In Defense of Imperfect Writing

Truly perfect is becoming friendly with your imperfections on the way to doing something remarkable.  —Seth Godin

WARNING: If you are a grammar troll, you may find these heretical comments, unintentional grammatical errors, and accidental typos offensive. Proceed with caution.

A recent Harvard Business Review post entitled Stop Trying to Sound Smart When You’re Writing evoked a visceral response in me. It wasn’t the topic, or the points made. In fact, the author made some very valuable points on ways we all might improve our writing. What really struck me was the tone of the piece. A tone which the author tried to subdue with logical, even-tempered suggestions on the nuts and bolts of writing, but then released when she specified her “pet peeve” – using “methodology” when one should be using “method.” These screeds on wise and proper writing always get to the “pet peeve,” the word, phrase, or euphemism that really sets-off the author’s inner grammar troll.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am all for making your writing as perfect as possible. After all, we all appreciate a finely tuned sentence that is clear, concise, and grammatically correct. If the sentence can also be touching, poetic, or beautiful in its artistic elegance, all the better. My “pet peeve” is the constant need in our society to identify everyone else’s imperfections and seek to correct them. When we miss the message in another person’s communication because we’re too busy editing their language, everyone loses.

Let’s take the cliche as an example.  Here is the definition of cliche:

A cliché or cliche (/ˈkliːʃeɪ/ or /klɪˈʃeɪ/) is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.

In this case, we’re talking about an expression or idea that at one time was considered meaningful or novel. Then, because so many people thought it meaningful or novel, the expression lost its appeal. In other words, we liked it so much and so often that we finally decided to stop liking it. Grammar troll’s are famously aggressive with regard to cliches, hackneyed sayings, or trite expressions. Of course, “hackneyed” is often in the eye of the beholder and, though it may offend one person, it may resonate resoundingly with someone else.

What about grammar or spelling mistakes? Though the Chicago Manual of Style may be the final arbiter of good taste as it relates to proper writing, each of us judges one another on a relative scale with regard to grammar or spelling errors. Our personal scale is built completely on our sense of correctness and propriety with regard to the English language (or whatever language in which we are communicating.) Therefore, if I am a poor speller, I may be far more tolerant of  poor spelling from other people.  Though poor spelling may reflect imperfect communication and an imperfect grasp of the English language, it doesn’t necessarily indicate poor ideas. In our quest to judge, we often miss the point, and an opportunity to learn something.

In our quest to judge, we often miss the point, and an opportunity to learn something.

There is another element to this argument. I referenced it earlier and it is far more insidious. In our ongoing efforts to be right, find flaws, or be the one to have “seen it first,” we are quick to criticize another human being. Our efforts aren’t focused on constructively improving, tenderly supporting, or sincerely advising another so that he or she may grow to be the his or her best. No, we are tearing down. We are humiliating. We are hurting another. And for what? The pride of being correct? The satisfaction of being the first to see the error? The self-congratulatory gratification of clearly being the superior human being in a particular interaction?

What is the point of our criticism? Few of us are professional critics. (Do we really need such a thing as a “professional critic?”) When we get hung up in the flaws, attack someone’s imperfection, or belittle the work of another simply because we can, then we are giving up a bit of our humanity in the process. We are lessening our self for no purpose. There is a reason that many fear to share an opinion, a piece of art, or a special talent: the price of vulnerability can be devastating.

There is a reason that many fear to share an opinion, a piece of art, or a special talent: the price of vulnerability can be devastating.

So lose your grammar police badge. If a person’s writing, hackneyed expressions, poor spelling, or incorrect grammar turn you off, just move on. If you feel that you can help them be a better writer, artist, professional, or human being, then by all means, share your wisdom in the spirit of helping them improve. But consider your motivations before you hit “submit.” As the writer, the question to ask is: Did you know what I meant? Please, correct all the punctuation errors. Just don’t lose the point in your quest for perfection.

And for those seeking to write or put their art into the world. Be prepared for the critics. There is no escape. Take what helps, ignore the rest, and work to improve your craft. It is as simple as that.


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