Recently, I finished reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, a 700+ page novel about, among other things, a bizarre love triangle and a parricide. Why on earth would anyone read this massive book written in a foreign country, Russia, so long ago, in the 19th century? Aside from Dostoyevsky’s extraordinarily subtle and breathtaking insights into the human spirit, you might read Dostoyevsky to gain a better insight of how to write stellar fiction. How does Dostoyevsky build a paragraph? How does he transition between major scenes? How does he construct his sentences? How does he build a character? You don’t necessarily need a class in fiction writing to learn these things (although, that might help unpack what he is up to). For the most part, it is all there in the writing itself.
Dostoyevsky himself knew the power of imitation. In the introduction to The Brothers Karamazov, the translator Richard Pevear relates that Dostoyevsky would write pages and pages of dialogue with the goal of attempting to imitate the living word, the speech, all around him. Pevear writes,
The style of The Brothers Karamazov is based on the spoken, not the written, word. Dostoyevsky composed in voices. We know from his notebooks and letters how he gathered the phrases, mannerisms, verbal tics from which a Fyodor Pavlovich or a Smerdyakov [characters from The Brothers Karamazov] would emerge, and how he would try out these voices, writing many pages of dialogue that would never be used in the novel. (Pevear xv)
The key to Dostoyevsky’s originality and style, then, lay in his ability to listen, to watch, and to learn from others.
Indeed, you can learn a lot about how to do something simply by watching someone else. As you know, this holds true for everything from watching someone swing a golf club to observing someone flip an egg to witnessing someone pull off a great paragraph. When you read, whether fiction or non-fiction, imagine yourself as a Penn or a Teller trying to figure out how the magician, the writer, pulls off his or her trick. As the novelist Shelby Foote once related in a C-SPAN Book TV interview (entitled “In Depth with Shelby Foote”), if you want to launch into the world of novel writing, pick someone and try to imitate their style.
Imitation does not merely apply to novel writing, of course. It also appears in more mundane, worldly enterprises like sales. Those in sales can learn to practice solid, effective communication by watching how others work. In his book To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink advises the reader to pay attention to others’ sales pitches so as to better understand their techniques (177-178).
Why am I telling this to you? Because it is not always apparent to people that they can imitate another’s style to enhance their own.
Thus, as Augustine suggests in On Christian Doctrine, you have two options for learning how to become a more eloquent communicator: theory and imitation (120). Both options matter. The art of rhetoric systematizes the rules for good speaking and writing. A rhetorician might suggest that if you want to get your audience’s attention, you have several tactics at your disposal: start with a story, begin with a rhetorical question, etc. If you need to arrange your work, you can start with a problem and then provide a solution, you can arrange chronologically, etc. However, these rhetorical techniques for composing a written or spoken work, which happen to be very helpful, do not exhaust your creative possibilities for composition. You can also imitate. Pay attention to how people write essays, how they deliver presentations, etc. All these particular styles become fair game for your own communication.
So, the next time you pick up a book or listen to a Ted Talk, try to observe how the author or speaker makes it happen. How do they do it? And, perhaps more importantly, how will you do it?
In-text citations come from the following texts: Pevear, Richard. Introduction. The Brothers Karamazov. Written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990. Pink, Daniel H. To Sell is Human. Riverhead Books, 2012. Augustine. On Christian Doctrine. Translated by D. W. Robertson, Jr. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1958. I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which inspired the film Blade Runner, follows Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter tasked with “retiring” rogue androids. Interestingly, throughout the novel, it is not always clear to the reader whether a certain character is an android or a human. In an indirect manner, the book forces you, the reader, to question what distinguishes human beings from other animals and from robots. What makes a human being distinctly human? Is it the capacity for emotion? Empathy? Intelligence? Love? The novel also raises the question: Would you know it if you were talking to a machine? Or, more to the point, would you know it if you’d become a machine?
In this short post, I want to persuade you not to act like a machine. In particular, I want to dissuade you from unreflectively engaging in a thoroughly machinelike practice: SEO. If you’ve never heard the term before, “SEO” stands for Search Engine Optimization and refers to the practice of attempting to improve a website’s rankings in a search engine such as Google. So, for example, your website may currently appear on page five of a search engine ranking page, and you may want it to rank higher. As the thinking goes, if you can get your site on page one, you will get more traffic and therefore more leads and sales.
Historically, people have tried a whole host of techniques for advancing their sites up to the top of the search engine ranking pages: building links back to their site from other sites, writing “content” with particular keywords in it, etc. Some of these techniques were more ethical than others. For a period of time, I myself practiced SEO in an attempt to improve clients’ positions in search engines. In my estimation, a lot of people may still practice SEO and use the lingo of SEO because they sincerely want to drive traffic to a site.
However, I want to mention a few things here that a well-intentioned, yet misplaced focus on SEO misses.
