Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bad writing (about fitness)

I've been reading a lot of good writing recently, and thinking about what makes it good. I'd like to figure out some lessons and then learn them, to become a better writer myself.

Here, instead, is an anti-lesson, accompanied with a motivating example. (Please forgive my own bad writing; it is late, I am tired, and I have the lingering taste of bad writing in my left brain.)

Good writing shows, it doesn't tell. Numbered lists, foolish quotation marks, and other rhetorical crutches suffuse bad writing, padding it out, easing your mind over the harsh unpleasantness of badly assembled words expressing barely-coherent thoughts.

I just read the article "Everything you know about fitness is a lie" by Daniel Duane. (It's available here, but you shouldn't read it.) The title lured me, and after the first page I, compulsive reader, could not stop. I had to see how far the vapid, vaguely first-person quest could stretch. (Was this guy paid by the word?)

The title was acurate, insofar as Mr. Duane reports that everything I "know" is a lie. Let's start there: there is an assumption of a standard reader with some standard knowledge. I am not a standard reader of Men's Journal. (I think.) Men, even those who read a journal so slimy that merely reading its text on a webpage makes me want to dispose of it in the back corner of a doctor's waiting room and wash my hands thoroughly, do not deserve to be subjected to this level of verbal excrescence.

The standard Men's Journal reader is apparently too slow to understand his own standard knowledge. Throughout the article, Mr. Duane offers reminder of workout-related "facts" that we "know" or "believe." Then he informs us they are false. The tone of the article includes those sarcastic quotes all over the place. Consider the very first paragraph:
I hate the gym. At least, I hate “the gym” as imagined by...
Those quotes serve only to express disdain, and to them I say: I hated this article. At least, I hated this "article" as written by Mr. Duane.
The point of the article, of course, is to debunk "everything I know," mostly by following the author in the riveting tale of his personal journey and life-changing discovery of an amazing, back-to-basics, revolutionary, ancient and time-honored, [buzzword], [buzzword], reviled-by-medical-science-but-actually-SO-good-for-you new workout. Spoiler alert: he likes it.

Even as he denigrates workout systems W, X, and Y for making us obedient, profitable, unfit sheep, Mr. Duane is recruiting us to his new workout system Z. He doesn't address why Z is better than W, X and Y. He just evaluates W, X, and Y in terms of Z. Of course Z is better at achieving Z's objectives, but I bet it sucks at X's objectives.

This is self-unaware writing of the worst sort. Mr. Duane uses the same buzzwords, the same level of excitement and engagement that he mocked in the context of W, X, and Y, to express his total commitment to Z. I suppose it makes sense: if we readers were stupid enough to believe in the workouts he belittles, based on nothing but the recommendations of exercise experts, then we surely will be stupid enough to believe in the workout he expounds based on the recommendations of exercise experts. Again.

It's cheap, it's shallow, and it's a lame marketing tool. I suppose that maybe it earned this guy some money and prestige as a fitness writer. It also gave him an opportunity to publicly brag about the girth of his thigh muscles.


I'll keep arranging my thoughts and words on good writing. What are your thoughts? And words? Have you found any good ones lately? What have you been reading? Can you find an article worse than this one? I'm sure it exists; ask, and the vast internet shall supply.

This post's theme word is hagiography, "an uncritical biography, treating its subject with undue reverence," or "a biography of a saint." Mr. Duane's article is a heinous hagiography of Kevin Brown and Rob Shaul.
This post written like H. P. Lovecraft.

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