Tag Archives: writing

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David Foster Wallace talks about entertainment, and about writing

I am a huge fan of David Foster Wallace. I really enjoyed this little video where he talks about the kind of entertainment we consume, and it led me down the rabbit hole to this second, longer, interview. I love the stuff he says in the second video about the pacing of writing, and how you pace writing to shape the pace a reader reads. I read somewhere else that he wrote everything out using pen and paper (so too, apparently, did CS Lewis).

DFW: I don’t write quickly at all. And the stuff goes through draft, after draft, after draft. Although I know when it gets to a point that sounds real to me, part of the realness has to do with speed, and being a little bit of a control freak about how fast the reader is reading stuff, wanting some stuff to be read fairly slowly and to have a kind of echoey resonance to it, and wanting other stuff to seem breathless, and headlong, and kind of speedy.

Question: What techniques do you use to make a reader read faster or slower?

DFW: I think, probably, the easiest one is just how long the sentences are.

If you can do a sentence that is kind of a run on, but you can do the grammar such that the reader never gets lost, but also never quite really gets to stop. Then you get that kind of breathless quality. The trick with that is you can do a little bit of that and at least for me it’s cool, but if you do too much of and the reader gets fatigued and kind of pissed off. And so, there’s a certain matter of varying speeds.

I don’t know. People talk about the metrics of poetry a whole lot, but there’s no language for this as far as I know. I don’t know how people talk about the complexity and kind of, in terms of the physics of reading, the rapidity with which you read and process sentences.”

“When you’re writing stuff you get to a point where it just sounds right. And I think one of the ways it sounds right is when it just gets some sort of drum beat to it.”

Interview: Another thing that occurred to me about the occasional longish sentence that people come across in your work… you’re very aware of us as living in a media culture, besieged with lots of messages and bits of information. Could it be that a long sentence is a way of keeping at bay distractions. You can’t very well say “oh honey, I’ll be with you in a minute just let me finish this sentence” if the sentence has another few hundred words to go.

DFW: The sexy thing to say would be yes… I could say that sounds really plausible to me, and we could riff about that a certain amount. The fact of the matter is that writing it, for me, is so much less sophisticated, and primitive. So much of it goes by ear or stomach. And I think that to the extent that I’m interested in attention or fragmentation it has way more to do with the way things are structured or not structured or divided up or having different facets. The sentence thing has a whole lot to do with the fact that a whole lot of people, it sounds very gooey, but it’s true, who write… I started reading very young, and one of the reasons I started reading very young is because for whatever reason, I was lonely. And one of the things I went to books for was a relationship. Now a weird kind. I never really thought I was talking to a person. But there was the sense of an intelligence there. Or another human thing that I was communing with… And I think a lot of the stuff with the sentences… Like. I’ll grin when people laugh about the long sentence thing. I don’t think. Like in some sense, I don’t really get it. Yeah. I’ve got some long sentences. But I think it’s mostly, I don’t know about anyone else, but the way that I think. I don’t think in sentences.

Interview: What do you think in?

DFW: Like a not as good Joycean tumble. I don’t think I’m very interested in reproducing the form of that, the way like stream of consciousness does, but I think I’m interested in trying to induce the feeling of that, a little bit, at least sometimes. Truth be told, when the thing about long sentences gets a big laugh, what it makes me think of is that I’ve screwed up. Because if the grammar of the sentence is ok. If the sentence is structured right. Really the reader shouldn’t even notice that it’s a long sentence. And so, probably I’m just not doing it as well as I could. It’s not a stylistic thing, and I don’t think I have any cognitive program about it.”

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5 Virtues for writers in a new media world: #2 Eloquence

new media virtuesIt might seem like a fudge to call being interesting a virtue – and this second virtue was originally an authentic and interesting voice with an interesting message. But, in this brave new media world, it is. I changed the title because  this virtue is something like the ancient oratorical Holy Grail. Eloquence.

Attention spans are short.

Time spent reading is an increasingly popular web metric (see also, Upworthy making this switch, and note: there’s now something of an estimate, based on length, of reading time at the top of each post on this site). Being boring kills.

And this is a series about what it is that defines the writers I admire. And those writers are, without fail, interesting. Or eloquent.

Who else would I turn to to prove my point on this front if not Cicero.

“He, then, is truly eloquent… who in the Forum, and in public debates, can so speak, as to prove, delight, and force the passions. To prove, is a matter of necessity:—to delight, is indispensably requisite to engage the attention:—and to force the passions, is the surest means of victory; for this contributes more effectually than both the others to get a cause decided to our wishes.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero went as close as anybody to declaring eloquence a virtue in De Oratore he says:

“Eloquence is so potent a force that it embraces the origin and operation and developments of all things, all the virtues and duties, all the natural principles governing the morals and minds and life of mankind, and also determines their customs and laws and rights, and controls the government of the state, and expresses everything that concerns whatever topic in a graceful and flowing style.”

What I think is interesting about this quote is that the new media world is ‘governed’ by something like eloquence. The agenda in this world isn’t set by big budget, multi-national, media conglomerates, but by individuals whose content is dispersed through social networks. Individuals curate content, functioning as editors. Sure, new media platforms like Facebook influence what spreads and what doesn’t through its opaque newsfeed algorithm, but how long the online community will stand idly by and let that happen is an interesting question (on opaque algorithms and their dangers, read this), and even with the all-powerful algorithm serving up stories to maximise eyeball time on the platform, the content is still largely generated (or curated) by the little guy (Facebook’s Director of Product says its algorithm ensures it’s the content users like that users see – rather than quality content, or biased/agenda-driven content like you might expect from the mass media). Content in this new media world is democratised.  For more on this check out Tom Standage’s conclusion in the superb Writing on the Wall (review here), or his TEDx talk.

Eloquence sits beside virtue for Cicero as must have elements of the ideal person/statesman (his ideal person was pretty much himself – so he probably doesn’t embody my cardinal virtue for writers in a new media world. Humility). If it excites you, you can read most of a chapter on how Cicero’s views of the ideal orator, and the relationship between virtue and eloquence, were developed by Augustine on Google Books. In Brutus he calls eloquence the “marrow and quintessence of persuasion.” For Cicero, the ideal person was an orator-philosopher-statesman, and the only speaking or writing worth bothering with was persuasive.

Persuasive writing or speaking transforms. It moves. It excites. It stirs the emotions. It does what good writing should. Persuasive writing must be interesting – or it won’t persuade, and, as a reader, I want to read stuff that challenges, changes, or deepens my thinking – so persuasive writing is, I think, the mark of good writing. For Cicero, good oratory (and for us, good writing) is judged on its fruits. Its impact. While the good orator or writer is judged on their eloquence and virtuous character.

“When a Citizen hears an able Orator, he readily credits what is said;—he imagines every thing to be true, he believes and relishes the force of it; and, in short, the persuasive language of the Speaker wins his absolute, his hearty assent. You, who are possessed of a critical knowledge of the art, what more will you require? The listening multitude is charmed and captivated by the force of his Eloquence, and feels a pleasure which is not to be resisted. What here can you find to censure? The whole audience is either flushed with joy, or overwhelmed with grief;—it smiles, or weeps,—it loves, or hates,—it scorns or envies,—and, in short, is alternately seized with the various emotions of pity, shame, remorse, resentment, wonder, hope, and fear, according as it is influenced by the language, the sentiments, and the action of the speaker.” – Cicero, Brutus

Good writing does this. Good writers seek to do this for stuff they truly believe in and care about. They don’t create these emotions if they don’t first feel them, they don’t persuade people to think things they don’t think themselves. Perhaps to demonstrate Cicero’s ongoing relevance, but also to engage with new media realities, I’ll also feature a heavy smattering of insights from Jonah Peretti, one of the founders of the Huffington Post, and the founder of Buzzfeed. If anyone understands how to write for the new media world it’s Peretti. He gave this great (and incredibly long) interview on Medium that I’ll be quoting. You can read the whole thing – but according to Medium’s time calculator, it’ll take you 91 minutes.

