If you’ve been following my blog, you’ve probably noticed a trend of angry book posts (Should All Things Be Read?, The Alice Network). That is because I’m mad at writers, I’m mad at readers, I’m mad that the best-sellers list includes shallow, poorly written pieces, and I’m blaming this all on the onset of the blogging world.
It used to be that, in order to get published, you wrote a little piece, submitted it to an agent, and because that agent recognized the strength and complexity of your craft, they signed you on to get published. Like everything else in the world, technology and The Internet alters this process. The trend mores these days is, you open a blog, write some stuff, gain a following, a publisher reaches out to you and you produce a book. It doesn’t matter if you actually have a background in writing and have attended workshops and classes that show you how to produce complex and meaningful sentences. It doesn’t matter if you spent weeks, months, years researching your topic for accuracy, validity, and truth. It doesn’t even matter if you have unique and moving ideas to share. All that matters is that your cover image looks look and your title appears interesting–never mind what is actually in the book itself.
Bitzer, a rhetorician, deemed this term ‘constraints’, which is used to describe the limitations and structures placed on a piece when it was created. Rather than looking inherently at the piece itself (as Aristotle would say), Bitzer argues a piece should be analyzed for how the outside influences played into its construction–the cultural climate at the time, the values of the publication the piece will go into, the length, word limit, and space afforded to the piece, the amount of edits it might undergo, etc.–that a piece is never truly EXACTLY what the creator intends, because there are constraints put upon the piece that influence it’s construction. This is why I think the blogging world has ruined writing: the constraints put on bloggers are minimal, we allow bloggers to write whatever, whenever, however with minimal consequences, and we award bloggers for amount of views rather than the craft of their writing. Blogging trains us to write as a mind dump–writing no longer is about ruminating over an idea for a period of time, but rather simply, sitting at my computer and typing out my stream-of-consciousness thoughts; this leads us to poor transitions, one cent thoughts, imbalanced topics, and repeated ideas. We are taught that alliterations & metaphors & repetition & allusions equals good writing, and we tell (rather than show) about our own lives and own experiences. And, when we are approached to turn our blog into a “featured book”, we play into our short-attention spans and read blog-length chapters that are disconnected, not thought provoking, and sporadic, and include very vague subjects.
Transitions. Ideas must connect to and build upon those ideas that come before, and those ideas that come after. I cannot write about my cute puppy in one paragraph and then in the next paragraph, write about the high speed chase on Live PD. One of my favorite essays is Sports Scoundrels, Weasels, and Lowlifes by (actually, I can’t look up the author because I ‘reached my Denver Post article limit for the month, but hopefully you haven’t yet). For many, one reason I love this essay is because the author takes ONE idea (why Americans idolizing our sports athletes) and develops that ONE idea throughout the essay; the beginning introduces a plethora of sports athletes who committed immoral actions, the middle discusses how we, as Americans, reacted to the news of those immoral actions, and the ending discusses criteria for forgiving those immoral actions (only IF our athletes win for us). Each sentence connects to the previous one, and each sentence moves the topic a little further each time, developing and transitioning the American nature of idolizing our sports stars.
One cent thoughts. Before The Internet, people had to write things down on pieces of paper. The process of thinking about what you wanted to say, then physically using your hand to write it on the piece of paper required a little more lag time, thus allowing for a longer length of time to develop thought (and decide that um, maybe that isn’t a quality thought after all). On the contrary, blogging requires us to sit at our computer (or on our cell phone) and rapidly type out a bunch of thoughts and words and then instantaneously we can press PUBLISH and now people can read and comment on our ‘thoughts’. We’ve lost this very necessary and important time it takes to process a thought in our writing.
In my opinion, writing is a much deeper process than just typing out some ideas and pressing “publish”. Writing requires thought, rumination, twilling over an idea in one’s head for a length of time before setting that idea to and prescribing words for. It requires an amount of research, of interviewing other people, of accepting and rejecting ideas. Writing requires thought about naysayers, about examples and specifics, about deep, intuitive, strong developed thoughts. (Unless you are an experienced writer) this usually does not occur by simply sitting at my computer and typing out my one cent thoughts. It requires revision, thought development, inquiry, etc.
I recently stumbled across this piece by Ella Kerr (I have fallen in love 623 times this Year). It’s beautifully written, it’s beautiful, and if I were to interview Ella Kerr herself, I’d bet that she’d been ruminating about this piece for a period of time, turning over the title, the examples, the organization, the transitions in her head. I’d bet that the published piece was not a “one time sit down at her computer and type it out”, but rather, instilled a few revisions; I’d bet she’d taken some details out and replaced with better, stronger, more relevant examples. I’d bet it required her to write, stop, pause and reflect, look back at her journals, talk through her ideas with someone, spend some time away from the piece to gather more insight, ask some questions, and return to her writing. I can see all of this in the piece–because these are not simply one-cent thoughts that she typed out on a whim.
Imbalanced & Repeated Ideas: When I’m reading a piece, I want to be captivated from beginning to ending. I want my mind to be stimulated THE WHOLE time, and I’m always really disappointed when I read a piece that begins SO STRONG, and somewhere down the line, falls apart (probably due to lack of planning, lack of rumination, too soon deadlines, etc.) This is why I dislike Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It is clear that J.K. Rowling was on some kind of time crunch to churn out the book because the ending is rushed; there’s no lead in to how Ron and Hermoine end up together?
