Comment writer as flapping tongue crab

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I want to write better. Over the last five (five!) years of writing comment pieces, I’ve learned to write more effectively, but a lot of it is about learning to fill a small frame (500-800 words) quickly (sometimes, the hour-long lunch break from my office job). This is a skill, and it’s one acquired by much practice; but it’s a skill that can only be developed in its own interests.

I can get quicker, I can learn to hit the right phrase first time, I can craft the rhetorical devices and structural tics that shelter my spots of ignorance from scrutiny. But however good I get at writing 600-word reactive comment pieces in an hour, I will still be writing 600-word reactive comment pieces in an hour.

The online comment writer is often in the role of debunker. Debunking is a thing of long standing and some usefulness, but the thing about the debunker is, they always need something to debunk: the debunker is parasitic on the thing they claim to oppose. And because the debunker inevitably repeats the claims they ostensibly wish to invalidate, the debunker become a very specific sort of parasite: you become the crustacean that replaces a fish’s tongue, living on the host’s blood while flapping away in its service.

If you debunk (say) misogyny over and over, what you also do is replicate that misogyny for the purposes of debunking. (This is an observation borrowed from Kenneth Burke.) There are times when comment writers appear to seek out the most obnoxious figures for the purposes of making them a foil; there are times when I’ve done this, and there are times when a ridiculous person is the best way of ridiculing a ridiculous idea. And yet, if all you do is elevate the ridiculous and bad without celebrating the good and the interesting, ultimately you are living within and on the thing you purport to hate.

The problem is that a successful comment piece needs a readership, and there are few writers who can deliver that readership on their own – I am not one. There are some outlets that have a broad and tolerant audience who will give consideration to a piece that sets its own terms. But in general, most pieces that traffic well do so by entering an argument that has already established the terms of its controversy. This is not a criticism: this is good editorial sense. But it does mean that as a writer, you can end up responding reflexively and unreflectively if you’re not careful.

The Raging Bull image of a face reeling from the impact of a fist is thrilling to see, but comment writing can feel a little like putting your head in the way of the swinging glove on a weekly basis: take the blow and show the shiner to the crowd. Boxers might get better at taking punches, but they rarely get cleverer from their time in the ring, and sometimes I fear that this is the fate of the reactive comment writer. Your recoil grows more dramatic as your brain grows more pulpy. Online comment writers give the appearance of being scrappers, but I wonder how many ever land an actually damaging blow on an opponent.

I hope I have not yet become the flapping tongue-crab or the mat-crashing middleweight. I hope that when I write, I add something to the store of kindness and curiosity and humour in the world, that my brain is not pulped, and that this hour’s work will turn in at a satisfactory 600.

Photo by University of Salford, used under Creative Commons

6 things that happen when you write about feminism

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1. You will be accused of hating men

At first this will sound ridiculous. Then you’ll feel irritated. Then you might feel riled and want to say: “YES I HATE MEN AND THEY MUST ALL BECOME SOYLENT GREEN.”

But the truth is, I don’t hate men. I just think I am awesome – too awesome for my life to be decided along the lines of what someone else thinks is appropriate to my gender. Too awesome to go around cringing over the fact that I am woman-shaped and have woman interests and woman-y inside-bits.

The people who accuse feminism of hating men have a very fragile, narrow idea of being a man – they’re something like a fluorescent tube. They are worried that any change will shatter them. Feel sorry for them, but not too sorry: like the rest of us, they will probably be OK.

2. You will get long, self-justifying communications from people who in all honesty sound like they’re the problem

Before I started writing on feminist subjects – which means reproductive rights, equal parenting and safety from violence in my case, which means absurdly that all those things are seen as the province of one particular cause rather than, y’know, human rights – really sexist people were like a rare species of angry mammal. Wild pigs, maybe. I’d seen a few of them dashing through the trees with foam on their tusks, but they’d never actually run full at me.

That changes when you write about feminism. Then, the pigs in the forest start charging towards you, grunting things like “women are naturally incapable of creativity” or “how do you expect men not to rape if women wear short skirts”. (I’m not making those up, by the way.) On a really good day, you’ll get lengthy emails from a man telling you how unfair it is that he’s not allowed to see his kids after his ex provoked him once – just once! – into assaulting her.

The important thing about this is that the number of pigs in the wood hasn’t changed, it’s just that they know you’re there and they’re coming for you. So don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s been a massive explosion in the pig population. Just study them, learn about them, and work out how to spear them.

