Writing with fear, continued

Two years ago, I wrote a post called Fear and the English language. It was my twist on George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language, in which Orwell, in his timeless way, indicts and mocks modern writing.

“The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness,” Orwell said.

But why is this so? Because we are afraid, I concluded (after interrogating my own brain as it writes). We are afraid of the consequences of our words — of being misunderstood or attacked — so we make the words less clear. We use our words to erect barriers to meaning so we can hide behind those barriers.

This is cowardice. And it leads to bad writing, and bad speaking.

That covers most of verbal communication: the corporate memo, the annual report, the government publication, the politically correct academic thesis, the conference call with dial-in numbers, etc etc.

Well, that old post seems to have resonated, especially with those of you who also write for a living.

One of you, Eliot Brockner, emailed me this:

… I just read a post of yours from a few years ago titled “Fear and the English Language” and felt compelled to write you because of its relevance and timeliness in my own thoughts and struggles to grow as a writer. I think part of the problem is that what I write on a day-to-day basis by nature involves writing with fear. The company I work for covers operational threats to our clients’ businesses (I cover Latin America). To account for any possibility or event, I must use words that make for bad writing – ‘may’, ‘possibly’, ‘likely’. Even though our content is event driven, very little of what we write is concrete

My problem is that because this type of writing takes up most of my time, my own freelance work – my blog, my writing for other digital publications, even my own personal writing – is suffering. Having to account for so many possibilities in my professional writing is clouding my clarity of thought, and without clarity of thought, clarity of writing is impossible

How do you break this mold? If you are writing with fear, how do you stop? I’m having trouble reconciling the professional and personal writing worlds.

So Eliot poses the obvious next question: How do you stop writing with fear?

I gave Eliot the honest answer, which is that I have no good answer. (Remember, this is a blog, and most of the time I post stuff that is on my mind, unresolved, not stuff that I have already resolved.) But I promised that I would open it up here, to “crowd-source” it. So weigh in below.

As I ponder Eliot’s challenge, I follow a chaotically dialectical mental trajectory as follows:

1) Arise, inner Hero

Psychologically, writing usually begins as a Quest.

I capitalize Quest to remind you of the archetypes in the thought of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. In a writerly Quest, the (usually youthful) writer necessarily sees him or herself as a Hero/Heroine. I had a long-running thread on heroism here on The Hannibal Blog, so let me just pluck from that series two very clean and simple kinds of hero:

One kind of writer, after reading Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, seethes with bravery and becomes Theseus after he moves the boulder and finds his father’s sword: He wants to go out and prove himself, to slay villains on the way to Athens and then the Minotaur.

Another kind of young writer becomes The White Rose and decides to challenge evil with courageous words, by telling truth to power, by not shutting up, risk be damned.

To pick, somewhat arbitrarily, two analogous examples from our time:

In Hitchens’s case, we see a self-conscious hero dazzling us with his word prowess right from the first line of anything he writes. He knows he will have enemies (the whole point is to make enemies!), so he tilts at them with a cavalier smirk, with utterly gratuitous bravado, and says “bring it on.” Whatever you think of him, whether or not you agree with him, he regularly overcomes his fear and writes well. Orwell would approve.

In Krugman’s case, he sees (in much less intense form) in American Conservatism what the White Rose saw in Nazism: a curse to be opposed with relentlessly clear polemical writing. He does not hedge, he does not mince, he does not dilute or duck or hide. Whatever you think of him, whether or not you agree with him, he regularly overcomes his fear and writes well. Orwell would approve.

So Eliot, you could try to be a Hitchens/Theseus or a Krugman/White Rose. To hell with clients, employers, editors, readers: excise those hedge words, make those tenses active, replace those Norman words with Saxon ones, make those thoughts as clear as they want to be.

2) Sit down, you’re no hero

But wait, Eliot: What if you’re not a Theseus or a White Rose?

Oh, and by the way, when Theseus became unpopular in Athens, somebody threw him off a cliff. And the members of the White Rose were beheaded. So what if you pick a heroic fight and … lose? You’ll still have to pay the bills and rent or mortgage.

So let’s remember that good writing is rare precisely because it is dangerous. Somebody who leaps to mind is Satoshi Kanazawa, the scientist we debated so passionately in the previous post. In our discussion, we mainly argued about his academic freedom, his integrity as a scientist, his rights and privileges in the pursuit of truth. Those are the appropriate questions.

