Saturday, April 09, 2011

Writing, competition, golf and basketball: a response to Chris Jones

I'm really enjoying Esquire writer Chris Jones' Son Of Bold Venture blog and his take on writing. There isn't enough dialogue about the art and importance of writing out there, and Jones adds a lot to the conversation, particularly with his interviews (notable recent ones include ESPN's Wright Thompson, the Boston Globe's Charles P. Pierce and Glenn Stout, series editor of The Best American Sports Writing. With that said, though, I have to take issue with his two most recent posts, on awards and motivation.

To be clear, this isn't to say that Jones is wrong or that his arguments are invalid. Both of those posts deal heavily with his own feelings and his own approach, and that approach has obviously led to a lot of success for him over the years, so it can't be all that bad. It's not necessarily bad advice for young writers, either; everyone's different, and Jones' approach, involving writers "keeping score" and competing will undoubtedly work very well for some people. The only reason I'm writing this is to express my own feelings that while those may be valid ways to succeed as a writer, they aren't the only ways out there. That may not fit with Jones' avowed attraction to black and white, but it's reflective of one of the things I feel most strongly about; the shades of grey.

(Of course, I'm only a two-bit hack at the moment, so Jones certainly has a better track record to support his advice than I do for mine. Still, I am one of the few lucky people who have the opportunity to write for a living (at Yahoo! and Canadian Soccer News amongst other places), and I just wanted to share my approach, which is considerably different than the one Jones seems to be advocating. The point's not to get in a yelling match about how my way is better, as I wouldn't even make that argument. It's just a different approach, and it's one that's worked for me thus far.)

On the competition front, Jones writes among other things that "If you tell me that you don’t care if your book sells a thousand copies or a million copies, I know you have never done the hard work required to write a book and never will. If you tell me that you don’t care whether your story gets read, because it was worth writing purely for the art, then I know your story is a piece of unbearable, sanctimonious shit." That's potentially true in some cases, but I don't think it's true in all cases. Sure, I love it when my pieces get widely read or linked to, and being nominated for or winning an award can be one of the most simultaneously humbling and awesome things in the world. I think the vast majority of writers out there probably do enjoy recognition; having your work read can help to validate the time you put into it, as can winning awards. However, there's a distinction between enjoying those effects and setting out to achieve those effects.

Obviously, I want everything I write to be read and enjoyed widely. There isn't much point in writing something I don't want people to read. That doesn't mean that everything I write is crafted to try and draw in the largest-possible audience, though, and I think my writing would really suffer if I took that approach. In the sports world in particular, there are plenty of sites and writers that make it clear drawing pageviews is their primary goal, and there are a number of strategies that prove very effective at that; search-engine gaming can do it, trade rumours can do it, dirt on athletes' personal lives can do it, making over-the-top opinion statements can do it (see talk radio!); heck, even slideshows can do it. If your primary goal is getting the most people possible to read any specific piece, that isn't necessarily all that hard.

That doesn't mean what you turn out is going to be particularly valuable or insightful, though, and it doesn't mean you're going to be all that happy with it. It's the same with books; a headline-grabbing exposé of dirt on a particular athlete or team might sell more than an artful, insightful analysis of a team's keys to success, but that doesn't necessarily make it "better". I don't think Jones is necessarily endorsing those particular pageview/sales-grabbing strategies, as his work is much better and more nuanced than that; it's just a conclusion some could draw from his comments on how important it is to care about readership and sales. Those aspects matter, obviously; writing something that only you and a few friends will enjoy isn't likely to keep you employed for long, and spending years writing a book that will only interest a few people probably isn't the best career strategy. However, I don't think the opposite strategy (pursuing readers and sales as a key goal and doing everything possible to achieve them) works in all cases either. It carries some significant long-term issues, too; plenty of the pageview-focused sites and writers still do okay, but they're widely derided by those looking for a little more depth and a little less sensationalism.

Writing for awards is perhaps a more laudable goal than writing for pageviews, but it also carries its own problems. Most of the pieces that win notable awards are good pieces, and setting out to write a good piece is never a bad goal. I don't think setting out to write a piece that could potentially be selected for an award is necessarily bad either, if you take that as "I'm going to write the best damn piece I possibly can." In my mind, the problem comes if your focus shifts from writing the best piece possible to writing the piece most likely to appeal to judges for any particular award. In an ideal world, the two goals would be the same (most of these awards are for the "best" writing of a particular sort, of course), but in the real world, they don't always overlap.

