Saturday 15 September 2012

6 Reasons Why Everybody Thinks They're A Writer

Writers are an oft-depressed lot. Not only do they tend to spend a lot of time in isolation staring at a screen (and getting little physical activity), but they also have to contend with a world that by and large considers 'writing talent' to be about as rare and prized as right-handedness or an extensive knowledge of Internet porn. Writing, we are told, is not like, say, proficiency in graphic design, cardiology or jazz piano. In other words, it's something that given a high school education we can all do reasonably well.

As a professional writer and editor who has worked as a wordsmith of one sort or another for nearly a decade,I have always resented the notion that writing is somehow less skill-bound than other creative domains. While it is rarely spelled out to me so matter-of-factly as "Oh, anybody can write!" and indeed the praises of 'good writers' are often extolled, when it comes down to meeting production deadlines and cranking out copy, I have more than occasionally found my services bypassed on the pretext that "Well, we needed it done so we got Bob to do it, and you seemed busy. And Bob can do it just fine."

The problem with this rationale, of course, is that often Bob can't do it 'just fine'. Not that Bob is an idiot, or even a bad writer per se, but after eight years of wordcrafting and word-nerdery I am exactly the person you want to get those critical messages fine-tuned and positioned in exactly the right spots in the text, while ensuring that there are no awkward sentences, misplaced commas or references to 'pubic service'. (Trust me - I've seen it happen more than once.) Moreover, as a staff 'writer', it's my job to do this sort of thing, and the fact that I am appearing busy is not a reason to bypass me. After eight years as a professional writer, I work fast - and can get assignments done very quickly.

This is not to say that I'm the king of the written word, nor that I don't make mistakes. I've made more than my fair share in my writing career. I've committed egregious typos and acts of grammatical terrorism that have made it to print and still make me cringe today. (I won't give you specific examples because I hope to continue getting work with the publications in question, who I think haven't noticed yet.) I do go back and correct my blog posts, sometimes on numerous occasions. And even beyond this, I frequently think of better ways I could have phrased something after it's too late. (When it's too late? After it's too late sounds redundant doesn't it?) But I continue to get better with every year I spend doing this. As it is with brain surgery or plumbing, the more mistakes I make, the better I get at avoiding them.

But to return to the original topic, it is true that 'good' writing is often seen as something of a extra - not a frivolity exactly but a bonus that, while desirable, isn't of life-or-death importance. Which, to be fair, I suppose it is. After all, having a burst water main or a listeria outbreak at your airport is significantly worse than having a misplaced semicolon or a dangling modifier on the airport's web copy on shopping and dining offerings. And even if you're sticking to the creative professions, hideous graphic design on a pamphlet is invariably worse than convoluted syntax within the copy, as the graphic design in question will likely prevent readers from picking it up in the first place.

Nevertheless, poorly constructed writing will derail your communications, make your social media communication less effective and generally make your brand less good. And while I'm not saying that writing 'talent' is the exclusive purview of a certain noble breed of elected ones, it is the purview of people who have spent many years playing with words, sweating over syntax and generally fretting over crap that most people rarely think about. Us word people are not normal. Take one of us to a rock concert and our first reaction to the exultation "Rock on!" is to ask "On what?" Yep, we're freaks, but we're the freaks who keep your web and brochure content from going south,

Still, though, everybody on one level or another thinks they're a writer. Here is my personal theory on why that is.

1) We all do it in one form or another.

We write every day. We write grocery lists. We write angry letters to our neighbours for blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd out the window at 11:00 pm on a Tuesday. We help our children with their writing homework. And some of us write obnoxious blog posts purporting to explain why everybody thinks they're a writer. Not everybody fixes their car transmission on their own or designs a book cover. But everyone with a baseline level of literacy writes - and all the more so in the era of social media.

2) It's not generally taught on an extracurricular basis.

Writing isn't seen in the same light as, say, playing the violin or slam-dunking a basketball. And one important reason for this, I believe, is that with the exception of certain really nerdy kids, hardly anybody studies writing as an extracurricular activity - it's seen much more as a core subject that everybody learns. And the kids in writing clubs are probably mostly there to escape bullies; the writing is just a pretext.

3) Bad writing is often less immediately apparent than, say, bad music or bad drawing.

When a singer is hideously off-key or mangling the lyrics to the national anthem or something to that effect, it's generally quite apparent, as is egregiously bad visual design. Bad writing doesn't generally have the same effect. I suspect the reason for this is that at first glance writing on a page simply looks like writing on a page, and any badness therein does not become immediately apparent until you really, really read it. Which brings me to my fourth point, which is....

4) Most people don't really do that much reading.

Now before you protest, let me ask you this question. When was the last time you picked up a travel brochure at a tourist infocentre or on the brochure rack on a ferryboat and actually read the thing from start to finish - or even the lion's share of it? Unless we're actually sitting down to read a novel, most of us (and I don't necessarily exclude myself from this) are terribly lazy when it comes to actually reading and digesting the vast amount of content out there. This, I believe, leads to a devaluing - on some level - of the skills of the people who produce such content. But the fact of the matter is that without good copywriters, the key messages in boldface that you do actually pay attention to won't pop up, much to the detriment of the company in question.

5) Schools reinforce bad writing habits.

 PR Daily ran a great article recently on how schools inculcate really terrible writing habits among pupils. Such habits include shooting for length rather than conciseness, adherence to arcane grammatical rules like not starting sentences with the word 'and' (something I do all the time), and an unhealthy fixation on the introduction-thesis statement-body-conclusion structure. While these quirks in writing education don't necessarily undermine professional writers' respect out in the world, it does contribute to a general overconfidence in regards to writing know-how. "Oh, I know what the rules are." No, you probably don't.

6) Nowadays, everybody truly can be a writer - with a readership.

Thanks to Blogspost and other free blogging programs, anybody can start a blog. And many, many people do - including many who really shouldn't. No....I don't really mean that. In fact I think everybody should blog, because blogging on a regular basis is a great way to build up your writing chops and become the writer you know in your heart you could be. Because anyone can be a good writer. You just have to start out as a mediocre one and plod ahead.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. It turned out to be a better article than I expected.
    But I'd beg to differ on your conclusion of the last point. Contrasting with the brutal honesty of the rest of the article, it seemed more like an attempt to appear a tad less obnoxious and culminate the article leaving the reader on a high note. I'm sure you ARE aware of the follies people commit on their blogs in the name of creative writing. I believe blogging on a regular basis is NOT a great way to build up your writing chops; rather, reading accomplished authors' work just might do the trick.