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How to Write Very Little August 4, 2011

“Talking and eloquence are not the same,” Ben Jonson once observed.  “To speak, and to speak well, are two things.”  In his new book, Microstyle, Christopher Johnson, who is a linguist by training, adds that to speak well nowadays is to speak very little.  Microstyle, which you might call a guide to writing for the age of the Internet, promises to explain exactly how to do that.

If you’re still reading, Johnson might say I’m doing my job properly.  I’ve held your attention long enough to check out the next paragraph–according to Johnson, this is no small accomplishment given the shifts in human communication as it has adapted to the Internet.  “This is the age of the Incredible Shrinking Message,” he says, which is to say that with the instantaneous accessibility to content that the Internet offers audiences, the competition for readers’ attention has grown pretty stiff to say the least.  But rather than grimly toll the bell of Cultural Decline as so many others have, Johnson takes interest in the ways that writers have responded to this development–not to mention the ways in which the Internet has made writers of practically everybody online–and finds that they are vibrantly teeming with verbal ingenuity.

Johnson was once a marketing consultant, working specifically in branding, and so in one way Microstyle‘s subject is the way in which Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, blogs, and even a subject line from an email each offers us a chance to “brand” ourselves.  Sounds narcissistic?  Perhaps, Johnson says, but consider the number of businesses, academic offices (including this one, the UCWbL), non-profits, news agencies, and opinion-makers who have rushed to make themselves visible online, and we see that Johnson’s book seeks to answer to a growing audience.

Many of Microstyle‘s tips to achieving viral-dom will sound familiar to creative writing students: use sensory detail, be specific with your words, aim for clarity, keep rhythm in mind, break with proper grammar when necessary.  A good example?  The Internet era’s version of Caesar’s thumbs-down: FAIL.  According to Johnson, one reason this meme became so infectious is that “it evokes a faceless authority passing judgment,” he explains, “and summons up an image of a big rubber stamp coming down on a test or report,” all in one, single resounding beat.

Other stylistic suggestions sound more like what we would expect from a guide on writing for online audiences with an attention deficit: push buttons and exploit emotions (he commends Gossip Girl‘s “OMFG” ad campaign).  Evoke specific situations and scenarios.  Recreate conversation and focus on the relationship with the audience.  In essence, writers hoping to reach larger audiences ought to refine a unique “microvoice.”

The book is compelling both for its advice as well as for Johnson’s readings of the lexicon we live by, which helps us appreciate the ingenuity behind names like Tumblr and exercises such as Smith Magazine’s Six-Word Memoir Project.  But of course, we’re all busy people, and Johnson should be the first to understand that attention is running in short supply.  If anything, it’s worth skimming.


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