Tag Archives: journalism

Fiction Writing and Me (Synthesis vs. Description)

4 Apr

School stretches on forever. At least that’s how I imagine the next few weeks will feel.

The first half of the semester flew by, through part adrenaline and part movement – I think I went home every other weekend for a good six or seven weeks. But now, during April, I face probably the longest uninterrupted stretch of school I’ve had in a while. No breaks, days off or going home until Easter.

I’m fine with that, though. After a much-needed spring break, I was ready to get on with it.

Over break I had the chance to work regularly on a fiction project I’ve been tackling since the fall. No, I’m not going to divulge details, I’m not there yet. And while it’s a bit of a truism that most journalists four or five “first chapters” lying around unfinished and neglected, I’ve gotten much farther in this project than any other previous long form attempt I’ve made.

That being said, I’m still plagued by an inability to add to it consistently. The drive to work on it comes in spurts, usually for a couple weeks and then recedes for maybe a month or so before coming back.

I’ve been reflecting on why this is and I have a couple observations about the difference between writers (or any artist or creative) who deals in creativity of synthesis and those who deal in the creativity of description.

1) The creativity of synthesis. These are the fiction writers. When I write fiction, I’m engaging in synthesis to create something new. I’m taking elements of truth, sometimes miniscule things I see – a personality trait, a physical detail – to big things – whole people, situations, events – and combining this with the power of imagination to synthesize something new.

As I’ve looked back at when I’ve found the constitution and drive to write fiction with any regularity, it’s been those times when quite frankly I’m almost bored. It’s also been those times when I’ve noticed I haven’t had as much social interaction. Not that I’ve been a hermit, just a little less than usual.

Why is this? I think it’s because while conjuring the real-life elements needed to make for good writing is somewhat easy (you need a good memory and a life full of experiences, something many people have) the synthesis part is incredibly taxing. The part where you have to invent and imagine storylines and plot and dialogue in convincing ways, that’s difficult.

Doing this well requires going into yourself, immersing yourself in your own imagination and your own created world. The reflection and immersion required doesn’t translate well into my everyday life, which is probably why it’s usually during breaks and the rare times when school is boring that it’s easier to sit down and write fiction.

2) The creativity of description. This is how I would classify my journalism and any of my non-fiction writing, such as this blog post. The creativity is not in invention, but in how best to use the tool of language to communicate the world you see around you. That’s where the creativity is. The creativity is in the technique, not the content. The content is the world as I’ve observed it, recorded it, talked to other people about it.

In contrast with fiction writing, my journalism is often best when I’m most immersed in the world around me, the time when I’m least aware of myself. So these are the times when I’m generally happy (but not estatic), and am not overly-stressed by school but am not completely bored either. In short, it is those rare moments when everything seems to be in equilibrium.

The whole enterprise is outwardly focused.

So is one mode of creating better than the other? No. I think there’s value in practicing both types from time to time, even if one has a clear strength and favorite.

I would have to lock myself in a room by myself for weeks on end if I was ever going to be a novelist. I wouldn’t want to do that. As refreshing as the introspection that fiction requires can be, I am too curious about the world around me to focus my curiosity inward for too long.

But, for those times every so often when the mood strikes, my project will be there, waiting. And that’s enough for me.


Grenades or Smoke Bombs

20 Feb

Great journalism should be greatly creatively, right?

Right. But it doesn’t always work out that way. The point has been hammered home in the last several years (by people such as Jeff Jarvis), most fervently during the mid 00’s that journalism’s initial failure to grasp and adapt to the internet in the late 1990s and early 00’s led to the disastrous predicament that newspapers find themselves in now.

Journalists hung onto their established methods and resisted change. And death came upon them. In some cases the resistance came from the corporate level and highest levels of editorship. In other cases, shoe leather reporters were the worst offenders. In any case, the market (the advertising market, that is) is speaking, and innovaters, sensing weakness, have injected a stagnant field with creative juices.

Nick Denton, the founder of uber-popular gossip site Gawker, strikes me as the archetype of this new breed of innovators. He disdains questions about whether he’s a journalist. He’s abrasive. He’s British.

