The Insider’s Guide to Life: On Writing Good

ColumnThis could be your reader. She deserves better.

Did you hear a funny sound or see smoke trickling out of your computer last week? That was the sound of lady website XOJane blowing up the internet by publishing a post by said site’s health editor on how using birth control such as condoms or the pill is, like, totes the pits, which caused just about the entire int-her-net to clutch our pearls and foam at the mouth.

I’m not so terribly offended that an adult woman writing for a professional website in the capacity of health editor would claim that only fat goody-goodies take the pill. What really offends me is that apparently this is what passes for good writing on the internet these days. THIS.

“Yup, on my bad days I am the glowering, self-critical too-much-eyeliner-on nightmare that terrorizes every workplace setting I choose to inhabitate with the kind of toxic insecurity that destroys … well, it’s not particularly compelling to anyone else or powerful in any way, so it doesn’t destroy much except my own self-worth and happiness, from hour to hour, until I hang out with a friend or something and the self-obsession and negativity recedes and I feel normal again!

(Does this stuff ever end? Do I have to hurl myself into a mirror? Why didn’t I watch that movie more carefully so I can reference it better? Jesus, mang. I’m so BORED of being UNHAPPY.)”

Is this good writing? Jane Pratt – she of Sassy and Jane – says it is and that it’s why her website is awesome. She says it’s “riveting and raw.” But really, is it good? I’m asking honestly. I’d form an opinion myself, but I have no goddamn clue what’s going on in that paragraph.  It was supposed to be about eye liner, and I’m confused.

As those of us who do it for a living know, writing for the internet can be challenging. We contend with a lot of prejudice, both from people who assume we’re not good enough to get into print (not the case) and from those who assume we’ve never heard of spell-checking (sometimes the case). But in our defense, online articles go from pitch to publish really fast, and humans make typos and mistakes. Very few websites have the leisurely pace or the proofreading staff of The New Yorker, is what I’m saying. We already have a bad rap, so writing professional stories like a teenager scribbling in a diary Does Not Help. Not to mention the fact – you read it here first – that readers don’t read dishy, confessional blogginess and think, “Wow, what a raw and edgy personality!” They read it and think, “Wow, that girl should book some extra therapy sessions.”

There’s wonderful writing on the internet, and it’s not all about the quote-unquote important stuff. I’ve read slideshows on the Top 10 Celeb Booby Shots and captions to cat videos that were so hysterical they made my eyes bleed. Great writing has nothing to do with being formal or stuffy or serious or even appropriate. But I think it’s fair to say that to be called “good writing,” something should meet a basic standard of mechanical proficiency, readability, and clarity. To call this kind of sub-grammatical apunctuated word salad “riveting and raw”… well that kind of chaps my ass on behalf of all of us who try every day to form complete and coherent sentences – maybe even good ones that make you laugh or make you think.  Because we do try. Very hard. “Inhabitate”? I mean, really. Come on, now. Just because it’s the internet doesn’t mean you get to make up words.

Lo, our beloved English language, it changeth even as we speak. And that’s natural. But it’s under enough siege already, what with the all the textin n stuf. Must we now consider this acceptable, nay, better-than-average? Is this the future? A lazy future in which every professionally-written sentence sounds like a text from a thirteen-year-old girl who got hold of some Ritalin and marabou heels? (OMG you guys it’s SO awesome! Like, FOR REALS! HAHAHAHAHAHA I’M SO EDGY!)

As much as I feel bad for English-speaking humanity, I also feel bad for the writer herself. Because that’s another tough thing about the web: when you have a bad day, an uninspired day, and you churn out some junk because you’re on deadline and you have other stuff to get done (which happens to all of us), it lives forever. A clunker story doesn’t just disappear into the ether as soon as the next issue of the magazine hits newsstands. Nowadays, it’s always just a Google away, and that writer will forevermore be known as That Girl Who Wrote the Ridiculous Thing. It’s rough.

But maybe the joke’s on us. Maybe in twenty years we’ll be analyzing the sub-grammatical apunctuated word salad the way we analyze ee cummings or James Joyce or David Foster Wallace, even though now it seems like the unholy love child of LOLcats and Twitter. And if that happens, I think I speak for all of us when I say, “I can haz cynanide?”

Editor’s note: This latest installment in your editor’s column, The Insider’s Guide to Life, is penned by the fabulous Ms. Ford.