Writing Lessons from the Coronavirus Pandemic
Even while most of us are shut at home, we’re stretching our ability to adapt to changing realities and fluid public health situations.
There’s so much we do not know yet about the virus or how to handle it. Advice that seemed solid four weeks ago now appears quaint or naïve.
The current situation is a perfect laboratory for communicating about topics for which accepted wisdom is in flux. The lessons we learn now can serve us going forward, when we tackle other situations that are similarly ambiguous, even if less deadly.
Here’s the challenge: people want certainty, not ambiguity.
We’re wired to find patterns, infer causes, and create comfortable working hypotheses about situations we don’t truly understand.
That’s all fine until we have to change our theories.
We find patterns in uncertainty
The other day, my husband and I took a long walk on an empty, foggy beach. The mist rolled off the waves and across the sand, obscuring the shoreline ahead. The lone runner that passed us dissolved eerily into the grey.
As we walked, we spotted large, dark mounds in the distance ahead of us. Were they enormous piles of kelp? A dead elephant seal washed up on the shore?
As we drew closer, the shapes resolved into a few scattered lumps of kelp. Our eyes combined the piles with a small rise in the sand and vegetation on a distant dune to create something entirely different.
Our visual systems are always constructing the reality we see. Sometimes they’re wrong.
Similarly, our brains assemble facts into narratives and beliefs. We make decisions based on incomplete facts. (Should we stay home? Wear a mask?) We pick a hypothesis and act on it.
For many people, that working hypothesis, once strengthened by action, becomes a belief that is hard to revise. If you’re uncomfortable with ambiguous, fluid situations, you’re more likely to jump on a decision and stick to it, even as the world around you changes.
There’s a psychological term for this: the need for cognitive closure.
The need for closure
Social psychologist Arie Kruglanski coined the term cognitive closure; Donna Webster and Kruglanski developed a Need for Closure scale to assess the differences within individuals. You can find a shortened version of this assessment to measure your own tendencies.
Essentially, this is an individual attribute. We all fall somewhere on the scale. Understanding your own need for closure, and that of others, can illuminate behavior.
People with a strong need for cognitive closure exhibit two tendencies:
- They make decisions quickly in uncertain situations (urgency)
- They stick to their decisions, even as evidence mounts to the contrary (permanence)
If you’re trying to reach a broad audience, remember that some percentage of them have a strong need for closure. You may have to deal with a made-up mind.
Lessons for writers
Today, the uncertain situation on everyone’s mind is the pandemic. But you may encounter closed minds when working on any topic that is in flux or where you cannot possibly see all of the contributing factors; medicine, science, technology, finance, fast-moving industry sectors, and more.
If you write about topics in flux, remember to take care of the readers who are so uncomfortable with ambiguity that they want to jump to a quick resolution. Here are a few guidelines.
Surface the uncertainty. Remember that people with a strong need for closure feel urgency about resolving the situation. Don’t encourage that quick closure by being definitive when the facts are ambiguous.
Over the past few weeks, videos and posts have circulated claiming certainty about exactly how the virus is transmitted: how you can or cannot catch it. These posts are comforting, which has value. But the scientists themselves are still figuring out this stuff, so complete certainty is dangerous. Too much fear or too much confidence: both are hazardous.
Distinguish the known from the unknown, the likely from the certain.
Date and locate your work. What you’re saying today may not look brilliant in a few weeks. Something true in one region may be false in another.
Remember those dark lumps I saw on the beach? Things change when you get closer. So, be specific about when you’re writing: “As of late April, 2020…”
When I speak or write about publishing, for example, I always put a date on the slides and make sure people know that the industry is changing quickly. Advice in that industry has a serious expiration date.
Use your writing skills. When writing about fast-moving topics, it’s not enough to put the data out there and assume that the reader will follow.
Readers with a high need for closure may have committed to a mental stance on a topic. Throwing data at them may rarely works You’ll have to be more creative.
Dig into your bag of writing techniques, using analogies or stories to shift perspectives. Lead people carefully to the situation as it stands now.
Be compassionate. This isn’t the time to get frustrated with people who are slow to change their opinions. The future is always uncertain; this crisis is more difficult and painful for those people who struggle with ambiguity.