The very idea that he would forge a media empire and have a nonchalance about whether or not Gawker is journalism is perhaps the most jarring thing about the man. Media execs, journos and to a certain extent myself have spent the better part of the last decade arguing about what the word journalism means.

To see someone come along who doesn’t even care has shocked me.

Shocking in a good way. In a way that’s disturbed me.

The journalism world has spent so much energy arguing about what journalism is, in the hope that having a good answer would help us in the quest to move forward. We didn’t even stop to think about whether that debate was even worth having.

Even as the profession tried to have debates, to decide between what we think to be bold, new directions (“why yes, maybe bloggers can be journalists”) others like Denton and Arianna Huffington come along and utterly unconcerned by this brooding, press on into territory we haven’t even thought of yet.

Now that’s creativity.

Denton and others have been able to escape from the narratives of how we view the profession. It’s something we need to be able to do. Not abandon the narratives (truth, right to know, public interest, information greases the wheels of democracy, excuse the metaphor) but to look outside them and see what exists outside of them that might be of interest or helpful.

Don’t get me wrong, Denton’s not a saint of good practice. Gawker isn’t exactly a bastion of high brow or ethically pristine material, but it is creative and it does have an impact.

I see several parallels between the education field and journalism. I’ve even explored a few of those parallels before.

Watch the video above. Sir Ken Robinson speaks about creativity and education. He strikes me as a Nick Denton figure of education. So does Michelle Rhee – people who when you throw them into education act like grenades. They explode the systems around them, hopefully allowing new systems, new methods, new ways to emerge in their place.

From my own lay observation of education, it appears there’s been a greater willingness to throw grenades into education in the last few years. And it seems to me when those grenades are actually allowed to explode, the results can be good. But it’s also apparent to me that for every grenade, there’s also a number of smoke bombs: they look like grenades, but ultimately they just create a smokescreen and nothing actually changes.

Individual educators and the education establishment are having to decide whether they’re interested in grenades or smoke bombs.

And so are journalists. Nick Denton is a grenade. Arianna Huffington is a grenade. Jeff Jarvis is a grenade.

But others are smoke bombs. Rupert Murdoch is a smoke bomb. The Washington Post Company as a whole is a smoke bomb. They can look like grenades at times – heck, it’s hard not to feel like a rebel when you watch the intro video for Murdoch’s iPad Daily. But when it comes down to it, the flash tends to mask just how un-innovative they are.

We have to ask ourselves who we want to be?

Grenades or smoke bombs.

Why academic writing sucks

17 Nov

Students write boring essays all the time. Big surprise.

The problem is they’re being taught to write boringly.

This conclusion is what I’ve come to after thinking about the topic of writing and education over the last few days. A short post over at 37 Signals set off this round of thinking. In it, an educator proposes a writing class that would essentially work in reverse, teaching students to cut down their compositions, rather than expanding them.

4 pages > 1 page > 1 paragraph > 1 sentence.

That’s the idea. I love it.

The entire focus of writing is turned on its head. The shortest written expression of an idea becomes the most valuable. Editing information is equally as valuable as the production of information.

It evokes the paradigm of journalism. The paradigm of journalism is editing. What is the best way to tell this story? What is the best way to write this article? Those are the questions writers and editors ask every day in journalism. The guiding principle driving decisions of how to present information in journalism is how to most clearly communicate information in a way that will be most accessible to your audience.

Most people in academia (primary, secondary, and the academy) who teach writing in some way would probably say they teach and value clarity and accessibility in writing. That’s good and I think they’re sincere. But these educators, from my experience, teach students to write clearly and accessibly to the wrong audience.

Most educators want students to write to them, the educator. The educator is the audience. Now, the educator is a valid audience. And knowing how to write about a subject area to an expert in that subject area is a valuable skill. But this is the primary audience students are taught to write to from cradle to diploma.

The cumulative effects of this focus on a single audience is devastating to teaching students how to actually communicate in the real world.

