bed with ease. She closes her eyes with anticipation for what the morning will bring. But the next morning, much earlier than planned, she awakens to a loud fumbling by the couple’s joint dresser. As the wife sits up, she finds her husband pulling out items of clothing from the bottom drawer. He turns to glare at her with tear-stained eyes, and mutters, “that letter was the last straw. How could you have been so blind to blame me for all of those things in your supposed apology? You truly don’t know me at all anymore.”

Now, the example above may be a little extreme. As this article will soon offer advice, let me offer readers a quick note that the couple in no way mirrors any real couple I know(including my own happy marriage where my wife and I are usually able to talk or write through disagreements). However, we all can think of different relationships where we feel a similar frustration. Perhaps we remember times not being able to get our point across to a friend or family member, or maybe we have learned how devastating it can be when we cannot get our point across. Nevertheless, the example of the feuding couple illustrates how we can easily misunderstand and misuse the written word. At one extreme, we can so easily be like the wife above and overestimate the written word’s powers. Writing is not a magic bullet for being able to communicate just anything at the movement of the pen. On the other end of the spectrum, we can easily take the written words’ powers for granted. In this day and age where writing continues to become a craft helping to set one above the rest, it seems crucial we learn to walk the narrow path between relying too much on the written word on one side and taking the real power of the written word too lightly on the other. Since one of the key mechanisms for writing, the pen, has long been considered “mightier than the sword,” it is good the safe alternative to the pen has long been the pencil until the narrow path can be walked more easily.

Understand the Perils of Overestimating — Or Underestimating — the Written Word

The age-old craft of writing certainly holds incalculable value and power. However, holding the craft too highly as a “magic bullet” or “touchdown pass” that can meet all communication needs may yield catastrophic consequences. We live in an age where the Internet is already thirty years old. And every day new apps and social media platforms appear. So it can be easy to idealize a “wordsmith” ability for anything from landing a competitive job to resolving tensions with family or friends. But the craft has its limits.

For one, you cannot single out writing as the only medium of communication and ignore all of the others. Navigating the complex world of human communication requires the average person to be fluent in written, oral, and even nonverbal language. A healthy connection may require a balance of all of these. Another thing, writing is not a magic act. You can’t pull a masterpiece out of a hat. For instance, you can’t simply type up the greatest resume to land a highly coveted job at a moment’s notice. Drafting works requires hard work, rigorous revision, and continuous improvement. Even with the greatest of writers (like any other art form), there is always room to grow. And a final thing, like language itself there is a part of anything that can’t be approached or adequately expressed through writing. Yes, we have writing domains like poetry, plays, or even fiction to stretch words further than normal language can go. But these are only a few of countless other subjects or art forms such as painting, ballet, or gourmet cooking.

So be wary of the tendency to overestimate writing and ignore its limits. Writing does not always change peoples’ hearts or help them refocus if their perspective has gone somewhat off-kilter. That is not to say it cannot plant profound seeds in their inner worlds. Many of us will remember a time when we overestimated the power of the written word and it led to severe repercussions. Children or young adults may send off a fan message to a favorite pop or movie star, imagining a once-in-a-million friendship to materialize. Instead, the only thing they receive in return is silence. Many may remember trying to win hearts with magical words but only experiencing heartbreak. Imagine the lasting pain from horrible experiences like the protagonist’s in the romance film Never Been Kissed. In this film, an undercover reporter named Josie Geller(played by Drew Barrymore) has flashbacks to her high school literature class where she recited an excerpt from Shakespeare to her crush. (This is not really writing to express love but a related genre of creative reading). When news circulated that he was asking her to prom, Josie actually believed it was because of her artistic hard work. In reality, the mean young man was playing a horrible joke. He drove by her house the night of prom as she waited for him, only to strike her with raw eggs and cruel words. What devastating results may occur when we misunderstand writing’s power and use!

