Christopher Hitchens and writing for the web

Please note: this is a rather cursory blog post and not as interesting as it (possibly) sounds. Life has been a crammed basket over the past few weeks and I've barely had time to think much about blogging. But, yielding to public clamour I have tried to post little bits and pieces every now and again.

During That Week of blue skies last month I attended an online marketing event part organised by Borders Creative, a group I'm involved with that promotes the professional services of designers and other creatives based in the south of Scotland. There were many good talks. One of the speakers, playwright and copywriter Jules Horne, discussed the craft of writing for the web, which is a bit different from writing for print. Readers tend to skim online text, which needs to be sharper and more focused than printed copy, even good printed copy.

Jules made the interesting observation that one should try writing as one speaks: the tone of voice you adopt when trying to turn thoughts into written words should flow from your conversation.

That reminded me of a lovely article written last year by the late and much missed Christopher Hitchens, Unspoken Truths, in which he considered the literal importance of the 'writer's voice', of investing one's written words with something of the spirit of one's spoken voice. Amongst other wonderful things he says:

To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: 'How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?' That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.

The most satisfying compliment a reader can pay is to tell me that he or she feels personally addressed. Think of your own favorite authors and see if that isn’t precisely one of the things that engage you, often at first without your noticing it. A good conversation is the only human equivalent: the realizing that decent points are being made and understood, that irony is in play, and elaboration, and that a dull or obvious remark would be almost physically hurtful. This is how philosophy evolved in the symposium, before philosophy was written down. And poetry began with the voice as its only player and the ear as its only recorder.

Hitchens doesn't mean that you should try to write exactly as you speak: that wouldn't work, speech is too fragmented. He means, I think, that writing should be fluid, playful, allusive, punctuated with some of the rhythms, casual asides and detours of conversation. That seems to me a useful thought to hold in one's mind when trying to write something that will capture, even fleetingly, the attention of online readers. Think conversationally: keep things brief, look for fresh metaphors, don't be afraid to wander off the topic a bit if it seems right, and try to show that you regard words as your friends, to be assembled imaginatively into new patterns.

It's said that Hitchens could write almost as quickly as he spoke. Prolific as he was, I'm not sure I quite believe that. Good writing is hard, words don't tumble out automatically in a pleasing order: that needs thought. But the philosophy of writing he discusses in this article does, I think, explain how he was able to write comparatively quickly, and with such eloquence. And it's perfect for helping address the terrors of today's blank page: the empty text entry field with that impatient blinking cursor.