Is it possible to write for everyone?

The way we read and absorb information has changed dramatically over the past decade and I’ve been wondering for the past few days whether the ideal style of writing has changed too.

Ten years ago I was still reading a daily newspaper in print format. While the newspapers and big media organisations had websites, they were semi-peripheral. I remember that BBC News online went down on 9/11 and we had to transfer to the pub opposite to watch on TV. The big name blog and news sites such as Huffington Post didn’t exist yet. There certainly wasn’t a Twitter or a Facebook.

So in general my media intake was pretty simple — and written in one style. It included some pictures and some advertisements but was written to be readable. It didn’t include lots of ‘jumping off points’ in the form of hyperlinks or related content and there weren’t hundreds of tweets pointing me to new pieces of comments on articles to read through.

At the time I felt like it was relatively easy to write for everyone. Whether it was a conference programme, a website or the policy pieces we were writing, the style was pretty straightforward. It was something like that of The Economist or the Guardian Weekend Magazine of the time. Sentences were fairly short, we used speech pretty frequently and were sure to avoid jargon.

But ten years on, following the huge fragmentation that’s taken place, I’m not sure it’s possible to write for everyone any more. There used to be an ‘internet audience’ — now there are a multitude. The cacophony of the written word in the internet age makes it harder to write simple, understandable, informative yet entertaining copy. Everything you write has to be for a particular audience and there are very many more audiences than there used to be.

Be careful when you Google yourself

Jon Ronson had a great little piece in the Guardian Weekend yesterday that illustrates in just a few hundred words what’s changed and stayed the same about journalism in the last couple of decades.

Them

is one of my favourite non-fiction books — way ahead of its time in terms of the characters Jon chose to follow. He was writing about Omar Bakri Muhammad well before anybody else was looking at radicalisation of Islam in the UK. It’s also one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

Why Malcolm Gladwell is a millionnaire

“The process of moving from the specific to the general is both necessary and perilous… How do we know when we’ve made the right generalization?”

So writes Malcolm Gladwell in a now widely cited piece about profiling for the New Yorker. He’s challenging the idea that all pitbulls are dangerous, all asian people with beards are suicide bombers, or that all single men in London who wear pointy shoes will eat pasta sludge pellets, but he might as well be talking about his own writing.

Gladwell’s articles have a particular formula. Each piece opens with a scene where he ‘shows’ rather than tells you what the piece is about. The level of vivid detail and precision is much greater than most other non-fiction writers. There will be at least one image that will remain with you throughout. In the profiling piece it’s the dog biting the child’s head and shaking it.

It’s a specific example that makes a general point. Gladwell has popularized this kind of thinking about the everyday in grand social terms, and thinking about social change in terms of the everyday. Let’s face it, we experience social change through little things. You might read research or news reports that tell you that globalisation is taking place, but you really take note when the person on the other end of the phone when you ask for train times is in India. It’s because Gladwell uses that type of anecdata that we believe him — it fits with the way we think.

In Blink he goes even further, writing about a period of just a few seconds during a bungled police operation to explain how the mind makes snap (sometimes right, sometimes wrong) judgments. He thinks those few seconds and what they tell us are important enough to write a book about. And we (the book buying public) think they’re important enough to buy millions of copies of it.

Fast Company
called him ‘…a corporate sage, a 21st-century Peter Drucker’, but as an NYT profile of the frilly haired one points out, his market is much bigger than just the business shelves. He sells because in an age of information overload our demand is for meaning. Blink is about slicing information to get maximum meaning. Tipping Point is about using social networks to sell products or achieve political change. The Observer’s subhead calls Gladwell the most influential thinker for the iPod generation, and I don’t think they’re far off.

I love Gladwell’s style. There’s a hint of Dan Brown in there, lots of short sentences to reinforce messages and move things along and the use of interweaving plotlines. But unlike Dan Brown, he writes to make people think rather than just to entertain them. And I reckon making people think is a good thing.

But what if Gladwell chooses the wrong generalisation? As he becomes more and more of a phenomenon himself, it’s a high wire to tread.