On the other hand, you really cannot ever take the power of the written word for granted. This is certainly a common problem in our times of social media. From grade school to college, students are taught that writing is a process. From scribbling down notes on a rough draft to composing the word-processed final draft writing takes openness, honesty, critical evaluating, and reworking. Yet with platforms like Facebook and Twitter, people can just post whatever they are thinking at the moment. As evidenced by countless examples in politics, for instance, these posts can give off a bad impression, leave a lasting negative image, or even influence the worst of actions. And we have certainly seen firsthand how seemingly harmless “posted streams of thought” can cause the worst of irreparable harm to one’s career, relationships, and even their innermost self. We should always be careful to remember that the sage advice “think before you speak” also carries over to “think before you write.”

There is a classic excerpt from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch where the protagonist Dorthea Brooke asks her uncle Mr. Brooke to advise her dear friend Will Ladislaw not to visit as her husband is deathly ill. This proves to be a bad decision as Mr. Brooke instead thoughtlessly drafts a letter inviting Will to stay with him. As Mr. Brooke crafts the letter, his pen starts to become a thinking organ of its own:

But the end of Mr. Brooke’s pen was a thinking organ, evolving sentences, especially of a benevolent kind, before the rest of his mind could well overtake them. It expressed regrets and proposed remedies, which, when Mr. Brooke read them, seemed felicitously worded — surprisingly the right thing, and determined a sequel which he had never before thought of.

Mr. Brooke’s mindless flaunting of his ink-bearing “sword” brings tragic results. Since Will Ladislaw will now stay as an extended guest to Dorthea’s uncle, Dorthea now must face the inadvertent conflict between her dying husband and potential future romantic interest. See, even in previous centuries, writers warned how you can never take the power of the written word for granted.

Is Writing the Best Tool For the Task at Hand?

Perhaps not overestimating or underestimating the power of writing can start with asking whether or not writing is the best tool for the task in front of you. The sky is the limit for situations or tasks where writing is the best mechanism to communicate. Ever since ancient times, humans have found that a recorded message(even if only drawn on walls or stone tablets) lasts longer than oral or verbal. Just imagine any brick-and-mortar store where the price tags are removed. Chaos might ensue where customers(as well as store clerks) would be running around, naming whatever price they wanted. Then, even if a price were agreed upon, failed memories or differing perceptions could lead to countless disputes. So yes, the immeasurable effect of the written word or recorded message is evidenced all around us. But at the same time, countless other things require a different mode or mechanism of communication.

Think of how many things in human societies require in-person, face-to-face interaction in order to go well? Doctors need to be able to examine patients in person in order to properly understand so many conditions. Lawyers need to be able to present their evidence and arguments directly before a judge or jury in order to fully make their case. In all of these examples, the written word certainly has its place but is often placed alongside other modes of communication like verbal, oral, or even nonverbal. So, for your problem or goal, an essential question to ask is whether or not writing is the best tool for the job?

A simple question to ask is “would I be able to get my message across better through verbal communication or written?” Of course, this is after you question whether or not it is best to communicate the message in the first place. When considering this question, an age-old application of the Golden Rule seems most appropriate, such as, “if I were the person receiving this message, what mode might I like to receive it?” Obviously, a quickly jotted note to a close family member or friend for milestones like birthdays seems trite if you have the ability to visit them or drop them a line by phone. On the other hand, purchasing goods online with only a written email confirmation of receipt is certainly more practical than calling up someone thousands of miles away to verify receipt of a package.

In addition to this, considering the message’s context or domain can also help you determine which mode of communication to use. This can be so difficult to follow in personal, professional, and social worlds as different groups and environments hold contrary norms or standards. For instance, which method is best to apply for a new job in your desired field? Do you really think showing up in-person to a major company or firm and demanding to see hiring specialists is best if the company usually only hires online? On the other hand, there may be a reason your countless emailed resumes never get answered if the company hosts numerous walk-in hiring events. The only way to consider the context or domain is through hard work and practice. Knowing when to communicate by writing or when to communicate by other means comes from critically reading, analyzing, and evaluating the norms and practices of these various environments and cultures. Over time, just like in other areas of life, one comes to internalize this knowledge and also never forgets to keep modifying and enhancing it. With this internalization, the practice of using the written word in balance with sharing messages through oral or nonverbal communication just becomes natural. Talk of natural communication flow leads us to another question about the proper use of the writing craft — the whole business of the writing process.

