Monday, September 15th, 2008
Anyone who writes will eventually be guilty of writing something bad. Most do so only incidentally, as a result of error or ignorance. It’s a sin of professional writers, however, to be systematically bad.
Following are some of the worst things that I’ve ever done … and worse!
10: The blockquote sandwich
Lede, blockquote, analysis, quip.
The form is simple, and done well, it makes for a perfect post. As a formula, however, it’s poison.
First, introduce what you’re going to quote. Then quote it. Then say what you think of it. Got nothing to add? Drop the analysis altogether, or replace the quip with a question for your readers.
It’s a vital part of the cross-referenced idea feast that blogging kindles. With insight and wit, it’s a powerful and laconic form of filtering others’ work. But it’s all too easy to do nothing but this as an alternative to research, reportage and in-depth review. It generates superficially meaty content quickly and with little effort–no wonder it typifies the output of those markets that still pay by the post and throw demanding daily quotas at writers.
Improve such posts by making every part count. If you’re “just linking,” let the original speak for itself without adding half-hearted commentary. Try reducing it to a single sentence and hyperlink an active verb to the source: this echoes how people blogged before blogging was a business.
Related offense: Posts that try an humanize dry subjects by prefacing the real lede with a short anecdote. Blog posts—at least mine—are best when they’re about one thing.
9: The Reblog
This is rewriting something that someone else wrote, in your own words. This is the blockquote sandwich’s insecure sibling, who feels it has to work even harder to prove itself — but not so much that the author must engage in original reporting or insightful analysis.
There is an extended form of this, wherein a writer glowingly approves of another’s more substantive opinion piece by quoting all the best parts, interspersing them with an occasional interjection that amounts to “me too!”
Fix these by reducing it to the concise form, that lesser evil, number 10.
8: The Image Macro
Unless it’s your specialist subject or you’re a razor-sharp practitioner of visual catachresis, forget about lolcats and all the other cut-‘n’-pastage. You’ll just make yours seem a commonplace mind.
When the urge rises to post such a thing, ask yourself these questions: why is this funny, here and now? What am I saying by posting it? What am I feeding?
Then do something entirely original that does all of the above, but which others will remember you for.
7: The Fisk
Fisking is when you disagree with someone by reprinting their piece one sentence at a time, adding your response to each as if you were a computer processing it one syntax error at a time.
Just cut it out. This is the disease of the internet sub-autist who cannot let even a single error go unpunished, because they’re mentally incapable of engaging the totality of their adversary’s argument or the abstractions that embody it. It’s one thing to treat written English like a compiler, but taking that attitude to your own response just makes you look too scatterbrained to compose a reasoned and self-contained critique.
Yes, yes, I’ve done this about eighty times.
6: The Snark
Snark is blogging’s rottenest bough. Few are gifted enough to pull it off as a general mode of creativity. Most can’t even crank out a single example without losing it to non sequiturs and awful similes.
The solution is not to try and build jokes when you’re in a sneering mood. Don’t set out to be a funny man. If humor doesn’t arise effortlessly from the subject as you write about it, you’ll gain nothing from forcing it.
Mean-spiritedness, contempt and ridicule make it seem easier to get a laugh, but it’s just not true. Instead, look for the unexpected to converge amid the mundane, then report it with a light heart in as few words as possible.
Pro-tip: when ranting on the internet, guard against letting it dissolve into snarking. This kills credibility if you’re sincere, and betrays your artifice if you aren’t. If you read masters of the form, you’ll note that what looks like simple sarcasm is often irony that hooks deep into assumptions that the author knew you would bring to the reading.
5. Look at Me!
Keep the trolling to forum threads. If you need attention, there are countless ways to do it without being a dick. At the very least, think carefully before publishing something deliberately contrary, unpopular or offensive. What exactly is your plan should it work? Are you ready to be identified, perhaps forever, with the response it garners?
Fixing this by being both respectful and ruthless. Respectful, by challenging your opinions with research and by not treating your own readership as a target for venom. And ruthless, by learning to distance yourself gracefully from your own handiwork should all hell break loose.
4. The Third-Party PR Shot
This isn’t the evil stuff, like astroturf or paid viral marketing. It’s the mundane burden of every enthusiast market, be it gadgets, games or obituaries.
In its benign form, such blogging amounts to a condensed press release, given proper context with some fresh analysis. But like blockquote sandwiches, one should either keep it short and sharp, or as a lead-in for something more involved. Something that maybe involves making a phone call.
How to fix: if you have nothing to add after condensing the specs to a graf or two, you had nothing to say about it to begin with and should not bother at all. Don’t write stuff you don’t care about.
The “colossal blockquote,” bracketed with some perfunctory comment like “if they pull this off, they might…,” is a particularly numbing form.
Sometimes avoidable compromises arise from ignorance of journalistic standards, or, in their most malign form, by those who consciously reject them on misguided principle.
A common example is when someone recomposes a press release as news so as to put someone else’s marketing under an editorial byline. This is bullshit and should not be done at all.
A relatively minor but related wrong is using marketing buzzwords, especially in headlines. This is hard to avoid, as it’s natural to want to mix up language: it’s the blogging equivalent of closing dialog with terms like “he muttered” or “she prognosticated” instead of simply “he said.”
As as result, we often echo phrases like “unveils”, “unleashes,” “declares war on”, “officially announces,” and so on. Ciphers that add geek chic (“decloaks”) tire fast: use them only when context makes them apt. Exactly how often do you cover the latest Klingon battleship?
3: Fake News
Too many people think that fake news is easy to toss off. Most of it is dreadful. There are three necessary skills for writing in the style of The Onion. The first two can be explained, but the last is, in truth, innate. You either have it or you don’t. I don’t!
First, gain an intimate familiarity with AP style (or a similarly universal analog, such as BBC English or the libel-skirting lexicon of Florida tabloids).
Second, understand the inverted pyramid structure used by reporters. Even if you get the tone and language right, it won’t work if it’s applied to a formless journey around the subject. Start with the most important thing in the story, then proceed to detail and exposition. Absorbing this approach will improve your normal blogging, too!
Thirdly, you have to be a seriously funny motherfucker. The strict format makes it harder, not easier, to maintain the laughs. This is because the inherent humor of fake news wears off after the headline and lede, so the rest has to be particularly imaginative and cutting, as it must all lie within the self-imposed limitations of the newswriting format.
2. The Spec Bump
Sure, it’s covered in passing by at least two of the other entries here, but it’s so common and so foul that it deserves its own place in the shade. Almost all of us in this game do it every day, but it’s bad, folks. It’s really bad.
Technology is a product of mankind’s ingenuity. It raises bridges and flattens cities. It mows the lawn and collides hadrons. It’s fed, clothed and sheltered us for thousands of years, and now it will have to stop climate change and generate new energy sources, or we’re screwed.
So don’t waste energy writing about anything so boring that nothing beyond a few numbers are worthy of inclusion. What does it do?
1: The Top List
Yes, even this one!
The purpose is to aim a harpoon at our psychological inclination toward the ordered and curated, at our favor for quality rendered as quantity. Lucky 7, perfect 10, top 100; it’s a world-simplifying numerology to which we are addicted. It adds a hook to any old rope.
These aren’t going to go away: They’re just too much fun to write, and when they’re good, too much fun to read.
Pure, unadulterated evil, however, is found the meta list. Lists of lists. Websites facing one another like mirrors, a cloned tulip in every graf. Such things speak for oversaturation, for spent fuel endlessly reprocessed.
That said, would someone please do a top 10 list of top “10 iPhone flaws” lists? It is time.