Judgment in Writing

by Nick Jaina
May 3, 2019

I have a friend who is writing a book about horrible people doing horrible things, and he has asked me to edit it. He's doing a remarkable job with it, and my part is easy because he's such a great writer. We got into a discussion recently about judgment in writing. There were a couple moments in his book where I thought he was coming to a conclusion about someone too decisively.

I wrote this to my friend:

"Judgment seems at first to be our whole mission as a writer, to come down with an opinion and shape the story. More and more I find that the writer's role is actually just to tell the story, including everyone's reactions, which can include anger and judgment. But the story itself shouldn't be locking us into a judgment. The reader wants to come to their own conclusions. If you show us someone being horrible, we will know they're horrible and feel trusted that we can make that judgment."

My friend wrote back:

"I'll need to ruminate on this one a bit. I get what you're saying, that readers like to make up their own minds and that didactic writing is a bore. On the other hand, it seems like most descriptions are judgements. Like "the tall man" might only be tall depending on your own height. Or "wrinkled hands," depends on whose hands you're comparing them to. This is one of my stickiest philosophical issues currently, how comparing and contrasting fits into our own understanding, for better and for worse."

I responded:

"Find your own level of comfortability with it. You're right in that saying someone is tall or has wrinkled hands is a judgment, because this description is compared to you at 5'11" with smooth hands. My only point is that judgments tell the reader as much about you as they do about the thing you are judging. Just be aware of that. It's useful at the beginning of your book because you're young and judgmental of cops, so even though the detective is there to be on your side, you have this reaction to him and we, the readers, who might hate cops more than you, or absolutely love cops, or might even be cops ourselves, are ultimately left with an understanding of you. If a writer were always describing his characters as tall, it's going to show us that the writer is either short or insecure about his height. It's a funny equal-and-opposite-reaction thing where whatever you cast a judgment on as a writer ends up showing as much about you. Just be aware that this is what's happening and use that knowledge as much as you want."

It reminds me of the line in Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, "Do not now strive to uncover answers: they cannot be given you because you have not been able to live them. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions for now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer, one distant day in the future."

Not that my friend is young or hasn't lived. He is in fact very wise. But we are all caught up in things we cannot fully understand, and that feeling can stop us before we even begin to write, whereas the feeling of having control over our story is so appealing. However, as I've read through drafts of my own book, the number one thing I keep removing is all the judgments. I have to trust that if I present something honestly and thoroughly, the reader can come to their own conclusions.

It takes some trust, but your intelligent and empathetic readers will have your back.