I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace’s non-fiction lately because whenever I want to read a good piece of writing for inspiration, I find his work to be the most helpful. One of the great things about his essays is that he spends a lot of time and admirable energy figuring out what makes writing good and what makes it not good and how writers can use the English language to best do their jobs. His quest to explain this is a highly cerebral, tiring slog, but one that I find myself wish more people writing things on the internet would spend time with.
DFW tells us repeatedly that essays are for the reader. He argues that it is not the reader’s job to figure out why she should be reading a certain writer’s work, but the writer’s job to show the reader why she should be spending her valuable time reading what a writer has to say. Essays, he explains, are not to serve the writer, but the reader. And this is something that I find a lot of internet writers either forgetting or completely oblivious to.
Writing for the internet is all about being funny. You are mostly writing for people who are bored at work and want a quick pick-me-up over the salad they’re eating for lunch at their desks or because none of their friends are responding to them on Gchat. The mark of a good blogger/internet editor has become funniness. The funniest are regarded as the best, and with good merit in many instances since it’s hard to be a funny writer. You might be hilarious when bantering with groups of friends, but when it comes time to put your hilarious witticisms into printed words that are just as funny, it becomes a daunting task. This hasn’t stopped a whole league of writers from fitting their blog posts into the “funny” category. With the right italicization here and the right — oh, ha ha! — sorts of asides there, you can fit into the de facto “funny internet writer” voice. I’m guilty of this. I can’t resist sarcasm, italics or unnecessary capitalization (a former editor once called this immature). I’ve worked hard to make things I’ve written funny without actually making them funny, but just laboring over adding asides that I thought would give my work a voice, which is what seemed to be necessary to be “funny.” But this isn’t great writing, this was merely my own fervent desire to fit into the “funny woman writer on the Internet” category playing out in earnest.
One of the problems with the Internet is that you don’t always have time to really work on something and make it meaningful and useful to your readers because you always have to post the next thing, and the next thing, and the insight gets lost. And you end up with a mish mash of inside jokes and ALL CAPS HE HE! and superficial humor that lacks insight. I think the writers that are the funniest are the funniest because while they dash off throwaway jokes and play with the physical manifestation of their type (itals, caps, etc.), their jokes get at a deeper thing about humanity and life that isn’t funny until an astute person like that writer names the funniness with the printed word.
Internet writing has moved into a new place where it’s not just for quick jokes and cheap laughs. The Internet has been, for a while now, a place where readers can go to find writing with insight and depth and real journalistic value. Only, a lot of the essays haven’t caught up. A lot of us writers are stuck in the same rote place of trying to be funny for the author’s sake — to get into the funny club — but not for the reader’s. The funniness, the cutesiness, the HILARIOUS ALL CAPS (and they ARE sort of hilarious!) is for us to be funny and for people to find us funny. It’s not to serve the reader, though they may be amused by what we have to say. Great writing is not about amusement, or inside jokes, or asides that allegedly add voice to a body of text. Great writers give readers an argument to carry into their conversations with friends and colleagues, to pass off as though it’s their own. And hopefully it is, because you’ve gotten into their brains and either convinced them or forced them to think about something differently. Great writing is about insight, depth, a takeaway. Great writing is not about the writer, it’s about the reader.