I’ll break down my own vision of this virtue as it pertains to the new media world into three key (overlapping) elements authenticity, presentation. All of these qualities are important – but excellent, or virtuous, writing in this new media world requires all three, or at least two out of three (and I’d argue that for writing to be virtuous the content always needs to be excellent – it can either be packaged well without an authentic/credible author, or have an authentic/credible author and be packaged in an incredibly boring way).

An authentic voice

“I have been so much transported, not by the force of my genius, but by the real fervor of my heart, that I was unable to restrain myself: —and, indeed, no language will inflame the mind of the hearer, unless the Speaker himself first catches the ardor, and glows with the importance of his subject.” – Cicero, The Orator

Orators weren’t famed for authenticity – in fact, there was a whole stream of oratory – Sophistry – that was all about the triumph of style over substance, that lauded one’s ability to speak passionately about anything, even while not caring about that thing. I like Cicero because (outside some of his speeches as a defence lawyer) he was big on authenticity. Cicero literally embodied the values of the Republic in the face of the Empire, even to the point of martyrdom. These were something like his parting words – they come from the Philippics, a series of speeches that saw him executed.

“I defended the republic as a young man; I will not desert it as an old one. I despised the swords of Catiline; I will not fear yours. Indeed I would gladly offer my body, if by my death the liberty of the state can be immediately recovered, so that finally the suffering of the Roman People may bring to birth what it has long since labored to produce.” Cicero, Orationes Philippicae

These weren’t empty words. He died for his convictions. After he was executed his tongue and hands (that spoke, and penned) these words were nailed to the forum for all to see. He knew it was coming when he published the Philippics. Part of eloquence is embodying your message, beyond your words, and speaking from the heart. One of my other favourite orators, the apostle Paul, also embodied his message with authenticity, as demonstrated by the scars he carried with his message about the crucified Jesus.

“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation… From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” – Paul, Galatians 6:14-17 “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. ” – Paul, 2 Corinthians 4:10

Authenticity is so important in this new media world, and is one of the determining factors in what gets read and shared online (cat videos not withstanding). And it’s certainly the determining factor in what, or who, I choose to read. BuzzFeed might have a reputation for promoting the trite and the trivial, but for Jonah Peretti, and for BuzzFeed, the need for authenticity is part of the editorial process – and this feeds into the site’s voice.

We also have our no-haters orientation. We tend to be enthusiastic and we tend to avoid snarky articles about mediocre things. It’s not like there’s some hard rule. In general, we tend to avoid a post that is designed to make the author feel smart and superior and the reader to vicariously feel smart and superior because a Hollywood film is mediocre or because something in culture is mediocre.

Interviewer: Honest enthusiasm is a sort of default stance at BuzzFeed.

Peretti: If there’s something that is worth someone’s time that is interesting and is worthy of being excited about, we should cover that. If there’s an egregious miscarriage of justice or corruption or fraud or something that needs to be investigated, those are both strong things. In the middle, there’s a lot of things that are kind of a waste of time. Mediocre things that you can write cynical comments about. – Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed.

Writers in the democratised new media world don’t have the credibility that comes built in to writing for a mass-media platform, they build credibility on the basis of who they are – their expertise, what and how they think, and how they express themselves. I want to read people who say interesting stuff about interesting things, but I especially want them to be interested in those things (preferably with skin in the game), not professionally detached (like a journalist). It’s almost like in this new media world subjectivity is more interesting than objectivity, and we build our own objective view of ‘the facts’ (whatever they are) by choosing to hear from multiple perspectives.

An interesting voice (with an interesting message)

“It is of little consequence to discover what is proper to be said, unless you are able to express it in a free and agreeable manner: and even that will be insufficient, if not recommended by the voice, the look, and the gesture. ” – Cicero, Brutus

“Our style must be pure, and correct;—we must speak with clearness and perspicuity.” – Cicero, The Orator

Other beauties of composition which he will not fail to pursue;—such as brevity where the subject requires it;—a lively and pathetic description of important occurrences;—a passionate exaggeration of remarkable circumstances;—an earnestness of expression which implies more than is said;—a well-timed variety of humour;—and a happy imitation of different characters and dispositions. Assisted and adorned by such figures as these, which are very numerous, the force of Eloquence will appear in its brightest lustre. – Cicero, The Orator

It’s possible to be interesting when you’re talking about boring stuff – provided you talk about that stuff in an interesting way, or from an interesting angle. Some of the best stuff in the new media world, I think, involves putting the spotlight on stuff we take for granted. One of my favourite books is a biography of salt. I’m currently reading a biography of paper. I love all those videos on craftsmen making bespoke stuff like scissors and shoes.

The way to achieve this is to present that stuff with eloquence, such that the presentation makes the content sing.

Cicero basically defined eloquence in terms of knowing what to say, where to say it, and saying it well. In Brutus, Cicero speaks of Caesar. His frienemy (who ends up being exclusively his enemy). Cicero was trying to win Caesar over by painting his oratory in such glowing terms (a little bit of an authenticity fail on Cicero’s part), but his depiction of praiseworthy oratory is worth pondering.

“He [Caesar] is absolutely master of his trade, and, neglecting every other profession, has applied himself solely to this; and, for that purpose, has persevered in the rigorous task of composing a daily Essay in writing. His words are well chosen; his language is full and copious; and every thing he says receives an additional ornament from the graceful tone of his voice, and the dignity of his action. In short, he is so compleat an Orator, that there is no quality I know of, in which I can think him deficient.” – Cicero, Brutus

Cicero is pretty big on the idea that practice makes perfect when it comes to speaking and writing. He mentions Cicero’s essay writing to this end, but he also says stuff like:

A good voice, indeed, though a desirable accomplishment, is not in our power to acquire:—but to exercise, and improve it, is certainly in the power of every person. – Cicero, The Orator

He thinks the ability to speak (and he’s talking about the vocalisation of words) comes from nature (or the gods), but there are ways to improve (this is where a ‘voice’ analogy between writing and speaking fails because he’d also suggest anybody can become a writer, if not a speaker). Cicero has a second character in Brutus note that Caesar dedicated his own writing on oratory to Cicero, with this axiomatic definition of eloquence: “an accurate choice of words is the foundation of Eloquence.” Cicero compares eloquence to carefully displaying art in a gallery – where the framing matters, the lighting matters, the height you place the painting on the wall matters… eloquence is about featuring your content like a gallery curator features the star work in an exhibition.

“Accordingly, to the purest elegance of expression, he [Caesar] has added all the various ornaments of Elocution; so that he seems to exhibit the finest painting in the most advantageous point of view… Besides, his manner of speaking, both as to his voice and gesture, is splendid and noble, without the least appearance of artifice or affectation: and there is a dignity in his very presence, which bespeaks a great and elevated mind.” – Cicero, Brutus

This eloquence includes the choice of words, the structure of sentences, the flow and structure of the piece – and in this set of virtues the impact of humility on these matters discussed in the previous post (charity and clarity) come first. You can always make choices in these areas to look or sound impressive. But there are always choices to make on behalf of your audience, rather than for yourself. For Cicero the audience was king when it came to deciding if something was eloquent.

“The taste of the Audience, then, has always governed and directed the Eloquence of the Speaker: for all who wish to be applauded, consult the character, and the inclinations of those who hear them, and carefully form and accommodate themselves to their particular humours and dispositions.” – Cicero, The Orator

Different people like different stuff – and that’s fine. Different forums require different styles – and that’s fine. But the eloquent person writes to the audience they have selected.

