Being a Better Writer: Bias and Growth

Hello again readers! Welcome back to Being a Better Writer. You know, it’s moments like these, typing out a welcome introduction once again that I somewhat envy the ability of film and video to just drop an intro on people. Granted, most people skip it, and people would certainly skip over the same opening paragraph, but it would take some early lifting out of every installment of BaBW.

Ah well, at least this segues into news and whatnot better than a constantly identical intro was. Though this week I don’t have any news other than what would be repeating last week’s news post: Starforge almost has a completed first draft. Thing’s a beast too. Once I get done with this post here? It’s back to working on it and getting that last chapter and the epilogue done. After which I can finally take care of some IRL things like getting my car sold.

So without any news, let’s talk about today’s topic, which is kind of a tricky one. It’s also by reader request, and when it showed up on my list, I knew I wanted to get to it early.

Now, in a way we’ve kind of touched on this before. Indirectly. Being a Better Writer has seen a number of posts on things like Why Writers Should Play Games or Writing Exercises for Viewpoints. Among others (hit the tags on those links to find more). A good writer is one that’s embraced a wide range of activity that stimulates and works their mind.

But we’ve never talked much about the other side of this that was requested. A side that, at least in my mind, brings up the image of stale bread.

Yeah, maybe it’s because I’m hungry, but I think today’s post is going to make some food analogies. Get set, hit the jump, and let’s talk about bias in our writing, and how we can expand.

Okay, so let’s start with the basics. What is bias?

Well, bias is pretty straightforward. It is to be predetermined in favor for or against something. This can be a person, a game, a study, a culture … really anything where someone can be in favor for or against it. A good example is console bias. Those who were on the playgrounds of the 90s and early 2000s know exactly how firm the lines could be drawn between teens and their preferred console of choice. There’s a reason veterans of those years refer to them as “the console wars.”

But bias can be more than just in a form of entertainment. It can be for anything. Anything where a person might have an opinion can be at risk of bias.

So what is the difference between having an opinion on a subject and having a bias? Simple. One is flexible, the other … less so. An opinion can be modified, impacted, or adjusted by the presentation of new information. Typically a bias, on the other hand, is resistant to new information.

Going back to the console thing, a common element seen with console bias is the rejection of new evidence. For example, a few years ago when Microsoft came out with their One X console, an upgraded version of their Xbox One designed to produce a 4K output, the bias on the Reddit subreddit r/games was so bad that the mods actually removed news articles from well-known and well-regarded sources such as Digital Foundry, citing that they were “clearly not accurate.” Because the mods and the subreddit were heavily biased in favor of Sony’s Playstation 4 console, which could not produce native 4K. Their bias against Sony’s competitors was so strong that even when these well-regarded news sources started uploading their evidence that Microsoft’s One X was producing native 4K, they made up various excuses and justifications for it being “fake news” and wiped it from the sub.

Of course, bias can go the “other way” too. On the same sub, there was a massive push on the belief that the PS4 Pro, when it arrived, would be playing games in native 4K. Then when various sources started presenting information to the contrary, a 2K checkerboard setup, those too were rejected or filled with “explanations” about how it was actually “better” than native 4K.

Again, resistant to new information because it wasn’t in “favor” for the thing that those with the bias were biased toward.

We can find examples of this behavior all over the place. “Versus fights,” a common feature on a lot of forum boards, are basically “bias VS bias, the battle” for various fans of characters. It doesn’t matter what the actual details or basics of the characters in question are, it’s really a battle of how many people like one over the other.

Okay, so with this all said, some of you are probably wondering by this point what this may have to do with writing. After all, this is a writing site, and an article about making one’s self a better writer. So what does all this talk of bias have to do with writing?

Simple: If you bring a lot of bias to your writing, your writing will be, to go back to the analogy from before the jump, stale. Inflexible. Unable—due to being unwilling—to change.

Whereas the alternative—opinion—is capable of assimilating new information, new details, and thus updating accordingly. Being flexible and adapting one’s stance, viewpoint, and outlook according to new information and new concepts.

Now, a quick aside: Being flexible or changeable in one’s opinion does not mean automatically accepting all information at face value and being, effectively, a lone leaf on a stormy sea going every which way based on whatever statement one hears that day (or is told). Rather it means carefully weighing and weighting each new piece of information, examining it carefully to see how it fits with existing information, and effectively being critical of both what’s known and what’s new.

