Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Maria Konnikova

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In John McPhee’s excellent new book on writing, Draft No. 4, which I mentioned here the other day, he shares an anecdote about his famous profile of the basketball player Bill Bradley. McPhee was going over a draft with William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, “talking three-two zones, blind passes, reverse pivots, and the setting of picks,” when he realized that he had overlooked something important:

For some reason—nerves, what else?—I had forgotten to find a title before submitting the piece. Editors of every ilk seem to think that titles are their prerogative—that they can buy a piece, cut the title off the top, and lay on one of their own. When I was young, this turned my skin pink and caused horripilation. I should add that I encountered such editors almost wholly at magazines other than The New YorkerVogue, Holiday, the Saturday Evening Post. The title is an integral part of a piece of writing, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title. Editors’ habit of replacing an author’s title with one of their own is like a photo of a tourist’s head on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong. But the title missing on the Bill Bradley piece was my oversight. I put no title on the manuscript. Shawn did. He hunted around in the text and found six words spoken by the subject, and when I saw the first New Yorker proof the piece was called “A Sense of Where You Are.”

The dynamic that McPhee describes at other publications still exists today—I’ve occasionally bristled at the titles that have appeared over the articles that I’ve written, which is a small part of the reason that I’ve moved most of my nonfiction onto this blog. (The freelance market also isn’t what it used to be, but that’s a subject for another post.) But a more insidious factor has invaded even the august halls of The New Yorker, and it has nothing to do with the preferences of any particular editor. Opening the most recent issue, for instance, I see that there’s an article by Jia Tolentino titled “Safer Spaces.” On the magazine’s website, it becomes “Is There a Smarter Way to Think About Sexual Assault on Campus?”, with a line at the bottom noting that it appears in the print edition under its alternate title. Joshua Rothman’s “Jambusters” becomes “Why Paper Jams Persist.” A huge piece by David Grann, “The White Darkness,” which seems destined to get optioned for the movies, earns slightly more privileged treatment, and it merely turns into “The White Darkness: A Journey Across Antarctica.” But that’s the exception. When I go back to the previous issue, I find that the same pattern holds true. Michael Chabon’s “The Recipe for Life” is spared, but David Owen’s “The Happiness Button” is retitled “Customer Satisfaction at the Push of a Button,” Rachel Aviv’s “The Death Debate” becomes “What Does It Mean to Die?”, and Ian Frazier’s “Airborne” becomes “The Trippy, High-Speed World of Drone Racing.” Which suggests to me that if McPhee’s piece appeared online today, it would be titled something like “Basketball Player Bill Bradley’s Sense of Where He Is.” And that’s if he were lucky.

The reasoning here isn’t a mystery. Headlines are written these days to maximize clicks and shares, and The New Yorker isn’t immune, even if it sometimes raises an eyebrow. Back in 2014, Maria Konnikova wrote an article for the magazine’s website titled “The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You,” in which she explained one aspect of the formula for online headlines: “The presence of a memory-inducing trigger is also important. We share what we’re thinking about—and we think about the things we can remember.” Viral headlines can’t be allusive, make a clever play on words, or depend on an evocative reference—they have to spell everything out. (To build on McPhee’s analogy, it’s less like a tourist’s face on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong than an oversized foam head of Mao himself.) A year later, The New Yorker ran an article by Andrew Marantz on the virality expert Emerson Spartz, and it amazed and maybe infuriated me. I’ve written about this profile elsewhere, but looking it over again now, my eye was caught by these lines:

Much of the company’s success online can be attributed to a proprietary algorithm that it has developed for “headline testing”—a practice that has become standard in the virality industry…Spartz’s algorithm measures which headline is attracting clicks most quickly, and after a few hours, when a statistically significant threshold is reached, the “winning” headline automatically supplants all others. “I’m really, really good at writing headlines,” he told me.

And it’s worth noting that while Marantz’s piece appeared in print as “The Virologist,” in an online search, it pops up as “King of Clickbait.” Even as the magazine gently mocked Spartz, it took his example to heart.

