Which is more dangerous: writing badly or reading poorly?

On Tuesdays I generally write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week I turned the tables, and asked my followers on Twitter a simple question:

Which is more dangerous: people who write badly, or people who read poorly?

Polls like this are mostly just fun for me. Even so, I try to word them carefully and think through how to make the question less leading towards one answer. And then before I post it, I stop to think up a guess at what the results will be.

In this case I predicted it would be nearly even. I thought the poll was clever, but not particularly interesting as binary choices often create false dichotomies. I admit I was quite surprised to see the result (21% write badly, 79% read poorly):

Yes, it’s true that binary polls are often unfair as in any real-life decision there are layers of nuance, clarifications and details that change both how you might define the problem and how you’d try to solve it. But the brutality of the forced choice has a power too, at least as a thought experiment: if you could only solve one of the two problems, which would you solve?

I see now that I agree with the answer. Here’s why:

  1. A bad reader can squander the work of a great writer. If the reader is only skimming headlines or reading primarily for speed rather than comprehension, it’s easy for them to misunderstand or overlook the value of what they read. Reading is always the last step and it takes place entirely in the reader’s mind, not the writer’s. And of course there are far more readers than writers as it only takes one writer to produce something, but hundreds or thousands of readers can read that one work.
  2. Misinformation and fake news are popularized by readers.  Our decision to share something on social media hinges on our (mis)comprehension of its accuracy, meaning or truthfulness, or our disregard for those things. What becomes a trend, goes viral or becomes popular is based entirely on readers opinions no matter how (un)informed they are, or how many great works from great writers they have entirely ignored.
  3. Learning to read better helps you to write better. The most common and worthy advice from writing teachers is to become a better reader and to read better works. It’s by improving the questions you ask as a reader, and developing the patience to pause and think, to reconsider, to glance between the lines, that the capacity to write well begins to grow. If we want better writers, we need better readers first.

Now that you are finished reading what I have written, what comments will you write for me to read? I look forward to reading your thoughts with extreme generosity, thoughtfulness, and patience :)

(I tried to find a picture of dangerous reading, and this was the best rights-free image I could find. I mean, she could trip in the sand, or maybe a big rogue wave could come up a knock her over, right?)

 

 

20 Responses to “Which is more dangerous: writing badly or reading poorly?”

  1. Steve

    I think your perspective may have been skewed because you are a writer. A lot of writers (and other content creators) seem to think everyone is like them – driven by some internal drive (or whatever) to create. I am a consumer, so I think the mast majority of us humans are like me, consuming content and rarely if ever creating it.

    Another angle is: not everyone needs to be a good writer. Written words can be disseminated very easily, so we only need a very small minority of good writers, to serve the entire population. Ideally the best writing would spread, and the less than best writing would not, and all us consumers would mostly only be exposed to the good writing.

    For that to happen, us consumer probably should be better readers!

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      You’re probably right about my bias here – which is in part why I like doing these little polls. Often they come out as I predicted (as folks who follow me likely have similiar biases to mine) but now and then there’s a surprise and I have to think harder (which is good!).

      Reply
  2. Lisa

    Love the question! Wo! I’d say both, and also it depends. I don’t write stories any more but I used to in a series of sorts. I used to post on a writers list where people critique and one person said “Don’t tell, show!” And I worked on that reasoning that if I couldn’t picture what my characters were doing, feeling how they felt, describing the scene, no one else could ‘see’ it. I must’ve done something right because that was the only critique and for 50 stories I tried to do just that.

    When it comes to poor reading, I had one person on another long gone site that I posted all my stories, all numbered, one person got annoyed because my main character on some words would say some that were phonetically spelled. My stories were about a woman warrior born of one tribe, raised in another. Sort of like a Western. When she learned how to speak to her ‘settler’ friend, some words in his language were harder so her speech tag would be to phonetically say a word. For instance the name Joseph would be Jo-teff. One story had a guy whose name was Codeine and my character would say Co-dene. Each numbered story my main character’s talking would improve the more she spoke this other language. So one reader crabbed at me how annoyed he was over my main character talking the way she did. He started at the 12th story instead of the beginning stories so he’d get to know my character. I suggested that he stop reading in the middle and start at the very beginning which he took offense at. So I guess poor reading would be skipping stories.

    Learning to read better does help you to write better but with an exception or at least on my end. I always paid attention to how a writer set up a scene, moved easily from scene to scene, didn’t over use a thesaurus, and learning how dialogue was written. The exception I mention is taking all of that into account yet having my own style. Some writers can be long winded. I learned through reading that how to edit. You don’t need ten chapters to describe something. Excessive profanity in writing is unnecessary so I never did that. Reading some hobby writers they fell in love too much with a thesaurus so reading that I learned that flowery speech says a lot of pretty nothing and your reader shouldn’t have to use a dictionary constantly. Poor reading isn’t noticing that.

    I used to read A series called the White Indian series by Donald Clayton Porter whose books were fiction but based on the French and Indian Wars and how the characters were involved. Historical fact but with fictional characters, so reading him I tried to make my characters as real who evolved with each new story.

    When it comes to misinformation and fake news. If fake news is whatever Trump doesn’t like or believe, I couldn’t care less! He can’t control my thinking and opinions like those who are so easily duped by him because he lies all the time.

    Fake news, misinformation are outlandish paranoid conspiracy theories in my book.

