the kids can all write

Obviously, I have a bunch of complaints about professional politics and culture writing. But one complaint I see floating around just doesn’t jibe with my experience at all. I frequently read people saying (often on Facebook) that “nobody knows how to write these days,” that the web writing generation doesn’t have the prose chops that the old magazine-and-newspaper generations had, that there’s no gatekeeping anymore…. Well, clearly this is unscientific and based on my own limited perspective, but I actually think that the average level of pure prose chops — the ability to express yourself with clarity, concision, and style — is very high today, and better than it ever has been in the 20 years that I’ve been reading nonfiction. There are reasons to look back on the print era with nostalgia, but prose ability isn’t one of them. In my opinion, the average writer at a prominent website, magazine, or newspaper these days can really write.

I think the reasons for this are pretty simple. First, today’s young writers have access to a vast storehouse of the greatest nonfiction writing in history. The internet gives them the ability to read a vast archive of the best writers from decades ago — no more digging through print stacks for old copies of The Atlantic or Harper’s — and their jobs typically entail reading a lot of the best prose stylists in the business, day after day. Good reading isn’t sufficient for good writing, obviously, but it is necessary. Second, and I really think this is key, they put their work out there over and over again, get feedback, and the next day try again. There are some real problems with the speed with which web writers today have to churn out content, but I also think that, like with most crafts, getting better at nonfiction writing is an iterative process. You do it and you make mistakes and you learn from them and you absorb the lesson and the next time you get a bit better and then you learn some more. The frantic pace of the current content cycle sucks in many ways, but it means that people are iterating faster and faster, and I genuinely think it’s had a positive impact on the communicative and stylistic quality of paid commentary writing. Most of the complaints seem like bogus “kids these days” whinging, to me.

(This iteration thing has been on my mind a lot, lately, as someone who’s taught a lot of writing in his life. Someday I’ll write a writing textbook for high school and college students and name it Iterate!)

It’s in fact exactly for that reason that the fundamental economic problems bother me so much. The messed up incentives of click-reliant writing bury this writing ability in the constant chase for numbers. Look, I hate all of the viral Facebook garbage as much as you do. And sure, there are a few pure careerists out there who just want to get clicks. But in general, nobody wants to publish trash. They want to do good work, and they have talent and desire. It’s just that, as of now, doing good work hasn’t been demonstrated to be an actual business strategy, no matter how badly people want to believe it. Which just gets back to my same old saw: only direct monetization, via paywalls or subscription fees or pledge drives or whatever, can save all these talented young writers from the brokenness of their industry’s economic model.