Raising the Tone

Regular readers will know that I’m an avid blogger; I produce an entry every week come rain, shine or public holiday.

Always open to an alternative point of view, however, I clicked on a sponsored post a couple of weeks ago about the topic of how blogging doesn’t lead to book sales. Sponsored posts are usually an indicator of quality, often containing persuasive text and statistics to support the blogger’s point of view.

In this case, an author was selling a book via Kindle about how to increase Kindle sales, but using what amounted to a 3,700-word rant. I then headed to the author’s Amazon page to read what others had to say about this guy; the consensus was that the information was useful, but they objected to some unnecessary and offensive material within the text. In short, the writer had adopted the wrong tone.

Judging the tone of a piece can be a tricky business. Something meant in a satirical or sarcastic manner can be interpreted as serious or libellous, and that’s partly why I believe it’s important to take a break from a piece and to look at it later with fresh eyes.

But this sponsored post wasn’t a one-off piece written on a bad day. Everywhere this author had been published, there appeared the same attitude and the same comments. The reason I’m not linking to his site isn’t to do with the tone of that page; he’s also a pickup artist, so I’d rather not drive any more traffic there.

Fortunately, there are countless other examples available. I’d like to single out the Washington Post as having a particular problem. Consider these two headlines, published around six months apart:

In both cases, we have an accusation. Firstly, the reader is told they know nothing about US Independence Day. Secondly, it’s the sub-headline that causes a problem; it assumes that the reader has no mental impairment. This is a deliberate move from the publication to anger the reader and therefore generate a click.

And it works. An excellent article from Wired lays out the psychology behind emotional responses, and it’s noted that other emotions also attract readers. Some websites follow a two-sentence structure designed to entice curiosity without revealing too many details; a journalist from Poynter explains how Upworthy headlines operate.

What I haven’t been able to find is why we as a culture haven’t collectively learnt to ignore these sensationalist tactics, just as many users have become selectively blind to banner and sidebar advertising.

In my years of running this blog, I probably haven’t judged my tone correctly in every single entry. However, I always aim to bring people on board by moderating my words in such a way that people are engaged, not outraged.

Looking back over the last three months, each week has attracted between two and eight presses of the Like button, plus the occasional new follower. I’d much rather have two engaged readers than have a hundred people visit, be offended, and leave permanently.

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Acceptable Attitudes

I subscribe to a popular members-only writers’ group. While it’s mainly to discuss the process of writing, there’s room for other types of post.

A couple of weeks ago, one member announced that her book was now available on Amazon, but she failed to provide a link or even the title. When these were requested, she eventually provided the title, and at the same time insulted one of those who had asked. As other members found the book and read the free sample, they brought to her attention a number of errors in the text.

By the end of the discussion, she had admitted to publishing the book without reading back over her work, so desperate was she to make it available. She even became a little apologetic.

Bad Attitude (album)
Bad Attitude (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It comes down to one concept: attitude. The member who had started the post did so with a terrible attitude, though it was eventually softened by the firm yet helpful hand of many of the commenters.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, our attitude can earn or lose us readers. Around 18 months ago, I attended a literary event where one of the students constantly took over the conversation by talking about her degree course at length. She stopped coming back after her second visit; perhaps she ran out of achievements to boast about.

Fortunately, such an outright egotistical attitude is rare face-to-face, at least in my own experience. Yet a lazy approach can be similarly offputting.

I’m privileged to be followed by some amazing writers on Twitter, a few with verified accounts. But I won’t follow back if the writer posts the same link to their work over and over again, often adorned with tags such as #amwriting; one of many tags that’s now so common, it’s become meaningless. Laziness doesn’t fly with savvy Twitter users.

One user who gives an excellent impression is @RayneHall. A casual look at her page shows writing advice interspersed with photos of her cat, sparing use of tags – and plenty of replies to followers. To me, this projects the attitude of a writer who is passionate towards her subject without subjecting us to overbearing self-promotion, and who is willing to listen to the views of others.

If you view this entry on a laptop or desktop computer, you’ll see my own Twitter updates on the right-hand side of the screen under the handle @LadyGavGav. My usual style is to post jokes – especially puns – to engage people. These updates provide a little insight into me as a person rather than as a promoter. But when I do have something to advertise, such as a blog entry every Monday, the audience shouldn’t feel hit over the head with it.

In my experience, allowing an audience to see even a little piece of yourself is important. In 2015, I attended a Jeanette Winterson book launch. The first part of the event was taken up with videos about Shakespeare and speaking about his life. I was bored, frankly, because it wasn’t obvious at first that she was referring to the structure of her book. Thankfully, once the videos stopped and she began to answer questions, her own personality shone through; much more engaging than the razzmatazz that had gone before it.

There is no single correct or effective way to project a good attitude, but there are plenty of bad ways.