Anyway, yeah, bias is basically makes each of us resistant to growth. And yes, that applies to writing as well as anything else. A writer that is biased will ultimately run into a number of problems when writing. First and foremost, they can’t evolve on a topic. They can’t grow. They’ll be stuck in a rut any time that topic comes up in the story, be it in their first book or a few dozen books on.

Worse, as previously stated bias is inflexible. Which means that a writer with a strong bias will have serious difficultly constructing an opposing viewpoint—even a biased one. One thing that really serves writers writing well is the ability to see multiple viewpoints, even those they disagree with or find incorrect, and argue those from a character’s specific perspective. Writers with a heavy bias can’t do that, because to do so usually conflicts with their bias, and so they’ll do something like write a straw-man or some other exaggeration they can “best.”

Say what you will about Sanderson, for example, but it’s telling how many atheists, many of them professional writers themselves, have spoken extremely favorably of his portrayal of both atheist characters and their opinions/viewpoint, as well as characters struggling with their faith in higher beings. Sanderson is able to bring a wide range of viewpoints on religion, afterlife, and spiritualism to his work without falling into a mire of bias about it that many other books and writers do.

In other words, a writer with heavy bias might be able to write one book that appears balanced due to playing for their bias, but the wider they attempt to cast their net, without accounting for that bias, the harder it will become for them to actually write anything different. Bias is inflexible. That creator will either need to continue to write the exact same thing (and those that do this tend to market to those that are similarly biased) or … they’ll need to overcome their bias in order to “grow” and be able to widen the aperture of their writing.

Now, another small aside—though large enough to be deserving of its own segment. Bias identification is something that is … well, shall we say it can be a little subjective. A common issue with bias is that the act of being biased makes it very easy to point fingers. In fact, I’d go as far as to suggest that the more biased a person is, the more likely they are to quickly point fingers at someone else and declare that they are the biased one, perhaps even as a first resort.

Again, this comes about because of the inflexibility of bias. An individual with bias has already come to the conclusion that they—or their position—is correct by fiat. Therefore, to their worldview, anyone who suggests any different is wrong, and must have only come to that conclusion by way of bias.

Yes, a “pot calling the kettle black” situation. This sort of “ideological echo” is, I would suggest, in part what drives a lot of fury and fire on the internet. It’s a place where it’s easy to find someone who shares the same bias, and thereby “confirm” that everyone who doesn’t is “biased.”

Okay, so with all this talk of bias, and with once again a reiteration that it makes writing inflexible … How can we, as creators, keep watch of ourselves with regards to bias? How can we identify biases that we may have, and then furthermore replace that bias with carefully constructed knowledge and opinion? And, as we are writers, how can we also apply this to our writing?

All right, well there’s one thing I’m going to get out of the way first: There’s a right way and a wrong way to fight bias. The wrong way is also the easy way, which is to simply look up everything that’s wrong about a bias or stance. Every doubt, every mistake, every problem. No context, just tear it down.

Why isn’t this a good idea? Because it simply switched bias to the other direction. Have you ever laughed at any Sci-Fi show that technobabbles its way out of a problem with ‘reverse the polarity?” Well, that’s what this quick and easy solution is: Reversing the polarity. It technically removes a bias, but only by replacing it with a new one. Flipping it on its head.

The problem here is obvious: All it does is replace one bias with another. The bias might be more welcomed by a group that shares it, but it doesn’t take away from that fact that it is still a bias.

So, getting that out of the way early: That is not how you fight a bias. Worse, usually what this does is at best trap people between multiple opposing viewpoints, turning them into that leaf on a stormy sea we mentioned earlier.

There are better ways to conquer a bias. But in order to conquer a bias, first you have to be able recognize it.

This is … easier said than done. The challenge with personal bias is that we’re already in a viewpoint, so it can be hard to look past it. But I would suggest two things that are key to being able to examine, identify, or catch a personal bias: humility, and a sense of looking at things critically.

Let’s talk about humility first. I would hold that humility is key to conquering any bias because humility is an antithesis to what makes a bias so firmly held, which is pride. Bias persists because an individual has it in their mind that this is the way things are, and I cannot be wrong or everything I know must be wrong. Their bias must be correct, or they have to admit fault. To a prideful individual, one fault means that all is faulty. Ergo, or perhaps I should say “ego,” they do not have a bias.

But a humble individual knows that they can be wrong. They know that they’re not flawless, and that one mistake is merely a part of a greater patchwork that makes up an individual. Ergo, lacking the ego, a humble individual is able to examine their own behavior and ask “But why?” without shaking the very foundations of their world. They understand that a flaw does not automatically disqualify the greater whole, and knowing this, they are much more comfortable examining their life for flaws and then fixing those flaws or removing them. All without sacrificing the “greater whole” of their structure.

