Ah, how careless we can be with our words! I don’t mean sloppy grammar or style that relies on clichés. I’m talking about careless word choice, particularly when words are chosen to serve a style of writing.
Someone sent me an article on how great artists are made. These two opening sentences told me right away that the writer did not take enough care and research before he constructed them, that those sentences were there for effect or, in this age of Internet Rule, probably for SEO (search engine optimization):
Conventional wisdom tells us pain is good for art. Genius, the logic goes, is best drunk, unhappy, destitute, scarred by war or parenting, buoyed by illegal drugs or Merck.
There may, in fact, be a romantic, but unproven, notion (not conventional wisdom which requires most people in a society agree with an idea that is both sound and defensible—big difference) that, to be a great artist, one must experience pain. But as someone who once researched and evaluated programs for exceptional children, I have never come across anyone claim that “Genius,” by “logic,” is helped by drink, having a tortured soul, etc., etc. Once again, I would say that idea is a romantic notion (not a logically drawn conclusion or a hypothesis) associated, not with genius (an iffy term many researchers avoid) but with being an artist. Aren’t some scientists also geniuses? Do you think of scientist-geniuses as drunk or scarred? Again, big differences.
Had the writer done a bit more research (even Wikipedia would have helped), he would also have known that one conclusion he draws in his article, as if no one has ever thought of it before, has been shown in studies for quite a while. I have no quarrel with that conclusion: Diligence (or work or however you want to call dogged application to a task) is essential to the work of great artists. Although I would qualify and say this is true of most artists, whether history brands them great or not.
In this Age of Internet Enlightenment with millions of websites competing for the curtailed attention of readers, getting read requires knowing crucial keywords. Once a reader clicks on those keywords, the writer’s task is to hold interest. He only has seconds to do. And there lies the rub—making sure first sentences and titles are catchy. Catch the keywords and catch interest.
I don’t take issue with keywords and interest or the tricky art of catching. What I do take issue with are catchy sentences that are carelessly chosen. So carelessly chosen that they perpetuate misinformation. Or worse, sloppy thinking. And it bugs me that you find them in sites (like The Atlantic) reputed for serious writing.
Words can be powerful instruments. We should put thought into how we use them.