But I also see in him the struggle we are talking about in this post. He did not want to dilute his hypotheses into the usual term-paper bilge. He wanted to make the words simple and clear. As ever, simplicity and clarity in writing make the words stronger and more powerful. And that’s what sealed his fate when he wrote the title of the blog post that suspended his career:

Why Are Black Women Rated Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women, But Black Men Are Rated Better Looking Than Other Men?

Give Eliot or me five minutes, and either of us could edit Kanazawa’s original post in such a way that nobody would take offense. How? By hiding the hypothesis behind hedges, passive tenses and qualifiers so deep that you wouldn’t even be able to find it. Kanazawa’s post would then be titled:

Preliminary implications of factor analysis on the aesthetic variance observed among gender and race phenotypes

(This sort of thing happens all the time, by the way: Coincidentally, I found another old post of mine in which I lament the New York Times doing this, with another topic vaguely mixing science, sex and race.)

The writing would be awful, yes. Orwell would not approve, except in his ironic Orwellian way. But Orwell does not own Psychology Today or run the LSE. Satoshi Kanazawa might still be blogging. This could all have turned out differently.

So maybe, Eliot, you and I are right to be circumspect. Let’s write, you know, fine, not too well. Let’s save the good stuff for later, for a special day. We would be in good company: Even Mark Twain concluded that you can only write honestly when you’ve got nothing left to lose:

Free speech is the privilege of the dead, the monopoly of the dead. They can speak their honest minds without offending.

3) If you can’t be a Hero, don’t write at all

But that’s not satisfying. I didn’t become a writer to write badly. If this is the way it is, Eliot, let’s rather not write at all.

And again, Eliot, you and I would be in excellent company: Socrates refused to write anything at all, because the written word cannot defend itself, whereas the spoken word (in his opinion) can. As soon as you write something down, said Socrates, the words will be misunderstood or distorted, by the dumb or the malicious, and your words

must remain solemnly silent.

4) If you must write, at least pick your battles


But that’s not satisfying either. We became writers because we love writing, and because we do occasionally have something to say.

So perhaps, we must integrate all these strands into something practical. This brings to mind Clausewitz and the distinction between tactics and strategy.

Let’s distinguish between means and ends, between important battles and distractions and diversions, between the individual words and the intended meaning, between each instance of writing and an entire writing career.

I suspect, Eliot, that we would then:

  • sometimes follow Socrates and choose not to write at all,
  • sometimes follow Twain and choose not to write yet,
  • sometimes compromise and choose words that make smaller targets but retain power,
  • sometimes go heroic and stumble, as Kanazawa did, then get up again and keep going, and
  • sometimes revert to our inner Theseus or White Rose, decide that now is the time for our arete — all consequences be damned — and write really fucking well.

Death in Tehran: a story about fear

I’ll have much more to say about Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, which I recently finished reading. But today just one little story that Frankl, a psychotherapist who survived Auschwitz, tells in the book.

He calls it Death in Tehran (Kindle locations 846-51) and uses it to suggest that we are often our own worst enemies, that our very fear of something can make it come about:

A rich and mighty Persian once walked in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death, who had threatened him. He begged his master to give him his fastest horse so that he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse. On returning to his house the master himself met Death, and questioned him, “Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?” “I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in still finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran,” said Death.

Bad writing about white oral sex

A while ago, using George Orwell’s classic essay on language, I opined that:

Good writing = clear thinking + courage

with the implication that

Bad writing = confused thinking

or, more interestingly,

Bad writing = clear thinking + cowardice

Well, I was thinking about this today when reading a phenomenally badly written article in the Science section of the New York Times. It is a case study not only in writerly cowardice but its more petty form: squeamishness.

The article starts meekly enough with the headline that

Findings May Explain Gap in Cancer Survival

The background is a genuine conundrum, which is that

  1. cancers of the throat and neck have been increasing and
  2. whites survive more often than blacks.

The obvious question is: Why the difference? It could be late diagnosis for blacks, lack of access to health care by blacks, different treatment for blacks or something else.

Well, it’s something else! And this ought to be the big, screaming headline of the article, except that the article never says it! Since the article does not, I will write the simple, plain-English sentence that is missing:

Whites have more oral sex than blacks, and therefore get infected with a virus that causes more of them to have cancer, but of a less lethal sort.

