Professional vs. Amateur Writing

Inspired by Vox Day’s post The IQ Delta

Most writing guides focus on the writing process, such as developing a writing habit, not the quality of the writing itself. No amount of persistence, positive affirmations, or word counts will help if the writing itself is no good.

The amateur is taken aback by criticism; the professional anticipates it, both in the writing process and afterwards.

The professional is provisional; the amateur is fixed in his mindset.

The amateur uses a cudgel, mistakenly equating ‘might with right’; the professional uses gentle strokes of a fine brush (similarly, the amateur pushes the reader; the professional nudges).

The amateur says, ‘this is how it is’; the professional says, ‘yes, but consider this…’

The amateur gravitates towards binary thinking; the professional considers the spectrum of possibilities.

Professionals don’t make mistakes such as confusing ‘grudgingly’ and ‘begrudgingly’.

Professionals pay attention to sentence structure, pacing, and sound, not only on their own writing but in the writings of others.

The professional has command of the facts; the amateur sidesteps them and hopes no one will notice or care.

These rules explain why rationalism and more nuanced forms of online journalism and discourse have been so successful since 2013, whereas overtly partisan punditry has been on the decline and, counterintuitively, is less persuasive. The internet has gotten a lot smarter since 2002-2004. Either learn the new rules, or fail.

But isn’t nuanced writing weak? You’re giving the reader the benefit of the doubt that they are smart enough to pick up on your clues.

Writing a blog post (or any piece online opinion journalism) is the opposite of a legal case. In a trial, the burden is on the prosecutor to make an airtight case to convince the judge or jury. But in opinion writing, you’re not supposed to do that. It’s ‘easier’ because the burden of proof for a writer is much lower than, say, the plaintiff for a criminal trial. But it’s harder because the writer must suppress the instinctual tendency to want to overplay his or her case. Rather, you present possibilities, hint at one or multiple possibilities being ‘better’ or ‘correct’, and then let the reader decide.

A far as I know, Ann Coulter and Paul Krugman are the only two successful pundits that can skirt these rules, lazily and sloppily denigrating their opponents with cheap arguments and generalizations, and be hugely successful and well-paid doing it; for everyone else, they have to follow these rules. The reason is because post-2013 internet journalism, unlike 1990’s-2010 blog-dominated journalism, has become much more centralized, nuanced, and polished; many niche blogs have died or have been subsumed by major media outlets (such as Insta-Pundit, Huffington Post, Hot Air, etc.), rending the the bombastic, emotive writing style that characterized blog-driven journalism of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, largely obsolete. So in order for writing to gain traction, it must win over these big influencers, who tend to have much higher editorial standards than bloggers. The biggest influencers in post-2013 journalism tend to be smart and savvy, with high IQs and a low tolerance for emotive BS: these influencers hold the keys to success and viralness.

Second, as I explain in Intellectual Solvent, public trust for emotive, low-information partisanship is on the decline (even despite Trump’s win). Ann and Krugman built their huge audiences back when the public was much more receptive to that stuff, unpolished blogs dominated, and the high-IQ influencers were virtually non-existent.

It seems like one of the fastest ways to get status online is to position yourself as the ‘rational middle’ between two warring factions, and then get members and accolades from both sides as a ‘trusted arbiter’. Instead of definitively taking a side, you explore the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. Marginal revolution does this, as does Scott Adams, Scott Alexander, and Noah Smith (Noahpinion). I don’t think this is necessarily bad if one provides good, insightful info.

One annoying aspect about this trend is the post-2013 rise of the long-winded article, but interestingly, the rise long-form journalism is juxtaposed with Twitter and ‘meme culture’, so you either have extreme brevity or extreme verbosity. The sun has set on the punchy 500-1,000 word article; now you either have to put it in meme or tweet form, or turn it into a 7,000+ word treatise on human nature.

Related: Internet Journalism in a Post-2013 Era: Writing Articles that Go Viral