Writing for the Web vs. Writing Literature

Pete: This article was written by Tedel, a Peruvian writer who is the author of a cultural project called Heptagrama.


I’m very glad to be able to share what I learnt with you.

My story as a writer began when I was fourteen years old. I was perhaps too young to produce something worth publishing then, but still, I was glad to hear an editor say I had “much potential” when I was nineteen and I tried to get published for the first time.

That was the first and only time I tried to get published by an editorial company. They didn’t want to publish my manuscript because, and I quote, “everybody likes poetry but nobody buys it, and this is a business, after all.”

I swore I would never try to be published again, and I have fulfilled my word. I turned to the Internet instead, a curious invention by then, despite being over three decades old. It was a whole new world, and, as such, it could be very cruel. With zillions of web pages out there, it is always hard to get noticed —let alone read. Most web pages are seen once in a blue moon; and to make matters worse, if they are seen, they are often skimmed rather than read. I had to learn about online marketing and search engine optimization to be able to find a readership for myself.

Today I can say I have experienced some success. Many writers have told me I have a very good writing style for online articles, and I still get a little blushed when someone tells me my writing has helped them some way or another; but I am aware many writers do not have the strike of luck I had when I met an online marketing expert willing to teach me because he thought I had “much potential for the trade.”

So today I am writing to share a few things I learnt about the differences between these two types of writing: literature versus the Internet. I sincerely hope you will find them useful.

First things first, the Internet is full of marketing

The Internet was called “the information superhighway” in the beginning, and for a reason: only wealthy organizations and very big companies were able to have their own website. Those were days in which listening that someone had his or her own e-mail would awe people. “What is it like to have an e-mail?,” they would ask. You didn’t really know how to reply to that. It was just an e-mail account.

Over twenty years later, we are in times in which everybody can have an e-mail address and create a blog, and, as a mistaken consequence, any person thinks he or she can call him- or herself a writer. I feel a slight pity when I think about it because this situation has made the words “author” and “writer” feel cheap. Be very careful with that. Anybody can write articles, but being a writer goes way beyond that. A writer has a purpose, a message, an intention; a writer makes people feel something. Articles are usually as informative as dull.

Furthermore, despite all the creative works being published every day, the Internet (and the writing world, in general) is still mainly a marketing-oriented means of communication. The majority of website owners invest some of their pocket money in buying a domain name and some server space with the clear intention of trying to make some (OK, a lot of) profit from it. Working online provides thousands of jobs while millions are moved from a bank account to another day after day, every single day.

Does it work? Yes, it does. Yet what may be good for companies has become really, really bad for literature. If you spend some time reading what it is being published on the Internet, you will notice the same “content” over and over again, with small differences, in an incredible number of web pages. The very use of the word “content” instead of “article” or “essay” should already be turning on warning signs in our minds; however, we give in and read. Nobody seems to notice it, but we are all getting used to considering low-quality “content” as “normal writing;” and I sometimes feel we, writers, tend to lower down the quality of our own production as well “to fit in.”

It is a temptation you should not fall into if we are serious about being called a writer some day.

But there is another temptation, subtler yet equally dangerous: to use the most far-fetched words we can find in a dictionary to say what we are planning to say. Be careful with this too. Real writers do not confuse lexical accuracy with pomposity, and you should not do that either.

Wrapping up, marketing-oriented texts have a commercial purpose; literature has an artistic purpose; but both types of writing definitely do not walk the same path. If you are serious about writing literature, please do not use Internet articles as examples of correct writing.

Second, the Internet is full of poor writing

You may not be surprised to read this, but there are hundreds of so-called writers who charge 0.01 (insert your favourite currency here) per word for complete articles “suitable for being published online.” Many of them even claim that the “content” they write will rank well in search engine result pages. “Heaven forbid,” you may be thinking, but many of them do anyway. You may have already noticed the consequences: spelling mistakes everywhere, redundancies, excessiveness, lack of clarity… Manuel Gonzáles Prada, a Peruvian essay writer, said it better than me: “It a sick organ: wherever you place the finger sprouts pus.” In the original text he was writing about Peru, but we can easily apply that quote to modern writing as well.

Literature, on the other hand, touches you. It makes you dream, suffer, cry, grit your teeth, sweat and relax over and over again because this is the power literature has on people. Literature entertains, denounces and leaves a message all at the same time in one single book. This is not achieved by chance.

True writing demands a lot of work, from the very first sentence to the thirty-fourth proofreading of the manuscript, including paying attention to the editorial suggestions, and deciding wisely whether to follow them or not. Most Internet writing is not this meticulous. It is often boldly careless. If you are to be a writer, understand your readers do not deserve any less than your very best, and give them just that.

This is why serious writers read the classics and the modern authors alike, and proofread like maniacs. They never underestimate the impotence of proofreading. Internet writers, on the other hand, tend to believe they are superhumans who never err, who just need a slight proofreading “just to spot typos” before a text “goes live.”

Oscar Wilde said it best: “The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read.” Well, Internet writing is the new journalism.

Third, it is a matter of words

When I was about 23, and I was making up my mind to take literature seriously, I was highly concerned about “learning how to write.” I read many articles online about the subject, many essays on writing, a few articles about how to build characters properly… and after all that reading I was more confused than I was in the beginning.

This didn’t stop until I had the opportunity to publish on “Los noveles”, an Internet magazine that featured unknown authors in the late 1990s. Salvador Raggio, one of the head editors, told me this when we were talking about the topic: “You learned how to write when you were a six- or seven-year-old boy. You need not learn how to write. You already write. All you need to learn is how to use words correctly.”

Literature is a matter of words.

Internet writing is different. Your goal may be to spread some message, granted, but the path you take is like the one you would take if this was a popularity contest. Your god’s name is Google; you crave for followers on social media websites; your “posts” are as prissy as ephemeral; but you can get some temporary fame if you do it right.

Literature does not work that way.

What to do instead

If these were my last few days on the planet (I really hope they are not), and I was asked to give advice to all writers to come, I would choose these four:

One, should there be something to learn about writing for the Internet that we can apply in literature is how important it is to grab the readers’ attention from the very first line. They have plenty to read already. They can choose to buy a newspaper, a new book, to download a PDF file from The Pirate Bay or to just browse online for a few hours. You cannot waste the opportunity you have to make that second of attention you got completely yours: Your title should urge them read your first sentence; your first sentence, the second; the second, to end the first paragraph; and it should leave them wondering “Oh, my God, what’s next!” Internet writing is light, and quite good at this. It is worth an analysis.

Two, please write something meaningful. If we have submarines today, it is thanks to Jules Verne’s imagination and novel. You may not remember who Mary Shelley was, but you will never forget Frankenstein. The world is already flooded with bull… ahem!… low-quality texts. Please write something worth reading.

Three, never forget writing is an act of communication. If your reader does not understand exactly what you are trying to say, simple: rewrite that part. History will never judge if you had a good or a bad story because, in the end, that is a matter of taste. If the story was bad written, conversely, you will be burnt at the stake.

Four and lastly, learn a new language. This is not mandatory, but it is highly desirable in a writer. Speaking more than one language fluently allows you to see and understand the subtleties of how different people see the world. As a matter of fact, many great writers, for example Hemingway, were also translators.

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