The best example I can think of there is the "Oscar Bait" strategy, which focuses not necessarily on making the most interesting, entertaining or thought-provoking movie out there, but rather making the movie most likely to appeal to judges. I don't think that's as large of a problem in writing, as the awards themselves are less famous and their criteria do often overlap with the goals you'd have if there were no awards, but there are occasionally pieces where you can tell the writer or organization may be trying to do something more for its appeal to judges than what it honestly adds to the story. In a way, this is the reverse of the linkbait strategy, but it still has a lot in common with it; the goal in both is to appeal to a particular audience, and that becomes more important than the general goal of just writing the best piece possible. (I don't think Jones would necessarily disagree with this contention either, as he did write "All you can do is write the best story you can and hope that the rest comes to you," which certainly doesn't sound like an endorsement of award-baiting. The strategy does seem like a conclusion that could be drawn from some of his other comments, though.)

What bothers me a bit more than either writing for pageviews or awards are Jones' thoughts on competition with other writers, though. Here's the key part of his piece:
But all of it, every last bit of it, had better be born of desire. Because journalism is a business based, almost exclusively, on competition. There’s a reason they call it a beat. It is a game in which some people win, and a lot more people lose. And if you don’t want it bad enough, you will lose. Gary Smith will beat you. Tom Junod will beat you. Susan Orlean will beat you. Never forget that’s who’s out here, waiting for you.
I don't think many would disagree that working hard is important for writing success, or that there is an element of competition involved. Personally, I choose to view that competition in a different way, though. Jones' words make me think of one-on-one basketball, where you're taking your talents, your moves and your story directly up against those of another writer, and much of what you do isn't based solely on what you want to do, but rather what you think they're going to do. Of course, your stories are sometimes directly put up against others, either if you're writing on the same topic or if judges are deciding which of a few nominated pieces will get an award, and it certainly is valid to think about that while you're writing. If the thought of who you're "up against" motivates you to write a better piece, great. That's not how I see the world, though. I'd rather see writing as a game of golf, where the ultimate conflict isn't man-versus-man, but rather man-versus-nature, and competition is more indirect than direct.

Yes, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Charl Schwartzel, Angel Cabrera and the rest of the golfers in contention at this week's Masters are competing with each other on some level, but I see their primary struggle as one against the course, not one against each other. In essence, their goal is to go out there and shoot the best round they possibly can; they'll come away with the green jacket at the end of the weekend if their best is good enough (alternatively, if everyone else's best isn't good enough, but that's a more negative way to think of it). That's the approach I take to writing; rather than trying to top anyone else, I'd rather battle against my computer, trying to turn out the best work I can. If it's good enough for people to link to it or for it to be considered for awards, great, but I'd rather not use those as starting points.

Another reason I prefer the golf approach is it promotes a more positive attitude towards the other writers and bloggers out there. Instead of outright antagonists and competitors, I prefer to think of them as potential teammates (perhaps in some form of Ryder Cup scenario), colleagues, or, at the very least, fellow humans doing battle against the same machine. Sure, I may come into direct competition with some of them for a particular job or particular pageviews from time to time, but I'd rather focus on trying to refine my own swing than worrying about what others are doing. That's also why I try to link to and promote as many quality pieces by others as possible, both in my stories and on Twitter; in my mind, we all win when the best writing is being produced and when it's getting the attention it deserves.

My writing goal is simply to turn in the best pieces I can. If that leads to millions of pageviews and endless awards, fantastic; if it doesn't, I'm not going to be crushed. If at the end of the day, I've given it my best effort, developed my talent as much as possible and shot the lowest score I'm capable of achieving, I'm going to be satisfied regardless of whether I've got a green jacket on my shoulders or not.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff, my friend. Always thought writing was about offering something, anything that needs to be verbalized. Preferably on a subject not many people think about very often.

    Sports writing seems to be the most guilty of over saturation, so I appreciate your take on the ambiguity and middle-ground.