Thinking inside the box

by David Alm on November 20, 2012

One irony of modern life is that as technology makes more and more things possible, we often find ourselves working in tighter and tighter confines. This is especially true for writers. Where 10 years ago, a professional writer might have been working on a 2,000-word feature for one magazine, a 1,500-word review for another, and possibly even a book proposal for a publishing house, the same writer today can expect assignments a fraction as long (if he’s lucky).

Just as likely, he’ll be assigned to write blog posts — truncated, aggregated versions of other people’s writing — or even less. Jobs at magazines for feature writers are rapidly being supplanted by jobs in social media.

Here’s an example: A few years ago I was being considered for a job at The Economist, the venerable English current events and world affairs magazine, but not for my ability to tell a story or conduct thorough interviews. They wanted to see if I could write updates for Facebook and tweets for Twitter. My “interview” was more like an audition: I was asked to find a few stories that would be of interest to Economist readers in the news and then reduce those stories to 140 characters. It was one of the hardest assignments I’ve ever had.

As I was crafting those tweets, I realized that the box in which I was performing the task I’d performed countless times before — playing with syntax, brainstorming for the perfect word, swapping a colon for an em-dash — was less a wonder of technology and global reach than it was a cell to which many, many writers have been consigned in recent years. Because for all of Brian Stelter’s and even David Carr’s extolling words about Twitter, the fact is that for many writers today, Twitter is not a useful adjunct to their professional lives; it is their professional life.

This is because in a world where every company, news organization, and politician has a Twitter account, there are a lot of tweets that need to be written. And writing them is not easy. They require brevity, just the right amount of cleverness, and of course, hashtags. What’s more, they need to be fresh, which means their writers need to be constantly writing them. Those 140 characters are misleading — there’s nothing quick about being a successful tweeter.

But it’s still a box. Sure, you can write a series of tweets that together comprise a story — see Dan Baum’s fascinating account of his life as a staff writer for the New Yorker, written entirely on Twitter in 140-character chunks — but it’s unlikely that anyone will pay you for it. And however sacrilegious it might sound to prioritize money when talking about a career people are typically drawn to for “deeper” reasons, the fact remains that we need money to live.

As journalism jobs continue to be slashed, many would-be writers are not writing, exactly, but tweeting, posting, updating, and blasting. And we have to determine not only how to work inside those boxes, but if we even can.

Jeff McMahon November 20, 2012 at 12:55 pm

Is writing tweets all that different from writing headlines, which have likewise and forever been confined to a tiny box and which, like tweets, must be brief, clever and fresh? Or all that different from writing the daily weather report in the little box at the top of the front page. We used to challenge and entertain ourselves by writing those in haiku:

Fog and drear clearing
To sparkling sun by midday
Then rain in buckets

What about those sonnets by Shakespeare? Confined?

It seems to me we’ve been confined by form all along, by the space between the advertisements, by the cost and size of paper, by the amount of parchment, the size of our chunk of slate… since writing began. Why would writing a tweet be any less writing?

It’s wonderfully contrary to have a Luddite as blog anchor, but I’ll still give you a hard time about it now and then. 😉

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

David Alm November 20, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Thanks for your thoughts, Jeff, as always. However, the fatal flaw in your argument is that a headline is just that — a headline. Meaning there’s an article beneath it. And a weather report is just that — a weather report. A meteorologist most likely never set out to be a writer, but a weather reporter. Form follows function.

Shakespeare wrote sonnets, yes, but he also wrote plays.

I agree that tweets are writing, and they require great care and skill to do well. I think I addressed that in my piece. But when they take the place of writing, i.e. when would-be journalists find themselves vying for jobs updating the Twitter feed for some company (or even publication) in lieu of writing articles, I can’t help thinking that we’re squandering talent.

Jeff McMahon November 21, 2012 at 1:13 am

If it takes talent to write an article or a play, I don’t see how it doesn’t take talent to write a headline, a tweet, a sonnet. And the verb doesn’t change—to write.

David Alm November 21, 2012 at 6:33 am

I must not have written the post as well as I’d hoped! I was trying to convey that tweets absolutely do require talent to write, and that yes, it’s still writing. I even mentioned that my “audition/interview” with the Economist was one of the hardest assignments I’ve ever had.

I was simply trying to say — and lament — a culture in which writers no longer have the outlets to craft stories, investigate wrongs, or otherwise delve deeply into a topic because the jobs to do those things are becoming all but extinct, replaced with positions updating Twitter accounts.

The headline/article point was simply to say that the headline is just that — a headline. It’s very hard to write good headlines, I know. I struggle with them. But it’s just one element of the whole, with the article comprising the rest. In the world of Twitter, there is no body beneath the head, and however cleverly it’s written, a headline (or Tweet) will never be able to do what a great article, book, or short story can do.

Sonnets are the same thing. They take enormous skills — as do koans and aphorisms, for that matter — but an aphorism by Kafka is just one piece of an extensive body of work that includes novels, novellas, stories, and letters.

Do you think that if all the great storytellers and journalists of years past were alive today, that they would be telling stories and writing articles? Some, sure. But the rest might just be writing Tweets for Wal-Mart. And I can’t help thinking of what a loss that would be.

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