Bad writing is good


Last night I ended up at Shotwell's with Mike Melanson, and we spent quite a lot of our time talking about journalism. He's a professionally-trained reporter with a masters degree, but the sheer pace of blogging at ReadWriteWeb means a lot of that education is not directly applicable. I'm not saying his standards have lowered, but producing twenty articles a week requires a whole different approach to writing than a traditional US newspaper article.

The discussion reminded me of an article defending Stieg Larsson's books against the critics complaining that they're crowded out high literature. Laura Miller makes the point that literary books are demanding to read, they require us to put in effort to understand unfamiliar ways of expressing ideas and emotions. That effort is rewarded by the revelations and sense of wonder you can only get from challenging works, but sometimes we don't have the energy left to tackle a tough read. Bad writing is often more enjoyable, because clichés, genre conventions and predictable plots all help a book 'flow' more smoothly. They demand a lot less from the reader. That got me thinking about how I approach producing five or six posts a week.

American journalism is built on the assumption that reporters are providing a public service, and the top priority is communicating important truths to their readership. In turn, the readers are expected to be engaged and curious, willing to put in some effort to understand a complex story. This is a worthy goal, but leads to some painfully dry writing.

In contrast, the only value British newspapers hold sacred is entertainment. Even the serious newspapers go out of their way to avoid boring their readers, and the tabloids are full-blown three-ring circuses of populism, happy to publish blatant lies or fan prejudice in the pursuit of higher circulation numbers. I'm sure that sounds like a nightmare to American reporters, but somehow it works, producing a better-informed readership than the US model.

That background leaves me very comfortable with the blogging approach to news. We still need traditional in-depth newspaper articles, but the popularity of blog-like news sites with off-the-cuff writing styles, liberal use of clichés and a willingness to publish before all the facts are in, shows that there was an unmet demand for digestible stories. I'm not saying we should emulate the dark side of the British tabloids, but we need to understand that journalism is writing for a purpose, and it sometimes requires embracing the tools that bad writers rely on.

Don't expect the public to read you because what you're writing is important, just grab them by the throat by using every cheap trick at your disposal, from sensational, teaser headlines to hyperbole and synthesized conflict within the article. If the story is worth telling, you'll be doing more good than harm by reaching more readers.

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