3. You will want to say: “Wait! I’m not that kind of feminist!”

Later, you will realise that people who say they don’t like feminism (rather than, say, people who debate the usefulness of certain ideals to the wider feminist cause) aren’t the kind of people you actually want making an exception for you. They’re probably not destined to be your top pal.

4. You will be asked whether you’re a single parent or a lesbian or childless or fat, as if these things were accusations

And when they’re wrong, you will have to resist triumphantly shouting something like: “No! Ha! I am a straight, married mother of average BMI! In your STUPID PRESUMPTUOUS FACE!” Because to do that would, of course, be to endorse the hatstand morality that says being a single parent or a lesbian or childless or fat is a shameful condition that invalidates anything you have to say – and it would leave you at a distinct disadvantage if they ever fluked into being correct.

Yet there is some purpose in your impulse to deny: when people say these things, they’re saying that nothing you ever do can be uninflected by the physical. They’re saying that you are the deviation from the reliable, masculine norm and your words proceed from your ovaries. You would understandably like to disabuse them of that notion.

And you may do so – gently, and without accepting that there’s any justice in their hatreds.

5. You will hear: “Not everything is a feminist issue, you know”

Some people think sexism should get a pass for the greater good. Their version of the greater good is shitting on half the world, which doing some maths tells me is not actually the greater good at all. Ignore them.

6. You will be told: “Enough with the isms and ists”

Personally, I don’t feel like it is enough. I don’t think it’s good enough for my daughter and her peers to grow up in a world where some chump can go on TV and joke about his “instincts” telling him to grope a woman’s breasts, and then use the image of her giving someone (implicitly him) a hand job to embarrass her. I am not cool with that.

Before we had the language of “ists” and “isms” we had “no property rights” and “legal marital rape”. We’re a tiny way out of a history of seeing women as things not people, and I want the next generation to grow up knowing that they do not have to put up with this rudeness.

Because that’s why I write about feminism: in the hope that some time, eventually, no one will have to.

Photo via kReEsTaL

The unpacking

From the age of ten to 20, I wrote a diary most days. When each volume was full of scratchings, I’d put it away – first on a shelf, then as I got older and more privacy-conscious in a drawer, and eventually in an old leather suitcase that I could keep clipped shut on top of my wardrobe and out of my eyeline. When my childhood bedroom got dismantled and my effects put into boxes and stowed in the spare room, the suitcase went too. Continue reading

This stylish man: on Christopher Hitchens

“I once had the easiest job in journalism: editing Christopher Hitchens,” tweeted his Slate editor June Thomas, shortly after his death. A short tribute, but a touching balance of the personal and the professional; and also, an accidental summary of the thing I hate about his work. Christopher Hitchens wrote with such an assured and powerful voice – exactly the same voice he spoke with – it’s easy to believe that editing would require only the lightest touch. All the words are correct, and in their right places. Nothing needs changing, except for the fact that whole pieces could benefit from being run through with a red pen.

Continue reading

[The Guardian] Do It Yourself And Save

Look at that! A couple of spiffy little guides to household self-sufficiency that will save you a tidy few pennies. And I’m a contributor, offering some indispensable guidance on the contents of your repairs kit. Go on, treat yourself to a nice crisp Guardian/Observer double at the weekend. They’ll have probably paid for themselves within seven days if you follow all their frugal advice.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010; image © The Guardian.

Grows on trees

I have had one lone moment of entrepreneurial inspiration in my life. When I was eight or nine, me and a friend realised her house was located next to a prime natural resource in the primary school economy: a huge conker tree. We devoted long after-school evenings to filling carrier bags with the glossy brown crop. We sorted and graded our goods. And then we took our conkers to school and we sold them.

conkers

Obviously, selling conkers is absurd – and I remember other pupils telling us, disgustedly, that they could pick up conkers for themselves. All the same, lots of children bought ours. Because they were there and ready to use at breaktimes? Because other children were buying them too? I have no idea really – like I said, this was a very uncharacteristic moment of nous – but for several days the conker-trading went on successfully.

Then, some other children decided to set up a rival conker operation. At this point, a real entrepreneur would have brought on the corkscrew and bootlaces (to offer a service angle, not to shiv the competition) or diversified into another product altogether. Instead, I got into a snit about losing my conker monopoly and left my now-devalued harvest to moulder in a garage; shortly after, the headteacher put a stop to the whole black market in vegetable matter.

