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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Reaction … Times

Two of the biggest stories of last month were the Orlando shooting and the UK’s exit from the European Union. In their individual ways, they’ve brought responses from writers and poets trying to process the news. Brian Bilston is a prominent example: he usually has a verse within a day or two that reacts to the issue in hand.

However, there is sometimes a balance to be struck between capturing the immediate mood and waiting to see the aftermath of the event. The former can be excellent for capturing the raw emotion upon hearing the news; yet the latter can become a carefully constructed piece that comments on what happened next and whether or not correct actions were taken.

Let’s take the EU exit as an example. If you penned a piece on 24 June, it might talk about David Cameron’s resignation and the sterling exchange rate hitting such a low, and it would almost certainly have an emotional resonance but only a few details of the bigger picture. Conversely, if you wrote that piece tonight, it’s possible to include something about the legal wrangling and the resignations, but it could potentially lose its immediacy.

There’s also the trap of writing about something is a massive story right now but will potentially be forgotten or overtaken by other developments. We all remember issues like Bill Clinton’s affair, Section 28, and the millennium bug, but none of these cases hold currency now. It’s a personal view, but if the background of a work needs to be explained before it’s read, I don’t consider it successful.

Emergency exit sign used in the European Union...
Emergency exit sign. There’s not much more I can say about this. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s no easy way to swerve these problems. The best advice I can offer is to write it when you feel ready. With Orlando, the shooting seemed rather abstract and far away at first, but I went to a vigil on the following Tuesday. I intended to stay only five minutes, then leave. I ended up staying a lot longer, and only a day or two later was I able to formulate a poetic response to the events.

The quest for immediacy is aided by the advances in communication over the last few decades to the extent that non-journalists can report on events if they happen to be in the vicinity. But there is a movement that wants to recapture the benefit of hindsight. Delayed Gratification isn’t interested in stories newer than three months. The magazine likes to look back and examine what happened in detail when the breath has gone cold. Considering the quoted praise from other news agencies, it looks like they’re onto a winner with this business model.

And I wonder whether we can use this approach for fiction? Might there be a gap in the market for a magazine that prints creative responses to world events three months on? It seems an ideal length of time to me: enough for the writer to construct and edit a decent-sized piece, but not so long that it’s completely out of the public’s consciousness. If there’s anyone who seriously thinks this is a good idea, let’s talk.