21 June, 2017

“By the time you read this, I will be dead.”

English is a continually evolving, living language, so it is inevitable that some aspects of it routinely become obsolete,
only to be replaced by fitter exponents of the species.

Tl;dr version
»At the time of writing, a punctuation mark that has vexed countless
writers of online content is hurtling towards extinction

»There are several reasons why the tandem hyphen is such a practical
alternative to the dash

»Even though almost nobody is going to care about this event as much
as I do, its unifying qualities echo more significant historical breakthroughs

The linguistic transformation which inspired this post appears to be sweeping the globe with such meteoric swiftness that chances are, by the time you read these words, it will pretty much be over. At the time of writing, however, the character on its way out to is not quite history yet, so I decided to frame this as more of a jisei than a eulogy, on behalf of a punctuation mark that has caused much confusion and turmoil for writers of online content.

I’m talking about the dash, of all the sodding possible things. For as long as I can remember, it has been the custom of writers in the United States to use an em dash—like this—without spaces on either side. Writers in England, Australia, New Zealand and other English-speaking regions used an en dash – which is nominally the width of the letter ‘n’, as its name suggests – with a space before and after it.

I have no doubt that the corpses of dashes will continue to litter printed media for quite a while yet, before the use of tandem hyphens becomes accepted as canon. But in the virtual world of online writing, the process of tearing down this little Berlin Wall of English is already well underway. Just a couple of months ago (meaning April 2017, relative to the time of writing), the dash was still standing tall, in all its sinister, graffiti-dappled majesty. Pock-marked, perhaps, but certainly intact.

Then, as surely as if formal permission had been granted, the internet descended upon this ‘wall’, in all its unthinking enthusiasm, and it’s already been reduced to something that looks more like a mountain range of broken teeth than the impenetrable barrier it once was. By the time you read this, there will probably be nothing left but a billion fist-sized chunks of concrete scattered throughout the virtual world, souvenirs of an age which is no longer real outside the memories of those who once experienced it.

Yeah, I take punctuation pretty goddamn seriously.

Dashes were never a mystery to trained writers, or to the subeditors and copy editors who polished text for printed media. By contrast, to the incalculable hordes of people who approached online copywriting from the angle of SEO principles (rather than from any kind of literary or journalistic background), there always seemed to be something arcane about them. A single hyphen looks too short, and putting spaces around it just makes things worse. Unless you know how to make an actual em dash or en dash, and how to use either option in context, whatever you did instead always looked like a mistake.

The confusion is perfectly understandable, too: there is no key dedicated to either type of dash on a default QWERTY layout. Sure, there are shortcuts in both Mac and PC formats, but it’s not like you can simply press shift+` and a ~ will appear. Ironically, that particular grapheme -- which happens to be named ‘tilde’ -- has nowhere near as much functional use in general writing as dashes do. We have slashes in both directions, we have that funny little hat thing popularly used in emoticons (which is actually called a caret), but no dashes of any kind on the keyboard! No wonder people aren’t sure how to use the damn things, if there isn’t even a straightforward way to type them.

My own rebellious style has been to side with a technique that has been the default in comic books and graphic novels for at least half a century -- and that is to use two hyphens in tandem, as I just did in this sentence. (This is not to be confused with a double hyphen, which looks more like a slanted ‘equals’ sign.) It performs the same function, as everyone who has read a graphic novel will know, and luckily I’ve never been called upon to justify this idiosyncrasy in my own writing.

It would appear that I will never have to, either -- because at the time of writing, the tandem-hyphen trend is taking the viral express elevator directly into orbit. Sites such as c|net can be reasonably expected to be early adopters, and bloggers in other fields (paid or otherwise) will tend to copy whatever looks right to them at the time. But for Forbes and even Time to be regularly using this style is a potent portent of things to come.

Last weekend, I read no less than five different articles, from four different countries, which had virtually nothing in common with one another -- except for the tandem hyphens their authors used. Even a week, a month, a year ago, I couldn’t possibly have been the only writer with a fondness for tandem hyphens, outside the printed universes of Marvel and DC (to name just two). But now, it would seem that this is an idea whose time has finally come. And as Victor Hugo is persistently misquoted as saying, that is “more powerful than all the armies of the world”.

Speaking for myself, I’m delighted that online writers are embracing this form of punctuation, with all the impetus of a digital avalanche. It’s not really a dash, but it’s more than the sum of its hyphens: you could call it a freshly minted polycharacter, born in the virtual foundry of popular enthusiasm. It is a simple, elegant and practical solution to a fundamental difficulty with online typography that was somehow never addressed -- until now.

For the quintessential writing geek that I am, bearing witness to a living language shedding its skin like this and evolving into something new by doing so, evokes a sense of historical gravity. It is a faint echo of how I felt as a child, watching the Iron Curtain’s spectacular collapse -- as epitomised by televised scenes of joyous Berliners contributing to the disintegration of that infamous Wall.

The tandem hyphen is another (albeit much more subtle) way of erasing barriers and confusion between people. It gives English-speaking writers the world over a single, straightforward way of communicating the same meaning that was once denoted by two different characters, used in different ways depending on one’s nation of origin.

And even though I cannot claim to have had a genuinely pioneering role in this quiet typographical revolution, I am honoured to have been a small but relevant part of it.

07 June, 2017

Why write beautifully if nobody cares?