“Different men have different opinions;”—nor is it easy to determine which is best. Thus also in painting, some are pleased with a rough, a wild, and a dark and cloudy style; while others prefer that which is clear, and lively, and well covered with light. How then shall we strike out a general rule or model, when there are several manners, and each of them has a certain perfection of its own?” – Cicero, The Orator

“We are not to speak upon every occasion, or before every audience, or against every opponent, or in defence of every client, and to every Judge, in the same invariable manner. He, therefore, is the man of genuine Eloquence, who can adapt his language to what is most suitable to each. By doing this, he will be sure to say every thing as it ought to be said. He will neither speak drily upon copious subjects, nor without dignity and spirit upon things of importance; but his language will always be proportioned, and equal to his subject.” – Cicero, Brutus

He, then, is an Orator indeed! who can speak upon trivial subjects with simplicity and art, upon weighty ones with energy and pathos, and upon those of middling import with calmness and moderation. – Cicero, The Orator

Cicero calls the ability to select a style that is apt to your audience and purpose ‘decorum’ – and this is basically one of his virtues for the orator. The key to good writing is to tailor how you present your content to the audience you write to. This means making sure your ‘voice’ matches your platform (or medium), and your content. Conversations about writing for the online world invariably end up talking about length (in my experience, though perhaps this is because I like to write such unwieldly posts). There’s no real ‘golden rule’ for packaging when it comes to length, or even style – except that it should achieve what the writer sets out to achieve. Length can work for, or against, eloquence. This is true according to both Cicero and Peretti…

“For as language is ever soft and yielding, and so amazingly pliable that you may bend and form it at your pleasure; so different natures and dispositions have given rise to different kinds of Elocution. Some, for instance, who place the chief merit of it in it’s rapidity, are mightily pleased with a torrent of words, and a volubility of expression. Others again are better pleased with regular, and measured intervals, and frequent stops, and pauses. What can be more opposite? and yet both have their proper excellence.” – Cicero, The Orator

“We see with our longform stories that, in some cases, the sheer length and rigor of a piece will make the piece have a bigger impact. Just the fact that it’s 6,000 words or 12,000 words.”  – Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti

Peretti does suggest that it’s possible for things to be too long. Even if they’re well written. The key is delivering value to the reader in proportion to the length and the time spent reading.

Saying things in an interesting way isn’t just about packaging or length. Cicero is also big on two features of eloquent writing – the use of metaphors and the use of humour – and these, too, must be appropriate to the context.

We have slightly touched upon the ornaments of language, both in single words, and in words as they stand connected with each other;—in which our Orator will so indulge himself, that not a single expression may escape him, but what is either elegant or weighty. But he will most abound in the metaphor; which, by an aptness of similitude, conveys and transports the mind from object to object, and hurries it backwards and forwards through a pleasing variety of images;—a motion which, in its own nature, (as being full of life and action) can never fail to be highly delightful. – Cicero, The Orator

When it comes to getting laughs, Cicero makes a distinction between witty repartee and ‘humour.’ Humour is used to make narratives “lively and entertaining,” witty repartee is used to ridicule, or to respond to ridicule. He has some rules which are timeless tips for using humour, so I think apply to the new media world, and especially to the written word, where humour is so hard to pull off.

“The powers of ridicule are not to be employed too often, lest we sink into scurrility;—nor in loose and indecent language, lest we degenerate into wantonness and buffoonery; —nor with the least degree of petulance and abuse, lest we appear audacious and ill-bred;—nor levelled against the unfortunate, lest we incur the censure of inhumanity;—nor against atrocious crimes, lest we raise a laugh where we ought to excite abhorrence;—nor, in the last place, should they be used unseasonably, or when the characters either of the Speaker, or the Hearer, and the circumstances of time and place forbid it;—otherwise we should grossly fail in that decorum of which we have already said so much. We should likewise avoid all affected witticisms, which appear not to be thrown out occasionally, but to be dragged from the closet; for such are generally cold and insipid. It is also improper to jest upon our friends, or upon persons of quality, or to give any strokes of wit which may appear ill-natured, or malicious.” Cicero, The Orator

If a virtuous modern writer is defined by humility, I think it’s reasonable to expect most humour from this sort of writer should be victimless or self-deprecating. The democratisation of this new media world is a throw back to the time of Cicero. Everyone who creates or shares content online is an orator. Everyone has a platform. And it’s the audience that determines if something is eloquent or not. Cicero suggests eloquence takes the taste of the audience into account. One of the downsides of this democratisation is that every voice is, in some sense, given equal weight (note: this isn’t quite true, big platforms still exist, mass media outlets have a presence online, but it’s true when bits of writing are exported from their original context into other platforms – except when algorithms give greater weight to bigger platforms, which some do). This means that there’s a lot of noise to wade through. Cicero has some advice for the kind of voice that will cut through that chatter…

“A crowded audience, and a clamorous Forum, require an Orator who is lively, animated, full of action, and able to exert his voice to the highest pitch.” – Cicero, Brutus

Figuring out how to do that in writing is, I think, the key to packaging stuff for world we live in. It’s what thrusts sites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed into Facebook newsfeeds and the twittersphere. But packaging alone is not enough. If I’ve presented Cicero’s views on eloquence accurately – that it’s about using the right words in the right place in the right way, as defined by your audience, then it’s interesting to see how closely Peretti’s modern views mesh with his ancient advice.

“We want the stuff we do to reach the maximum audience it should reach, no less and no more. If we make a wonky political scoop, we want every political wonk to read it. If we make “Which state should you actually live in,” we want everyone who lives in a city to read it. ” “When we have something that’s a hit, usually our response is not, “Let’s do more of those.” Our response is, “Let’s figure why this is a hit and make variations of this.” This was successful because it was tied to someone’s identity, it was successful because it had cats in it, or it was successful because it had humor, or it was successful because it tapped into nostalgia. If you’re making entertainment content, which is a big part of what we do, you look at that hit and you say, “Why was that successful? Can I do it again? Can I make something else that people really love and want to share?” And you try to vary it, even though you know doing something derivative would work. Long term, you want to have a deeper understanding of how to make great things.” – BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti

When you think about the media industry, it’s also, “How do you reach people and how do you get people to understand?” If you write something and nobody understands it, it’s easy to be, like, “Oh those are all the dumb people.” Sometimes writing something that’s very sophisticated and difficult and technical for a particular audience is totally fine, but you should be able to communicate in simple language… The thing is, there are dangers in this, because you can also explain something in a way that makes people feel like they understand it when they actually don’t… You can figure out a way to frame something and explain it so that it feels like it confirms what people already believe, including incorrect things they believe. – BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti

Peretti notes that to be eloquent (according to our definition) in the new media world requires thinking about what’s new in our media platforms and how that has to shape our approach (and our content).

“Early-stage digital publishers have stayed too close to print. They look like print. Their basic unit is the same kind of article structure. Some of them might be shorter or longer, but the front page is programmed almost like a newspaper. The formats of the articles are more like a newspaper. And it’s like, “Oh, let’s add a little video,” but when they add video it’s like they are trying to be TV, but it’s not quite as good as regular TV. The way to break through and to make something that can actually scale into something big is just to say, “What would this be if the readers and the publishers were not focused on making something similar to print?” If they said, instead, “What should this be if mobile is the most important thing; if things can be more visual; if things can be more shareable; if length can be anywhere from 140 characters to 12,000 words? In that kind of world, where things can be interactive, like quizzes—in that kind of a world, what should a media company be?… In a grand sense it needs to move away from mimicking print to doing what is natural for the web.”