A five paragraph theme may be the most logical way to present information to educators, but for most real-world writing situations, this template fails. Think about what most of your writing is. Is it multi-page, thesis-based topic papers? HECK NO!

Our writing is the dozens of texts we send every day. It’s the short (and longer) e-mails we send everyday. It’s the comments we write on Facebook. It’s 140 character bites we spit out on Twitter. It’s the 200, 300 word blog posts every so often.

Now think of the writing we do occasionally. It’s resumes. It’s cover letters. It’s more formal letters to family and friends. It’s invitations to events. It’s letters to businesses. It’s instructions to babysitters and caretakers during nights out and vacations. It’s the longer, more deep blog posts (like this one).

Finally, think of the writing you almost never do (in the real world). It’s academic, topic-based papers.

Educators are teaching students to perfect a form that no one uses (except them).

The lack of use might have to do with the idea that the way in which academic writing is structured is designed to turn away all but the most interested readers. This form is actively trying to turn away potential audience.

The thesis often gets buried at the bottom of the first paragraph, which itself can be quite long. The thesis itself usually doesn’t actually communicate the most important information but rather just acts as a roadmap for the reader.

Key information is strewn throughout the body and is obscured by filling. I can almost guarantee that the vast majority of undergraduate papers contain filler. Students, including me, inject crap into their papers in order to meet what sometime seem like arbitrary page requirements.

Often, I lengthen my papers by including extraneous and extra adjectives and adverbs and other various parts of speech that are not needed or prudent and for which there are absolutely no logical and necessary reasons to demand their inclusion and use in my topical, academic essay.

I would never do this in journalistic writing. But I do it on purpose when writing papers. And teachers eat it up. Do they spurn my extra verbs? No. They don’t even realize this results in totally uninteresting crap writing. If they do, they usually don’t make their displeasure known on my grade.

It’s an example of how disconnected educators can be from how most people read.

On the other hand, journalism is a great example of writers trying to get as in touch with how people read as possible. Why are news stories written in inverted pyramid style? Because people naturally don’t want to read 300 words to get to the point. They want the point now.

We teach students to write introductions. We also need to teach them how to write leads.

Students are taught that they need 4,5,10 pages to explore a topic satisfactorily. They also should be taught that they need to earn the readers’ attention every page they write. No one’s going to read 10 pages of garbage in the real world.

Students are taught that detail is good, that context is valuable. They also should be taught that unnecessary modifiers kill pace and that strong verbs glue readers to the page.

We teach students to write conclusions. We also need to teach them to write kickers.

Teachers sometimes complain that young people vulgarize the English language through ungrammatical text messages and unpolished Facebook updates. But teachers haven’t taught students how to write to these mediums or express ideas in a short-writing world.

That’s what’s truly vulgar.

Facebook privacy and pondering before you post

9 May

Facebook recently unveiled some new features, most notably, the implementation of the “Like” button all over the web. The feature is suppose to allow you to share content more easily. It also, conveniently, provides Facebook with a new level of psychographic information that can be leveraged with advertisers.

In addition, Facebook has steadily been changing some of its features and privacy settings from opt-in to opt-out, thereby making more and more personal information on the site public or at least visible to more Facebookers.

U.S. Senators are concerned. Some users are upset.

So I’ve been considering these issues for the last few days and reading various voices on the subject, and realized that I’ve never written about the issue before (as far as I know).

So a few thoughts on privacy, Facebook, and the web.

1. Facebook is currently invincible.

They have reached the point of critical mass, meaning that enough people use the site that is the by far the de facto social network. No matter how angry people are, many are unlikely to leave unless their friends leave because there is no similar web application that people could turn to and still find the same usefulness that Facebook offers. So as long as the number of people who leave the site is minimal, there is almost no chance that users will suddenly abandon the service en mass.

And because of that, Facebook has no incentive to create a privacy policy that will make users more comfortable.

2. Your view of Facebook and privacy is probably dependent on what you ultimately want Facebook to do for you and all its users.

As I see it, there are really two ways to view what Facebook’s role should be. Of course, there are variations, but here are the two sides as I see it, distilled.

