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Why Writers Should Embrace Ambiguity

When I learned I was pregnant with triplets, 20 years ago, I was desperate to know their gender. Did I, God forbid, have three boys? (In my mid-30s, I was sure I didn't have the energy for that!)

Now, with the benefit of many years of parenting, I can recognize my desire for that knowledge as not just mere curiosity. It arose out of my intolerance for ambiguity.

I've always been the kind of person who wanted to know the bad news right away. When I submitted a story to an editor, in times past, I immediately wanted to know what he or she disliked about it. If I went to the doctor, I wanted to know what dread disease I had. If I had a contractor come to the house, I wanted to know how much the structural repair was going to cost.

But when my kids were born (two girls and one boy), it seemed my entire life became thoroughly ambiguous. Would I like more help in looking after three babies or would I prefer less, in order to safeguard our privacy? Could we go on holiday, for fun, or would it be more relaxing to stay at home without having to herd three infants? 

And, of course, there were other, deeper ambiguities. Were they spending too much time with playmates? Or not enough to enough to build meaningful friendships? Were we wise in homeschooling them because of learning disabilities? Or were we risking their educational futures by not forcing them to adapt to school? Finally (and currently!) can we enjoy having them live at home while they're going to university, or should we be eager for the nest to empty itself out?

Being a parent has taught me that I had two choices. I could worry myself to death. Or, I could embrace ambiguity and learn how to hold two conflicting ideas in my mind at once. I chose ambiguity and this has made me a better writer. Why? Here are five reasons:

  1. I have less to worry about. Because I expect to feel uncertain for at least some of my writing time, I don't waste my time thinking I'm an inadequate writer. And, like baking cakes, doing math or riding a unicycle, writing is easier if you think you can do it.
  2. I don't rush to premature conclusions. I understand that I always need some "not-knowing" time where I feel a bit uncomfortable. This is a normal part of the writing process. It doesn't mean I'm incapable of writing or, worse, incapable of thought. It simply means to I need to schedule my thinking time. (To do this, I like going for a walk before writing. And doing a mindmap.)  In turn, this allows me to develop better, deeper ideas. 
  3. I'm more willing to take risks. Readers sometimes express surprise at the stories I tell in my writing. "You're so personal," they say. Recently, a former colleague I hadn't seen in several years said he knew more about me than I knew about him. I was momentarily nonplussed. Then I realized he was telling me he'd been reading my column! Embracing ambiguity is part of what's made me willing to tell these sorts of stories because I'm able to balance the lack of privacy with the benefit of a deeper connection with my readers.
  4. It helps me to be more adaptive. Writers who embrace ambiguity understand that while 2 + 2 will always equal 4, there is never "one right way" to approach a writing problem. That, in fact, is one of the many joys of writing. There's always more than one way to write a sentence. 
  5. It allows me to write without editing. By turning off the critical, judging, editor-voice inside my head I'm allowing the creative part of my brain space in which to work. Later, of course, I welcome back the editor-critic and enjoy the benefits of revision. But I don't shortchange the valuable period of ambiguity before I let the editor take the reins.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said it eloquently when he wrote: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." 

But philosopher and bass guitarist Keith Richards put it even more memorably: "I look for ambiguity when I'm writing because life is ambiguous."

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday December 11th 2013, 11:48 AM
Comment by: John O.
Another reason ambiguity is better than the alternativc is because it is the root of a lot of humour...Take my wife...Please!

Great article, Daphne. Thanks.

John O'Gorman
Wednesday December 11th 2013, 2:35 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Daphne, I enjoy your articles on multiple levels, and sometimes I pass them along to my non-writer friends, because often the principles and concepts, quotations and examples all apply to many other aspects of our lives besides writing. You've helped me and certainly many other people in ways you might not realize - thank you!

I find that a good exercise in embracing ambiguity (in writing or talking or thinking) is to replace "but" with "and" between two seemingly conflicting statements. "I really like Mike, and he can be annoying at times"... "This rough draft is finished, and it has a lot of mistakes" ... "I'd like to continue this phone conversation, and if I do I won't have time to organize my desk today." It turns out that some things that seem conflicting are simply contrasting.

Oh, and after I change the buts to ands, I sometimes try reversing the order of the statements: "Mike can be annoying at times, and I really like him." I learn a lot when I make these changes.

Thanks again!
"The Happy Quibbler"
Thursday December 12th 2013, 4:00 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Great suggestions, Kristine! They remind me of some management training I once had -- when giving feedback to others we were instructed to NEVER use the word "but." Instead, we were told, we should replace it with "and" — exactly as you've suggested. If you use the word "but" people only remember the negative comment. When you use the word "and," they're able to see it in a more integrated way.

I'd never thought of it's relationship to ambiguity before. Thanks so much for pointing this out.
Monday December 16th 2013, 9:53 PM
Comment by: Rajesh S. (Indore India)
Lovely article! It struck me that the period when we are in a state of 'not-knowing'could be a source of anxiety or, if we embrace it, a source of tremendous energy, when creative forces which are unleashed. One has often experienced that courageously 'embracing' uncertainty and living with it long enough, more often than not, leads to clarity.

Reminds me of the famous 'Ellsberg Paradox' popularized by the Economist Daniel Ellsberg which explores people's general aversion to ambiguities and a preference for 'known risks' over 'unknown risks'.

I once had a friend who was, well...unhappy in her marriage and when asked why she had to bear with so much unpleasantness, The English Major, with a penchant for English idioms, defended her decision with her usual refrain "Better the devil you know than the Devil you don't"

Thanks for sharing your insights Kristine.



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