The new media world has to shift our understanding of eloquent writing. Because the audience is shifting.

It’s not paranoid to think that the audience watching broadcast television is old. And it’s not paranoid to think people, particularly young people, are spending a lot of time on their phones and a lot of time on the Internet. It’s accurate to say that media consumption is changing in a pretty dramatic way and that if your marketing stays the same you essentially will be marketing to people who are consuming media the way people consumed media ten years ago instead of the way they’re consuming today. – BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti

(An interesting voice) with an interesting message

It’s hard to split the voice from the message when it comes to eloquence. What I think is virtuous when it comes to the “interestingness” of the content is delivering on what is promised in the packaging, and delivering value to the reader. Part of this is in the realm of a ‘content strategy’ or editorial policy, that’s a decision the modern writer makes based on who their audience is, and, because authenticity is important – who they are and what they’re passionate about. Content is king. Really. Content is where the value of a piece of writing lies. A reader may perceive writing as more valuable based on who it comes from, or how it’s served up, but good writing is inherently valuable to the reader (even if that value only lies in the reaction it prompts, and even if that reaction is only to entertain or excite the emotions), and good content is what should hold a reader’s attention. The virtuous and eloquent writer only holds the reader’s attention for as long as they want it to be held, they don’t employ ruses to entrap the reader. The virtuous writer makes it clear what is being offered, and delivers. It’s interesting how much debate about the relationship between content and packaging revolves around the headline. You can dress up your content with all the BuzzFeed or Upworthy tips and tricks, sensationalist headlines and listicles (here’s a neat article from Anil Dash, one of the prophets of the new media world about clickbait headlines that I quite like, and here’s an article about how headlines don’t actually matter because people who share stuff with their networks typically make up their own headline/description of the article). Peretti says BuzzFeed has made a conscious effort to have headlines that match up with, and describe, the content.

“You could show a picture of like an older guy at the beach and be like, “Guess whose body this is?” Then you click and it’s like, “Oh it’s Giorgio Armani” or whatever, and you could get a tremendous clickthrough rate on headlines that didn’t tell you what the story is about. The problem with that is that if you’re just getting clicks that would have gone to another headline on your front page, it’s sending people the content that might not be as good, because they’re clicking because they want to know what’s there. They’re not clicking because they’re interested in what’s there… You end up with lots of people who don’t actually want to see Giorgio Armani in a Speedo on the beach clicking that and then feeling like, “Oh god, why did I do that?” Like, “That was a waste of time.” The main problem for us is that when you think from the perspective of the reader, if headlines are all devoid of information and you have to click them to find out what they are about, all the social streams out there would become much less useful and much less valuable. When you think from that perspective it’s like, “Whoa, let’s just make headlines that describe what’s in the article and that’s better for the consumer and it’s better for the ecosystem as a whole. Then let’s make articles that people really want to click because they’re interested in them, not because they’re wondering what it’s about.”

Peretti talks a fair bit about appropriate metrics for this new media world, he doesn’t think time is the best measure, because people can do stuff to keep people’s attention for longer than they need to.

“The challenge there is that, like you said, if you create a long, meandering, boring story that’s just good enough to keep people reading, they might spend more time on that story than the short, condensed one that just tells you what you need to know. If you use time on that one, it will tell you to do the wrong thing… One of the reasons reality TV became so dominant was because people looked at time as being the metric. And the reason that reality TV works well for time is that the classic reality TV formula, in the beginning, was the tribal council and somebody getting eliminated. So you could have 50 percent of the show being boring filler and you’re kind of wanting to change the channel but you’re like, “Oh, but I wonder if my favorite person’s going to get eliminated.” So you have to watch to the end to see the elimination. In a way, that was a way of gaming time. You could look at that and say, “Oh, they spent an hour watching this show, including the commercials. That means it must be a really high quality show.” But it also might just mean that they figured out a hook that incentivizes you to watch to the end and then did a lot of mediocre content in the middle.”

It’s clear from the length of this piece that it’s in danger of being far from eloquent (but I haven’t claimed to be virtuous), so I’ll stop now.

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5 virtues for writers in a new-media world: #1 Humility

new media virtues

I’ve spent a little bit of time lately reflecting on words lately. Particularly on reading and writing. Writing is one of the distinct technological advances that separates humans from the animal kingdom. Our capacity to write is arguably part of what makes us bearers of God’s image. God is a God who speaks, who writes, who wrote himself into our world in Jesus.

So I’ve been thinking about writing.

My writing. The writing of other people. What I like. What I don’t.

The appreciation of writing is always going to be a fairly subjective affair. Certain styles appeal to some but not to others.

I’m in no way close to being the writer I aspire to be – I’m not even sure that I’m the writer I’d personally like to read yet.

I’ve particularly been thinking about what it means to write in the post-print world where everybody is connected, where words (or unfortunate photos) never disappear, where content is often exhumed from its context and where non-verbal communication is non-existent. Nothing significant has changed in this post-printing press world – except the cost of publication has dropped dramatically, and content is no longer seen as valuable simply by virtue of having been printed/published, but is given value democratically as it is shared and discussed through different networks. One interesting associated phenomena is that the discussion around publications is now almost a bigger deal than the publication itself. This is demonstrable through all sorts of examples – watch the post-game coverage of a World Cup match and note how much attention is paid to the discussion on social media, read mainstream media outlets discussing the virality of a current news event (like, at the time of writing, the disgraceful demise of a Rugby League star). The conversation about a thing is now as big a deal as the thing itself (as previously noted).

Often old school writers about rhetoric and oratory would, in their treaties on such matters, spend a bit of time talking about the virtues of a rhetor or an orator. Cicero did it, others did it before him. These virtues were meant to help a writer approach the generation of their content. You had to work on the speaker before you worked on the voice, or the content – unless you wanted to be an insubstantial sophist. All sizzle, no sausage. But there’s also a pretty tight relationship, even for these old school guys, between medium and message. So I’ve found it hard to split virtue from style and content – partly because I think if the capacity for creating and expressing words is part of what defines us as humans, it’s really hard to split capacity from manner and content when deciding what makes an expression of that capacity ‘good.’

I have tried to boil down these virtues into list (because that’s how the Internet works – and how those old dudes worked too), which I’ll then expand in a series of individual posts. I was going to do it all together in one post, but then the first point blew out into something massive.

Here’s the list.

  1. Humility. 
  2. An interesting and authentic voice with an interesting message.
  3. Sublime consistency. 
  4. Commitment and conviction. 
  5. Empathy (subjectivity is self-centred, objectivity is overrated).

The flipside of writing is reading. I’ve been contemplating what I like in a reader – will be a subsequent list, and probably a subsequent miniseries. It’s also aspirational. I often find myself reading things poorly, through no fault of the writer, but because of my own heart. I’ll share that list too – not because I am that reader, or want the ideal reader of things I write to be that reader, but because I want to be that reader (as I want to be this writer).

The third bit of my reflection, which I think will just be one post – but who knows – will be some thoughts I’ve come up with about the sort of writing I want to do here, and elsewhere, based on these aspirations. In the interest of full disclosure – these posts will probably then become a significant part of my disclaimer and comment policy.

Ironically, this list will probably break many of the aspirational qualities it describes… It may also read (occasionally) like an exercise in justifying how I do stuff. Sorry. I did mention that this is all going to be subjective – so you’re absolutely free to disagree with what I think these virtues look like in application (and even in the selection of these five as the top five virtures). It’s possible that in describing what I aspire to be, I’ll also explain why I am like I am, and that may help you to read me charitably.

