Is the Internet Teaching Us to Write for Humans or Machines?

Quantity or quality, which will prevail?

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

There’s typing on the internet and then there’s writing.

The two aren’t the same. And yet, conflating one with the other happens frequently in an age when you stand to disappear overnight the minute you neglect to feed new content to the algorithm.

While standard writing advice is that we must write a lot to find our voice, it often leaves out one important point: Not everything we come up with will be good enough to publish.

We all write crap sometimes. Whether it’s a piece that loses its mojo halfway through, fails to make a point, or is just a disjointed collection of words going nowhere, it happens.

Knowing when to publish and when to hold back is key, especially if you value the relationship you’ve built with those who do you the courtesy of reading and supporting your work.

No one likes wading through schlock to get at interestingness day in, day out because a writer is oblivious, careless, or just grabby. If we want to keep them, we cannot assume readers will consume whatever we put in front of them.

In the absence of gatekeepers, it’s up to writers to exercise editorial judgment and perform a modicum of quality control. If we don’t, we run the risk of diluting our work’s value, alienating readers, and lowering overall platform quality.

Not a pro? Not a problem at all.

You don’t need media training to know quality, but you do need to read widely, across several genres, disciplines, and formats. An avid reader is an unfailingly discerning one, with an acute sense of what works and what doesn’t.

Reading can teach you everything you need to know about tone, structure, and what makes an engaging piece. By deconstructing what an author does rather than just letting the narrative carry you, you can develop and perfect your own style and editorial standards.

Editorial standards are more necessary than ever in an age when everyone is vying for attention.

Some writers will go to any lengths to capture attention, from clickbait to listicles via carpet-bombing the internet with an endless stream of logorrhea to stun readers into submission and hijack clicks.

When applied to writing, capitalism and individualism can result in readers being left out of the equation as writers lose themselves in self-aggrandizing narratives that all say the same thing: “Look at me!”

Sometimes this approach works. Some will look and be in awe of quantity while others will look and deplore the absence of quality.

Because attention isn’t something any writer is entitled to; it’s something we earn anew through the strength of our work with every single piece.

Spending so much time in one’s head makes writers more self-aware than average.

To pretend otherwise while we focus so much on writing about our own person would be disingenuous. One of the dangers of this kind of work, especially when writing personal essays in an attempt to monetize one’s life experience, is that it can mess you up.

Some find the vulnerability required unsettling and occasionally detrimental to their mental health. Others lose all sense of perspective.

In journalism, editors often remind their staffers and freelancers they’re only as good as their last piece lest their ego should get in the way.

Even in the realm of personal essays, our copy should help humanize a universal issue, not double up as a self-branding exercise complete with SEO.

Where advertising copy intersects with storytelling, you end up with some hybrid narrative called an advertorial. For example, copy that contains product links falls under that category. Please proceed with caution. Burying them in your copy without flagging them as affiliate links isn’t a good idea.

Few readers are fond of stealth product endorsements, no matter how much you may like something, even if that something is yourself.

Is the audience engagement model promoting or lowering editorial quality?

There’s no straightforward answer, and it all seems to boil down to writers’ own editorial standards.

Traction and visibility no longer seem dependent on a piece’s quality but rather on volume, specifically whether a writer has a large following. By that point, a piece needn’t even be good to do well. Because it’s pushed out to enough people, only a small percentage need to click to make it successful.

Understand this, and all you have to do to keep up momentum is put out something, anything, regularly. This makes for a lot of filler content.

Greed is another way to do well. Write about how much you make and gullible readers will flock, blinded by the dollar signs and the lure of easy lucre. And instead of learning anything, they’re the ones who will foot the bill without even noticing they’ve been hoodwinked into handing over their cash in the form of clicks.

For unscrupulous writers, such copy is a nice little earner, and they know it because they push it out several times a week.

As effort no longer focuses on editorial matters but on how to manipulate readers, there’s no conversation anymore, just people shouting at one another.

Platform quality suffers, leading to frustration among fellow writers who will sometimes lash out, generating yet more filler content that does little to improve the tenor of the debate about how to be a human in the world.

Because this is what writing boils down to: Who are we? What are we here for? How do we do human?

Unlike print, the internet is about connection and conversation.

Lest we forget, getting paid for thinking out loud remains a privilege.

Attention is fleeting and attempting to parlay every brain fart into dollars makes a mockery of human communication and robs language of meaning.

Although this practice has been popularized by the president of the most powerful country in the world, is it worthy of emulating? When you write without readers in mind, you write at readers, not to or for them.

Online, none of us ever read or write alone, which makes the act of writing even more of a people-focused pursuit because the page can and does answer back. And debates, argues, and even advises on occasion, for which I’m always grateful. Regardless of how applicable those suggestions might be, it’s the thought that counts.

When someone takes time out of their day to read and comment on my work, it’s an honor. Every click and comment is proof that connection happened, a trace left behind by a fellow human.

Although both quality and quantity make an impact, they’re not the same. That’s the difference between savoring a small piece of single-origin handcrafted chocolate and gorging on a family multipack of mass-produced bargain-basement candy.

Words nourish us and provide essential intellectual sustenance, but the moment we forget there are no writers without readers is the moment our writing ceases to be service and becomes self-serving.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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