  • Facebook is like a dinner party. You and your friends are there. Everyone knows everyone else. You might not know them that well, and occasionally someone there might actually only be a friend of a friend, but everyone is still fairly close to you socially. You talk and visit with everyone quite freely. People who weren’t invited to the dinner party generally don’t know what happened at the dinner party. Inevitably, people will talk to other people who weren’t at the party and will find out a few details of went on, but the majority of what happened remains secret.
  • Facebook is like a bar or a crowded restaurant. You and your friends are seated at a table. You still know everyone around the table, but you’re in the middle of a crowded room with many other tables and people around those tables having their own conversations. Now, if you listen, you can understand the conversations going on at the other tables, or at least get the gist of them. Now, while you spend most of the time at your table, if something absolutely intriguing or disgusting or amazing happens at one of the tables, you may get up, walk over and give your two cents. Here, it’s most likely that people won’t know most of the conversation at your table because they’re busy with the people at their own tables, but you never quite know who might have heard what.

Hopefully those similes (yes, they are similes because I used the word “like”) are helpful.

Now, some people think Facebook should be like a dinner party. Others think it should be more like a crowded restaurant.

The dinner party is exclusive. It’s the idea that Facebook should be a place to share information and photos with friends and should basically stay out of everything else. The purest form of this view would be when Facebook was just for college students (and later high school). Creating a place to allow the exchange of information with a select group of people.

As I see it, Facebook is currently more like a dinner party, but is trying to become more like a restaurant.

The restaurant is open. Anyone can come. Sure, you’re going to spend most of your time with your own friends: reading their walls, looking at their photos, browsing their profiles. But every once and a while you’ll stumble across something completely outside your social graph (indeed, perhaps it’s something outside of Facebook that draws you in). Maybe it’s a link or a video or a cool site. Or a product, as many corporations hope. Here you can easily share those things with your friends, the people at your table. But the price of all this is that everyone else can see more of your stuff, too.

Now, I think it’s a bit divisive to argue about which side is better. After all, plenty of people like both dinner parties and restaurants.

But as a matter of reality, I think in the end, those who prefer only dinner parties are going to lose out. Because the restaurant model will eventually win.


3. Because the web (not just Facebook) is destroying privacy.

The web has been destroying privacy probably since the creation of Google. And people have largely allowed this happen without protest, probably because less privacy allows you to do a lot of cool stuff. You can find information more easily and see trends with ease. Also, most of the information publicly available up until now has been fairly innocent, relatively speaking.

But now, with Facebook moving closer and closer to throwing your photos and profile information out into the open for anyone to see, people have started to notice. Up until now, people have been comfortable putting very personal information on Facebook because they understood what was said at the dinner party would largely remain at the dinner party.

The primary reason I believe people are threatened by the erosion of privacy by Facebook in particular but more importantly the web in general, is that it makes it harder for people to present different identities to different groups.

Currently in order to integrate fully into different social spheres, such as work, family, and friends, they must present at least slightly different identities of themselves to each one.

For example, your work identity includes your work habits, your professional skills and aspirations and perhaps a few trivial personal details. But not much else.

But without privacy, all of these identities are eliminated. There are no longer multiple identities. Just one. Your workers have the same access to information as your friends do. Your family can see just as much about you as your friends.

Naturally, people don’t like that. Some things are embarrassing.

But if everyone’s privacy is gone, as people like Jeff Jarvis argue, then you can see your bosses embarrassing information just as easily as he can see yours. If everyone’s embarrassing stuff is out there, then things aren’t quite as embarrassing as they would otherwise be.

That’s one possibility. Others, like Robert Scoble, argue that having everyone’s junk out in the open will actually make us less likely to put our junk online in the first place, instead of just being more overall accepting. I think the most likely possibility is a combination of the two options.

The stigma with making some information public will be eliminated, while the stigmas attached to other kinds of information will remain, causing people to post that kind of information less often. What will escape stigma and what won’t, I don’t know.

