Huh? Don’t all writers think while they are writing? Is there an ethical rule for not thinking while you’re writing? Right, I know. It sounds nuts, or at least counter intuitive.

The prompt for this blog comes from a great book by biographer Robert A. Caro titled, “Working—Researching, Interviewing, Writing.”[1] Mr. Caro wrote long, well thought-out, comprehensive biographies of famous people. He won Pulitzer Prizes and worldwide acclaim for books about Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson. At Princeton, he wrote short stories with “little effort and preparation.” His professor was generous in grading his writing but warned he would never achieve what he wanted “if you don’t stop thinking with your fingers.”[2]

Years later he realized how important that advice was. So what, you might ask. What does this have to do with the ethics of writing? Writing for readers, as journalists, biographers, historians, lawyers and novelists do is based on a simple ethical construct—the writer owes an allegiance to readers that the writing is original, or sourced, and has been rendered “thoughtfully.” By that I mean that the writer actually thought through, all the way, whatever is reduced to writing and published for public consumption. Some of us write fast, without over-thinking, assuming that everything is draft and crappy. We rely on second drafts to rid the writing of its inherent flaws, faux pas, and lack of thought.

That’s what Mr. Caro’s editor was trying to tell him—quit thinking with your fingers.

There is a book about thoughtful writing—aptly called “Thoughtful Writing.”[3] It teaches students how to succeed at any kind of investigative or argumentative writing. The author “demonstrates how to move from facts to inferences to a thesis and helps you write thesis statements that are genuinely thoughtful.” And therein lies the ethical imperative—write thoughtfully.

[1] Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2019. ISBN 9780525656340

[2] Ibid at xi.

[3] Eugene Hammond. “Thoughtful Writing.” Third Edition. 2010. ISBN: 9781792446245.

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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