Monday, July 16, 2012

How to Cultivate Style and Substance

Penelope Trunk has an interesting post about why the publishing industry sucks. I have to admit I merely skimmed it. Though her writing, informal, assured, and confessional, is mostly entertaining, I wasn't in the mood for her digressive lists today. The main point of the blog post is that the publishing industry has no idea how to promote books, mostly because Amazon is withholding their demographic information of book buyers. Also, again, publishing is dying. The exception may be fiction writing, of which the acceptance by a publishing house is still considered a measure of quality.

This may change though. After all, although Shades of Grey, a self-published novel, is almost universally derided as an example of bad writing, it's still a best seller. In addition, the Twilight series, published by Little, Brown and Company (of the Little Brown Handbook?!) is also a best seller, a major movie franchise, and also generally derided as an example of bad writing (among other things). Therefore, publishing companies may be willing to publish more and more best-selling trash in order to stay afloat.

My boyfriend wrote a post about why writing is hard. Writing well is difficult and writing something worth saying is almost impossible. I think those are two separate things though. Writing well is about style and is a skill that must be honed. Writing something worth saying is about content and critical thinking. I'm not sure where this comes from. Probably from one of the following a) inspiration b) a unique perspective of the world c) research d) experience e) all of the above.

When teaching writing, we do try to have students come up with unique theses and then make them support them with logical and convincing topic sentences, concrete detail, and commentary. The other half is to get them to write well.

Unfortunately, these two things do not always overlap. I am fond of reading The New York Times, but I often read the "Style" section, where articles with subjects as insipid as New York socialites holding viewing parties of Downton  Abbey (sometimes dressing up in tiaras). I have to admit, though, that New York Times articles are invariably well-written.

On the other hand, I also like reading Psychology Today. The articles are not always brimming with content, but the main problem is the inconsistency of the writing. Some articles are very short; so much so that they can hardly be called articles. Some articles are overly long; one article was 3 webpages long, getting to its main point in the last page. The extra padding did nothing to illuminate the idea. Some articles are weighed down by gimmicky terms in a bid for unique branding. They are all written by people with advanced degrees in psychology. Many of them spend their careers in pursuit of unique ideas in psychology.

Here's the rub. To be a skilled writer, according to a book by Malcolm Gladwell, one of those writers who has mastered both being skilled and being interesting, one should have 10,000 hours of practice. Writers probably develop that skill by writing for hours a day, sometimes about insipid subjects. To be an interesting idea, you need to . . . do things other than write.

After all, it is the job of lots of PhDs in the world to think of interesting ideas, which they then try to prove them true (at least some of the time). Most of them then proceed to write badly* about them because they were too busy researching to develop writing skills.

Let's just say that having something worth saying has to do with creativity, something as ambiguous as inspiration. People have endeavored to study it though. Research implies that creativity comes from having time to think alone, but also exposure to different opinions. Supposedly, one discovers one's unique perspective of the world through opposition to others. Ways to discover this opposition could occur through research or experience.

In which case the best way to write something with both style and substance would be to read a lot of well-written texts on a variety of interesting ideas, or at the very least a lot of texts on a variety of interesting ideas, at least some of which are well-written. We can then do what Buzzfeed does and just take popular ideas and then rewrite them in a more coherent, more developed way. But the most important thing is to read; read like we breathe.

*as stated by my social psychology professor, Matthew Lieberman.

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