This whole debate is a bit jarring for me, and as I’ve read, for others journalists as well, because it’s counter to how we already operate. It’s forced me to consider how other people view privacy.

Journalists operate in the public sphere. Many journalists, when they join a news organization, are drilled with the fact that public will not separate our work (our work identity) from our personal life (or familial or social identity). Therefore, we are always, in a sense, “on.” We are told to always consider how every action we take reflects on our work and the organization to which we belong. We live are told, essentially, to live always as if every moment is a public moment.

So while journalists most likely retain some privacy, we live with a smaller expectation of it online. Which is why it is jarring to me when I had conversations with friends who have disabled or deleted their Facebook account because they do not want employers to access their information. I’m actually less likely to be hired if I don’t actively participate in social media. I just do so with the understanding that whatever I post may become public or read by anyone.

That means sometimes I don’t post things I would otherwise. Most of the time, I do anyways, however.


And the point?

Self-censorship will probably take care of the problem. Yeah, I know that’s a really reductionist answer.

Yes, social networks will become more open. And yes, new, more exclusive ones will always pop up.

But self-censorship is the best way to ensure that we don’t make public information that we don’t want made public. Censorship when directed by an individual at another individual can be a very destructive thing. That’s why we have the First Amendment. But when we direct the power to silence speech at our individual selves, the results can be quite positive sometimes.

People think before they speak. It shouldn’t be that difficult to think before we post.


The citations for the two major readings that spurred this essay are below.

Much ado about privacy on Facebook (I wish Facebook were MORE open!!!)

By Robert Scoble

Confusing *a* public with *the* public

By Jeff Jarvis

The Daily Roundup

20 Apr

Class still plays an important role in political and economic life in America. While this seems a fairly self-evident statement, politicians are often loathe to acknowledge it.

So with Democrats and the Obama administration set to take on large Wall Street corporations and bankers, class tensions have been exposed and the results are interesting. Republicans have opposed the measures at times with somewhat twisted logic, given that these same Republicans who were against the stimulus and bailout measures are now against measures to restrict the power of corporations and banks to get themselves into similar situations.

By seeking to exercise increased governmental power over corporations, Democrats are essentially trying to give people more power over corporations – because government is one of the main ways people exercise power in a large way in a democratic society. This change upsets the higher class (or bourgeoisie, capitalists, elites, whatever name you want to use).

Anything that alters the power relationship between capitalists and employees is usually opposed by the capitalists, and often by working class conservatives who, ironically, are most likely to benefit from increased social control over corporations.

This desire to continue the status quo power relationship is seen in GOP rhetoric. The Wall Street Journal reported today that the GOP would unveil a new Contract with America in early fall in anticipation of the midterm election.

“It will be about how we will make America the employer-nation that it should be,” Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas is quoted as saying by the WSJ.

The implication in the quote is that corporations provide employment and people are employed by them. That’s a clearly defined relationship. Anything that in even the small way changes, even something as small as increased regulation of the complex financial instruments that brought about the Great Recession, is seen as a threat. The Democrats’ agenda is very far from socialism, but any attempt to transfer power away from corporations is seen as such.

So you might say, so what? After all, real people work in corporations. Most people, after all, work for corporations.

Well, that’s true. But that’s also the point. People work for corporations. The owners and stakeholders of corporations are almost always concentrated in a very small number of people. As people living in a democratic society, it should concern us anytime so much power is concentrated in the hands of so few. And unlike government, we can’t vote out CEOs and executives.

A few numbers from The University of California at Santa Cruz.

  • 20 percent of people in America possess 80 percent of the wealth
  • 1 percent of people in America possess 35 percent of the wealth.

The United States has higher wealth inequality than almost every Western European nation.

Think about it.

Update: The incident no longer looks as bad as it seems. This article has some much needed context.

There was a disturbing incident between reporters and The White House today. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell protestors chained themselves to the fence of The White House. When police came in to make the arrest, they not only pushed people and the press back across the street but also all the away across Lafayette Park. The action seemed entirely unnecessary and designed to stop video footage of the arrests.

This is disturbing and the press should not tolerate these kind of methods.

