A Brief Word to Book Reviewers

-Sneering dismissal of an author is acceptable to the degree that his book likewise is sneering and dismissive. What works marvelously well in a review of Richard Dawkins doesn’t in a review of Mitch Albom. You might have the same opinion of both writers, and that’s fine! But responding to Mitch Albom as if he’s Richard Dawkins is not only misleading and disingenuous, it’s obnoxious, like the preacher who screams from the pulpit “He leads me beside still waters.” If a meek and mild book is silly and false, then, as meekly and mildly as you can manage, call it silly and false. Don’t use a machine gun to rid the garden of squirrels.

-If you find yourself editing a citation from the book in a way that’s advantageous to your point but that wouldn’t be advantageous if you were to cite it more fully, you are in the process of misrepresenting the book. What you think the author really wants to say is not the same as what s/he said. Acknowledge the words that are really there and then make a case why your interpretation is valid. “Here’s what I think they mean” is perfectly defensible. “Look at what they said” is not.

-Write the review for the benefit of people who don’t necessarily have presuppositions about the author or the subject. Write something that would be helpful for the people who don’t subscribe to your Twitter feed or blog newsletter. If that’s difficult, declare what you’re writing a thinkpiece instead of a review. There’s no shame in it.

-If you can’t think of anything positive to say about the book, look at the cover. In my experience a suspiciously large percentage of the books that I couldn’t think of any redeeming qualities for had excellent outer designs. Work goes into that too, y’know.

You Are What You Click

I commend to you this excellent essay by Gracy Olmstead on our current American news culture. The entire piece is well-worth your time and reflection, but I want to zero in on one particular point Gracy makes. Toward the end of the essay Gracy says that “the news you click on is the news you deserve.” In other words, those who complain about misleading, baiting, or frivolous content have to realize that there is no such thing as a “hate-click” in the modern writing economy. If you click it, you support it. And journalism culture right now, in all its manufactured outrage and Buzzfeedification, reflects what people support. Gracy:

It’s a sad truth, but many who complain about “clickbait” feed it via their daily habits. Whether you visit the Huffington Post or Salon, Drudge or The Blaze, many of today’s “news” websites have made their living curating headlines and stories according to the proclivities of the masses.

All news organizations—for better or worse—determine their most “successful” stories by the number of views they get on Chartbeat or Google Analytics. Stories that “break the site” or drive in monumental amounts of traffic become the standard-bearers for future reporting. But of course, it’s the most controversial, incendiary, and sensational stories that get the most clicks.

This isn’t some deep dark trade secret of journalists. It’s a basic lesson in economics. News organizations have to make money. The vast majority of them make money by selling advertisements that reimburse them based on clicks. Clicks=money, therefore, whatever leads to clicks is what news organizations will try to prioritize. The digital writing economy does not rely on your appreciation, your support, or even your agreeing. It depends on your click. 

This is precisely why the most irritating, most thoughtless opinion sites depend overwhelmingly on Facebook to get traffic. Facebook is a click machine. Most people scroll through Facebook not because they’re looking for something specific, but because they’re looking for anything. From experience, I know that many, many people who read news and opinion content via Facebook never get past the headline. That’s the point. Who needs to read a 700 word article when a headline will do your thinking for you–or better yet, tell your friends how you think and how they ought to think too?

For those of us who care about what we read and what we share, this ought to motivate us to “protect” our click. If a Facebook friend shares a conspiracy theory, I don’t click it, not even so I can disagree with it. I ignore it. Is such ignoring flouting my responsibility to engage with nonsense? No, I don’t think so, primarily because I don’t believe such responsibility actually exists. If I’m at dinner and a friend of mine sitting next to me tries to convince me that Bush did 9/11 or that George Soros hires police to kill black Americans, I will respond (as calmly as I can). But if he offers to sell me a book that explains both of those things, I’m not going to buy it or read it. That’s the thing about the online writing economy: your time and attention has an economic impact on whatever you give time and attention to. And it should be remembered that one of the most effective traffic drivers of online content are angry social media exchanges about it. Who can resist clicking when they see friends getting hot about an article?

Most of us don’t intuitively think of our online habits this way. The content is free. The article is short. The Facebook friend is earnest. So what if the words published are silly, irresponsible, or even a little dishonest? What’s the big deal? But Gracy reminds us that not only do we have a moral obligation to think truthfully and honestly, but our entertaining of deception and clickbait rewards those who design it. In the online age, it doesn’t matter whether you click to learn or to debate. It only matters that you click. When it comes to changing the toxic problems in our public square, we’d do well to remember: We aren’t what we think, but we are what we click.