Let me also mention, in case there are any doubts, that I’m often self-seeking and self-indulgent, and that will necessarily come across in my writing even if I fail to acknowledge it – and the writer I aspire to be like is not self-seeking, or self-indulgent. Quite the reverse. I want to be like the writer who wrote himself into his own story (John 1), not as the conquering hero (though he is that), but as a humiliated and crucified wretch, because he considered others better than himself (Philippians 2), and in order to save a wretch like me (Amazing Grace).

1. Humility.

I like a writer who considers their reader more valuable than themselves. It’s possible that to actually write – to incarnate oneself in written form, to express oneself externally, and to present this expression to others, to put forward one’s thoughts and views as though they have inherent value, could always be considered an act of something other than humility, but I don’t think that’s a particularly useful picture of humility. Writing is part of an expression of our humanity. It’s how knowledge is shared. How ideas are formed (and held with any degree of permanence). Humility, in its essence, I think, is this posture. Considering the needs of the reader above your own needs. This is more important for me as a writer than it is for me as I read the writing of others. I suspect, at times, I’m only frustrated by a perceived lack of humility in other writers as a result of my own pride.

This presents an interesting conundrum for those of us who write primarily for ourselves, but are happy to share our writing with any audience that chooses to engage. I suspect part of the humility I cherish is in allowing people to choose to read something, rather than force feeding it to them via a firehose at every turn. There’s a fine line, again, between believing you’ve produced something that people should read and the danger of being a self-promoting mercenary hack. The line probably isn’t that fine – but mediums like blogs, and channels like social networks, reward people who walk near that line.

I think one of the key aspects of humble writing in a self-promoting world rests in the difference between permission based, or opt-in, writing and ambush writing. Sensationalist, link baity, headlines that draw clicks on the basis of a promise that is never delivered are the hallmark of the latter. Forcing argumentative hobby-horse riding rants on unsuspecting Facebook friends who genuinely like you and want to “stay connected” with you via the platform are another example of a lack of humility, or consideration of others, in this brazen new world. I don’t mind ‘wasting’ someone’s time with a long winded description of my ideal writer if it’s something they have to voluntarily sign up for reading, without me overpromising, and something they can click away from at any time.

This virtue of humility, for the writer, plays out in other virtues – charity and clarity. 

Charity involves a deliberate generosity, a willing wearing of cost by the writer in order to benefit the reader (or in order to not waste their time), or a purposeful gift of something valuable. Value in writing comes from the time, effort, and expertise put into writing and the quality produced. It’s not that longer is necessarily better – length often comes at the expense of the virtue of clarity. But length does occasionally come as a result of an investment from the writer. Value isn’t about length, it’s not just about quality, or utility (how useful a piece of writing is – we all benefit from how to stuff when it’s particularly good – there’s a reason my most popular post of all time is a guide to making Sizzler’s cheesy toast). Value can also come from aesthetics, from novelty, from creativity, from the joy expressed and shared, or the emotions produced for the reader as a result of the writer’s care, intent, or effort.

Clarity is another expression of consideration to the reader. While I love oddly punctuated stream of consciousness stuff peppered with rambling footnotes (both reading and writing such text), punctuation can be helpful. Convention can be helpful. Rules a useful guide. Understanding stuff like genre, and speculating about who one’s audience might be, and providing some framework by which newcomers to a medium might interpret what they’re seeing, these are all ways one might pursue clarity. I think great writers pursue clarity at a meta level, and at the micro level.

Clarity at the meta level is about helping the reader see how a particular paragraph, chapter, or post, fits in with a bigger whole. In books and essays this comes from tables of contents, headings and a nice, intuitive, index. In most writing it means having a clear structure and a coherently unified narrative (a big idea or clear understanding about what something is going to be about) that cascades upwards and downwards. Whether you take an educated guess at a book’s argument from the Table of Contents, the Index, or a sentence on a page, you should still feel like it all fits together. A sentence should fit a paragraph, which should fit a chapter, which should fit a book – or in new media terms, a post should fit in a category that fits in the site. This cascading relationship, in the internet world, works in a similar manner to the table of contents/headings/index relationship in a book. Clear writing, for the benefit of the reader, needs clear information architecture (like menus, categories, tags, headings, and links to other stuff).

This pursuit of clarity plays itself out at the micro level too. Right down to the selection of individual words, sentence structure, idioms, or metaphors. It means not using jargon or technical language (or explaining it when it’s used). At a micro level the pursuit of clarity means always helping the reader see the meta-structure (rather than making it obscure) – devoting time and words to helping a reader understand why you’re telling them stuff and where it fits in what the piece of writing is doing. I quite like writing that breaks the fourth wall – that addresses the reader directly with some instructions, or some sort of interaction.

Tangentially… perhaps it’s truer to suggest that good writing doesn’t really have a fourth wall. Good writing, I think, involves the writer becoming deliberately vulnerable and ‘incarnate’ in the text, but also invites the reader to do the same. To put oneself in the picture, in the story, to feel the emotional weight of an argument, rather than observe it. Good writing tickles the senses. It evokes empathy, not just sympathy. It makes us feel as well as think. Humility is part of that. This is why I love the so-called gonzo genre so much, where the author becomes part of the story, for the sake of the story (and the reader).

Anyway. Back on track. This pursuit of integrated clarity between the meta level and the micro level takes some words. Clarity and brevity aren’t synonyms. But you can’t have clarity and overwrite stuff with fluff that nobody needs to read. Fluff kills clarity. Clarity and simplicity are also not synonyms. Most government weasel-word filled media releases are technically quite simple. But they’re not clear. It’s also possible to be clear and complex at the same time.

It’s not necessarily possible to be clear, complex and brief at the same time.

Other ways some of the writers I love and aspire to be like demonstrate humility is by providing sources/evidence (especially to stuff written by other people), by arguing well (avoiding fallacies, histrionics etc – but also being clear about what is being argued for), by being prepared to discuss the topic further, and by being able to be corrected… there are all sorts of ways good writers demonstrate humility.

Good writing puts the reader first, but this doesn’t mean it asks for the reader to not put in any effort at all. That isn’t loving.

It doesn’t encourage the reader to grow. Spoon feeding stuff to your reader is actually considering your reader as lesser than yourself, not greater.

Sometimes getting someone to ponder something requires presenting it in a ponderous package.

Frictionless, pithy, writing – boiled down to a ‘what’s in it for me’ marketing pitch or a neat listicle doesn’t present any particularly valuable challenge for the reader. That’s one of the reasons I’m unapologetic (mostly) about the length of the stuff I write here (even if it’s awful). I truly believe that short form, shallow, unnuanced, buzzfeedy articles made for sensationalist sharing and arguments are tremendously damaging to society and to the individual. They mess with our brains. They are addictive. People truly do become what they behold – we’re shaped by the tools we use to make and understand things as much as we are by what we make, and the content we consume. Peter Tong’s excellent chapter on Doing theology in a Digital World in a recent Matthias Media publication is worth reading (it’s available as a free sample from this page), there are heaps of links to other things worth reading in the (really) long series I wrote about Facebook and your brain earlier this year.

My intention isn’t that this series be something massively Christian, or theological, but some of the convictions I’ve come to about writing are drawn from my thinking for my thesis last year (I’ll be mining those depths for content on this corner of the interwebs for many years to come). The virtues I’ve picked as my top five – and it’s by no means an exhaustive list – are virtues I think God demonstrates in his communication to us, both in the written words of the Bible, and in the way he wrote himself into creation as Jesus.

What would top your list? Are there any good things to read about reading and writing in the new media world?

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3 essays you should read that will help you understand media and the world better

I know. I know. Not much happening in these parts at present. But this isn’t just a token effort. I’ve been reading a bit around that Facebook series I still have to finish (with, incidentally, a list of recommended reading). Anyway. I love long form writing – the sort of thing that is shorter than a book, but longer than your typical magazine feature, and I’ve found these essays particularly useful for thinking about media, and thus, thinking about the world explained by the media people produce. None of these are new. But they are good.

