Wearing us down

I come not to insult a type of writing that is abhorrent and offensive and an embarrassment to our entire craft, but rather to try figuring out how anyone can actually type this stuff.

And possibly to admit that there is a decent case to be made that I’ve done some of it.

I promise you I haven’t, but it doesn’t half look like it. The other day, I wrote an article about how to wear an Apple Watch. Now, come on, tell me that isn’t stupid. I thought of it, I actually formed those thoughts and made a case to an editor about it, then I wrote the the words.

About how to wear a watch.

Only, give me this. The prompt to do it was that Apple updated a list of materials used in the Apple Watch and detailed what was used for what – and which were ever known to cause any skin problems with anyone.

I’m reading this, thinking how I’ve not seen this level of detail nor thought about people’s allergic reactions to any watch, when I come to the official advice on how to wear an Apple Watch.

Yes, I threw a quick glance at the sky.

Except, there was advice on how you could tighten the Watch strap when you’re doing a workout and loosen it afterwards. The whole piece was less about the style of wearing a watch and more how to make the thing’s health sensors work the best. And then there was a bit that explained why I’ve sometimes seen bright green lights under people’s Apple Watches.

All of these watches have these lights, it’s just that if you see them, the person is wearing the Watch too loosely and the health sensors can’t work.

That was the point that made me think of writing about this.

I did, and while I don’t know how many readers the piece got on AppleInsider.com, I’m told it was lot. A big lot. A lot of lots.

So in terms of writing success, I got readers. In terms of what I was writing about, this falls into a category that I’m very happy with: it’s a piece where I’ve found out something I didn’t know and I rush up to you like a puppy to say it. I’m never sure how I square that puppy-rush with the way that I assume if I know something, you’ve always known it, but that’s how it is.

I’m doing more journalism writing now than I have in a long time and I am enjoying it, but I also haven’t forgotten why I stopped.

It was because I can’t solely write about something other people are doing, I have to do something myself, to make something, to create. I need that mix. Right now, I seem to have that balance and I hope it lasts, but you know that whenever you’re writing something, you’re reading it too. So I am reading more journalism now than I have in a long time and I am enjoying most of it.

Just not all.

This has been bothering me for months now, but in the last week, I’ve come across a specific example of what ails me. It’s a news article about Strictly Come Dancing. Or rather, it is several. None of them are making anything, but they’re also not reporting, as I know the term. They are shouting.

They’re clickbait headlines followed by Shock Gasp Awe in order to stand up the headline. There’s no possibility that the story will warrant the headline, but the writer has a very good go.

Let me give you the example from this week’s Strictly. Last Saturday night, Claudia Winkleman was doing that post-dance interview with one or other of the celebrities, and the camera cut to his mother in the audience. He tells Claudia that his mum doesn’t like being on camera, and Winkleman politely sympathises.

This became a news story saying that this dancer celebrity fella was furious and Winkleman was forced to apologise on air for the enormous Strictly gaffe.

I know I’m sounding as if I think I’m a better writer because I couldn’t manage to write that crap, but actually I just think I’m normal. There is no possibility whatsoever that I would’ve thought to write about this – er, okay, I’m writing about it now, and I don’t have a smart comeback about that. But, okay, say I did think to write about it or, maybe more likely, an editor assigned me.

The very best I could do with this material would be to think about what I could tell a reader that was interesting or new. The event, if you can even call six seconds of nothing an event, wouldn’t cut it for me.

Maybe I could find a paragraph to say about Winkleman. I think she’s witty and there are many times when the sheer speed of her reactions has been impressive. But this didn’t particularly happen to be one of those.

Perhaps there’s something in this business of not liking being on camera. Certainly that’s something you can identify with. I’m not going to get the time to talk to psychologists about how we’re all shifting about on the spectrum between introvert and extrovert. I’m not going to get to muse about how we all photograph each other and especially ourselves.

If I were already primed to be anti-BBC, I could look into this business of them filming a woman who doesn’t want to be filmed.

Only, she chose to come to Elstree Studios for the recording of a live Saturday night show, a show she’s probably familiar with because her son is in it and because it’s been a giant success for BBC1 for 15 years.

And when the show cut to her reaction shot, a full-size BBC studio camera had been lined up on her face, ready, and her son was talking about her on the monitors. It’s possible she was made up for the cameras: I’ve been made up for TV and makeup people somehow manage to simultaneously tell you what’s going on and make you relaxed about it.

I don’t doubt that she dislikes being on camera, but I cannot even force myself to pretend that she was actually all that bothered. I don’t doubt that she might have preferred not to be on the telly, but I can’t get from that to how it was a monumental blunder that required an on-air apology to soothe a furious celebrity.

Yet others did.

Hello magazine, The Sun – you’re not surprised at that one – plus the Mirror, the Express and the Birmingham Mail all managed to find the story that I still can’t.

You know full well why they did it, that any story bashing the BBC and mentioning Strictly is going to get readers. I read it. I don’t actually know now which one I read because I read most news through RSS or aggregate services like Apple News+, but I read it. I’d seen the show, I saw what happened, and I still read it.

And that is all that matters here.

The writing does not.

Journalists Jenni McKnight, Carl Greenwood, James Rodger, Kyle O’Sullivan and Charlotte Manning all found a way to spin 200 words or so out of this empty air. I think I can admire that they physically found something to type, that given nothing to write about, they conjured up something.

And I can definitely think that this is sheer bollocks, that I am offended any of them think I am so insanely stupid as to believe what I actually saw was actually this horrendous awkward gaffe.

But I set out to write to you about this thinking I would end up just about there, this moment where I can express at least an acknowledgement of there being some craft in writing nothing up into, well, nothing.

And I knew I’d be thinking a lot about this business of rushing up to you with facts, about how creating something is better than describing someone else’s creation.

Yet since I went to find where I’d read this story and, perhaps because it was more widespread than I’d known, I’ve also realised this.

Whatever you’re going to write, you try to write it well because it’s going to be read. Except here. I truly don’t think that’s the case here. I think the headlines were read, I think the headlines were clicked-through, and I think that’s the end of it. Not only do I struggle to accept anyone read to the end of these pieces, I know that nobody on the publication from the writers to the publishers gives the faintest shit whether they do or not.

Not only is the writing worthless, it isn’t writing. It is a graphic. It is a visual part of the page designed entirely to space out the adverts around it.

Get the reader in, give them some ads and count the clicks, job done.

That’s not enough for me as a reader, so it sure as all hell on Earth is not enough for me as a writer.