Published: Jan 22, 2020 8:00:00 PM


No non-sociopathic person sets out to be an impostor. We wade into those waters. The sensation rises around your waist, weighty, until you adapt to the gravitational restraint. Or, you find shallower shores and immediately recognize you'd subjected yourself to a lie, now free from the tide's pull.

We assume a life of cowardice because we're too inured with the comforting weight of waist-deep denial. That denial is the repetitious voice, tick-prickling the soft skin behind your ear, chanting: "You're not good at this, you never were, and you're too frightened to fucking change."

That voice is talking about the comfort in skills we've never learned. Or never improved. Or never tested. Or believed it wasn't a skill at all, that it's just like the air you're breathing right now. It's just oxygen. It's just chemicals. It just goes along with living.

That voice is talking about our willingness to maintain comfy cowardice in ignorance, and while this gradual slide into impostorhood bears wide applications, we'll be addressing the cowardice of bad writing as an example of this sensation.

Can we all assume we're on the same page?

Bad writing is an expansive topic because bad writing is bad communication. And yet, hey, we're communicating right now! Yeah. We are. Most sharp linguists insist if one's intent is communicated to an audience—whether the audience be singular or multitudes—then language has done its job, and no further elaboration or elegance is required.

Nevertheless, humans are perceptive, nuanced animals. Why not pursue elaborate elegance? We infer, notice, and recall what goes unspoken, what's between the lines, and what's scattered all across the face of another person. We assume a great deal from one another in all forms of communication. Because we're afraid. We don't want to trust our own experience (or inexperience) in what's being exchanged in the communication. We're afraid of learned manners. We're afraid of lessons, recognized or neglected, spoken or written. We're afraid of our inconsistencies with one another and would rather assume the point got across, thanks to our most certainly-mastered skills. We're all adults here, right? We've all held plenty of meaningful conversations. Right? We know what's up.

Nah. That's prejudging cowardice. That's not just cowardice, it's disrespect, and it's arrogance. It's comfort in one's impostorhood.

For instance, someone could communicate by snapping their fingers at a barista and pointing to a cake-pop in a Starbucks display case. That person has instantly communicated both that they want a cake-pop and that they are an asshole. They're happy to carry on being an asshole, because they are so used to faking competent communication. It's become their norm. They've long given up attending to the person opposite them, the very audience for their communicated message, or even considering their personhood (if their brain's truly shit-slid down into a pit of assholes).

This is the fear. This is the cowardice. Nobody set out to become this incompetent or inattentive at conveying a message. We simply got too far out from shore, got too used to the weight of the water, and lost sight of ourselves. Looking down, it's so dark, you can barely see your legs through the blackness. Something is terribly wrong. But it'd be so embarrassing to admit one's fault in this predicament. So this scaredycat assumes a lifestyle of presumptive fakery.

The solution to failed skill development

Easy solution: don't be afraid of what you mean to communicate.

Difficult answer: well, like, it's not so easy, to say exactly what we'd like, because we're a bunch of fucking liars with minimal training in this medium, and we're tired, malnourished, and confused about what's in our hearts in this exact moment, so, maybe, just, would you just get the idea of what I'm trying to say, judging by... whatever's on my face?

Bad communication smells a certain way. Bad writing smells a certain way. You can sense its uncertainty. You can feel the author's fear on your skin as you read. It's clear when they're trying. It's clear when they're failing. It's clear when they've given up.

They're scared. This is why people rip along with run-on sentences during public speaking. Or they stare at the floor, instead of at the people. They want to get away with it.

So it goes in life as it goes in writing. Out of fear of being found out as a fraud with cramped knuckles and malformed thoughts, craftsmanship fails and words scatter across the Google Doc. They recall tenth grade English class. They remember a B+ college paper on Shintoism. They think about their MBA and their student loans. They believe they'll be understood, eventually. How could it fail eternally? But they remain afraid.

They're right to be afraid. But they're afraid for the wrong reason. Let's continue with this metaphor.

Most people are bad writers. They're afraid because they don't want to become better writers. Confronting their inadequate skill would spill over so hard and so hot into so many other pots that the whole construct of one's capability to be a person with communicable ideas might become irreparably muddied. This is the price of cowardly writing. It's often difficult to notice bad writing, what with it being so omnipresent. And most everyone believes they're good at writing, because they technically do it so much, and nobody's really sat them down to point out where and why their craft is so lousy. Someone would've said something by now, right? And, really, how far-reaching is the skill of writing? If you were bad at writing, you'd instantly become bad at a lot of things.

You'd become bad email, texting, social media, list-making, gift-giving, dinner conversation, Spotify playlist curation, and—oh no—are these really all somehow tangentially connected? Let's not imagine.

So, instead of confrontation and improvement, people become cowards. They deny the idea. They shut off to improvement at anything, and grow old, praying they were young, and wishing they could grow up. But they're afraid. Because time is a cold, ever-marching bitch-mother.

If your writing is cowardly, you're disrespecting your audience. You're admitting you don't have the answer, and yet you carry on as if you did. You're not sure what you want to communicate. You're a faker, and you're fine with that, and your reader ought to be fine with that, too. Let's all just be fine with that, right?

No. Fuck you. Don't get comfortable. Don't lay back and figure this is the best you can achieve. Don't assume your incapability. Don't let others' complacency become your own. Tear up the turf, be a different person, improve your craft—any craft—and honor those around you.

-- Alex Crumb
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