David Foster Wallace, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, 1993

This is a fun essay from one of my favourite writers that looks at what an addiction to irony in pop culture does to public discourse. It was written way back in 1993. David Foster Wallace, like Kurt Vonnegut and Nicholson Baker (who essentially ‘reviewed’ wikipedia, and who also reviewed a book about a guy who wrote a book about reading the dictionary), can make a book review of a dictionary something entirely readable and enjoyable (PDF).

E Unibus Pluram is part celebration of post-modern pop culture conventions, part navel gazing, but it is chock full of insights about our relationship with the screens in our lives.

After providing a brief survey of the nature of sit-com humour (back in the 90s), DFW makes this interesting point that gels with all the media ecology stuff you might have paid attention to in that mega-long Facebook series (the premise – the media we consume shapes us in ways we don’t always notice).

“If television can invite Joe Briefcase into itself via in-gags and irony, it can ease that painful tension between Joe’s need to transcend the crowd and his status as Audience member. For to the extent that TV can flatter Joe about “seeing through” the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of outdated values, it can induce in him precisely the feeling of canny superiority it’s taught him to crave, and can keep him dependent on the cynical TV-watching that alone affords this feeling.”

He puts on his prophetic hat a little – remember this is pre-smart phone, pre-flat screen, pre-internet TV…

“The appeal of watching television has always involved fantasy. Contemporary TV, I’ve claimed, has gotten vastly better at enabling the viewer’s fantasy that he can transcend the limitations of individual human experience, that he can be inside the set, imago’d, “anyone, anywhere.” Since the limitations of being one human being involve certain restrictions on the number of different experiences possible to us in a given period of time, it’s arguable that the biggest TV-tech “advances” of recent years have done little but abet this fantasy of escape from the defining limits of being human.”

Neil Postman, Five things we need to know about technology, 1998

Neil Postman wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death which is something of an extended treatment of these aforementioned ideas from David Foster Wallace, combined with a connection to the work of Marshall McLuhan (who coined the term “the medium is the message” – amongst other things).

Postman wrote this nice warning against whole-heartedly embracing technological developments without paying heed to the cost. His ideas, in sum:

“First, that we always pay a price for technology; the greater the technology, the greater the price. Second, that there are always winners and losers, and that the winners always try to persuade the losers that they are really winners. Third, that there is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice. Sometimes that bias is greatly to our advantage. Sometimes it is not. The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life. And so on. Fourth, technological change is not additive; it is ecological, which means, it changes everything and is, therefore, too important to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates. And fifth, technology tends to become mythic; that is, perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.”

The fifth point is the most interesting.

“Our enthusiasm for technology can turn into a form of idolatry and our belief in its beneficence can be a false absolute. The best way to view technology is as a strange intruder, to remember that technology is not part of God’s plan but a product of human creativity and hubris, and that its capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does for us and to us.”

J.R.R Tolkein, On Fairy Stories, 1947

This one is a slight change of pace. I hadn’t heard of it until I read a footnote in TheoMedia, but it has come up a couple of times since. It’s worth a read, partly our of curiosity, but partly because if you want to be a story teller it pays to learn from master story tellers… What I really like about this essay (and about the others above) is the link they make between media-making, and media-consumption, and what it means to be human. DFW was an Atheist, Neil Postman was Jewish, and Tolkein a Catholic – but each has something profoundly true to say about our humanity and how it is shaped by what we consume and create.

“Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind. It would be more near the truth to say that languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology. But Language cannot, all the same, be dismissed. The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.”

“The human mind is capable of forming mental images of things not actually present. The faculty of conceiving the images is (or was) naturally called Imagination. But in recent times, in technical not normal language, Imagination has often been held to be something higher than the mere image-making, ascribed to the operations of Fancy (a reduced and depreciatory form of the older word Fantasy); an attempt is thus made to restrict, I should say misapply, Imagination to “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.”

Ridiculous though it may be for one so ill-instructed to have an opinion on this critical matter, I venture to think the verbal distinction philologically inappropriate, and the analysis inaccurate. The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect; and it should appropriately be called Imagination. The perception of the image, the grasp of its implications, and the control, which are necessary to a successful expression, may vary in vividness and strength: but this is a difference of degree in Imagination, not a difference in kind. The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” is indeed another thing, or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result.”

Those bits are good. These bits are absolute gold.

To many, Fantasy, this sub-creative art which plays strange tricks with the world and all that is in it, combining nouns and redistributing adjectives, has seemed suspect, if not illegitimate. To some it has seemed at least a childish folly, a thing only for peoples or for persons in their youth. As for its legitimacy I will say no more than to quote a brief passage from a letter I once wrote to a man who described myth and fairy-story as “lies”; though to do him justice he was kind enough and confused enough to call fairy-story-making “Breathing a lie through Silver.”

“Dear Sir,” I said—Although now long estranged,

Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.”

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion…

Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.

His epilogue is insanely good. I’ve already quoted heaps of him. I know. But this is eminently quotable, and I am guessing you’re not going to click the link and read the whole thing, so here is an only ever-so-slightly abridged version of his concluding remarks.


Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it…

The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.” That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. The use of this word gives a hint of my epilogue. It is a serious and dangerous matter. It is presumptuous of me to touch upon such a theme; but if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, selfcontained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

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How to write a “magazine styled” thingo in ten easy steps

At QTC, in the preaching subject, people are asked to write a magazine styled thing as part of their portfolio. A couple of people have asked me if I have useful tips. One person last year. One person this year.

I said yes. I thought I might put them here. I’ll even check with the lecturer to see if they’re helpful.

Here are ten tips for writing a magazine style article. From the top.

1. Write an effervescent heading that won’t fall flat in just five easy steps. Your heading should be descriptive, but not in a boring way. Pick a fun adjective that is a little jarring, add something that contains a value proposition. Juxtaposition can be fun. So can interesting metaphors or imagery.

2. Write a catchy hook. Make it your lede. Unravel the string so your reader follows it. A lede is your first paragraph. A catchy hook is an angle that makes someone want to read the whole thing. I’d say a magazine article is slightly different to a news article. You don’t want to put fluff in your lede in a news article – you want the who, what, where, when, why, and how – I’d say a magazine article does the heavy lifting in the second paragraph and aims to entertain and continue the headline’s value proposition in the first paragraph. This hook becomes something very much like your “big idea” – it should tie the story together. The conclusion should solve the dilemma or answer the question the hook presents. So should everything else in the article. Each paragraph should be the natural next bit of the story – unless you throw in a really interesting tangent (you can get away with this a little better in magazines than anywhere else – but it has to be really interesting).

3. Find some compelling talent. Stories about people are the best. Stories about people you want to read about are the best of the best. Find something interesting to say about an interesting topic using an interesting person and you’re away. Or find a new way to say something old and boring.

4. A picture is worth a thousand words. 

5. Use “featured” quotes to highlight your main points for readers who scan. 

Featured quotes look something like this.

They stand out from the text around them. Especially if you:

put them in bold italics.

6. Writing a magazine article is a lot like preaching if you are following the ten preaching tips from QTC (that is why this is in the subject) – use interesting words. Don’t be afraid to be a little more expressive than a newspaper writer – but don’t use more words than necessary. Be concise and clear – but interesting. Also – one difference is that print articles, by the nature of having been to a printing press, printed, and distributed, are always talking about past events so are always in the past tense (unlike sermons preached QTC style).

