What is Writing?

What is Writing?

Writing, according to wikipedia “is a medium of human communication that involves the representation of a language with symbols. Writing systems are not themselves human languages; they are means of rendering a language into a form that can be reconstructed by other humans separated by time and/or space.”

Using a definition to open an essay like this is considered a campy move, but this particular definition, while a bit wordy and not particularly attractive to the average reader, is wonderful and speaks to my point. Wikipedia defines exactly what the readers need to know in an efficient and concise manner without trying to manipulate them into buying a product or staying on the page longer. 

If you want to know more, you have the option. Wikipedia as a basic tool is more passive than other popular websites, a simpler service. They don’t take advantage of your browser history or sell your private information to clandestine marketing corporations that want to bombard you with targeted advertising. It’s not populated by the same tactics used by our media and social media to keep readers attention.

The definition of writing in this case is descriptive in a way that wouldn’t attract a large audience, because it’s not scandalous or charismatic in nature. It’s explanatory writing, like grants writing or a lawyer’s articulation. That itself speaks to an endemic problem in our human world: namely how news outlets and social media have created a cultural climate that subsists on spectacle and manipulation. It’s easier to take a story and make it a scandal rather than concisely informing your audience on the nuances of that particular subject.

Adversely, it’s also easy to game that system. A great deal of public personas, youtube hosts, and instagram influencers don’t seem to be highly educated. Actual journalists and those with appropriate degrees in subjects like political science and journalism aren’t as naturally charismatic as your run of the mill television personality. The former may be able to put thoughts together well, but the latter are social butterflies that wield a particularly different type of social skill. 

Donald Trump is one of these folks. He has the savvy to pull focus from one subject to the next, much like a TV host, which he was, successfully. Michael Cohen, his infamous former attorney/fixer, referred to him as “the Great Distractor.” Trump knows that as long as the name of the game is scandal, then all he has to do is talk a new line of trash to distract his detractors from their initial point. He’s playing modern journalists like they’re monkeys at the feeder bar.

Ergo, and unknowingly, the people of America have been conditioned to need constant, instant gratification. Essentially, it’s a full blown addiction without you realizing it. There’s a physical response to interactions that happen over our devices. Dopamine floods the brain repeatedly when a person engages into a back and forth. It’s a specifically addictive chemical reaction that’s easily accessed every time you sign onto your favorite app or website.

If the whole citizenry is trained to overreact on a hair-trigger to the lowest level insults and reactions from a simpleton, like a infotainment news host or even Donald Trump himself, then maybe the world itself has devolved into a dangerously simplistic rationale. Think about all the things a sitting President can get away with behind the scenes in a clandestine manner, especially if in front of the cameras he has these lemmings chasing their tails. 

Who’s the fool? Is it the dancing clown, or the hundreds of millions of people enraptured by his ridiculous choreography? If we’re so easily handled by someone like that, then perhaps our emotionally impulsive behavior is more akin to an animalistic reaction than to a retort based in reason and logic.

I could go on and on about that subject, about social media and how it’s affected culture, but I want to stay focused. One thing at a time. This is about the written word, and not about the scandal itself. It’s about precisely stating what writing should be in a perfect world, not about scandalizing this article to unnecessarily drag emotions into the essay and tug at people’s heartstrings.

A Return to Form

In contemporary communication, being able to write well is essential. If you want to be successful in an office, or in any area where you have to communicate over vast distances or various differences, you’ll have a great advantage if you can smartly explain yourself. The opposite is true as well; writing is central in encouraging strong comprehension skills. Reading and understanding definitions in that way and being able to write and articulate what you comprehend will make you more successful, in these mediums and elsewhere.

This is a very cut and dried way to look at writing. It’s not particularly sexy. It’s fundamental and formative for an individual’s intellect. 

I think most contemporary scribes immersed in our current digital climate will disagree. I want them to; the average reader and writers won’t share my values. They probably won’t like my website. If the methods you use to write are totally different from mine, and all I do is insult and critique your profession, you have every right to despise me.

I’m not sure what to call aspiring writers nowadays. Those that follow the society of the spectacle model are totally relatable. I, like them, have also been indoctrinated into a world where writing goes hand in hand with current trends, eye-catching pictures and videos, and “search engine optimization” (aka SEO). It’s not just writing, or even editorialized, stylistic writing, but also psychological and sensory engagement in every possible way to elongate the reader’s spent time and manipulate their perspective.

According to that model, instant gratification is just as important as the ability to spin a decent yarn. If I want to be a successful writer in this field, I also have to visually engage my readers with photos and captions that detail what I’m illustrating in words. I have to find a youtube video to embed in my content to enrapture my audience with flashy objects. A few tweets from angry thirty-somethings, maybe. Or perhaps an Instagram confession embedded into my article to make it shine more. 

