Mistake No. 60: Agreeing

I’m suddenly feeling a bit ambivalent towards … agreement, I guess, is the only word for it, although it doesn’t feel quite right. Agreeness? Agreeance?

I see a lot of letters – ie letters to editors, for letters pages – which make a point of agreeing. “I agreed with your article on extreme knitting, and I agree you’re the best women’s monthly in the UK, just like you say on your cover!” Perhaps it’ll be a slow day for the letters’ editor and your agreeable letter will make it, but why not disagree with something instead? Hundreds of other writers are sending gushing ‘I love you, Horse and Hound’ letters, after all.

Try being a bit renegade. I suspect all my students are too nice, and I’m too much of a grump, but if you should be inclined to take a leaf out of The Mistakes Writers Make Book of Disagreeable Grumpery, you might want to challenge a popular view endorsed by an article in the magazine, or express a controversial alternative to a previously published letter. Don’t be nervous of doing this: a scan of many letters’ pages will show you these do get published (Guardian Weekend often has sarcastic and critical letters). Often, it gives the magazine the opportunity to respond (in an ed’s note under the letter) or express sympathy or understanding with the opposite point, and demonstrate that, yes, they do listen to readers and aren’t afraid of debate and discussion and diverse opinions. You shouldn’t be too. Don’t rant. Just make a point. Something original. And sign off.

Ditto articles. So many are inoffensively agreeable. Articles about why it’s important to get your five a day, for instance. Well yes – but a yawny yes. Why not speak to some scientists who challenge that? Who think it should be more? Or – surely not! – fewer? Or why not examine what overseas nations think? (In France it’s nine portions. In Japan it’s – brace yourselves fruit-and-vegephobes – thirteen.)

What’s the least interesting thing in the above paragraph? The won’t-toe-the-line scientists, the eye-popping Japanese recommendation (their defined portions are smaller, by the way…), or the five-a-day thing we’ve all heard before? Correct. So try adopting an alternative stance as your starting point (you don’t have to believe it – just fake it for the sake of it), and see where it takes you; find people or scenarios which conflict with the establishment or what we take for granted. It’s far more interesting, and it’ll send you off in assorted directions, where you’ll find many ideas: ideas which have come from disagreement, as so many do.

Disagree with one another too. On writing forums, Twitter and writing blog comments there’s a lot of agreement – yays and RTs and likes and the like. Occasionally, to me, it feels obsequious. I’m guilty too. Sometimes I wonder whether in our eagerness to support one another (because the writing fraternity is hugely supportive, I think), we just avoid saying anything that runs the risk of being perceived as the opposite of that. But in failing to take that risk it could be argued you’re being less supportive of a writer who may need to hear a difficult truth or bubble-bursting alternative, and who will be held back without it.

That’s an invitation to disagree here, too, and with me – much as I love the flattering comments you all leave, I’m sure the blog is littered with mistakes you’ve been too polite to point out. You can frame it impersonally if you want to be gentler. “Loving the blog, but others might argue you’re talking through your …” a bit less direct than “I think you’re talking through your …” but still vents a bit of stimulating disagreement. I’m kidding about the rudeness, of course: not suggesting we do that here, there or anywhere. But you can play devil’s advocate: I often do.

I guess I’m saying be more prepared to stick your neck out, essentially – you never know what you may find. You may be worried you’ll be heckled down by the masses, be forced into an embarrassing withdrawal and apology, be accused of hypocrisy or whatever – but as we’ve seen, there’ll always be someone out there who agrees with you, so you won’t be alone. We’ll all benefit from the healthy debate which ensues – and, who knows, you may get an article or letter out of it…

Labels: , , ,