The Rigorous Writing Process Takes On New Importance

One key way to avoid overestimating or underestimating the power of the written word is through a rigorous process. Giving yourself time, space, permission, and freedom to develop your writing from beginning to end will help you produce a finely-tuned end result. Just think of the first two common steps of the writing process: prewriting and drafting. You get so many of your ideas, emotions, insights, and raw points on the page first and then begin drafting it into something others can understand. This corrects the automatic-masterpiece fantasy because you directly see the complexity involved with adequately getting your thoughts and feelings across. Drafting your work then leads to extensive editing and revising so that you can deliver your written message in an improved version.

This does not mean that the early versions or drafts are meaningless or written in vain. Some of the earliest drafts may have the most beautiful, primal, heartfelt pieces that certainly have the power to transform. But editing offers the chance to accentuate these essential and core parcels and deliver them to readers in a more easily accessible format. Can you imagine a garden with the most beautiful, colorful flowers sprouting up left and right? Butterflies, birds, and bees will certainly want to drop down to capture their pollen, absorb their scent, or nest in their leaves. Humans passing by will stop to savor their beauty and sweet fragrance. But what if the flowers are all crowded over by weeds or grasses of countless sorts, hardly able to grow straight and tall? How can any creature land in their petals or even notice them? Just as gardens take weeding, fertilizing, and pruning to help the flowers reach full fruition, the writing process takes drafting, editing, and revising to help the seeds planted in early drafts grow. Of course, this takes hard work because we do not usually see “magic seeds” that automatically just sprout up to the sky when thrown in the backyard.

Knowing And Appreciating Your Audience

Isn’t it interesting how considering the writing process leads to the mention of others viewing your writing? Unless you are writing your own private diary or developing top-secret code, you can’t get too far in taming the craft without considering your audience. When you write, just as when you speak or act, you must always keep the recipient of your message in mind. One natural tendency we humans have is to assume other people may think, feel, or even know about different topics in a similar manner as we do. In any area, this is far from the truth. Even individuals who have experienced the exact same events may have entirely different experiences of the event based on contrary perceptions, backgrounds, and worldviews. Also, any reality imaginable has multiple facets or aspects that are manifest differently from varying points of view. In order to have a greater impact on your readers(in addition to drawing them to your work in the first place), you have to recognize their distinct points of view. Also, you must seek to relate. When you do this, you can find your writing to have a greater positive effect.

Take, for instance, the common example of a job seeker. The job seeker may spend multiple hours per day browsing job applications online and applying for the positions he finds best fit him. He streamlines the process of sending out dozens and dozens of his resumes with cover letters but gets hardly any replies. He starts to naturally think, “I am taking all of this time and effort to submit these applications and present myself in the best light. Why are most of these employers and recruiters not returning the favor?” The job seeker is not considering the recruiters’ point of view. For the recruiter, countless applications are pouring in for just one opening. Most probably have a similar format and content. The recruiter may feel overwhelmed with this process of finding a needle in a haystack while the pressure to find the ideal candidate constantly looms overhead. If the job seeker does not change his thinking to say “how can I draft my resume and cover letter so it will call out directly to the overworked recruiter above numerous other submissions?” then he will likely keep finding his fishing line harnessing little or no bites from tired recruiters lurking in the pond.

This form of intellectual empathy can seem hard, but can also yield multiple positive results. Being open and considering the audience’s viewpoint does not mean you will fully understand it. In fact, you are certain to come across some parts of their perspective you just cannot understand. This is not due to carelessness or stupidity, but because someone else’s world, being, and experience are wholly other than yours. Plus, there is always a part to each reality(maybe most parts) that is utterly inaccessible, mysterious, and beyond comprehension. To try to understand those parts of others’ points of view is as futile as humans trying to sense objects through echolocation. But hope is not lost. The beautiful thing next to this inaccessibility is acknowledging and appreciating the unknowable, then making sure to consider and relate to the part you can understand. Imagine if you can offer this humility and openness in your writing as you work to argue tenets from your point of view and relate to theirs. Phrases like “this article is hardly beginning to consider all the different aspects and facets of the issue” are much more inviting and appealing to readers than other phrases like “in this article, I’m going to tell you exactly why these points are right and other points are undoubtedly wrong.”

