Friday, June 30, 2017

What writing does -- and how it does it

When I started this blog seven years ago, not knowing where it would go, I expressed a fear that many writers -- the real ones, the dilettantes, everything in between -- think about at one point or another.
I have many things to say about the sport, and my team, but, then again, so do many other people. I fear that it is perhaps possible that I have nothing new to say; I hope that is not the case. 
 A fear of being ordinary, of being derivative, of shouting platitudes into the howling winds of the sum of rhetoric -- what is more terrifying for a writer than that?

Seven years later, I don't know if I have written anything novel here. I like to think that I have, but I don't really know.

What I do know, though, is that I love words, and writing them, and trying to piece together a cohesive narrative about something that I love, as incomprehensible as that love is. Whether it's a standard gamer -- a good gamer is like a perfectly pruned word plant, the Shakespearean sonnet of sports -- or a feature or a generic news roundup, words give the writer a chance to approach an idea from infinite angles and perspectives.

As someone who has worked in journalism and done a lot of copy editing, writing is like the process of copy editing, in a sense. Copy editors exist because a second reader almost always catches errors the primary reader (the writer) doesn't see. A third reader, even, catches things the second did not.

It's a matter of perspective and experience. One copy editor has a better command of a certain subset of grammar, another is more solid in AP Style rules. Each pair of eyes brings a new set of experiences, knowledge and hyperspecific understandings of what works well.

The same, of course, is true for writing and writers.

My writing has evolved quite a bit over the years. The writing on this blog, for example, began with free-flowing, flowery, meandering prose and paragraphs like Thwomps (I was an English major, after all. Eventually, that writing was hardened by journalism school.

Get to the point. Simple is better. Be accurate, first, then worry about the rest. Bring the reader in, grab them and do not let them go -- this is not just an idea, it's an idea that carries with it an actual blueprint for its execution. Whatever you do, do not give them the chance to let go. Hook them in the lede, give them a taste of the conflict then go back to the conflict's genesis.

My writing about Michigan, too, has evolved, if I am being frank in my assessment of it. While I still write from the perspective of an invested fan, these days I try to do so as dispassionately and objectively as I can. I've moved away from some of the hagiography of the early days of this blog to something more grounded. I don't know the players, and don't want to project things on them just because there are things I want to believe -- so, it's best just to write about the games as they are.

Take, for example, this past season's Ohio State game. I wrote:
Never underestimate the rivalry's ability to find that spot, the one that hurts the most. A well-placed nudge to the unsuspecting elicits a yowl, a yelp, a cringing collapse on the floor.

Just when you thought the rivalry couldn't yield a more painful outcome, it did on Saturday, when No. 2 Ohio State bested No. 3 Michigan, 30-27, in double overtime. It was the first overtime game in the history of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, and thus presented Michigan with a chance to lose in a new way.

When the game ended, I quietly checked my phone for 10 minutes, taking in reactions from around the internet, positive and negative. But, eventually, I wondered if this game was even worth the consternation.

After so many losses of all kinds -- unmitigated blowouts, near-upsets of better Ohio State teams, upsets of better Michigan teams, close-but-not-really-close games, and so on -- is it possible that one more piece of kindling on the losing fire burn makes it burn any more horrifically?

How you deal with the loss is up to you. But one fact remains: In its infinite cruelty, the rivalry game in Columbus sought maximum pain, going to not one but two overtimes.

Sixty minutes was not enough -- the newest iteration of disappointment needed a little more time to cook.
 The hurt is there -- it's obvious (even more so in this one, since it's The Game). But there was once a point when I might have written about my stunned silence, my disappointment, my inability to cope with yet another loss to the Buckeyes. But why, how could this happen, how unfair and cruel and unfortunate?

Instead, it's about the type of loss. Overtime, a rivalry first, a new way to lose -- those are the headliners. Those ideas, through my personal prism, make my writing what it is. (By the way, this is not to say that I think my writing is great or to toot my own horn. This is all just a survey of how it has changed and what makes it mine alone.)

Instead of bile, words offer a tool to express gradations of hurt or joy. On the 2015 Penn State game:
Even when things don't seem to be going so well, Michigan flexes, you look up and the opponent is done. Like that, disintegrated.
Run a video package over and over again, as many times as you like -- video can do a lot of things, but it can't define a feeling or give structure to an experience like the written word can. Words can tell you how to feel or perceive. Zoom in further: Words show you what one way to feel or perceive might be like.


Video will give you words to hear and visuals to process. In some ways, video is more effective than the written word. When I go down the YouTube rabbit hole of old Michigan games, and, for example, watch Chris Perry's touchdown scamper on Michigan's second play against Washington in 2002 -- no words can serve as substitutes for the roar of the crowd.

With that said, video is not a total substitute for words. As you've probably heard (or read), has decided to ditch its editorial team, essentially, in favor of a monomaniacal focus on videos.

Funny enough, this screenshot of the new-look site is actually a pretty good summation of the state of things there:

Aren't we all paralyzed by one fear or another? Like, for example, not having enough video content to watch?

I'm not going to spend too much time here on why this is a particularly silly business decision, partially because I touched on it a little bit the other day, but also because there is hard data on the subject. It's also not worth analyzing extensively because Jamie Horowitz doesn't seem to know what he's doing and is not a rational actor. I want to say this decision was about aiming for the lowest common denominator, but I don't even know if that's true, because it seems to be aimed at ... a denominator that doesn't exist, i.e. people who only want videos. 

Video is an invaluable component of any media operations, whether it covers sports or politics or Chilean sea bass cooking techniques. When done right, video can be more impactful and appealing to media consumers than writing. 

But video can never be a substitute for the written word. 


The fragmentation and balkanization of media these days means many things can be true simultaneously. Writing is good, but stories are best kept at fewer than 1,000 words or so to keep a reader's attention. Also, longform articles are good, too. 

Videos can be good, but are more effective at extremes: the social media world of Vine-length (RIP) items, short highlight packages or interviews, and even some of the documentary-style pieces ESPN does. Videos of network personalities talking? I'm not sure who wants that. 

A wholesale elimination of an editorial operation in the name of this video revolution is like throwing out an entire refrigerator's worth of good food because you like cheese sticks and want to fill your refrigerator with said cheese sticks. No matter how much you like cheese sticks, eventually you'll get sick of them and will be left wanting something else (probably as a result of the vitamin and mineral deficiencies developed while only eating cheese sticks). 

The good news is that the written word will persevere, no matter what the delivery mechanism is. Moreover, we're in an era with an all-time high level of access to writers of varying styles, perspectives and expertise. 

Even though isn't a great time for journalism, it's a great time to be a writer and, in turn, to be a reader. 

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