When it seems like everyone’s a copywriter, decent punctuation is unfashionable, and you can get a book written for $300,
what is the raison d’être for an exceptional wordsmith?

Tl;dr version
»Even people who claim they don’t care still tend to show a preference
for well-written copy

»Over a wasteland of mediocrity, beacons of excellence blaze all the more brightly
»When content must be crafted to more ambitious expectations than
the status quo, many writers lack the skill and judgement to deliver
authentically moving material

How is it that so many people who surely have the common sense to know better, nevertheless suspend their disbelief as they read a fabricated backstory about how some stay-at-home mum is now a millionaire thanks to her online forex trading? Yes, the allure of getting rich quickly is undoubtedly the overriding cause, but there’s more to this than simply touching a nerve of desire.

Why do these documents -- some of which are positively nonsensical -- manage to hook thousands (if not millions) of readers? The trend seems all the more absurd in light of the fact that myriad truthful ebooks are routinely disregarded by the masses, despite being penned by sincere individuals who have a genuine wish to help others.

The answer is that an author seems to know what they’re talking about when the writing has qualities that resemble what we usually associate with published hardcopy material. Not many people born in this millennium (or indeed, several years earlier) have ever seen inside an analogue encyclopaedia, but even the cheapest tabloid adheres to strict editorial conventions.

Time and again, I have witnessed readers who actively describe themselves as not caring too much about the quality of the written word show a distinct preference for tightly crafted and properly punctuated text. This has fascinated me for years, and on several occasions, I have had the opportunity to quiz people about which version of a given excerpt they think is better.

If one sample has had a professional once-over, while the other is still raw copy, the most common answer is something along the lines of, “I can’t put my finger on it... that one just seems more legit.” And with only one or two exceptions that I can remember, the edited version is indicated, regardless of whether it was read before or after the other piece.

I was unable to dig up a peer-reviewed study to support my anecdotal evidence, but if I ever commission one, I believe it will only serve to verify this assertion. We may not be consciously aware of it, but we do tend to presume that copy which bears the characteristic hallmarks of professional editing ‘must be true enough to publish’.

It doesn’t take a particularly outstanding wordsmith to deliver grammatically sound copy that is clear and engaging to read -- and that is why this band of the spectrum is so desperately over-saturated. The usual approach to online content production (by which I mean copywriting) is to pulverise everything into a relatively thin layer of linguistic airspace defined by a rather limiting set of assumptions.

It’s not even a race to the bottom: it’s a race to the median, the pedestrian, the predictable. Every hotshot copywriter, online publisher and boutique ad agency announces stridently that they are the new thing, the different thing, the original and special and unique thing. If that’s the case, then why are so many of them still rearranging the same tired procession of clichés and idioms as everyone else, while also borrowing liberally from one another in the process?

Superlative writing is immediately dazzling to behold in that great field of clear air above the dense, overpopulated and polluted fog of mediocrity below. There is very little competition up there, so if you find a writer who can elevate your message to a stratospheric altitude, you can reliably differentiate yourself from the pack -- while also positioning yourself visibly above it. Such is the power of words.

Premium work commands premium coin, and writers are like tattoos in this respect: the cheap ones aren’t good, and the good ones aren’t cheap. This is not a criticism of services such as Upwork or freelancer.com, especially when artwork or web design is involved. I would be the first to agree that online creatives commissioned through such websites can deliver material of a surprisingly high standard for an affordable price. However, this is not necessarily true of written work -- regardless of whether or not the author is a native speaker.

Popular opinion among employers about what constitutes ‘good writing’ doesn’t help, considering it’s often based on a one-dimensional expectation of return on investment. I’ve seen many job ads stipulating that the successful applicant’s work must attain a high score in site analytics: in other words, the writer is mainly there to pull visitors, with the ultimate aim of extracting their money. That’s the role of a salesperson, not a wordsmith -- and again, there’s nothing wrong with such work, but it’s unrealistic to stack it under the rubric of writing when it has more to do with selling.

Rare though this may be, sometimes a client actually needs something written to convey meaning in an eloquent, memorable and evocative way, rather than exclusively for the purpose of moving units. And I know from personal experience that the formulaic platitudes pushed out by ‘senior copywriters’, whose articulacy is limited to advertising-speak and whizz-bang blogging style, simply do not make the grade.

I realise that in our standard daily business, we need to thrash those keywords, we need to rank as high as possible after the ads that top the SERPs, we need to win a click, we need the page to convert. And that’s OK. But what if, one day, we are commissioned to create something… beautiful? I can almost hear you gasp with incredulity at such a near-heretical thought.

What if we want people to remember something we’ve written, truly remember it, for how it makes them feel, for how it becomes a landmark on the vista of their lives? If all we’ve ever known is following the SEO fashion du jour and taking a powerdive to the lowest common denominator, the outcome can be summarised in two words: we fail.

How much an article is shared, or how many visitors it sucks down the funnel, or how much it lights up social media, only carries significance as far as the bank. By contrast, a piece of writing that is painstakingly executed, with mastery and love and finesse, has a real chance of finding its home in a reader’s memory. When judged by that criterion, it doesn’t matter whether or not the author’s work endures exclusively in the reader’s psyche, never amounting to sales or even shares.

By affecting a person emotionally, by making someone’s world a brighter place, by conveying a lesson that enables them to improve some aspect of their life, such priceless words are afforded a fragile echo of immortality.