The Case for Careless Writing

Is there a case to be made for careless writing? In academia, we usually don’t think so. As a librarian, I try to help students get the sources they need to carefully research an argument, and as a writing teacher I try to help students learn to write careful and nuanced essays. As a writer, I’m not sure sure. I try to be careful and nuanced, but I also tend to focus on small topics, or small parts of large topics. Maybe I’d get more comments if I were more provocative and less careful, if I created some turbulence.

During lunch today, I read the introduction to an issue of Turbulence (which I’d never heard of; I found the link through Bookforum). The issue is a collection of articles on the topic of “Are We Winning?” The “We” is progressive social movements around the world. The introduction notes the differences in focus and mood between the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 and now, and wonders if the left is still winning, or what it would mean to “win.” I didn’t read any of the articles, and probably won’t, mainly because I was struck by this paragraph:

“We’re not offering a packaged and polished set of answers to these or any other questions. The 14 articles in Turbulence come from different contexts, different parts of the world; they have different tones, different paces and they certainly don’t all agree with each other; and some are harder than others to read outside their context. But we think this unevenness, what some might call roughness, is useful. It’s sometimes hard to engage with a collection of texts which is too polished. You’ve no sooner exclaimed, ‘that’s wrong, I don’t agree with that at all!’ or ‘but what about X?’, than the author’s anticipated your objection in a footnote, or else the editors have directed you to another article which plugs the gap. On the other hand, rough edges provide handholds, something to grab onto. They provide a way into arguments. Maybe you’ll pull at a loose end and everything will unravel. But perhaps you’ll be able to weave something else with those threads. What we want to do is put out articles that help us to think new thoughts. To think and act differently.”

It could be that roughness is useful, but it still seemed to me a way to excuse bad writing and careless arguments. Eliminating unevenness, considering and responding to counter-arguments, backing up your argument with footnotes and proof — these are some of the hallmarks not only of academic writing but good argumentative prose in general. What the editors, who call themselves the “Turbulence Collective,” seem to be saying is that thoughtful, careful, substantiated writing is bad, that considering and responding to counterarguments is a problem because it supposedly doesn’t allow people to think and act. Can this really be the case? Are we really to approve and justify political writing that avoids all usual standards of argument and thought, regardless of the side that puts it forward? And what of research? Is research thus bad, because it might make you less willing to put forward arguments that you know are faulty because you’re read their refutation?

The home page says that “Turbulence is a journal-cum-newspaper that we hope will become an ongoing space in which to think through, debate and articulate the political, social, economic and cultural theories of our movements, as well as the networks of diverse practices and alternatives that surround them.” Is this, I wonder, how the thinking through is to be done? Is it better to put out unsubstantiated or ill considered, though passionate, opinions, because careful thought and argument don’t leave enough spaces for disagreement and discussion? Or is instead the case, as much academic writing assumes, that careful argument doesn’t eliminate the handholds, it just eliminates the useless or sloppy handholds? People disagree passionately with careful arguments as well, but they have to be more thoughtful in their disagreement.

On the other hand, isn’t that what usually occurs on blogs, especially the popular and provocative ones? I read one library blog that regularly gets dozens of comments on many posts, and passionate arguments break out in the comments section. But it’s a blog that seems designed to provoke, to leave what the editors of Turbulence call a handhold, to irritate some readers so much they can’t help but respond. I think this is a useful function of blogs, and I suppose of Turbulence as well, to bring a lot of voices together on a topic. But as a general editorial rule, it seems a way to justify lowering the tone of argumentative writing, especially in politics, and the tone is low enough already.