Teleconferencing may be on the rise as the Ash cloud is grounding European flights.

Along those same lines, as it turns out, the ash cloud is actually good for the environment.

You know all those “Hitler is angry” parody videos? Yeah, they’re pretty great. Well, it looks like they are going away. The company that owns the rights to the movie has demanded the clips be taken down and it appears YouTube is complying. It’s sad. Some of funniest viral videos I’ve seen came from that clip of film.

That’s The Daily Roundup. Have a great evening.

The Daily Roundup

14 Apr

Members of the Tea Party are wealthier and more educated than the general public, a new survey released by The New York Times and CBS News states.

From The Times:

In some ways, Tea Party supporters look like the general public. For instance, despite their allusions to Revolutionary War-era tax protesters, most describe the amount they paid in taxes this year as “fair.” Most send their children to public schools, do not think Sarah Palin is qualified to be president, and, despite their push for smaller government, think that Social Security andMedicare are worth the cost. They are actually more likely than the general public to have returned their census forms, despite some conservative leaders urging a boycott.

Their fierce animosity toward Washington, and the president in particular, is rooted in deep pessimism about the direction of the country and the conviction that the policies of the Obama administration are disproportionately directed at helping the poor rather than the middle class or the rich.

The Library of Congress will archive every tweet ever made, ever. More from the Library of Congress here.

The statistic that 47 percent of all American households don’t pay income tax has been swirling around recently as justification that Obama/government policies are designed to take from the rich to give to the poor.

Naturally, this argument is silliness. America has greater income inequality than most western nations. A very small number of people control a very large portion of the wealth. The majority of the tax burden is shouldered by wealthy Americans, it’s not exactly breaking news.

Economic columnist David Leonhardt picks apart the statistic and the claims surrounding it here, pointing out how tax rates have actually FALLEN for wealthy Americans, even as our debt has grown.

Jon Stewart on The Daily Show provides a more humorous take-down of the media’s presentation of the information here.

The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are getting ready for an old-fashioned newspaper throwdown. Should be fun.

Starbucks has a tool to help you calculate the environmental impact of your coffee consumption.

That’s The Daily Roundup. Have a great evening.

The Daily Roundup

5 Apr

Video showing American soldiers from Apache helicopters killing Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters journalists as well as injuring two children, was released today by Wikileaks, a whistleblower site that specializes in releasing secret and otherwise covered-up information.

The video of those killings is at the top of the post, as released by Wikileaks. The video also contains the audio communications of the soldiers as the event was taking place.

The soldiers who fired on the group of civilians gained permission to engage and from the audio apparently believed the civilians were insurgents because the two journalists were carrying cameras, which the soldiers thought were RPGs. When one of the journalists puts the camera up to take a photo, it looks as if he is getting ready to fire a RPG, so the soliders from their helicopters open fire.

After killing most the men in the group, one of photographers is seen on the aerial footage still alive. One of the soldiers can be heard saying that he hopes the injured man picks up a weapon which would then allow the soldier to kill the man, under the rules of engagement.

A short time later, a van pulls up to the scene and men emerge and begin to pick up the bodies. The soldiers believe these to be more insurgents so they open fire. In reality, they were the family of the victims. In the van were two children, both of whom were seriously injured.

Later, U.S. foot soldiers arrive and take the children away to receive medical care. A tank that arrives also drives over a body.

The military’s investigation of the incident concluded that the soldiers did not violate the rules of engagement and did not act improperly.

It should be noted that the incident occurred in an area known for insurgent activity.

The Huffington Post has a good post with additional video and analysis. The New York Times also released a story.

In the latest development into Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal, it was revealed that the Vatican did not take any action against a priest working in India after he was charged with molestation in the United States.

Gallup released a new poll showing that members of the Tea Party have demographics that fairly similar to the population in general.

The fundraising chief of Kansas Athletics (aka KU athletics) resigned today. Kansas Athletics has been under a federal investigation involving possibly illegal sale of basketball tickets.

That’s The Daily Roundup. Enjoy your evening.