7. Mix up the sentence length a bit. I remember reading a Fairfax Newspapers style guide once upon a time that suggested the average sentence in a newspaper article should be 25 words, because a sentence also functions as a paragraph. This isn’t (always) true in a magazine. A sentence is. Within a paragraph.

8. Read other magazine articles. Find a style you like. Copy it. I love the writing on Grantland.

9. Buy lots of books on writing style and editing. Even if you don’t read them you’ll feel better about yourself. I have eight.

10. Start a blog. Practice writing things that you find interesting. Find your voice, sound like you – figuring out what you like, and how you should write, are important steps – but they’ll leave you sounding like a monotonous automaton if you don’t move to trying to apply those tips in the real world. Try to move to writing about things other people might find interesting to. Get famous. Send me money.

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Pixar’s storytelling tips

Every time this gets reposted somewhere I think “I really should add that to the virtual filing cabinet that is my blog”… This time I had the will, and the headspace… so here are some great storytelling tips that have helped Pixar produce blockbuster after blockbuster.


Image Credit: Aerogramme Studio

They were tweeted to the world by a Pixar staffer. They’re part fun, part principled, part practical, part imaginative, part geared to get your creative juices flowing after writer’s block…

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

These have been all over the web – but I got them here this time.

An aggregated and definitive top ten list of writing tips

Tips for writing good circulate the Internet like La Niña weather systems, or the flu. There’s a batch around the place now, most of these lists have been collated at The Guardian and at BigHow.com.

Writing Tips Wordle

Image Credit: Wordle of the lists linked above

I’ve had a little look through the advice given, and these, by frequency, are the top ten tips from famous, and usually good, writers. Writers who often contradict each other. Which says something about the quality of such advice. Most of the advice is ridiculously obvious, but there’s nothing wrong with stating the obvious.

I do think there’s something in some of the tips being held in tension – like “just write” and “write to a meticulous plan” – one is more about honing your voice, the other is more about producing something with it. I also think there’s something in most of these for any communicator who uses words.

I tried to capture the essence of most of the advice given when I was collating these. And I’ve ordered this list by frequency, rather than in logical, or chronological, order. The numbers in brackets represent the number of times something came up.

  1. Be Clear. Don’t overwrite.

    Practice clarity of expression and thinking. Short words. The right words. Make adverbs, adjectives, and description functional, not ornamental, but mostly avoid them. Leave out bits people don’t want to read.  Punctuate well. Carry dialogue with said. No frills. Clear sentences. Concrete thought. Edit harshly to achieve this. Make every sentence do something to a character, or for your plot. Write till the sentence/paragraph/page/book is its best, but it’ll never feel good enough. Good ideas often do away with bad. Be prepared to change things. Finish. (46)

  2. Plan and be disciplined.

    Avoid distractions like TV and the Internet. Schedule writing time. Writing is work. Keep going. Try to love it. Know we’re your work is going, go there. Nowhere else. Only include what is necessary. Know your structure and cover it with apt words and phrases. (42)

  3. Edit Hard.

    Write. Pause. Edit. Rewrite. Often. If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. Improve. Pull the trigger on the bad stuff (and cop it when someone else does). Edit at the end, or as you go, but edit well. Be self-critical, trust and care about your reader, don’t waste their time.  (36)

  4. Write from your heart.

    Write about what you know and believe. What you have lived. What you imagine (probe the unknown). Think well. Write powerfully. Write truth. With compassion. Tell a story you care about. Write to engage (yourself first). Then persuade and transform. If it’s fiction – live your story. (33)

  5. Just write.

    Every day.  Anywhere. Write lots. Don’t worry too much about plot or structure. Practice. Start anywhere. Get something down. As it happens. Keep writing. Stop mid sentence/idea and resume the next day knowing where you were going. Finish when you want to continue. (32)

  6. Read widely.

    Read good writing, including poetry. Immerse yourself. Observe structure, figure out how writing works and what works. Borrow good turns of phrase, vocab, etc. From anywhere. But make them yours and avoid cliché and jargon (and most similes and metaphors), bad writing is contagious. (31)

  7. Figure out your style.

    Read your work aloud. Think about rhythm and pace. Care about style. But use it to suit. Ignore rules if need be. Style is about getting you out of the way. Know and be aware of grammar but be prepared to break the rules. Think about your voice, be authentic. (30)

  8. Capture inspiration.

    Ideas and inspiration come from everywhere. Including your feelings. Go to places. Think with your senses. Life is a story. Carry a notebook. Keep a diary. (21)

  9. Know your audience, and yourself.

    Listen to people/readers you respect, but don’t care too much what other people think. The reader is your friend. But don’t write for them or for the “market.” (21)

  10. Characterise well.

    Characters should be necessary, and their necessity obvious. Introduce characters early. Think about psychology and motives. Make characters relatable, and appropriately likeable or unlikeable. Present them consistently so actions and words match character. Make them confront stuff. (17)

Blogging v Writing

I love this quote from a Daring Fireball post a couple of years ago.

“The entire quote-unquote “pro blogging” industry — which exists as the sort of pimply teenage brother to the shirt-and-tie SEO industry — is predicated on the notion that blogging is a meaningful verb. It is not. The verb is writing. The format and medium are new, but the craft is ancient.”

Other than the YouTube videos that keep my post count ticking over (or in the case of HeySoph.com are the entire content strategy) – this represents how I conceive of my sites these days. A place to write.

I’ve found my longer “essay style” posts actually get better traction and traffic than short form blog fodder so I’ve pretty much moved away from posts like this one, or posts about what I’m doing from day to day. I do occasionally miss having an avenue for that sort of thing, but that feeling is fleeting and is well and truly overcome by the satisfaction of trying to piece together a cogent 1,000+ word rant.

I read the Daring Fireball post because its a blog that celebrated its tenth anniversary today. That’s impressive.

I guess what I want to ask you, dear reader, is have you noticed the change? Do you care? Do you miss anything?

Five reasons you should read Grantland…

Grantland is firmly established as my favourite blog. Even if 90% of its content covers American sport, it’s just filled with the kind of writing I aspire to.

Here are some recent samples of Grantland writing that you should most definitely flick through. This seems as good an opportunity as any to put a new tweet-a-pull-quote plugin I’m trying.

1. Chuck Klosterman – he recently went to a Creed concert and a Nickelback concert on the same night to figure out why it’s ok to hate both bands (also this piece on indie music, well, one particular indie band).

“Over the past 20 years, there have been five bands totally acceptable to hate reflexively (and by “totally acceptable,” I mean that the casual hater wouldn’t even have to provide a justification — he or she could just openly hate them and no one would question why). The first of these five acts was Bush (who, bizarrely and predictably, was opening for Nickelback that very night). The second was Hootie and the Blowfish, perhaps the only group ever marginalized by an episode of Friends. The third was Limp Bizkit, who kind of got off on it. Obviously, the last two were Creed and Nickelback. The collective animosity toward these five artists far outweighs their multiplatinum success; if you anthologized the three best songs from each of these respective groups, you’d have an outstanding 15-track album that people would bury in their backyards.”

“The day before the New York show, Kroeger appeared on a Philadelphia radio station and was asked (of course) why people hate Nickelback so vehemently. “Because we’re not hipsters,” he replied. It’s a reasonable answer, but not really accurate — the only thing hipsters unilaterally loathe is other hipsters, so Nickelback’s shorthaired unhipness should theoretically play to their advantage.[pq]A better answer as to why people dislike Nickelback is tautological: They hate them because they hate them[/pq]. Sometimes it’s fun to hate things arbitrarily “

2. This piece on horse racing, and the murky world of gambling.

“I boarded the Jockey Club elevator with a group of filthy-shoed men I assumed were from California; they headed to the Winner’s Circle, I headed back to the proletariat. They were staid and dignified. One of them shot his cuffs and adjusted his tie, ready for his picture. Just another day at the office.

