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.