Conkers are wildly accessible commodity, but in the right circumstance and to the right people, they were saleable – even if my tiny startup was not designed to withstand an open market. And what did I learn from this experience? Nothing, apparently: if you want to make my pre-teen experiment in capitalism into an allegory for journalism and paid content, then I am currently a horse chestnut, hurling my fruit at the floor for someone else to pick up and value. At least, I suppose, I’m doing what I’m best at.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by Balakov, used under Creative Commons.

Filmstar issue 3

A couple of months ago, I was talking to a friend about whether there was space for another film mag on the market. Something with a left-field approach that would differentiate it from the the blockbuster coverage offered by Empire and Total Film. Something with a passionate, knowledgeable approach – but falling to the populist side of Sight And Sound or Little White Lies. I would (and do) buy all of those titles, but it still felt like there was a gap in there for some smart publisher to get established.

Filmstar cover

And now, that gap has been filled by Filmstar – and I’m writing for them. So are lots of other people: Filmstar is heavingly stuffed with words about films. Everything gets a review. There are seven or eight in-depth features, the recurring features are similarly detailed, and it all comes over in the style of a conversation with a friend who knows (and loves) everything about movies.

But just because it’s text-heavy doesn’t mean the look has been neglected. Art editor Karl Jaques has given it a super-sharp design that balances all the content brilliantly, with smart little touches that hold everything together. In the main features, for example, each one gets a slightly different font for the page furniture. Lars von Trier is a cheery-sinister grunge typeface; Inglourious Basterds is an uncompromising sans-serif on searing red; and (my favourite) a feature on serious-comedy movies gets a big-top treatment. You also can see in the thumbnails the way that colour is used to set the tone of every feature (obviously, the Antichrist spreads are as black as the pit of von Trier’s soul).

Lars von Trier FS3 Basterds FS3 Kinds Of Comedy FS3

In Filmstar 3, I review Norwegian zomcom Dead Snow (and interview the director), art-house recreation of 70s skinflicks Viva, Michael Moore polemic Slacker Uprising, noodle romance The Ramen Girl, bleak and witty Turkish morality tale Three Monkeys, and (yes!) Robert Pattinson gay-off Little Ashes.

It’s all in the fingers

alloxan moleculeIt is a pretty structure, isn’t it? It makes you think of something stable, solid, well-linked. […] And it is possible that the explanation is neither remote not metaphysical: to say “beautiful” is to say “desirable” and ever since man has built he has wanted to build at the smallest expense and in the most durable fashion, and the aesthetic enjoyment he experiences in contemplating the work comes afterward. Certainly, it has not always been this way: there have been centuries in which “beauty” was identified with adornment, the superimposed, the frills; but it is probable that they were deviant epochs and that the true beauty, in which every century recognises itself, is found in upright stones, ships’ hulls, the blade of an ax, the wing of a plane.

Primo Levi (on the alloxan molecule), The Periodic Table (Abacus, 1986), p. 179

I write well, but I type hideously. Inefficient, clumsy, tiring. I’ve been working on a word processor since my early teens, and at some point (like Joel with Street Fighter) I settled into a style that was just adequate to my needs and never attempted to get any better. My wrists scrape the edge of the desk. I only use four of my fingers consistently, and can’t even keep to the habit of tapping the space bar with my thumb. It’s possible to type quite fast like this, but never really fast, and certainly not really fast for long periods of time – and really fast is the way in which I need to work.

Peggy Olsen

Between blogging, reviewing, transcriptions and interviews, I have weeks where I’m rattling out over 20,000 words. I work in the evenings, and within school hours one day a week – once I’ve taken into account the watching, reading and listening that goes into this work, it’s obvious that I can only manage this (as well as the emailing, tweeting and gchatting that goes on in an average day) by being competent with a keyboard. And I have other projects I’d like to work on, things which demand more time and more typing. I have realised how right Dan Baum is when he says:

being able to type fast can mean the difference between having good and great interviews to work with, and that teaching oneself to type fast – very fast – is as important to one’s career as a journalist as being well informed or understanding grammar.

WordWork, “Type fast”

But I wonder whether the grotesquery of my typing style has had a formative effect on the pretty solidity of my writing style. When I write, I am always trying to “build at the smallest expense and in the most durable fashion”. I keep my sentences tight, select my words carefully, build up stylistic devices when I know they’re right for the argument or the impression I want to convey, and try to ensure that whatever is published under my name will be resistent to the most stubbornly unsympathetic reader.