First and foremost, a focus on SEO can obscure the human element in writing a page or building a website. Who are you writing to and what for? Why does what you’re saying matter? Will the person on the other end of the line understand you? Will they be compelled to act? Will they be persuaded? If all you care about is SEO, you may miss these absolutely crucial questions. You begin to communicate directly to a machine, and in turn, you begin to communicate like a machine. You may end up writing something that looks good to a robot (i.e., an algorithm) but terrible to a human being. Good authors and speakers always adapt their messages to their audiences. Period. If you write with only SEO in mind, you may only adapt your message to a machine. And unless a machine is willing to pay for your product or service, you may be out of luck.
Second, SEO tends to place an undue emphasis on “content,” another term that gets tossed around but which people never really feel compelled to define. What is “content,” anyway? Is it the same thing as “information”? And, in that case, what is “information”? What seemed quite obvious suddenly gets blurry once you start to probe at it. Rather than offer you an extended definition of “content,” I’ll give you an analogy, instead. Content is like meat that you can cook in a number of different ways. Form, the correlate of content, is how you cook it. Form is how you say what you say, which the art of rhetoric has studied in a systematic way for more than two millennia. As Richard Lanham might suggest, content is “stuff,” while form is “fluff.” Believe it or not, both matter.
I’m not saying to abandon SEO altogether. You ask, “How much SEO should I do, then?” My answer: the minimum. Submit your site to Google’s Webmaster Tools and make sure that the search engines can crawl it. Write good “meta” descriptions and titles so that your content appears A-OK in the search engine landing pages. Beyond that, I would not recommend investing a ton of time and money in SEO. Let Google do their job so you can do yours. Instead, invest more time and money writing compelling copy that teaches, delights, and moves (Cicero 357). Remember, you’re writing for human beings, not robots.
Lastly, I’m not saying that content does not matter, either. You cannot have a book, a website, a movie, etc. without content. If you want to sculpt, you’ll need clay. I’m simply suggesting that the practice of SEO implies a host of terms, including “content” and “content marketing,” which merit critical attention. As Marshall McLuhan explains in Media and Formal Cause, rhetoricians do not change what people think but how people think (126). That’s what I want you to do. Transform how people think. Don’t add more “information,” “content,” or “stuff” to the already overwhelming digital ocean of data. Simply put, put some order into the chaos. You can’t do that if you remain transfixed on “SEO” and “content.”
Looking for a good book to read? Check out Richard Lanham’s Economics of Attention, which argues for the importance of rhetoric in an age of information. Looking for an editor or copywriter to give your content some form? Contact me here.
In-text citations come from the following texts: McLuhan, Marshall, and Eric McLuhan. Media and Formal Cause. NeoPoiesis Press, LLC., 2011. Cicero. On Invention. Best Kind of Orator. Topics. Translated by H.M. Hubbell. Loeb Classical Library, 1949. I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
Albert Camus’ novel The Plague follows the lives of several characters in an Algerian town affected by an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Despite the epidemic, Joseph Grand, one of Camus’ characters, continues in his struggle to write a novel. For Grand, the writing process is a tortuous one. Why? Because Grand gets hung up on one single sentence, the very first sentence of his book, about a lady riding her horse down the road. Camus is a master at providing a literary depiction of the curse of perfectionism that goes along with trying to write anything.
One of the first iterations of Grand’s sentence reads,
“One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne” (104).
Later in the book, Grand confesses that he has replaced the word “elegant” with “slim” because it is “more concrete” (134). When Grand eventually gets the plague, he has Rieux, the doctor and protagonist of the novel, read his latest iteration:
“One fine morning in May, a slim young horsewoman might have been seen riding a glossy sorrel mare along the avenues of the Bois, among the flowers …” (263).
Feverish and plague-stricken, Grand orders Rieux to burn all of his manuscripts, which contain nothing more than “the same sentence written again and again in small variants, simplifications or elaborations” (263).
What is the point of this grim tale? I suppose, among other things, it is this: If you want to be a writer, don’t be like Grand. As the saying goes, the only way to avoid criticism is to say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing.
Instead, you might begin by reflecting on the nature of the medium that you are writing in. The printed word calls out for perfection in a manner completely foreign to the spoken word. As the Jesuit scholar Walter J. Ong tells us in his Orality and Literacy, when people used to make mistakes in speeches, they would simply move on or “gloss” over their mistakes. In fact, going back to fix a mistake in a speech could actually make it less persuasive. However, it pays to rectify errors in the printed word. Take heart in the fact that you can always edit.
In the old days of the printing press, people used to painstakingly set the types for books. Every letter had to take its place in the printing press. One small mistake could be repeated in a thousand printed copies. Today, however, the nature of the digital text on a website means that you can pretty much edit at will. You can set and reset the type simply by logging into your website. This doesn’t mean that you should publish without editing. By all means, spend time editing or find a good editor. It only means that you can always come back later to finish what you’ve started.
Looking for a good book to read? You might find Camus’ The Plague especially interesting given the current coronavirus situation. Looking for an editor or copywriter to help you get past your first sentence? Contact me here.
In-text citations come from the following edition: Camus, Albert. The Plague. Translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert. Vintage Books, 1948/1975. I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.