5 virtues for writers in a new-media world: #1 Humility
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.
- An interesting and authentic voice with an interesting message.
- Sublime consistency.
- Commitment and conviction.
- 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).
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?