Concise, accurate, effective – shouldn’t that be how every writer wants to work? And as  a bad typist, the necessity of avoiding waste is even stronger. I never go substantially over the wordcount in a first draft, because getting the words down in the first place is so tiresome; I make most of my revisions mentally before they hit the page, because re-writing is hard work I’d rather avoid. I am trying to become a better typist so I can be a better journalist, but I hope that in the process I’ll remember everything my sausage fingers have taught me.

© Sarah Ditum 2009

Making it: just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you’re any good

abandoned Royal

(Picture by avlxyz, used under Creative Commons licence)

When I decided to launch myself as a freelance writer in February this year, I chose a shockingly bad time to do it. A recession, collapsing advertising budgets, online competition – at one point, it looked as though magazines were going under as fast as I could query them. I’ve been fortunate enough to have got as much work as I need every month since I started, but every week includes as many disappointments as triumphs. For every pitch that leads to a commission, I’ve probably made five or six that went nowhere. Honestly, the ratio could be even worse: if I kept a full tally, I’d probably burn my keyboard in despair.

Or, maybe, I’d send a letter like this one from “Scared Journalist”:

I spent the last four and a half years studying print journalism in college and watching vacantly as the newspaper/magazine industry crumbled before my eyes. The decline never bothered me. I always figured I had what it takes to get a job even in an extremely competitive market: Before I ever graduated, I had completed four internships at newspapers, magazines and a Web site, published almost a hundred clips (including longer, high-quality pieces), and left a good impression with everyone I worked with. I knew I wanted to be a journalist, and I knew that I wanted to write for a living.

Now, six months after graduating, my parents still pay my cellphone bill and I am working full-time making ice cream. I make a couple hundred bucks here and there freelancing for a magazine I interned at, but otherwise my “freelance” career, as well as my journalism career, is dead in the water. I find myself despondent and unable to send out any more cover letters, and I can’t find the time or motivation to research a story idea enough to send it to an editor because I assume he or she will simply reject my half-baked idea. I’m panicking, but I fear failure so much that I can’t even get started. Freelancing seems to be my best option career-wise, but I can’t summon the willpower and enthusiasm to do it. Plus, I lost my license to a DUI conviction (that got me fired from one of those newspaper internships), which has immobilized me and left me unable to relocate to a new job until October. The DUI also contributes to my job-hunting anxiety.

What I see is that my passion for journalism and writing is waning. Working full-time has taught me that work is work and play is play, and that I need to maximize the efficiency of my hours I spend at work in order to maximize how much I can play outside of work. I am looking into jobs in other fields that pay better. Is it healthier to stick it out working at an ice cream store and desperately try to make it as a writer, or should I pursue a career where financial security is more realistic?

Salon, “I studied print journalism: Now what?”

Weirdly, Cary Tennis’ answer to this isn’t a brisk “grow up”: it’s a mythopoetic stream-of-consciousness about the role of the journalist and the times in which we live, reassuring Scared with the promise that “If you are a true journalist, you  are supposed to be having a hard time. This is how the world makes writers. It kicks their ass long enough that they start finally telling the truth.”

Apparently Tennis missed an ass-kicking session, because his reply misses a few obvious truths. If your passion for your chosen field in on the wane because you haven’t got a job you want six months after graduating, then maybe you don’t love the field as much as you thought. Six months is a fairly minimal delay between finishing education and launching a career. Scared has been able to get paid work in journalism during that time, too – despite the industry being in quite the tight spot.

And the main barrier that Scared identifies to the job hunting process is a driving ban which lasts until October. That’s not “having a hard time”. That’s being a reckless moron and being suitably punished. So, if Scared finds it that painful to take a parental stipend on the phone bill, they’re probably not cut out for trying to make it as a writer. Let it go, Scared.

orphan typewriters

(Picture by Telstar Logistics, used under Creative Commons licence)

Making a living as a writer isn’t hard because the universe is trying to make you a better journalist. It’s hard because there are more writers than paid work, and plenty of aspiring writers willing to do the equivalent of a paid job for no money at all (that’s those internships Scared was so pleased with). You might come through the apprentice period more experienced, more determined, more skilled – but whether you’re actually any good after all that depends on how much talent you started with. And even if you are good, the work still might not exist.

