I’ve been thinking a lot about writing styles this week. Specifically: what is “self-publishing” doing to our sense of what a “professional written style” is? A few things have been rolling round in my head. Viz: why do people still enjoy Digital Editions? The Guardian’s relaunching theirs. And in Word Magazine recently, one of the “favourite things in the world” was the New Yorker Digital Edition. Isn’t that a bit odd?
Another viz: why do I find full-text news stories from newspapers rather dull when they appear in my RSS reader? I often find myself just reading the first para or two and then skipping on. But I’ll happily read full-text things from web-initiated publications.
A third viz: as someone who spent a good few years studying English literature, and someone who additionally felt most of the words expended on said discipline were essentially wasted, I found Kottke’s reprint of an email about the style of David Foster Wallace brilliantly correct. An extract:
A Primer for Kicking Ass
Being the Result of One Man’s Fed-upped-ness With ‘How to Write’ Books Not Actually Showing You How to Write
By James Tanner. Reprinted with permission.
0. Begin with an idea, a string of ideas.
Ex: Mario had help with his movie. He did a lot of the work himself.
1. Use them in a compound sentence:
It’s obvious someone helped with the script,Â But…Mario did the puppet work,And…It was his shoes on the pedal.
Read the whole thing, I implore you. Because, I would argue, it packs more semantic signal into fewer words than just about anything Wallace-related that wasn’t actually written by Wallace.
Random thoughts all, but they add up to a couple of things:
1. Context is vital to a reader’s expectation of style
2. Self-publishing has opened up a new style which is open, discursive – and potentially more information-rich than older print styles.
When you write for print, I don’t think you’re actually writing for readers. You might be writing for an editor, a sub-editor, a fact-checker, a colleague, a collaborator. You might be writing to order. You might be writing to a deadline. But you are, in essence, writing for an institution. That institution has a set of conventions, some of them formal (a style guide, for example), some of them informal (the political leaning of your paper).
This is of course a highly desirable thing in the packaged print world. The reason I sit down and make time for the New Yorker is that I know all the writers within are conforming to a set of formal and informal criteria, not to mention meeting a dizzying quality bar. The authority of the printed word is an experienced reality: if someone’s gone to the bother (and expense) of printing it, it must be worth (at some level) my reading it.
But chop that content up, recombine it and send it out in other ways, and what happens? The context changes. In my RSS context, I’m impatient for information, for the next thrill. I’m recombining everything all the time. And, occasionally, stuff that’s been written for that other context, that “print” context, seems slow and staid and rather dull. It seems pointlessly verbiose, like a literature professor crashing a drinks party held by his students. The medium is out of sync with the message.
Which leads on to the second point:
Towards a new style
If print writers are writing for institutions, then “self-publishers” are writing for other people. Normally quite a small, known or at least half-perceived group of real people. And that means the style is instantly more conversational, more open, more discursive.
And you know what? I think that style packs more meaning per word into it than the printed style does. It’s why people can feasibly talk about “getting their news off Twitter”, because there’s something about receiving 140 characters from someone you know which is a lot more emphatically meaningful than receiving something from a printed page. The writer doesn’t have to position themselves, either within a publication or as an expert, because the people reading it know what they’re getting and why they’re getting it. They can cut right to the chase.
Also, this new style doesn’t need to “sell” anything. You don’t need a sexy headline. You just start talking. I mean, you don’t start conversations off with a summary designed to capture people’s attention (or you might, but it must sound really, really weird). So you don’t need to do it when conversing digitally.
I suppose the interesting thing to look back on will be whether this new style has actually had an impact on the printed style. Have newspaper journalists who’ve experienced blogging changed their print style? Or do they switch between modes, knowingly or unknowingly? Newspaper websites already make a category distinction between the styles – some things are called “articles”, others are called “blog posts” – and I’ve known it to cause semantic meltdown when one tries to justify what’s a blog against what’s an article. But the difference is there, it’s strongly felt, and it’s quite interesting.
And now I’ve just noticed the word count on this “post” has reached worryingly print-like levels, so time to stop.