Why It's Tough to Write in the Internet Age

Anyone can write. 

I’ll elaborate. Anyone can pick up a pen to create swirls and crosses that the rest of us recognize as words, and eventually, stories. But that doesn’t mean everyone should write. For every 1984, there’s a 50 Shades of Grey. For every Dracula, there’s a Twilight. Hell, the Westboro Baptist Church exists, which seems to just run on blind hate so pure that it burns the skin, and they’re allowed to smear their word-feces over placards and protest… I don’t know, pick a thing. They cast a pretty wide net. 

Those first two examples - EL James and Stephanie Meyer (fun fact: I opened an Incognito window to Google that so my browser wouldn’t be covered in glitter forever) achieved huge financial success, despite the writing being chock full of inaccurate, sloppy, or just plain bad writing… and that’s not just my opinion. If you have the time, check out “Reasoning with Vampires”, a Tumblr page that examined the books and highlighted everything wrong from a writer’s perspective.  Now, I’m no grammar Nazi, but I take pride in one of my few talents, enough that I want to actually be paid for quality work. I’m also told I’m pretty good at it… but really that’s not my decision. Don’t compliment the messenger, or something. 

The point is, it’s getting more and more difficult to find work. 

For starters, the Internet is vast. “Vast" doesn’t really capture how big it is. It’s like when you go to the Grand Canyon: you can’t fathom how large it is unless you’ve been. Even then, our tiny monkey brains ache after contemplating it for too long. And it’s getting bigger (the Internet, not The World’s Largest Hole) thanks to people that blog, or sites that need content. Which is why it makes my teeth itch when I see a professional website with something as simple as a spelling mistake. Here’s me, trying his best to make a decent living doing something he loves, and some dip-shit content creator in Tulsa can’t be bothered to spellcheck his goddamn work before clicking “Publish.” 

The other thing is that any job you do find, they’re trying to sell something. I get that that’s the nature of the business, but this can be troublesome, to say the least. I used to write for an outdoor lifestyle magazine - skiing, climbing, mountain biking, etc. I live in a ski town, which is home to some pretty epic events, and people for that matter. (I had pancakes on a dock this morning with some friends while the sun rose. Take that, real life!) The ski hill is literally steps from my front door. So a snowboard company asked me to review their new line. Great - I love to rip, and I’ve been doing it for years. Now, I’m 6ft tall, so my ideal sized snowboard is anywhere from a 158cm to a 165, depending on what kind of terrain I’m planning on riding.  This company sent me a 139, which, not only can I not ride because I’d probably snap it, but it’s actually dangerous for both me as a rider and the other people on the mountain. Sorry, guys. I don’t get paid enough to stop working at the bar while I’m in rehabilitative therapy. To put it another way: if your grandma knits you a sweater and it’s about 4 sizes too small, how are you supposed to wear it? Even if it could break your spine somehow? I still haven’t written that article, and I’m hoping they send me an actual sized board, because even professional snowboarding girls I know can’t ride it, and I don’t know any kids. 

I’m just lucky I know what I’m talking about with this job. I check LinkedIn, Monster, friggin’ Craigslist weekly, and 99 percent of postings are for tech companies, or oil and gas, or medical journals - something I have no interest in, nor am I qualified to talk about. There’s someone out there whose jam is angioplasty balloons, but it’s not me.

This is why I love reviewing albums. 

People argue that all music is shit these days, but that’s absolutely not true. Yes, some music is terrible - the stuff you’re subjected to at the office has to be safe for work, and has to be just varied enough to suit everyone, but not so varied that every song offends someone. I call this “Mom-rock”. If you can imagine your mom just singing along in the car, that’s the stuff. (My mom’s rad though.) These sites review all kinds of music, and it’s awesome. I hear things I’d never even give a listen to. Right out of the gate, my first album was the Foo Fighters’ “Wasting Light". This gig introduced me to Die Antwoord, Jonathan Coulton, Yellow Ostrich, Matt Mays, and I heard The Naked and Famous’ “Passive Me, Aggressive You” before any of you. (yep, I heard it too. I just Hipstered. Sorry.)

When you work for a review site, even as an unpaid job, they send you a secure link to check out the album. I used to listen to it 3 times: first as a “fan”, no note taking allowed, then twice through, remembering what tracks or sections I liked or disliked. That’s the key: the dislikes. I’m allowed to be honest. There’s still a band out there that shall remain nameless, but the last track was the undoing of the whole album. I referred to it as “irritating, and a hell of a way to end an album". That should give you enough to find it yourself. They encourage honesty, and it’s a great way to try out new turns of phrase. 