Now, if you’re going to ask me how one becomes more humble … we’ve gone beyond the purview of this post. Way beyond. Humility is a lifelong pursuit for those who desire it, and there is no “easy answer” like so much of life.

But that ability to examine one’s own life without breaking it apart? That’s key to being able to identify a bias. A humble individual will acknowledge a bias. A prideful one cannot without rejecting their whole self.

Okay, now what about that second part, the ability to look at things critically? Incredibly vital, because here’s the thing: A critical eye knows that not all “biases” are exactly that. Someone who looks at themselves in a critical fashion will also examine what they know in a critical fashion, and can draw a line between an informed opinion and a bias.

What is an “informed opinion,” you might ask? It’s a declaration given reason. Bias, by counterpart, has no reason. It may have a cause, but only one. Everything past that is, to put it bluntly, extrapolation.

Reason, on the other hand, comes with some sort of cause. For example, a “bias” would be “that’s a bad part of town” with either no reason or “my car got broken into there once.”

An informed opinion, however, would be something like ‘That’s a rough part of town because …” followed not only by the various causes, but the information attached to those that create the situation for and against the statement. In our example, there could be multiple causes for a region of a city to be a rough part of town. It does not mean that it will always be so, but that a collection of events, choices, and/or circumstances have made it such. And if those events, choices, and/or circumstances change, then so does the stance! The data has been updated, and so the result changes. Which can result in statements like “It’s a rough part of town, but it’s been getting better” or even ‘It used to be a rough part of town, but it’s improved and is very nice now.”

So taken together, someone that is humble can take the ability to look critically at something and examine their own stances, ideas, etc, and check themselves for bias.

Now, a quick note: This is a personal process. Your reasons, critical as they may be, may be ones that only you fully understand because they require a viewpoint that is uniquely personal. This doesn’t mean that you can’t be biased in some. Rather, t’s more a declaration that some processes and examinations are personal, and thereby reliant on you to be the one to weight them.

Phew! Okay, so with all of that said … now how can we apply this to our writing? Or rather, why should we strive to check ourselves against bias with our writing, and how can we use a lack of it in our work?

And now, at long last, I can use that food analogy I was thinking of earlier. Remember that I called a bias a sort of “stale bread?”

Well, there are foods you can make with stale bread. And foods that call for stale bread as an ingredient.

But how many more call for just “bread” of some type or another? Thousands. Tens of thousands, actually. Bread is far wider in application than stale bread.

Now, you can use stale bread in a lot of recipes. But it’s not as nice. Hamburger with a stale bun, anyone? Or would you prefer a non-stale bun to go with your burger?

Bias is like stale bread. It’s firm, unyielding, and can work in a few places. But fresh bread? Oh, there’s nothing like it, and far more uses.

Likewise, conquering our own biases can lead us to have a much wider range in our own stories. A bias can work for one story or type of story, but it can’t when it comes to a wider, deeper palate of “flavor.”

A writer with bias won’t be able to write a character that doesn’t agree with the bias, or even who goes against it, without revealing weaknesses and cracks with their own bias. A writer who can examine their ideas and concepts critically, however. can “see” the path to various perspectives based on varying levels of information, presenting a character that has a viewpoint that, to them, makes sense and is even well-reasoned.

Which brings us to our final bit on this topic: How can we know what the various views on a subject are and portray them well inside our work?

Well, this is one more reason a critical, humble writer will be better at it than a biased writer. A biased writer will simply say “I know all of this!” and offer their “summation” of that knowledge. But a writer that knows to look? Even if it’s a topic they don’t know much about, if anything—or even if they know a decent amount—will immediately start looking for information to add to the thought process of the character, setting, etc. And when it comes time to write, they’ll have that information on hand so that each character in their work can be appropriately informed.

All right, let’s recap. To be biased is to be predetermined in favor for or against something. It’s also rigid and inflexible. Commonly, it’s a symptom of pride. The alternative, however, is to be both humble and capable of critically examining ones own perspective, stance, and causes. When it comes to writing, this ability will serve well in that a writer who is capable of such critical examination will explore topics and work to understand various viewpoints and approaches. They will create characters that have understandable, even empathetic reasons for why they have the opinions they have, but that can be as capable of change as the creator is.

So in the end? We should always keep an eye out for our own biases, but not simply replace them with other biases. We should strive to look for causes and background to statements, ideologies, concepts, or declarations. Doing such will broaden not only out view, but that of our characters.

So good luck. Now get writing.

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