Writing Ourselves Off

Freddie deBoer explains why he’s planning to drop out of the freelance business:

I just find, at this point, that the process of pitching, composing, shepherding through edits, promoting, and trying to get paid sucks the life out of me. The commercial interests of publications require editors to ask for things that are tied to the news cycle in the most facile way imaginable. I get it, and I don’t blame them personally. But I’m opting out. And it’s increasingly hard for me to explain to editors what I want a piece to do and say without writing the piece. I’m just really not interested in the “beats” of a piece of nonfiction anymore; the argument, in the sense that people traditionally mean, is just about the least interesting aspect of nonfiction writing…

Meanwhile, the money generally sucks. I am very grateful for the LAT [Los Angeles Times] publishing me in their print edition, for example, and I knew what the rate was going in. But writing and editing a thousand-plus word piece for one of the biggest newspapers in the country got me $200. So many younger writers I know think that the higher profile, more established places are where the money is, but often that’s not true. Not anymore. And if I don’t enjoy it and the money’s not good, what’s the point?

It’s depressing, mostly because it’s true. Freddie has published in some of the country’s most important media outlets, like the New York Times, The Atlantic, etc, and still he finds himself mounting a herculean effort to think and plan and write and edit quality content, for roughly the cost of a pair of Beats headphones. And that transaction is considered “success” in the freelance industry, which traffics overwhelmingly in unpaid content.

Alan Jacobs puts it even more directly:

Here’s the way the game works: You should write newspaper pieces for peanuts because that will bring you to the attention of the monthlies, where you should write for peanuts because that will bring you to the attention of the trade publishing houses, who will give you a contract that over the course of your book’s life will pay you, if you calculate the hours you spend writing, well short of minimum wage — but that’s okay, because your book will bring you to the attention of the newspapers.

I don’t think many young writers, particularly Christian ones, are hoping to get rich off their words; it would take a pretty oblivious person to earnestly hope that. But the dynamic that Jacobs describes is what many of us get sucked into. Print is the promised land, but as you soon find out, it’s often reserved for writers who already have history there. “Exposure” turns out to be something of a con; being published at many non-paying outlets only really helps you get “in” to other non-paying outlets. Making the transition from “exposure” to “fee” is far more a matter of developing the right relationships–something you’re likely not doing very much of if you’re too busy cranking out free weekly content in the desperate hope of being picked up (which, if we’re being honest, doesn’t happen anymore).

I was talking about this stuff with a friend the other day. We both observed that the one apparent equalizer in the new writing economy was social media “platform.” It’s sad to say, but if you have 10,000 Twitter followers or Facebook “Likes,” you probably don’t need to be as good a writer or even as well-connected. Publications want clicks, and if a writer’s social media following alone guarantees a few hundred of those, that’s the game. This has the dual effect of training young writers to focus more on platform than on their work, and also shaping the culture of writing and journalism in the image of marketing and PR, rather than ideas. Thoughtful writers find themselves pressured to use manipulation and/or dishonesty in titles and opening paragraphs, for example, or issue half-brained reactions to the day’s Trending Topics–since they are, in a very real sense, “selling” their writing to readers instead of to publications. It’s Don Draper all the way down.

If you try to figure out how this dynamic can be fixed, you’ll end up confronting the inconvenient truth: Click-based advertising, the agriculture of the internet, is the crucial factor, and it’s probably not going anywhere anytime soon. The best thing a young writer can do for their passion is to get a regular full time job, support themselves sufficiently with that, and then write in the margins of their week. No one can thrive in a vocation if they have to constantly make a choice between paying their bills and doing honest, excellent work, which is precisely the dilemma facing young writers who want to go full-time. Nor is it healthy, I think, to invest hours and hours and hours every week into growing a social media platform, a lifestyle that by necessity requires you think small thoughts about small things. Is mastering the meme culture of Facebook or the insta-snark of Twitter really worth the sacrifice of being unable to finish books or focus on a train of thought for more than a couple minutes? What will it profit a young writer to gain a platform and lose her mind?

To end on a personal note, I’ll confess that I don’t have a good social media platform. Very, very few people know my writing, and only the tiniest fraction of that group would pay to read it. That’s ok, because I’ve been blessed with a wonderful day job that I enjoy very much. That’s a privilege I don’t take for granted. And yet, I still write, because I still love to write and still need to write. I love the writing life and (almost) everything it entails. I want to write for bigger and more respectable publications because I take ideas seriously, and sharing my ideas with wise editors and large readerships is part of the satisfaction of the writing life.