Oh yeah, I bet that’s something you didn’t know - writers sometimes write things because it feels nice to say them out loud. My favourite word is “mahogany”, even pre-Anchorman. I have a dozen or so notebook that I still own that are full of words that I’ve played with, snippets of conversations that I’ve heard in coffee shops that please my ears. It’s called “found poetry”, and it is an utter sickness. I once wrote some gibberish when I was a kid: Dusty Grand Piano, Bright Black in the Dark. I still can’t even begin to explain why I like that phrase so much, but it fills me with the most profound nonsexual satisfaction. 

The trouble is, no one wants to pay. So many people are working for free or for pennies, just to make a little money, that they’re devaluing their own craft. You wouldn’t tell an artist “Yeah, I could get my buddy to paint that for like $20”, unless you're the guy no one wants to talk to at parties.  The market is so arbitrary that I don’t even know what I should get paid by the word - I get paid by the post. Working by the word means you can devote more time to your art, instead of writing as a secondary income, like I do. Let’s go back to the artist allegory: they’re able to paint more with grants, contracts, etc. That doesn’t really work in the writing world, where every racist with an Internet connection thinks they have something worthwhile to say.

The other angle is that I only get paid for my time when that time spent writing produces financial results. I can’t invoice a company for an hour’s time of “putting our heads together” to see what we can come up with. Chances are, the person that proposed the meeting is paid a salary, or at least hourly - even if nothing comes from the meeting, they’re still walking away with a pay check. I, on the other hand, had to get out of my pyjamas to come to your office, something that already gives me reason for a mild grudge against you.

I have a second job because of course I do.There’s a place where 3-figure monthly incomes are workable. Those places are called “banana republics”. I’m fortunate in that my “2nd” job has actually been my career since 2003, and it’s another hobby I love: bartending. Not mixology, not flair bartending, just honest-to-God pouring pints and chatting with people. I can definitely make a good margarita; I just hardly ever need to.  It’s two sides of the coin: for every hour I’m not sitting down and concentrating on writing, I’m meeting somebody sitting at the bar that might inspire a character, or an article.

I’m starting to work with obsolete tools. Did you know “pwned” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary? I wish, more than you’ll ever know, that I was joking. So did “butthurt”, “rly”, and “beer o’clock”, although I think I can get on board with that last one. 

Maybe I’m a purist, but it drives me bonkers when someone texts me and it’s all half words and obsolete abbreviations. I once told my younger sister that if she continued to send me messages that made her sound like an idiot, I’d treat her like one. I noticed a significant improvement in her emails after that. 

Why am I the weird one? I take pride in my work - why (and when) did we decide that proper writing should be saved for our resumés? The fact that Buzzfeed exists is exactly why I like Cracked.com. For Christ’s sake, TL;DR stands for “Too Long; Didn’t Read". Can we all take a minute to appreciate how insane that is? 

My turning point was when someone pointed out to me that “lol” looks like a drowning stick man (now you see it too) and resolved never to use it again. No longer would I contribute to this archaic method of testing stick men’s swimming ability. So if you ever receive a text from me with an “lol", assume my phone has been stolen.

Finally, there’s the noise. 

So. Much. Noise. 

You know the old trope about Facebook feeds and the oversharing (true story: I once unfriended someone because they updated the world on their cat’s shit… twice), but what about the banalities? We’ve all got that one friend who has 3 statuses. That’s it. They can be summed up thus: “I hate my job”. “Going to the gym”. Getting drunk because it’s Friday.” (Spelling may vary.) Well, imagine that, but in a journal. There are thousands of those types of blogs out there. Add that to the ones that are irrelevant (for example, I don’t have kids, so “mommy blogs” don’t interest me), and there’s just an ocean of narcissism.  It makes sense that we all have something to say: we’re the main character in our own feature films. But we went from “Stay out of my diary” to "Everyone read/look at what I had for breakfast” so damn fast it makes my head spin.

On Seinfeld's incomparable Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Tina Fey says that her ideal job post-30Rock would be “to be in charge of the Twitter licences… Give me 10 samples of what you might want to talk about, and I would talk to you about whether that was something we all needed to know.” 

Fucking right, Ms. Fey.

The only problem for this approach with online writing is that some writers are so good at seeing those little “boring" things and turn them into these beautifully crafted pieces of work. The way that a poet can describe the final drip of coffee slowly making its way down the outside of the mug, only to dry right next to its brother… and that’s why I’m not a poet. We need a little sound from the piano, but you can’t hammer on all the keys at once and expect to get a hit single out of it. 

That’s the best analogy for the World Wide Web, actually: we’re all playing our one note, and not caring to listen to each other’s.


Dying Words