Owning What You Write and Keeping It To Yourself Otherwise

And so now the consideration of the audience naturally leads back to writers considering themselves. When you write anything — from a letter to a loved one to a full academic dissertation to a novel — you want to make sure you are ready to own every word. Not only is this true of making sure to seek copyright, but also true of standing behind your work no matter what. Even if you have followed the steps explored in this article, as well as implemented others, your writing still has the potential to yield fruits you never expected. Some of these fruits are positive and wonderful beyond imagining, like Anne Frank’s private diary becoming an international bestselling work inspiring countless hundreds of millions over generations. Other fruits are not as endearing.

Some may interpret your writing in an unexpected way that proves negative. Others may just perceive your writing as offensive and toxic(which would just be their valid perception from but one of numerous angles). Others may even claim you stole their idea. Certainly, this may seem like an absurd claim. How crazy that others may have developed ideas, concepts, or insights even remotely similar to yours? Are not all ideas at some level themselves springing from other ideas? But indeed, this happens quite often. So before you go and sow your written seeds out all over the world, make sure you are ready to stand by your words. If you have made the steps mentioned above(among numerous others) and have poured out the honest parts of your deeper life, perspective, and self, then you are probably ready to stand behind your words no matter how they may be perceived. If you need to keep your writing private and personal a little longer, maybe even indefinitely, then that is okay as well.

One of the key questions is whether or not you are writing for the right reasons. A key positive reason to write is just for the sake of writing itself. The art of writing is a whole world in itself. Like so many other activities, just immersing yourself in this world can bring the most immeasurable riches. Other positive reasons include writing to express opinions and feelings, argue positions or explore others’ viewpoints, or simply communicate love and care for family, friends, or other close-of-kin. If you are writing for the right reasons, you should be more likely to want to stand behind your words. A beautiful thing about the craft of writing is that since any piece is always a work in progress, nothing should ever stop you from being able to go back and modify or revise anything you had previously put out there in the past. Some of the greatest acts of owning any words(as would be the same with actions) is stating the reasonings and insights that were behind your words before and describing what new insights led you to a revised and enhanced understanding.

Run To the Pencils Instead Of the Pens

So, this piece has explored several strategies to help writers avoid the mistake of misunderstanding or misusing the written word. Even if writers fully utilize these multiple strategies, it is still possible for their words to be misunderstood or interpreted in a negative way. So, when taking up the task of writing, perhaps it is best to first run towards the pencil rather than the sharp and mighty pen. The pen certainly will have its due time to put all of those powerful words in indelible ink. But before that, the pencil will allow you to fully immerse yourself in the great journey that writing is. Its lighter texture will allow you to explore alternate paths before choosing a final route. Its eraser will give you a chance to weed out the unnecessary or misplaced text to allow your essential, genuine message to shine brighter.

Pencils seem more natural for so many of those things in life, don’t they? They leave a lighter mark that can be erased. Certainly, we cannot erase events or occurrences that are naturally beyond our control. Nor can we even take back our words and actions once they have been spoken or committed. But in the realm of things we can control, things are easier if we remember that life is an ever-evolving journey and our very selves are always a work in progress. In our relationships with one another, perhaps our communication need not use more formalities and ultimatums than necessary. Also, we should never forget the immeasurable value of our words, speech, and language that we develop over time to adequately express our innermost selves.

To end this article, perhaps we should anchor back to the example of the married couple at the beginning. Again, keep in mind, this hypothetical couple does not resemble anyone I know. Perhaps in the dawn of that early morning, the wife is quick to jump out of bed and offer her quick apology and explanation. Both wife and husband may talk for a while and at least agree that the written word was not the best method of communication to resolve their tension. Perhaps a peaceful resolve at this point may actually turn out to be where they decide to draw down any communication to minimal levels. Maybe instead of arguing or writing or throwing hands in the air, they decide to go on a quiet walk together in the park and take in nature’s beautiful sights and sounds. Maybe they will go tend to their home’s garden or drive to the matinee to see a movie. Or perhaps they will agree just to give each other a little needed space for a day for some necessary peace and quiet. As this should help them to clear the air and eventually get back to talking or writing through things, they will remember that perhaps the greatest of connection, sharing and sheer being comes from things that transcend language altogether.

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