See If I Can Practice What I Preach
Personally I’ve never cared for the word “succinct.” Maybe you’ve noticed. Well, of course you have.
But the terrifying events in Paris last weekend brought home something I’d been trying to clarify for myself for some time. It’s about how we handle issues of craft and industry in publishing. And it’s my provocation for you today.
What if we’re over-thinking, overwriting, overdoing just about everything we touch in publishing? Because we can.
What if we’re not doing it but instead are just doing stuff about it? What if the sparks are flying because we’re grinding, grinding it all into the ground?
As I watched my former colleagues at CNN International struggling to handle the #ParisAttacks coverage, I knew exactly what they were going through. On the ground, it’s often called “incremental coverage.” And it’s a gruelling, brain-blistering exercise—much harder than it looks and involving hundreds of people you never see. Everyone must try to get the latest, “the very latest!” bit of news. I do mean “bit.” As in scraps. You see one word or a short phrase from a French official churned over and over in fonts. That’s because that’s all there is. Nothing else new. Each death and injury number offered by an official source is chanted over and over. Everyone tries to avoid speculation, everyone fails. Everything carries Breaking News graphics, very little is truly breaking. In a major story, this exhausting bid for new, fast, and anything head-turning can go on not for hours but for days. Days.
Sustaining this is incredibly hard. You’re trying to hold an audience’s attention with small new elements of detail when there are 600 channels above you on the dial and 200 below you. And just about every one of those other channels has something less upsetting to offer than the unforgivable violence perpetrated on those innocent victims in Paris by such unholy assailants. Many network-news employees will define their careers by the high-relief of these stories. They’re the only times the 24-hour news services really blow through the roof on ratings, of course. A nightmare like the one we saw a week ago can wipe the goofy smile off any Candy Crusher’s face and draw even the silliest of society to our glowing screens of horror.
Rightly so. As Miller had it, “Attention must finally be paid” to such inexcusable violence. For all the missteps and vamping of this coverage, these are modern news coverage’s most powerful moments. And so overdone. By the time one of these cycles has been so agonizingly flogged—albeit for all the right reasons—viewers are numb. Our coverage of the Second Coming will make us all yawn before it’s over.
Do Real Writers Need This?
And by pure coincidence, as I looked back at the work on my desk from this coverage, I saw the same thing happening. Feedly looked like a bad day in Breaking News.
- There were overwrought columns about finding the inspiration to write. Those things could kill anybody’s motivation. (The inspi-vational industry has discovered writers, big-time. Beware anyone who yells “six-figure income!” at you.)
- There were blog posts about plotting that were simply too dense to read. (And you’re going to take that blogger’s advice?)
- There was industry commentary that had nothing new to say, and yet it went on and on and on, as if tap-dancing until the next news conference from city hall.
- There were data stories that spent more time disclaiming the fact that we don’t really have the data we need than laying out what little we do have.
- There were instructional articles so excruciatingly basic (here’s the keyboard, here’s the mouse) that they quickly devolved from how-to to who-cares.
- There were efforts to “bring in fresh insights from other industries” that really were studies in comparing pop-psychology’s apples to genre-publishing’s oranges.
When can our writers possibly write? I wondered. And then, what if that’s the real problem?
Nike Is Right
Things have, actually changed. Not sort of. Actually. Within a couple of generations’ spans, we are the first humans who can cover-to-smithereens our news events the way we do. (Thank you, digital.) And within that same time period, our creative people have become exposed to a remarkably deep, seductive capability online to talk about, talk about, talk about, talk about the work…instead of doing it. It’s like those people who are always, always, always on their mobile phones, right? What can they have to talk so much about? And what stupefied chump is on the other end listening?
- What if you just wrote your damned book?
- What if you just set up your characters, figured out your story, trusted your instincts, and wrote it?
- What if you stopped discussing it and did it? What if you stopped thinking you had to read more, comment more, engage more, and instead wrote more?
- What if you didn’t tell us how you’d done it? What if you didn’t read 48 other people telling us how they’d done it?
- What if you just did it?
Could Just Do It really be as infuriatingly correct as it seems? Unfortunately, yes. It probably is one of the most important commercially over-played lines of correct guidance of our era.
Do you ever get sick of the sound of all our voices? Is it possible that we really need to just shut up and do it?
Have I already overwritten this? Of course I have. And I could keep going, too. As you know. I won’t. You’re welcome.
I think that the concise way to cue your turn to talk on this one is to just say:
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!
Update: Author Gillian Doyle has written a post in response to this piece—Stop the Carousel, I Want To Get Off. It’s a heartfelt evocation of the dilemma so many face: once you’ve invested in digitally enabled momentum, climbing back down is incredibly hard. Thanks, Gillian!