Writing as empathy
For everyone except Mozart, most of writing is rewriting. And rewriting, at least for me, has three strands that only unravel in thought, not in practice. All three require a type of cognitive empathy that is common to every form of communication. In fact, cognitive empathy isn’t an add-on to communication. It is what communication is essentially about.
The three strands show up as questions when I’m rereading and editing a work in progress:
First, does the piece make sense? Are there holes in it? Does one idea follow from another the way that I thought they did? Does it need to be reordered? Will it be clear enough to someone whose interest is casual?
Second, do the words and sentences work or get in the way of the reader? Does a particular paragraph really need a topic sentence, or would it be more interesting if it didn’t announce its point? Will a reader be confused by some sentence until
they get to the end of it? If so, can I move the words around to make it flow better? Why does this particular word seem not quite right, and is there a better word I could use?
Third, how will all this sound to someone who doesn’t share my context and interests? What premises, spoken and tacit,
can I assume the reader already shares? Which ones need to be spelled out and defended? How alien will the conclusion
be? And if I’m going to write about the process of writing—guilty!—is there something I can say at the beginning to
promise the reader that the topic is actually going to be broader than that? For example, can I end the first paragraph
with some vague hand-waving about “cognitive empathy”?
The first question, about the logic of the piece, writers address primarily to themselves. But not entirely, for the expression
of the logic is guided by assumptions about the readers. An academic research article assumes not only that its readers are experts but that it should adhere to one of the standard forms of argument in such papers. But a Malcolm Gladwell piece brings people through the argument by taking unexpected turns—the opposite of how a research paper works. So,
this first question may be addressed by the author to the author, but the answer still is filtered through the expected
The second question, about the words and sentences, is similar to a tailor checking to make sure that the seams are hidden, the clothing is draping properly, and nothing else will get in the way of the customer appreciating the work when they try it on in front of a mirror.
The third question—how will this sound to someone who doesn’t share my context?—affects the other two questions. If the text is arguing against an assumption widely held, what are the defenses the reader will bring to the article? Does the specific idea being challenged exist within readers’ deeper intellectual, emotional, and personal context? If so, what else is the essay tacitly challenging? How can the reader’s context be acknowledged, addressed, and perhaps even subverted?
I personally don’t rewrite with those three questions explicitly in mind, and obviously I never succeed at addressing all or even most of them. In truth, I’ve never explicitly formulated them before. But they seem true to my lived experience
of editing something until I’m ready to put it out with no ability to take it back.