I’ve got to get something off my chest. It’s about writing and writers. Why do writers suck so much? Clearly, my standards are not very high. I started this article with an annoying idiom “off my chest.” All I ask for is a bit of clarity and a healthy dose of content. I don’t require David Foster Wallace. Yet I find myself working with writers who turn in embarrassing stuff. Really: embarrassing.
In the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the first act ends with a number called, “A Book Report on Peter Rabbit.” And the characters all approach the assignment in different ways. Linus over-intellectualizes it, “In examining a work such as Peter Rabbit, it is important that its superficial characteristics of its deceptively simple plot not blind the reader to the more substantial fabric of its deeper motivations.” Schroeder insists upon writing about Robin Hood, “It reminded me of Robin Hood in the part where Little John jumped from the rock…” Charlie Brown procrastinates, “If I start writing now, when I’m not really rested, it could upset my system, which is not good at all.”
But Lucy takes an approach that is well known to English teachers everywhere. The book report must be 100 words long, and so Lucy approaches the book report as an engineering exercise. For example, she specifically lists some two dozen different vegetables that were in the garden. And she finishes the report with, “The very very very end.” I think this is just fine coming from an eight year old — especially one who is a cartoon. But one would think that such would not be the case with professional writers. Even when they are being paid by the word (which they mostly are), it seems to me that there would be a sense of honor about this. You just don’t do it!
What’s more, it really doesn’t work. The effort that goes into padding would be far more lucrative if the writer just thought up something interesting (or engaging or absorbing or refreshing or…) to add to the article. But okay, they can’t all be like me. (It is a point of both pride and disease that I write roughly a million words on this blog every year — roughly a novel a month.) The bigger problem is not that these people pad their writing. It is that they can’t throw anything away. They’ve written a hundred words and that’s ten bucks and by God, they are not just going to throw that money away!
The fundamental issue here is that these people do not have a broad enough vision of what they are writing about. Generally, one idea will get you 300 to 500 words. But these articles need to be longer than that. So that requires that the writer come up with more than a single idea. Songwriters understand this — choruses and bridges are among the basic building blocks of a song. But mixing things up is not so clear in the prose writing world. So they write things like, “When you download individual files, those files will also automatically be stored in your default folder for storing downloaded files.” You got us! You made an extra 40¢. One more time and you’ll be able to buy a candy bar!
I really do think the whole thing comes down to love. I can’t say that I love everything that I work on, but I grow extremely attached to the content for as long as I’m writing about it. This is a talent, I know. But there is no more important skill for the nonfiction writer. If you find the subject interesting, you will think of things to write about. If you don’t, then you will end up trying to engineer your way to a set number of words. And you will waste the reader’s time while being really boring.
The very very very end!