The problem with this is that I’m aware of the algorithms that social media uses to manipulate its’ end users. Perhaps a majority of talented writers out there are aware of this as well and just ignore that fact. In trying to live an ethical life, I would be remiss to continue using such strategies to trick my audience into that type of dependency. I want to enlighten readers, not secretly addict them to my wares.

Maybe I’ve become old and traditionalist, but it’s as if today’s readers are children at a birthday party and the writers are party clowns trying to teach them math. Perhaps I’m just contrarian in nature and trying to stand out by asking everyone to pay more attention and focus, but contemporary wordsmithy feels like herding cats. Much like in a Peanuts cartoon, does my narrative voice reverberate with the teacher’s “wah wah wah”?

Here’s a run-on sentence that’ll make a real writer cringe; my old fashioned opinion of what a writer is relates more to the visual of a young person clicking away at their keyboard, head down, sweating and grinding through their work with passion and frustration, then submitting the piece to an upstanding publication only to receive a rejection letter, which then gets taped to the wall of their studio/efficiency apartment to inspire them to try harder and keep going for the good of the written medium itself (pumps fist in the air).

The writer I yearn to become stands in a long line of similarly motivated artists and renaissance people, proudly carrying a tradition of truth and justice forward, not just for themselves and those like them, but for the good of mankind as well. Which is another run-on sentence, but one that’s far more palatable than the former.

The reality is, most of the books being sold today are self-help books, or books that are produced rapid-fire, by Rhodes scholars who detail and wax existential about the most recent political and cultural issues that decorate our various newsfeeds. It feels as if, like most news and blog articles nowadays, modern books are molded by a cut-and-paste method of writing. 

That’s not writing, but can more aptly be referred to as “creating content”. As if just being a writer is not enough, because if they just wrote there’d be nothing that makes them special. I think this particular moniker, “content creator”, has gained momentum as an attractive title because it enables someone to vaguely suggest they are creative, productive somehow, AND making money at it. 

What does that say about writers? Is it true? Are we all just fiscally irresponsible drunken ideologues, wishing we could smuggle guns into Cuba like Hemingway so fearlessly did before us? Is the next generation under the illusion that they can be as wealthy as Stephen King or JK Rowling just by using their imagination and recording it on a page? 

Whatever the answer is, it’s not going to be found in an article on a website that asks you to allow cookies, whitelist their page, subscribe to their monthly email, and somehow has pop-ups and ad banners hawking exactly the type of sneakers you were looking at on Amazon yesterday (my run-on sentences have morphed into a running gag).

I don’t think knowing how to utilize social media, trends, and data science as tools is a skillset that could be deemed valuable to the written word. I don’t think owning a mini-recording studio and decent digital camera equipment puts you on the same level as Errol Morris. More specifically, I don’t think that being able to incorporate any of these things into a writer’s tool belt makes you a better writer. I’m not seeing how any of this will improve the climate for writers or readers in the long term.

Writers have been misled by this contemporary view of writing. SEO, data science, and trending information, visual distractions and audio snippets, tweets and embedded content, wordpress website design, e-commerce and similar affiliation to consumer goods – all of it distracts writers from their true first principles, from their best practices. It’s counter-intuitive to individual thought and to understanding truth, vis a vis journalistic ethics. 

To clarify, there is no one set of rules that a writer has to follow. The principles for writing in any area are going to depend on the subject at hand and what type of writing you’re doing. Being able to effectively communicate in myriad technical industries, for instance, will increase your chances of success, or even just make you feel more fulfilled as a person. 

For some, writing to the desk is enough. Or sometimes being fulfilled by a genuine piece of writing that you worked hard on is truly special. Sometimes it’s crappola. Sometimes a writer is a good writer, but becomes great because they have specialized knowledge in a complex subject. Sometimes a writer is amazing because they let it all hang out, consequences be damned.

But if the foundation of your understanding of wordsmithy revolves around likes, clicks, and shares, then you’ll be naturally handicapped. On the other hand, if you develop a strong foundation, and I say strong foundation based on all of human history’s proven track record on writing being it’s only recordable medium, then you’ll be able to jump into any area with a skillset that’s inalienable.

Journalistic ethics and standards, defined by wikipedia, is described as “the principles of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability, as these apply to the acquisition of newsworthy information and its subsequent dissemination to the public.”

Again, that’s not sexy or attractive in any terms, but it’s absolutely non-negotiable if you want to be seen as a good journalist. For a reporter, those are the rules. Thems the breaks, kid. Compromising those values to adhere to social media’s algorithms will give you more readers. Abandoning the canons of journalism, on the other hand, damages our democracy and freedom. Quality of life goes down in exchange for a new sense of social currency that doesn’t have the readers best interest in mind.

The written word is powerful because it can truly improve people’s lives by exposing corruption. Good writing can educate people without the means to otherwise educate themselves. A savvy novelist provides a much-needed escape into an otherworldly dimension. Journalists have a central role in maintaining democracy’s continued existence. When it seems like basic freedom is in question, along comes an expose from the Boston Globe that topples the Catholic Church.

Leave a Reply