The elevator opened and dumped us out into the throng. People were lining up at the windows to cash their tickets and collect the $1.20 in winnings that Secret Circle paid on a $2 bet. It was nowhere near the six figures that Secret Circle’s connections had won, but these fans were high-fiving and back-slapping like their ship had come in. Perhaps my dad was right. Having a winner was fun, even if everyone else in the track had it, too. I pulled my tip sheet from my jacket pocket and unfolded it. Disgusted, I read the words Secret Circle — BEST BET!”

3. This review of the Avengers.

“The insane advertising and development costs of the Harry Potter–style franchises we consistently reward at the box office have turned studio heads into marketers trying to find audiences big enough — i.e., young enough and male enough — to justify the cost of movies whose budgets routinely exceed $200 million. At that kind of rarified airspace, in which the marketing budget amounts to as much as half or more of whatever is spent on the actual film, you need a sure thing,like a toy, or a preexisting brand; [pq]auteur types and people with new, unproven ideas are dangerous and threaten the bottom line.[/pq] Better to just make a movie called Candy Land starring Adam Sandler and pray that people remember that a board game of the same name once existed.”

4. This tribute to Pep Guardiola (and pretty much everything they write about football, like this piece about Pele, and this one about Messi)…

“Throughout his early life he’d been consumed, Valdés had, by the fear of failure and compulsive perfectionism that tend to haunt top goalkeepers.”The mere thought of next Sunday’s game horrified me,” he has said. And: “[pq]Playing in goal was, to put it mildly, a special kind of suffering…[/pq]

For Guardiola, joy was also instrumental. He had realized that, in order to play the game the way he wanted, his players would need to be tuned in a certain way, that it would require a kind of psychic generosity for them to read one another well enough to move in the perfect tandem he envisioned, and that even the goalkeeper had to be part of that, which, odds were, would be impossible if the goalkeeper were sealed in a self-created hell. “Have fun,” the way Guardiola said it, was a cliché, and a profound statement about the nature of the game, and a tactical manipulation as fussily meticulous as the kind that used to torment Victor Valdés.”

5. The Masked Man – overthinking the WWE. This piece on a recent Pay Per View, which travels back to the 1920s to resolve a modern wrestling dilemma, is really something.

“Back in the 1920s, there was a wrestling stable called the Gold Dust Trio. They were the most powerful group in pro wrestling’s fist heyday, and they helped mold the sport into its modern form. The Trio’s members were Ed “Strangler” Lewis, the champion; Billy Sandow, the businessman; and Toots Mondt, the enforcer and, more important, the wrestling visionary.

Prior to the Trio’s ascendance, wrestling mostly took place on fairgrounds and in vaudeville halls. It was, more or less, real. According to legend, grapplers would travel from territory to territory, taking on local tough guys, and if the wrestler began to feel overmatched, he would wrangle his opponent back against the curtain at the rear of the stage, where an accomplice would clock the local with a blackjack, unbeknownst to the audience.

The subsequent era of higher-profile, “championship” matches had its share of fixed bouts, but they contributed to a more fascinating reality. The Gold Dust Trio would change everything. Sandow hired Mondt to be Lewis’s sparring partner and enforcer; Mondt would take on opponents before they got in the ring with Lewis to make sure they were “worthy” foes, but in reality, he would soften them up for his colleague. Then, when wrestling audiences started to dwindle, Mondt conceived of a new style that combined Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling with brawling and boxing.”

There you go. If you’re not persuaded now, you never will be…

Is meaning in the reading, or in the writing?

One of the interesting spin-offs of the great worship debate, both here, and elsewhere, is an argument about the use of words, and what gives words meaning.

There seem to be three approaches to language at play here, three ways of arguing about what language means…

1. The etymological approach – we can know what a word means based on what the word means, how it was developed, its origins, and if not that, at least by its dictionary definition.
2. The “reader decides” approach – a word means what a reader interprets it to mean. This is a bit post-modern. We all bring our own agendas to a text, and we interpret and use words accordingly. In a sense this argument, broadly understood, also incorporates the idea that usage dictates meaning. The way a word is commonly understood is the most legitimate, and in some cases, the only, way to interpret a word.
3. The “author decides” approach – a word is given meaning by the words around it. By the context. The genre. The implied or actual author, the implied reader (ie how the author wants the word to be read by his implied audience). This view sees the author’s intention as paramount in interpretation. A word means what the writer wants it to mean.

As a writer I like option 3. I think Shakespeare would agree. I think Christians with a high doctrine of inspiration of Scripture also have to be at least biased to that approach – while recognising that there are valid insights to be brought to the table by all three approaches. In fact, I think that each of these options, held as an extreme, produces logical fallacies.

The fallacy involved in the first is the “Etymological Fallacy” – it’s where we argue that language doesn’t change. We ignore the process of history and the expansion of definitions of words to include new things, or new concepts.

The fallacy involved in the second, or one of them, is the “illegitimate totality transfer” – a fallacy Don Carson identified where you bring in one meaning of a word and say that it’s the total meaning. This is also a problem that can occur with point 1, though we can also import our own personal preference for the meaning of a word into interpretation.

The third point doesn’t involve a fallacy that I’m familiar with – except that the writer can not reasonably expect the reader to know his/her brain. There must be a name for that fallacy. Anybody? It also seems that expecting a reasonable reader is also an unreasonable read of the world.

Fundamentally each approach above reads the text with an agenda – and the real question is whose agenda does a text serve? I’d say my bias is towards the third – because without a writer we don’t have a text in the first place. The text is the product of a writer’s intent, and it’s fair that we consider it in that framework. But, I think there are particular genres where that is, at best, ambiguous. While the experience of reading Shakespeare, and seeing what he wanted us to see, is rich and captures his artistry – it’s fair to say that his writing contains a fair degree of deliberate ambiguity – where he knows different readers are going to bring different agendas, or knowledge, to a text. It seems to me that the best writing does this. So Shrek, and the Simpsons, are examples from pop-culture where there are layers of meaning imbued in a text by the writer – acknowledging point 3. And puns regularly combine all three interpretive methods. Artistry does that.

Here are a couple of case studies – firstly – I used the words “old people” the other day as a bit of a rhetorical device, in apposition to the “angry young man”… the discussion on the post is informative because I basically failed to acknowledge the existence of points 1 or 2 – which meant what I thought, and intended, as art, wasn’t. But, I would suggest that most “exegetes” of my post failed to pay adequate heed to 3, ignoring both authorial intent, and context (on a blog, with a disclaimer).

Secondly, the worship debate itself – many of the arguments against using the word worship in a modern context commit either one of the two fallacies identified above, and, in my opinion, pay little regard to point three. Word studies are only really useful, in my opinion, for identifying the possible meaning of a word within its context – the meaning of the word is given by the way its used, it’s also a fallacy to say that a writer can’t create new meaning for a word through juxtaposing it with other ideas, or using it in a new context. That’s how language expands. It’s why the etymological fallacy is a fallacy. So with regards to worship – we’ve got the New Testament writers building on Old Testament traditions, and New Testament culture to create a paradigm by which the church could define itself and operate, under God. The original readers of the New Testament had different ideas of what the word “worship” might have meant to the ideas we import into it… the original authors of the New Testament had different ideas about what worship meant to their emperor-worshipping first century counterparts. Insisting on narrow etymological interpretations of a word pays no heed to the idea that the New Testament writers were artists, or creating something new, or good writers who drew pictures. And its weird to toss out words just because their definition has broadened, rather than just qualifying their meaning and trying to define them as the author intended.

Anyway. I’ll stop now.