Sometimes this lack of thought or planning also shows up in repeated ideas. A few years ago, my Bible study did Emily P. Freeman’s “Simply Tuesday” which had 4 star reviews on Amazon, and promised to show us how to create margin and simplicity in our lives. About the second chapter in–she ran out of ideas. Like, how many times can you bring up this metaphor of, “a bench being a spotting place on Tuesdays”?”–“sit on the bench”, “its like a bleacher on Saturday afternoons”, “just sit on the chair” (actually, I don’t know if those are the actual phrases because I donated my book a long time ago).
But, blogging teaches us that writing does not require this kind of planning. Forget those (actually very useful) graphic organizers we used to teach students to use prior to The Internet–which help us to ensure our ideas are balanced, that allow us to check for repeated ideas. Why would I ever waste time planning my blog post?…
Forced alliterations & metaphors & repetition & allusions: “She frolicked finely for finished food”. “Of grace and of goodness, of Godsend and of gold, of going and of gotcha”. “His eyes pieced as daggers to my aching heart”. This is what we are taught in writing workshops and in creative writing class–use figurative language to “spice up” your writing. But, writing should be natural; a good writer is one that can use figurative language in inconspicuous, natural, and fluid ways. This is why I love Barbara Kingsolver as a writer. You don’t know she is giving you a symbol until BOOM! the character is covered with ants, and you realize the whole chapter is about Moses’ Exodus and now you have a literal human sacrifice! But we would never know this was happening, because Kingsolver very delicately, yet methodically, places these pieces of figurative language into the story.
In my opinion, writer’s who utilized advanced and complex sentence structures so more command of language than those who rely upon forced metaphors and alliterations and repetitions and allusions. I think this article, “I Survived Whole Foods” by Kelly MacLean is an excellent example of this.
Writing all about yourself: Now, if your book is advertised to be an autobiography or memoir, then that genre sets you up to exclusively write about yourself. And hey, I’m all about writing about yourself (I do it all the time) but I always find it really ironic when a writer selects a topic about “finding your purpose in the world”, and they write about how they found their purpose through writing. No duh, you got published and are making royalties off my sale. Based on YOUR advice, the only way for me to find fulfillment is through writing. But, not all of us are going to be writers, so what advice do you give ME, the non-writer, in finding my purpose? Or, when a writer promises to write about “how to find happiness in an ordinary world”, and then the whole book is about how the fun yoga class they attended or the expensive dinner party they once attended or how funny an inside joke was, then I don’t really care. Or, when a writer says the book is going to be about how to live fully and lovingly in the world, and then the whole book is about how he traveled to all these cool countries and was appointed into a really cool office position and meets at Tom Sawyer’s island, then that’s not really giving ME any advice of how to be love…
There’s honestly nothing unique about these stories. I’m not saying DON’T write about this (because I obviously agree that writing is a very beneficial form of self-expression) BUT if your cover and title advertise that this book is for ME and promise that you can help me in MY situation, don’t write about yourself (say your book, instead, is an autobiography, a memoir, or a slew of random blog post thoughts that you put together to make some money).
Blog length chapters. The type of publication will impact the style of writing. For example, you may notice that authors, such as Charles Dickens, have lengthy chapters. This is because his stories were divided into episodes, and each episode would go into a monthly or quarterly publication; his novels were not originally published in full, but rather in small sections of magazines, such as Penny Dreadful (this is also why Dickens attributes specific clothing to his characters–red scarves, white hats—so that between the publications, readers could have an indication of which character is which). Today’s modern day version of the Penny Dreadful (if we can even make that comparison) is the blog–many authors begin with a blog, develop a readership, and are then approached by an agent or publisher to turn their writing into a book. So, these author’s continue to do the same thing they’ve been used to, and just write a bunch of blog posts to then synthesize into a book.
How many times have you put down a book because the chapter lengths are “too long” (aka 15-20 pages) and you “just don’t have the attention span”, and instead, pick up a book that has 5-10 page chapters instead? Rather than help elongate our already short attention spans, this blogging style of writing only reinforces it. The blogging world is as just as much fault of giving into our short attention spans than video games, commercials, Candy Crush is.
Vague subjects: How am I, as a reader, supposed to connect your experiences, as the writer, if I don’t know exactly what I am supposed to latch onto? “During this time, I was dealing with an issue that was really defeating”. “My friend did something that was out of her character”. “I really struggled with an issue during this time in my life”. I get that writers have privacy policies and that they cannot always reveal the identities of their subjects or that by discussing the exact details of a situation may put the writer in jeopardy. Totally understandable, but in that case, use something equally weighty, but perhaps not quite exact. Like, maybe your boyfriend broke up with you in front of Taco Bell, but instead, you say Pizza Hut. The function of Pizza Hut serves the same function as Taco Bell, but you are safe in sharing those details. And like, maybe you can’t tell us that your argument with your mom was about her super racist views, but perhaps you can change the issue to be about Ford versus Dodge trucks. You can’t tell us that your fight with your friend Mary was over her cheating boyfriend, but you can perhaps tell us about your cousin, Sharon. Details don’t need to be exact, and can certainly be exchanged for different details that still sustain the same meaning, but specifics are important for us, as readers, to connect to.
…and you might be asking yourself, “But Britany, aren’t YOU a blogger?” Well yes I am and I’m sure I’m totally guilty of these fanatic, frenetic, fancy, failed writing moves as well. I’m sure I’m totally guilty of posting that one thing that talked all about myself and I’ve definitely posted something that was spur of the moment, no planning involved, imbalanced and repetitive.
….but I’m also not a New York Times National Best-Seller…
(Featured Image Credit: The Writing Cooperative)