    When it comes to opinion pieces, a bad reader is one who thinks only one opinion matters and won’t see another’s prospective because to learn something isn’t important . One may not like that opinion but it still matters even if you don’t agree. I noticed that when I last opined on the subject of wealth. My opinion mattered and it was ignored because it wasn’t what people wanted to hear.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Both is a very fair answer – it’s just less fun, at least at first, thus the poll! Writing is a funny thing in that writers get all the credit, but it’s the readers that make a writer, or a book, or an essay, or a tweet, famous or not. It’s only the reader that really has the power to do that. Of course if there are no writers readers have nothing to read or share, but that’s never been a problem. We’ve had a surplus of writers for centuries. The shortage it seems is in populations of readers who are willing to promote and share what the read and care about. That’s the only thing that elevates one writer over another.

      So I guess I’m coming back around to reinforce the points I made in the post. Hmmm.

      Reply
  3. Vinish Garg

    Since reading happens to (and after) writing:

    Case 1, Bad Writing: If the writing is bad (for message, intent, ambiguity), the readers can do very little to make sense of it. So, it is unfair to expect a shareable chunk of ‘good reading’ when the writing itself is bad.

    Case 2, Good Writing: If the writing is good, the onus is on readers for how they make sense out of it. Given that not all bad reading happens to a good writing, chances are that good writing serves at least some purpose.

    So, I conclude that bad writing is more dangerous.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Interesting – but in Case 1, assuming there is some amount of accessible good writing, a good reader will be able to critique the bad, clearly diagnose it’s flaws (beyond matters of opinion) and seek and find better material.

      (and to be clear this is more an intellectual exercise to me than a definitive attempt at anything likely to be meaningful – let the debate continue! :)

      Reply
      1. Vinish Garg

        True, but those few good readers may not neutralize the the sum total of bad writing’s impact on all other readers. :)

        Quite an interesting post, Scott!

        Reply
      2. Dimitra

        Having (fond) flashbacks to a first-year logic and writing course in university!

        Reply
        1. Scott Berkun

          Those were some of my favorite courses in college too – thanks for reminding me.

          Reply
        2. Vinish Garg

          I never studied anything formal in language in a college, miss it. I studied literature but it was on self-service mode – no real activities, discussions, or idea exchange.

          Reply
  4. Sean Crawford

    I can’t get into the fun of this little poll, sorry to say, because lately I have been so grumpy at grown adults who would fail an elementary school reading comprehension test. Grown adults.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      I often hear people say how much worse education in America is now, and it’s somehow desirable to agree – but part of me also thinks reading comprehension and thoughtfulness have always been in short supply.

      “Most people would rather die than think and many of them do!” – Bertrand Russell

      Reply
  5. Dave Gordon

    Since I curate a weekly list of recommended short-form blog posts and articles of interest to project managers, I do a lot of reading. And since so much of this content is written by people whose primary skill is not writing, with no third party to edit before posting, I see a lot of good ideas, described badly. There is a tremendous volume of content being generated these days, from Tweets to blogs to podcasts and interviews to books. We would all benefit from some sort of AI content editing support for people with good ideas who write muddled prose. Specifically, I refer to the people who can’t tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. Not all of them have great stories to tell, but those that do aren’t getting the audience that they deserve.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Interesting. Perhaps you should have a list you post regularly of “good ideas described badly” – and invite writers who write well, but are in need of good ideas, to write about to write about them.

      Reply
      1. Dave Gordon

        No, I don’t want to put anyone on the spot. There is a significant turnover among bloggers, as you know (glad to see you’re writing again!), and I don’t want to drive anyone away. Anyone who follows my weekly list will get ideas to write about without me calling attention to the unskilled writers.

        Reply
        1. Scott Berkun

          That’s a fair point – it’s kind of an insulting list to be on I suppose.

          There’s also a trap of traffic – for those who have interesting ideas but don’t write particularly well, there’s little incentive to write more thoughtfully. When I wander to blogs that clearly don’t get many views, and always try to leave a comment with some questions – as it’s seeing those questions that helps many writers see how they could have written more clearly.

          Reply
  6. Rob Biesenbach

    My take on this is to cite a favorite quote: “Good Public Speaking is Based on Good Private Thinking” ~ Scott Berkun. It works for this argument if you relate “private thinking” to reading, exploring, analyzing, and think of “public speaking” as the ultimate expression of ideas that (usually) begin in written form. So I would say great writing stems from reading widely and well.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Hey – I know that guy! I definitely agree it’s unlikely anyone can be a good writer if they don’t read often/well.

      Reply
    2. Lisa

      “Great writing stems from reading widely and well?” Isn’t that a bit arrogant? I watch the news every day and write opinion commentaries on a list I’m on. They don’t care whether I read a dozen books or not. I know how to write. I know how to be clear by using myself as an example. If I can’t understand me or picture my writing say id it’s a story no one else can. If you’re a good writer you can do it whether you read or just listen.

      It shouldn’t be treated as some elite club.

      Public speaking was mentioned. Well I don’t speak that well. Due to mini strokes my speaking isn’t as fluent. It hasn’t stopped my writing. For some writing is easier than speaking.

      Conveying a thought should be all that matters and it’s not limited to the written word. You can listen then translate it to writing.

      When it comes to reading might help if people read things they don’t agree with to get other prospectives that aren’t their own rather than reading only what others write that agrees with your opinion.

      Reply
      1. Scott Berkun

        I don’t think of it as an elite club at all – but we’re talking about words here. It’s the material used to write. And I think we’d agree a good writer is good at putting words together into sentences, regardless of how they figured that out.

        I’d also say the more exposure a person has to other good writers, or even just other writers at all, the more likely they’ll be able to write well since they’ve seen and learned from others. But there’s nothing special here about writing –
        I’d say a good basketball player is more likely to be good if they have played with, or watched, other good basketball players. It’s a general point about how skills develop.

        Reply

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