You could say there are four different kinds or qualities of writing:
- bad writing in which no care is given to the choice of words or the basics of grammar and syntax, and so it is a disorganized mess in which it is hard to figure out what the writer is trying to say
- good, clear writing
- over-writing, in which the writer just tries to hard, conjures up words more to impress than to convey meaning, and doesn’t understand images and metaphors
- literary writing, writing which is art
One of the great satire organizations that sprang up around the beginning of the last year of Donald Trump’s presidency was the Lincoln Project. Their stated goal was to do what they could to help ensure that he was not re-elected. I followed them on Twitter and enjoyed the snarky commentary by one of the co-founders, Rick Wilson, and I also got to see the many videos that they produced, which ranged in emotion from genuinely, sadly moving to harsh, uncompromising satire and sarcasm. Their signature tease for the latter, when they were working on a video on someone, was “Abe is watching.” It was great fun and very funny.
The project is in the news now for a very different reason though: another of the co-founders, Mike Weaver, has admitted to sexually harassing men online—but boys as well, including a 14-year-old to whom he promised political favours for, well, you know. Weaver actually left the Lincoln Project in the summer of 2020, and these allegations were only published a couple of weeks ago. The project has initiated an independent investigation of Weaver’s behaviour during his time with them, and that continues.
So what does any of this have to do with writing?
Yet another co-founder of the Lincoln Project is Steve Schmidt. When he was asked for his reaction to the accusations, he said that he was “incandescently angry” at Weaver. Incandescently angry. Think about that. That is writing that is not sincere. It’s writing that’s trying too hard to make an effect by using an unusual adverb. It’s writing that is more animated by a desire to stand out rather than by genuine emotion. It’s technically accurate, a correct use of the word, but it’s writing by thesaurus. It’s over-writing. It’s bad writing.
I am no longer on Twitter. Since I am writing a book about Sam Johnson, I was on there at the time to follow scholars and others who know something about the 18th century. But much of the conversation was about Trump, in which I participated as well, and when that was all over, as I was clearing out my mind for the new year, I thought my Twitter account would be something I could easily toss in the trash. I haven’t missed it.
(Side note: My other Twitter-related incident is that an account I had before this one was actually suspended by Twitter because of comments I made about Trump, and Lou Dobbs (who recently lost his Fox News show) complained about it. I had the choice of waiting it out and being returned to the fold eventually, but I decided to delete the entire account.)
When I was on Twitter as @SamJohnsonBook, I followed Schmidt until I just couldn’t bear it any more. I would respond to his tweets and tell him that he didn’t know how to write. I begged him to contact me, an editor, so that I could help him. Of course I knew that these tweets of mine would have no effect, that he probably wouldn’t even see them. After a while I got tired of flailing my arms and just stopped following him so that I could have some peace of mind, so that I wouldn’t have to be exposed to his over-writing.
The thing about over-writing is that it is pretentious in both senses of the word: bragging and snobby, but at the same time pretending or aspiring to be great writing when it is not. You can see examples of Schmidt’s bad writing even in the letter which he has issued about the Weaver affair. Like:
A telltale sign of someone who knows nothing about writing is that there is no logic in the images and metaphors that they use. In this case a faith which is just a flicker is suddenly immolated (sacrificed by burning) by anger. Yes, they both have to do with fire, but a successful metaphor or image has to have a real-life logic to it. Here, the faith is flickering, but then anger elsewhere destructively sets it on fire. The mess is compounded when in the next sentence Schmidt says he felt “like something that anchored me was stolen.” This relegates the writing even further to a mixed metaphor, where a fire has somehow been transformed into an anchor.
Sam Johnson, the 18th-century writer I am writing a biography about, is often cited as someone whose writing is close to impenetrable or even incomprehensible to modern readers. That is true to a certain extent, though it depends a lot of what work of Sam’s you are reading. What is also true, though, is that the difficulty in understanding his writing has nothing to do with confused or mixed metaphors or the wrong choices of words. It is partly that he was writing over two centuries ago, and much has changed in the English language since then. It is also partly Sam’s style. Most of his comtemporaries had little difficulty with it, but some of them mocked him for his big words and his long sentences.
Sam understood metaphor though. And he was never trying to use words to impress in a superficial way, but to convey meaning with the vocabulary that he had at hand. He was an imperfect man, and coincidentally suffered from two of the traits that Steve Schmidt says afflicted him as well: anger and depression. Some people can write about it successfully though, and others cannot.