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The Tenuous State of Writing in the Information Age

The Tenuous State of Writing in the Information Age

I don’t really do manifestos, typically, or grandstand, or
pitch tents, where writing is concerned. I also don’t ultimately think that setting
rules is a good way to foster creative thought. I do, though, like the idea of
aspiration in writing—of aiming, with all the devotion one can muster, at a
spot just above eye level, at a certain sense of quality, at a sense that
you’ve listened to the voices of influence long enough that you’re putting into
practice what they may have taught you. This publication, the one you’re
looking at, is one of a type. There are others of its type: the other parts of
this network, Salon, Slate, Huffington Post, Think Progress, Dame, Jezebel, and
numerous comrades, too many to name. 
Often, the cultural articles that appear here, and in similarly aimed
publications, e.g. blogs, are distinguished by a crucial link: between what is happening on
a screen, or in an artistic work, and what is happening in the world.  That phrase, “what is happening in the world,”
could mean a number of things: news events, cultural trends, or, most
poignantly, remnants from one’s own past. These pieces, then, often shear very
close to subject matter which could be considered emotionally “hot” for their
writers—content which could either inspire elation or deep rage. Because of
this, the task of the writer is doubled: the root subject must be addressed,
and then what lies behind the root subject, the context, must be addressed. And
in both cases, the task is to address the subject eloquently, and with respect
for the activity in which the writer is engaged: that is, writing. We live in a
time when individuals have more ways to express themselves and to communicate
with others than they ever had before. And communicate they do: in blog posts,
in tweets, in editorials, on personal web sites, and elsewhere. There is no
shortage of passion and sincerity in these writings, particularly the blog
posts. But the problem is that sometimes, in the course of expressing things
which are closest and deepest for the writer, articulation is sacrificed, and
some very, very basic, indispensable rules of good writing and editing are left by the wayside.

When a film or television show touches on themes that are
controversial, and perhaps does it in a way that could be seen as flawed, it’s
inevitable, in the age of instant response, that there will be, almost
immediately, a lot of writing online about the topic. Some of the writing will
be cogent, and might, through its insight, present an outlook on a subject or
theme that you might not have thought of before. It seems to this reader,
though, that often the perspectives I read on these subjects, in the process of
linking the personal to the artistic to the political, have the same general
timbre. The experience goes something like this. As is expected of me, I click
on a headline that draws my attention, usually containing the words “Here’s
Why” or “Gets Right” or “Gets Wrong,” or possibly a strongly positioned “I”
statement which reveals something about the writer’s life or attitudes which is
undeniably alluring. The article opens, I begin to read, and then this is where
I may separate from many readers, or may not. I see lives and attitudes opened
up, presented in their fullness, but I also see problems. Sometimes the
problems are small ones: a missing comma here, a missing word there, a
subject-verb agreement problem there, a misspelled proper name there. These are
easy enough to move past, since they needn’t derail the impact of a piece.  Sometimes, though, the problems are a little deeper.
As you read along, you begin to notice clichés at different points in the
sentences; sometimes a whole sentence might be a cliché. And this is where the
mean-spirited, unsympathetic thoughts begin, that human compassion tells us we
must squelch: I feel like I’ve read this
before. Couldn’t another phrase have been used? I’d like to sympathize, but
this seems a little too after-school-ish for me.
It’s not nice to think
these things, particularly when more personal material is being discussed;
after all, a person’s “telling of their story” is the most exalted act they
could perform, in one sense—the baring of personal history, the laying out of
each person’s true tale. How could that be faulted? In any event, sometimes the
problems lie even more deep within a piece, and this is when readers like
myself, and possibly like others, have really, really mean-spirited thoughts.
Upon reading the writer’s opinions, the reaction is one of a set of rhetorical
questions: How trite could one piece be?
What does this mean? Who does this person think he or she is?
The reason
for this reaction is normally that the issue at hand has not been explored
deeply enough, the contradictory conditions not examined or countered, the
depths probed, and so what you receive, before you, is a one-dimensional
spewing, whose only argument is its thesis, and whose body is really just a
restatement of the thesis. You might well agree with that argument, and praise
it for its bravery, or its honesty, or the stridence of its tone. On the other
hand, though, you might not buy it: the sad life story, the experience of
alienation, the tale of abuse might not draw you in. Why? Because it wasn’t
written well enough, or edited well enough—or both, equally. And so rejection is
a wholly fair response.

Within the tenets of good writing there are many chestnuts.
Avoid clichés. Support your arguments with evidence. Show, don’t tell. Omit
needless words. These tenets have lasted because they distinguish, to put it
simplistically, good writing from bad, profundity from shallowness, writing
that stays fresh for a day from writing that stays fresh for decades. At the
current time, the culture we live in is a mouthy one: for every event there is
a prompt response, and then another, and then another. Blogging itself is an
industry: miraculously, individuals are paid to tell their stories. But, as
with all industries, there are pressures. Pressures for ad revenues. Pressures
for clicks. Pressures for timeliness. And the result of these pressures, it
seems to me, is that a slippage is starting to occur, in which what were once
basic rules of good writing have become somewhat less important by comparison
with these pressures, by comparison with the need to keep the wolf away from
one’s door. We read post after post, each one a window into a personal
experience, each one a microscopic look at one life among billions. And the
urgency of it all is enough that at times it seems as if the publication is
more important than what’s being published. And perhaps it is, in one sense;
maybe the act of unleashing a story one might have held close is healthy for
the writer, and healthy for the reader, cathartic. But there are a couple of
problems. One is that the act of writing, if not taken seriously, results in
bad prose, sometimes even unintelligible prose—which could, if you thought it
over long enough, negate the purpose for having written in the first place. The
other problem is that the basic tenets for what we call “good” writing don’t go
away if you ignore them. The responsibility here lies with the writer and the
editor equally. All too often, our temptation is to blame the author of an
inflammatory, or poorly considered, or baffling essay: How dare she say that! The reality, though, is that most pieces
published in forums in which there is an editor have to pass the eyes of that
editor, and so to a certain extent, the editor has to be considered to have
approved the piece wholesale: its approach, its virtues, and its flaws. Or at
the very least, the editor has to have felt good enough about the piece to
allow it to be attached to his or her name. And so, since the activity being
engaged in is writing, the writer and editor must work together: if the editor
sees problems with a piece, those problems need to be addressed, both large and
small.  If these large or small problems
persist, then a simple question arises: what happened? I have to be careful how
I say the following, because I don’t want to imply that the job of an editor or
the job of a writer is by any means an easy one, or one in which emotions are
not in constant conflict with better judgment. However, I wonder if a change is
taking place in the way we, as a culture, view verbal expression. There is a
part of every writer’s mind, and every editor’s mind, that acts as a sort of
Greek chorus as the work is taking place. Why
are you doing that
, it asks. Are you
sure you want to say it this way
, it asks. Maybe here is a good place to start over, it suggests.  That’s
not how you spell that word,
it groans. You’re
repeating yourself,
it nudges. And, most painfully, Sure, this meant a lot to you, but that doesn’t mean it will move
anyone else.
What I wonder is, then, if that part of the writer’s or editor’s
mind is shrinking, and if the voices crying out inside it are getting fainter, as the pressures of commerce grow greater.
And if, beyond that, as readers, we’re starting to think those voices don’t matter,
after all.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

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