I am now working full-time in a communications department for a major university in New York City. What this means is that I write
every day, which, for me, is just great.
When I interviewed for the position, the vice president for development (one of my “clients”), asked me why I would want the job
- after all, he said, it’s not very challenging. My answer was straightforward: it’s a job writing. Not arranging someone’s schedule or ordering food for
events or arranging travel for a cranky executive, but just writing. At this point in my life, why wouldn’t I want to do the thing I like to do, even if it
isn’t high-level and influential?
He was right to ask, though. Much of the writing I do disappears almost as soon as I produce it: the press release, the alumni
profile, an account of the graduating seniors’ dinner, the thank-you letter for the president, the email follow-up message for the annual fund appeal letter, the grant
proposal (or the report to the granting agency). This is the nature of the job: each day requires a fresh dose of Facebook postings and Twitter feeds and Flickr uploads
and blog postings, all of which disappear into the digital heavens and are replaced with new material the following day.
I can understand if someone told me that they would consider this a kind of writing hell, being part of an industrial process churning out
content, the AP style guide being the only aesthetic benchmark. And at times it feels exactly industrial - how could it not?
But I have found that turning out good industrial content is not a species of automatic writing. Even though I am writing a press
release for a graduation dinner, I still have to struggle to make the narrative flow, to work in the quotes without showing the seams, to find verbs that evoke images, to give
the event the aura of importance it has for the people organizing it. In short, I try to tell a story rather than do stenography.
Where I do even more struggling is in solicitation language - the email blast for a donation, the appeal letter, the grant proposal.
After all, every Oliver-Twistian plaint for begging for money has been voiced, but every linguistic effort to beg for money has to be fresh and unminted. It has to hew a
line between fawning and informative, it has to have a human voice (even though it’s a mass-produced article), it has to tell a full story in one hundred words or fewer,
and it can’t be filled with what Steve Krug calls, in Don’t Make Me Think (an indispensable book about web design), “happy talk,” inconsequential self-congratulatory nattering. (Think of the “About Us” pages on websites.)
The same challenge comes with writing the gracious thank-you letter for the president, the cover letter for the report, the blog post about
some boring lecture. I look first to the verbs - I constantly try to de-Latinate my verbs, going for one- to two-syllable Anglo-Saxon choices, and find verbs that
aren’t used often, staying away from “provide” and “offer” and “ensure” and “enable” - these are happy talk verbs. I
ban adverbs and only sparingly - sparingly - use adjectives, and then only when the adjective adds something worth noticing about the noun. I try for a spare line but not
a dry line, more than “just the facts, ma’am” but less than fulsome kowtowing.
So far, I have liked this challenge of working within constraints to produce instrumental prose that is useful if not deathless. I
have read discussions about content vs. art that have tried to liken content to the plastic resins injected into molds and extruded as interchangeable products and art as
something not-that. But I tend to take a catholic view of what I do. People read what I write (even if they don’t know I wrote it – we don’t get
the byline), it serves a purpose greater (or at least bigger) than myself, the people who like it find me out to tell me, and at the end of the day I have been practicing the
thing in life I love to do most (except for perhaps cooking dinner together with the Marvelous María Beatriz).