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Catharsis vs. Craft

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One of several freelance jobs that I do is writing for a quarterly print publication in Tokyo. The article topics are a mixture of anecdotes, psychology, and culture in Japan. Many of them have a basis in blog posts that I have done over the last several years. When the editor asks me for story ideas, I often refer him to a post and say that I could write about that topic, but that the blog post itself needs to be completely rewritten and altered to suit the magazine.

Even though I have written for the publication for over a year now, the editor always tells me the same things each time, despite my warning that the blog post does not represent the final product, but is merely a pointer to some expanded thoughts on the topic. The first point the editor makes is that the magazine does not print articles written from a first person perspective, nor does it write about personal experiences. The second is that I must not mention any negative points associated with the topic (and Japan), but focus only on the positive.

The reason for the latter has never been explained to me, but as someone who has more than a few brain cells to rub together, I have concluded that it is because the focus of the magazine is light on the whole, and because the target groups of the magazine include foreign residents who want to know more about Japan to enjoy themselves here, and Japanese people studying English by reading a publication in that language.

Though I write about Japan for my blog in what I believe is a fairly balanced way, including both the negative and positive points of a particular issue, I don’t have a problem with the magazine editor’s requests. I’m being paid to write the way they want an article written, so they have the right to ask that content be framed in a certain fashion to suit their tone and demographic interests. The magazine is not a news publication and its content could never be mistaken for hard-hitting or revealing journalism. It’s not important that the roughly 800-word articles that I write encompass every aspect of the topic. It’s only important that they be interesting, reasonably informative, and, if possible, entertaining.

While I don’t mind the restrictions, I am getting a little tired of the reminders. The editor appears to feel compelled to tell me again and again not to say anything bad, not to speak in the first person, and not to be too personal. Recently, I remarked to a fellow blogger that the tediousness of the reminders was irritating, and her response was that I was essentially “selling my right to have an opinion.” I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, but it sounded a lot like she was implying that I was selling out by writing in compliance with the editor’s wishes rather than however I felt like writing.

The interesting thing about her comment is that I can easily see a lot of bloggers feeling the same way. People who write for blogs can say whatever they want and in whatever fashion they want. What is more, many people who comment on those blogs feel entitled to have anything they say about the topics discussed on the blogs, and are outraged when comments are moderated. They mistakenly believe that anything they write must be published, and that if it not, their free speech is being suppressed, even when they are being abusive or offering little of quality to a discussion.

The exchange I had with this other blogger clarified for me some differences between people who practice journalism and those who write for blogs. Blogs are essentially a platform for free expression of any sort, short of slander. The blog owner is king and high master of the content and can write any way he or she pleases. Journalists, on the other hand, have to exercise discipline and follow someone else’s rules and desires. Metaphorically speaking, the blogger is in a dune buggy racing through the open desert and shouting at the top of his lungs, while the journalist is taking a driver’s test in a narrow space in an SUV and speaking respectfully to the driving instructor.

I’m not going to argue about whether one is qualitatively better or worse than the other, nor am I going to debate whether or not it is ballsy to spout off without restraint in a blog. Such matters are entirely subjective and not worth arguing about. What I can say is that it requires a lot more effort, skill, and care to act in accord with the limits of journalism than to blog. I’ve done both, and frankly blogging is a whole lot easier, though not necessarily more gratifying in all cases, and definitely less profitable. For me, blogging is catharsis, but journalistic writing is craft.

Some bloggers make two mistakes: believing that unfettered writing is better for readers than restricted writing, and believing that they are doing the same thing as a professional journalist. Setting aside the problem of having to wade through the often sloppily prepared, all-you-can-eat information buffet that is the nature of the internet, there is also the issue of a lack of objectivity. Without someone to keep them in check, most people write in a highly subjective manner that promotes a particular personal agenda.

While my magazine articles’ content is provided to readers according to the criteria of an editor, that editor is seeking to remove the subjective element as much as possible, though arguably he is cropping the picture so that only the most attractive parts of it are going to be seen. Bloggers may be showing a particular picture in all of its ugly glory, but they’re only showing those pictures they want others to see and they’re captioning them in such a fashion as to shape perceptions of the content in accord with their own opinions. Bloggers mainly write with agreement and empathy in mind. Publications write with sales and demographics in mind. In both cases, there is a distortion, but the nature of those distortions is different.

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