We are awash in an endless sea of rhetoric.
Words telling us what we should do, how we should behave, how we should think, and what we should buy surround us, a deluge of facts, opinions, and absurdities that we’ve come so accustomed to sifting through that we almost always automatically filter it out.
Even the best and most beautiful copy gets ignored because we are constantly exposed to words, our minds oversaturated and utterly pummeled by the next great thing vying for our attention. Then, there’s copy that is utterly meaningless, terrible, and absolutely detached from reality that manages to capture all of our attention (or at least most of us).
It's odd how sometimes beautifully woven words end up meaning absolutely nothing beyond the hands that wrote them, attracting about as much attention as a lone frog bellowing beside a pond in an empty forest devoid of life in Siberia.
Then, pure absurdity — sweeping claims spun in usually ugly and vapid words (containing absolutely no meaning beyond their mere utterance) — manages to mesmerize tens of millions of people to either believe what was written or at least pay it some mind (even if they eventually or immediately came to understand that the claim was blatantly bogus, an outright lie).
I noticed this phenomenon, how the careless phrase or statement can attract an obscene amount of attention, when I studied the tweets of four candidates in the 2016 United States presidential race. I thought I heard just about everything to be heard in life until I read those tweets, especially the tweets of Donald Trump.
His tweets and a subsequent examination became the basis of my master’s thesis at New York University: Twitter and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign: A Rhetorical Analysis of Tweets and Media Coverage. It ultimately found that all of the candidates’ Twitter statements contain ambiguous language and claims that are difficult, if not nearly impossible, to verify (and I assure you my study of that “twitter rhetoric” was and still remains even in this column completely non-ideological, non-partisan, non-political).
Yet that finding —that what they said on Twitter was often as meaningful as divining meaning in drying paint — had an interesting correlation: tweets with little to no meaning tended to attract the most attention. The more fictive, mythical, or fabricated the statement was, especially if it was utterly impossible to fact check, the more attention it received, especially by the media.
So the more bogus, the more coverage, thus the more eyeballs — all from a 140-character piece of (for the most part) nonsense/absurdity. Now perhaps this digression on good copy/bad copy and correlates to attention is unfair. I mean, it’s Twitter I’m addressing and not a novel or a searing, rollicking anthem by Bruce Springsteen. Even worse, it’s Twitter, the U.S. presidential race, and Donald Trump — a holy trinity of guaranteed publicity surely.
But it was interesting that the most thoughtful copy (the most thoughtful tweets by the candidates) was utterly ignored by the media and social media denizens, while the most awful copy (the most awful, thoughtless, mean, poorly written, idealess, and vapid tweets by the candidates) circled the global in milliseconds, read or paid some heed to by tens of millions of people who encountered the latest absurd tweet either on Twitter or when it was picked up by the media and broadcasted to every corner of the world.
It's funny how the most inane, the most thoughtless, completely factually devoid utterances manage to rise above the entire endless sea of rhetoric and capture our attention — telling us what we should do, how we should behave, how we should think, and what we should buy (or whom to vote for in this case).
I’m not saying that badass boisterous writing (and writing that is emptier than space) is the means to the end for all situations. And we cannot, nor should ever, draw generalizations from simplifications — simplifications being an examination of one language/writing phenomenon as pertaining to a particular context (Twitter and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign).
But, I think there is something to be said of writing that has nerve, or perhaps verve, a middle ground between the polarities described above — that strikes a nerve because of its verve, that contains plenty of pathos (passion), with the passion at least equal to or outweighing the facts, the passion leading the charge rather than the facts. This may apply to nearly all situations (except, of course, a scientific paper or a white paper). But I’d argue even those types of papers should be peppered with a little flavor.
Because in today’s info-driven, info-saturated, and even info-strung economy, we are inundated by millions of words and millions of voices as soon as we open our eyes in the morning and crack open our mobile phones to check on the latest. If anything (to bend the meaning of the following phrase a bit more than we are accustomed to), we are strung out on words and our fix (the latest tweet, blog, or next empty claim) is just one click away.
That said, I don’t believe we need to write just bombast and braggadocio, substance free drivel, to turn the eyeballs to our work. Yet if there is no verve, there is no nerve being struck.
Stephen J. McConnell is the co-founder of Guiding Type, a content development and internet marketing company based in Denver, Colorado. Follow him on Twitter, @sj_mcconnell.com, or subscribe to his thoughts on writing blog at sjmcconnell.com.
Stephen also recently finished a novel about a sudden collapse in Earth’s environment and finished a screenplay about a United States soldier’s woes in Afghanistan. He is currently seeking representation for both works. In addition, Stephen recently published an eBook on creative writing, In Search of You. Creative Writing: Journey, Style, Method. That work is available for purchase on his portfolio website.