The Onion AV Club offered a more pragmatic, and wiser, version of the same live-through-this counsel:

Becoming a critic, an essayist, an editorialist, or a screenwriter isn’t the kind of career that you come to via the want ads, any more than you can follow a conventional up-the-corporate-ladder job track to become a novelist, painter, or songwriter. These aren’t the kind of jobs where anyone’s ever “hiring,” really. By and large, if people want you to write for them, they’ll call you.

And why do they decide to call you? Usually because they’ve read your writing, or because a mutual acquaintance recommended you, or both. That may seem like a paradox, but it really isn’t. Up above, I said that the number of paying media outlets is narrowing, but there are more opportunities than ever for aspiring writers to ply their trade, via blogs and the like, and our modern wired lifestyle is such that you can develop collegial relationships with fellow writers that you’ve never actually met in person. But it all takes time and effort, and in the meantime, yes, you’re probably going to have to get “a real job.” To put it on a personal level: I started getting paid to write criticism and features while I was still in school, but I wasn’t able to do it full-time until about seven years after I graduated, and that was only because I was being partially supported by my wife. It took another seven years before I started making enough that my parents stopped asking when I was going to go back to work.

Onion AV Club, “Ask The A.V. Club – April 17, 2008″

There aren’t really any access courses for a life in letters (well, apart from being born with a daddy who can supply the start-up for My First Style Rag). Just working, networking, dusting yourself off, and hoping you’ve got the means of your own self-belief.

What happens next

I have been called a “professional writer” and a “freelance journalist”. Both these people are exaggerating. I’m actually a rarely-commissioned hack and a dilettante blogger who happens to be better with semi-colons than contraception and enjoys a terrifically retarded career path because of that.  But people still sometimes disregard my colossal ignorance and ask me what I think the future of publishing will be. You know who they should be asking? David Simon, whose evidence to the Senate Commerce Committee is one of the most complete and most powerful summaries available of what’s gone wrong for print, and why bloggers can’t replace newspapers:

to read the claims that some new media voices are already making, you would think they need only bulldoze the carcasses of moribund newspapers aside and begin typing. They don’t know what they don’t know – which is a dangerous state for any class of folk — and to those of us who do understand how subtle and complex good reporting can be, their ignorance is as embarrassing as it is seemingly sincere. Indeed, the very phrase citizen journalist strikes my ear as nearly Orwellian. A neighbor who is a good listener and cares about people is a good neighbor; he is not in any sense a citizen social worker. Just as a neighbor with a garden hose and good intentions is not a citizen firefighter. To say so is a heedless insult to trained social workers and firefighters.

There are several bloggers in my sidebar who do put in the shoe-leather (or whatever the equivalent is in ISP tracking), who go to the meetings, have the contacts, know their terrain. But the costs in time and server space mean that only a few rare people can blog like that, and blog well. Then there are the people who specialise in commenting on the output of the rest of the media (and I’d count myself as a junior member of that group) – it’s an essential check on the mess that reporting has got into, but if all the newspapers in the land dropped dead, casual commentators like me won’t offer much to fill the gap.

What makes Simon’s opinion especially worth hearing is that he does nothing to obscure the newspapers’ part in their own demise:

When I was in journalism school in the 1970s, the threat was television and its immediacy. My professors claimed that in order to survive, newspapers were going to have to cede the ambulance chasing and reactive coverage to TV and instead become more like great magazines. Specialization and detailed beat reporting were the future. We were going to have to explain an increasingly complex world in ways that made us essential to an increasingly educated readership. The scope of coverage would have to go deeper, address more of the world not less. Those were our ambitions. Those were my ambitions.

In Baltimore at least, and I imagine in every other American city served by newspaper-chain journalism, those ambitions were not betrayed by the internet. We had trashed them on our own, years before. Incredibly, we did it for naked, short-term profits and a handful of trinkets to hang on the office wall. And now, having made ourselves less essential, less comprehensive and less able to offer a product that people might purchase online, we pretend to an undeserved martyrdom at the hands of new technology.

Like Clay Shirky, Simon recognises that the future of journalism could be one of many economic models under discussion, it could be something totally novel, or it could be nothing at all – just the long slide into bankruptcy. I’m convinced that there’s a future in paper. It’s a beautiful medium with exceptional creative potential, and a valuable tactile connection to an audience. But current affairs are too quick-moving to live off of design values. The news belongs to the internet, and if it can’t make a living online, it’s going to starve, struggle, and finally die.