None of this is exactly scandalous, but when you think of a title as “an integral part of a piece of writing,” as McPhee does, it’s undeniably sad. There isn’t any one title for an article anymore, and most readers will probably only see its online incarnation. And this isn’t because of an editor’s tastes, but the result of an impersonal set of assumptions imposed on the entire industry. Emerson Spartz got his revenge on The New Yorker—he effectively ended up writing its headlines. And while I can’t blame any media company for doing whatever it can to stay viable, it’s also a real loss. McPhee is right when he says that selecting a title is an important part of the process, and in a perfect world, it would be left up to the writer. (It can even lead to valuable insights in itself. When I was working on my article on the fiction of L. Ron Hubbard, I was casting about randomly for a title when I came up with “Xenu’s Paradox.” I didn’t know what it meant, but it led me to start thinking about the paradoxical aspects of Hubbard’s career, and the result was a line of argument that ended up being integral not just to the article, but to the ensuing book. And I was amazed when it survived intact on Longreads.) When you look at the grindingly literal, unpoetic headlines that currently populate the homepage of The New Yorker, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for an era in which an editor might nudge a title in the opposite direction. In 1966, when McPhee delivered a long piece on oranges in Florida, William Shawn read it over, focused on a quotation from the poet Andrew Marvell, and called it “Golden Lamps in a Green Night.” McPhee protested, and the article was finally published under the title that he had originally wanted. It was called “Oranges.”

Written by nevalalee

February 16, 2018 at 8:50 am


with 5 comments

The Scripps National Spelling Bee

At last week’s National Spelling Bee, many observers noted a small but telling change that says a lot about the shifting role of technology in the lives of kids. In the past, competitors would often use a finger to write out a difficult word in the air or on the palms of their hands, as I sometimes do when I’m trying to remember how to spell something. (In fact, that’s probably the only time I still use cursive.) At this year’s bee, it was more common to see spellers air-typing at an imaginary keyboard, and at least one girl mimed the act of texting. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: children are exposed to keyboards at an early age, and their hands are wired to their heads accordingly, to the point where it’s more intuitive to type something out using muscle memory than to pretend they’re writing it out. My own daughter will probably be no exception. The other day, at the thrift store, she saw an electric typewriter for the first time, and she immediately started hammering at the keys, trying in vain to make it play “Let it Go.”

But at the risk of sounding like a total luddite, I can’t help feel that the decline of handwriting is a genuine loss, and its impact over the long term will be hard to predict. A widely circulated article by Maria Konnikova of the New York Times makes a strong case that the link between handwriting and such cognitive activities as learning, remembering, and creativity is very real:

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental stimulation in your brain. And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize…Learning is made easier.”

Even a quick glance at a homunculus—the figure designed to indicate the relative amount of brain space allocated to each part of the body—vividly suggests how important our hands are when it comes to the way we think, and any shift in how we write and interact with text is bound to have consequences. Of course, there have been many such transitions over the centuries, from handwriting to typewriting to word processing, and there are equally fundamental changes yet to come. (If anything, I suppose I should be happy that kids are still typing at all, given how many of us interact with written content solely through a touchscreen.)

Ted Hughes

That said, I’m not about to give up my laptop anytime soon, and I can certainly write more quickly and fluently with the keyboard than by hand. Still, that kind of facility can have negative effects. I’ve shared this story from the poet Ted Hughes before, but I can’t resist quoting it again:

For about thirty years I’ve been on the judging panel of the W.H. Smith children’s writing competition…Usually the entries are a page, two pages, three pages. That’s been the norm. Just a poem or a bit of prose, a little longer. But in the early 1980s we suddenly began to get seventy- and eighty-page works…It turned out that these were pieces that children had composed on word processors. What’s happening is that as the actual tools for getting words on the page become more flexible and externalized, the writer can get down almost every thought or extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated. There’s always a bit too much there, and it’s too thin.

The nice thing about writing by hand is that it compels you to slow down slightly, and if you’re writing in ink, you’re more likely to reflect on each choice before you make it. (As the psychologist Paul Bloom says in the Times article: “With handwriting, the very act of putting it down forces you to focus on what’s important.”) This transition is similar to the one in film editing from flatbed machines to Final Cut Pro, with the result, as Walter Murch has pointed out, that it’s almost too easy for filmmakers to make changes. The editor Michael Kahn says much the same thing:

But I do think something’s been lost with digital editing, I really do—the cogitation, the level of thought about how you should cut something. You have to study the material more on film, because you don’t want to make that cut unless you’re sure. I thought a lot more when I was using a Moviola.

And the solution, obviously, is to make a conscious decision to preserve the older methods, even if they’re no longer the default. Half of my planning process for any story is still done with pen on paper, and although there are plenty of excellent software options for mind maps and notecards, I don’t expect I’ll ever stop. And it’s not just a matter of stubbornness. There’s something irreplaceable about writing by hand, for authors as much as for everyone else, and if we give it up, it spells trouble.

Written by nevalalee

June 4, 2014 at 9:32 am

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