Over the past year I’ve felt a powerful urge to step away from social media and the pursuit of its platform. I deleted my personal Twitter account last week, after a several months-long period of trying different methods to control my use and put boundaries around my experience. The straightforward use of Twitter was swallowing my time and emotions to a degree that, honestly, no hobby of mine ever has before. It’s embarrassing to admit that you stay on a page clicking refresh, or search 20 times per day for anyone linking to your blog, but that’s where I was. Worst of all, I was becoming easily angered over stuff that had no legitimate impact on me, and I was feeling what was obviously the psychological effect of byte-sized information intake. My book-reading pace has become much slower than it was in college. I struggle to finish even a couple pages at a time without checking my phone. Philip Yancey’s “Reading Wars” blog hit me like a revival sermon. I knew the disease he described was mine.

After talking to a couple friends who had also deleted Twitter, I followed suit, knowing full well that my Twitter readership was meaningful and that not publishing my writing there would be eliminate a good portion of my “platform.” I did it not because I’m an incredibly self-disciplined person but because I am the opposite of that, and because I knew that it wasn’t going to get easier, and because an addiction to anything but grace is a snare.

And so now I write practically without a social media platform. Instead, I have invited readers to participate more directly in what I do, through my Patreon. At the risk of “selling” to you, let me just once again express my appreciation for those who have supported me through Patreon, and my gratitude for anyone who would consider giving me money to help me write the best I can write. I’m willing to bet a lot that friends are better than followers and patrons are better than ads. I can only hope that the future of evangelical writing agrees with me.

 

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Some Advice for Writers

Recently a few friends of mine have asked me about writing, and for some perspective and/or advice on how to get started doing it seriously. I’ve given the same advice enough times that I figured it might be helpful to put what I most frequently say here as a kind of reference.

As always, none of this advice is gospel, and don’t be surprised if some of it doesn’t end up working like I say. In a real sense, the best “advice” I can give anyone who wants to write is to immediately stop looking for writing advice, and just write. If you’re an aspiring writer, and you’ve read more books in the last month on how to be a writer than other kinds of books, you’re doing it wrong, and you may be in a lamentable state of mind where what you really want to do is be known as a writer–instead of, you know, actually writing.

Nonetheless, there are some helpful things you can do. Here they are:

-Read, read, read.

This is always my #1 piece of advice. There’s no such thing as a writer who doesn’t read. If you don’t particularly care for reading, the actual craft and discipline of writing will elude you. If you enjoy reading but you don’t read widely–say, if you read a handful of books every year, mostly all in the same genre/author/length/etc–your writing will reflect this.

Read widely, and read, as Alan Jacobs says, “at whim.” Reading and relishing 1 good book by a talented author will probably do more for your own writing than reading 3 books on how to write. It’s been said that “leaders are readers.” It’s even more true that writers are readers.

-Write, write, write

It’s exactly like it sounds. Try to write every day. Register a free blog. Or just open Word on your computer and start writing. Glean writing ideas from your own reading (don’t put too much stock in artificial “prompts,” like the ones you find inside journals; they can be useful, but focus more on prompting yourself through interacting with what you’re reading).

-Figure out what you’re most interested in, and write more about that.

One of the mistakes people make when they try to start writing regularly is that they think being a good writer means being able to write about anything and everything. Not so. Most of the best writers are not really “generalists” that can churn out solid essays on everything from politics, to movies, to literature, to fashion. There’s nothing wrong with having thoughts about a lot of topics, but don’t fear the beat. Embrace the fact that you don’t have unlimited time or (most importantly) unlimited thoughtfulness. Find the one thing you want to talk about more than others, and sharpen it.

-Pitch your ideas to editors, not robots

In general, don’t bother wasting your time with “Submissions” portals. Find editors who work for places you admire and introduce yourself. Do as much “networking” as you can think to do (but don’t network at the expense of your actual craft). This will do 2 things for you: It will greatly raise your chances of having a pitch accepted, and it will put you in contact with people who can improve your writing.

-Go analog

The demise of paper and pen has been highly exaggerated. Invest in some analog writing tools and use them to capture ideas. Physical writing tools come with much fewer distractions, which is nice, but even better, they reduce the process to the essentials of the craft. The literary life is beset with temptations to vanity. Even writing itself can become more about announcing to the world that I’m a Writer than about the word. Analog processes can help you do some self-accountability. If you’re not willing to write unless you can tweet out your stuff within seconds, you may not be in it for the right reasons.

-Embrace failure and inferiority

Your pitches will be rejected. Your blog won’t be Retweeted. Your writing won’t catch the eye you hoped. You will feel like an impostor, like a joke, like a horribly misled little soul that has deluded itself. You will wonder with disgust and anxiety why you can’t write like your favorite authors.

Embrace it. Live with it. You’re not the world’s greatest writer. You probably won’t write a bestseller. That’s OK, because words are valuable and beautiful and worth it even if they don’t fly off a shelf or garner a big advance. You’ll keep coming back despite all the frustration, not because you love attention, but because you love to write. You need to write. Those words have to get out.

If that’s you, then congrats: You’re in the right line of work.