I hate to be “that guy” who takes to his website after a Twitter exchange goes south, but it seems I am becoming him more and more with each passing day. A few weeks ago after Zac Cichy and I disagreed on using mute filters to block uninteresting content, I wrote In Defense of Muting; today, this article comes hot on the heels of a debate Glenn Fleishman and I almost had after he rejected an article Linus Edwards submitted to The Magazine as “too vague and too broad for [them] to consider.” I won’t rehash the entire conversation here, but if you so desire you may read it starting with Linus’s tweet. Rather, I took a break from House of Cards to talk a bit about good writing.
First of all, I have to start by pointing out that given my short eighteen years on this earth, I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. As Will Kohl so graciously pointed out in a since-deleted tweet I managed to preserve as an everlasting reminder of my inadequacy, it is simultaneously impossible and unfathomable that a whippersnapper so young and wet behind the ears as I could possibly possess any non-reductionist insight into the writer’s craft. Disregard the fact that some of history’s greatest writers produced their best work at remarkably young ages, ignore all the young poets who began their careers crafting prose during a particularly challenging childhood, and pay no attention to the fact that I am, in fact, nineteen. None of those realities matter because age begets mastery, obviously, and a lack of the former invariably signals an absence of the latter. But I really couldn’t expect Mr. Kohl to take any of those factors into account anyways, because what’s the point in checking your facts after finding out that I’m just a kid? So with that self-evident truth mind, dear reader, please remember to take everything I say in this article with a massive grain of salt.
At the risk of embroiling the Twitter rage machine once more, I have no desire to call out bad writing even though — for reasons previously explained — I obviously know a thing or two about it. Instead, I want to spend some time talking about what makes for good writing. After that, I will leave you to form your own conclusions.
As I tried to articulate earlier on Twitter, good writing should serve as the jumping-off point for further discussion; it should be the article everyone reads and immediately feels the need to share with their friends because they loved it that much. Good writing is Patrick McKenzie’s Don’t Call Yourself A Programmer, And Other Career Advice, Shawn Blanc’s Writing vs. Writing, and Matt Gemmell’s Staying Afraid; everyone shared those articles because it engendered within them a strong emotional or intellectual response, and in some cases both. Good writing is not a neatly-packaged pill to be consumed to no lasting effect, something with a formulaic beginning, middle, and ultimate conclusion wrapping everything up with a neat and tidy bow as you re-state your thesis. I was taught to write like that all throughout high school, and only now — in college — do I finally have an english teacher who hates this restrictive format as much as I.
One could make the argument that great writing is a combination of both the ability to elicit an emotional response and present a concise story arc in a single piece, like the just-released Endless Love did in telling a complete story while simultaneously fostering an incredible emotional reaction within me, but I would posit that writing exists on a scale with regards to its quality: while both aspects may present themselves in any given body of prose, one invariably outweighs the other in both importance and impact. In Endless Love, the emotional aspect dwarfed that of my desire to see a complete story unfold on the big screen. Color me a hopeless romantic and a sucker for chick flicks, but I love that movie; it is easily one of the best I have seen in a great while. It did not trump every movie in recent memory because I got to see a good introduction, steady progression, and a happy ending though, but because it took all that, pushed it to the side, and made way for the aspects that make for a great movie. Endless Love retained that all-too-pervasive structure, to a degree, but only insofar as it could while making way for the elements that went on to make it a truly spectacular film. That’s the mentality I’m fighting for when I call out formulaic writing as the blotch on civilized discourse that it is: I’m fighting for the ability that takes an acceptable work of prose to greatness, because without it what’s the point?
But then again, what do I know; I’m just an eighteen-year-old reductionist.