There you have it: The two most explosive subjects in America, sex and race, both in the same sentence. Naturally, any editor of the New York Times will seek cover. I say: Cowardice! Squeamishness!

The result is some cryptic and off-putting verbiage that buries the central insight underneath impenetrable code. It is exactly the sort of intentionally obtuse language that George Orwell mocked.

Look at how the hints are buried in the text:

The virus can also be spread through oral sex, causing cancer of the throat and tonsils, or oropharyngeal cancer.


The new research builds on earlier work suggesting that throat cancer tumors caused by the virus behave very differently from other throat cancers, and actually respond better to treatment. And the new research suggests that whites are more likely than blacks to have tumors linked to the virus, which may explain the poor outcomes of African-Americans with HPV-negative tumors.

The research does actually establish the crucial link, but you would hardly know it from sentences such as this:

The results were striking: the TAX 324 patients whose tumors were caused by the virus responded much better to treatment with chemotherapy and radiation. And they were also overwhelmingly white. … While about one-half of the white patients’ throat tumors were HPV-positive, only one of the black patients had a tumor caused by the virus, Dr. Cullen said.

Towards the end, the writer dares venture the following hypothesis:

This suggests that the racial gap in survival for this particular cancer may trace back to social and cultural differences between blacks and whites, including different sexual practices, experts said.

Excuse me. “Social and cultural differences … including different sexual practices”?!

This would not happen at The Economist. If I wrote such claptrap, I would get laughed out of the room.

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Fear and the English Language


Fear and the English Language is my attempt at a meaningful pun on George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, one of the most important essays ever written.

You may remember that our own Style Guide at The Economist begins with Orwell’s six cardinal rules of good writing, taken from this essay. And now a reader of The Hannibal Blog has written, and shared with me, a very thoughtful Socratic dialogue based on this same essay (Orwell is Socrates in this dialogue, speaking to a student.) So I decided to re-read Orwell’s essay, which is always a good idea.

What is Orwell’s bigger point? Let me try to put it this way:

Thought + Intention → Words and Words → Thought + Intention

That’s why words are so important. They reflect thoughts and intentions. If your thoughts are jumbled, vague or absent, the words will come out badly, even if the intention is good. If your intention is insincere, the words will come out badly, even if you have a good thought. It also works in the other direction: If you get in the habit of using insincere or evasive words or talking nonsense, you will probably start thinking that way.

And so we can state, as confidently as Orwell did 63 years ago, that most of the words we read and hear by politicians, businesspeople, PR people, academics and celebrities are bad, embarrassingly bad.

Here are the two qualities common to this sort of language, according to Orwell:

The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.

Orwell makes fun of the sort of monstrosity that this led to in his day by “translating” a famous verse from Ecclesiastes,

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

into “modern” English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

What might that be today? Oh, pick your category. (You can come up with your own best worst phrase in the comments.) Let’s take the businessmen or PR people that I regularly deal with. They might turn Ecclesiastes into:

Whilst it is important to proactively leverage one’s core competencies, market conditions and timing largely determine what becomes a game-changer and what not.

Again, Orwell’s point is that

The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.

But why?

1) Laziness, often.

Speaking or writing clearly takes enormous effort because you first have to think, clarify and simplify. On the other hand, speaking or typing words, especially in hackneyed phrases you’ve heard others use thousands of times, takes vastly less effort and fills the time. Yesterday I was interviewing one of the people running in next year’s Californian gubernatorial race: what a torrent of words, in response to every question, and how little I had in my notebook at the end!

2) Fear or cowardice, more often.

This is the real answer, I believe. If you speak or write clearly you end up producing incredibly strong words. If they are noteworthy at all, they are sure to offend somebody. Are you up for that? Most writers are not, which is why they reserve their most honest writing for the grave, as Twain quipped. Usually, people want to speak or write without bearing any consequences. So, as Orwell says, you let your words fall upon the world

like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details.

This amounts to insincerity. You are really using words to hide. Typically, this is when the mixed metaphors and clichés come out. (By the way, I am not endorsing that American genre–you know who–of writers who see offending people as their niche. You can’t just be offensive, you still need a genuine thought.)

So: good writing, good language, good style comes down to, yes, having something to say and saying it as simply as you can, but above all to the great courage that this takes. That’s why good writing is so rare.

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