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I Wrote It Wrong

July 12, 2014Filed under artMarkdown source

I wrote a blog post earlier, and it seems I got it wrong (see the addendum at the end of the post). That is always an unpleasant experience, to say the least.

The one upside to this whole affair? I took away two important lessons: The first was a reminder to read others generously, even when frustrated with them—a point I spelled out a bit in my edit-and-addendum to the original post. The other about the effect of certain rhetorical structures in my writing. The idea I had here was good (even if I may have misread the trigger for writing the post in the first place), but it was badly executed, and there were structural reasons for that, having to do with the weight and balance in the original piece. What follows is just me self-critiquing in public: learning about the process of writing “out loud”, as it were.

Though the example I am critiquing is specifically a blog post, a lot of the principles here apply equally to other media, including forms as varied as long-form essays, preaching, lecturing, and even writing fiction.

My Goals

I meant the story I offered as an illustrative example of a broader point. To wit, I had had a bad customer experience with a given company, and it left a bad taste in my mouth that pushed me away from using that company’s software in the future. The story was meant to illustrate that even a single bad experience with a company can emotionally outweight a lot of positive experience with the company, and that emotions tend to fade slowly over time.

My Approach

I approached the piece with a fairly typical rhetorical structure for this kind of thing: introduce a thesis or idea, detour through a specific example to illustrate it, then come back and drive the main point home. This was a good idea, but the execution failed, and it failed for fairly obvious reasons on reflection.

The Problems

The first problem was the distribution of the content. The original piece was right around a thousand words long. Of those, some six hundred words were devoted to specific details of my interaction with the company in question. Another hundred words had to do with my follow-up decisions about the products involved. In the whole piece, then, I spent over two thirds of my time talking about the specific example, and only about a third making the actual point I wanted to make. This weighted the content so that the focus was on the details of the story, rather than the bigger picture issue that I walked away with a bad taste in my mouth from my interactions with the company’s customer service representative.

Second, the story itself was far too specific for my aims. I put in quotes from our email exchange, which entirely distracted from the point I wanted to make. It led readers to see whether they also perceived the emails as I had. While this was helpful for leading me to reevaluate the content of the emails, it also completely undercut the point of the post—a point, I should note, whose validity is entirely independent of the details of the incident I used to illustrate it. When I am illustrating a point, I need to let the illustration do the work of illustrating, without letting the details of the illustration come to the fore in this way. That means eliding all details but those actually essential to make the point. The story isn’t the point, nor are its details. It is there to serve the end of the thesis, and nothing more. The minute it does more than that, it needs to get out of the way.

Lesson learned

Those two issues combined to shift the rhetorical effect from what I intended—a general discussion of the need to make sure you treat customers with respect—to something else entirely. Instead of making my point, the example distracted from it. I hope in the future to learn from this by doing two things:

  • keeping the emphasis on arguing for the thesis, not on an illustration present only to personalize the thesis, especially by keeping the length of the illustration down.
  • keeping the details of any illustration used to the minimum essential to make the point at hand (whether illustrating the whole argument or just one part of it).