Ah, how careless we can be with our words! I’m not referring to sloppy grammar or style that relies on clichés. I’m talking about careless word choice, particularly when words are chosen primarily to attract attention.
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.
I have two problems with these opening sentences: First: There may be a romantic, but unproven, notion (NOT conventional wisdom which requires most people in a society to agree with an idea that is both sound and defensible) that, to be a great artist, one must experience pain.
Second: 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) that’s associated, not with genius—an iffy term many researchers avoid—but with being an artist. And if you insist that what you’re asserting does apply to geniuses, then you are extending that assertion to scientists who’re also geniuses. Do you think of scientist-geniuses as drunk or scarred?
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 making sure first sentences and titles are catchy. We’re also told that readers’ attention span gives a writer mere seconds to hook readers and hold their interest. And there lies the rub.
I don’t take issue with the importance of keywords and interest or the tricky art of hooking readers. 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.