It’s Not Easy Being Green: when young writers meet opportunistic editors

Sometimes, for emerging writers, obscurity is better than blinding premature exposure, writes Connor Tomas O’Brien.

Photograph: Ali Eminov (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The idea that everything we upload to the web might stick around forever – skipping endlessly from one server to another – is terrifying. For young writers, it can be paralysing. How is it possible to work in the open when you recognise your developing work is still crude in narrative and clunky in argument? The notion that emerging writers should shelve their early work until it reaches a certain threshold of quality is at odds with how most writers develop – through contact with good readers, who can engage with raw pieces and kindly point out the blemishes.

The question of what should happen to a writer’s juvenilia has always been fraught. Historically, a writer’s early work – if published at all – reaches audiences years or decades after their polished work has cemented their reputation. Today, however, writers get their start online, so the juvenilia comes first and writers have no control over how long their early work stays on the web.

Working in the open, the only barrier between the imperfect work of untested new writers and a theoretically global audience is obscurity. If an emerging writer’s unrefined work-in-progress is not mocked by readers, it’s only because nobody’s paying enough attention to scrutinise it. The web, if it is made of anything, is built on layers of crudely constructed prose, most of it buried far too deep for anyone to bother excavating.

Today, however, writers get their start online, so the juvenilia comes first and writers have no control over how long their early work stays on the web.

There are exceptions, however – moments where a writer’s juvenilia reaches an audience far in advance of their much better and more considered work. For many people, especially other writers, the urge to share weak writing is unfortunately strong. Mocking this work is driven as much by a desire to tear down dubious arguments as by a form of schadenfreude borne of the recognition that our own, just-as-bad, early work hasn’t yet been uncovered.

As Chad Parkhill has argued, badly-written and poorly-informed writing going viral isn’t new; what is new is that editors of established publications are working to facilitate this, in a bid to capitalise on the attention generated by unsophisticated writing. In 2013, as Parkhill notes, Australian music website Musicfeeds published a review of My Bloody Valentine’s m b v by Jessica Andrews, a reviewer with no prior knowledge of the band, and little prior reviewing experience. The publication of the bad review probably came down to the convergence of editorial oversight and a non-existent budget, but as soon as the review gained viral traction as the ‘worst review ever’, Musicfeeds piled on, presenting the review as a joke, with the author’s inexperience as the punchline. (Two years later, a Google search for the writer brings up nothing but negative responses to the review.)

Recently, New Matilda appeared to be reading from the same editorial playbook, elevating to prime position on its homepage a polemic on contemporary feminism from Jack Kilbride, a young writer with limited publication history. As soon as the piece began to receive a negative response, New Matilda announced a series of response pieces from other, more established writers. On social media, meanwhile, New Matilda seemed to distance itself from the original piece and its inexperienced author.

As Parkhill noted in a response to Kilbride’s piece on Facebook, the core issue was not simply that the piece was ‘garbage’, but that it passed the editorial process at all. ‘Perhaps worse than the article's content is the fact that [New Matilda] have exposed a very young and inexperienced writer's ill-formed thoughts to a large audience,’ Parkhill said. ‘This article was by no means ready to go live, and I'm sure in the fullness of time its author won't thank [New Matilda] for the opportunity or "exposure" but will regret the fact that [they] were willing to publish such asinine crap to which his name will be forever attached.’

'Generally the writer and editor have to believe in what’s being put forth – a feeling of a united front – and it’s been my experience that by the time it goes live, you’ve both poked as many holes in the thing to see that it’s still sea-worthy and holds up to your own beliefs and the message you wanted to get across in the first place'

Danielle Binks

As the article’s comment thread began picking up hundreds of responses, writers questioned the editorial practices of New Matilda, and their motives for launching a young writer onto the stage with a piece that appeared designed to provoke criticism.

Author SA Jones wrote: ‘If, as I suspect, Kilbride was set up as clickbait, this is beneath an outlet that aspires to insightful, cogent analysis of issues ignored elsewhere.’ Indeed, using inexperienced writers to generate hate-read clickbait is an odd strategy, but one that seems to play into the tendency for outlandish arguments to perform well online – especially those that receive near-universal condemnation. Encouraging writers with no profile to produce that work appears easier than attempting to persuade an established writer to tone their work up, or play devil’s advocate to antagonise readers.

‘Jack’s piece read as lonely to me, from a freelance perspective,’ writer Danielle Binks says. ‘Generally the writer and editor have to believe in what’s being put forth – a feeling of a united front – and it’s been my experience that by the time it goes live, you’ve both poked as many holes in the thing to see that it’s still sea-worthy and holds up to your own beliefs and the message you wanted to get across in the first place. I see no editorial hand in that piece, no guidance – arguably because the guidance should have come from the moment of rejecting the pitch, with necessary but forceful suggestions to re-examine where he’s writing from. There’s a “sacrificial lamb” feeling to it, even more so with this “series” of rebuttal pieces that read like Jack’s being made to sit in the corner with a dunce’s cap on and really think about what he's done. There's a real feeling of Charlie Brown, Lucy and the Football to what's going on here.’

The question of editorial responsibility is a complex one, especially when it comes to emerging writers who may lack the experience to recognise when they are being taken advantage of.

'Perhaps worse than the article's content is the fact that New Matilda have exposed a very young and inexperienced writer's ill-formed thoughts to a large audience'

Chad Parkhill

Of course, it is much easier for editors to simply push new writers on stage, especially when badly argued writing often leaves open ample space for reader responses. When a writer places trust in an editor to properly vet their work, and believes the editor is on their side in ensuring a piece will not reach readers before it is ready, it can be difficult for a writer to recognise that an editor’s motives may not align with their own.

Writer Craig Hildebrand-Burke shares an example of a situation in which, when he first started writing op-eds, he was asked to write a 700-word piece about a contentious issue on an impossible deadline. After the piece was published, the editor commissioned a rebuttal from a more established writer, who accused Hildebrand-Burke of failing to go into necessary depth on the subject. They gave him about 1500 words and the first I knew about it was when I was included in the tweet… pushing [the other writer’s] rebuttal, says Hildebrand-Burke.

Sam Prendergast, a writer for frankie, relates an experience with an editor several years ago, in which she was commissioned to write a piece that would have opened her up to ridicule. ‘I realised [I was being used as bait] once I thought about it a bit more and started writing it,’ Prendergast tells me. ‘It was pretty unethical of them; I think I'd let them know that I was only 21 and just starting out. I didn't get random commissions back then so it didn't immediately occur to me not to take it.’ In other cases, emerging writers have noted having their work edited so that their central arguments were misstated, in order to increase the likelihood of ‘amplified’ versions of their pieces being shared online.

One of the most difficult things for inexperienced writers to hear is that their work isn’t ready for publication, and mightn’t be for some time. But, in hindsight, what will often be remembered as far worse is making the decision to work with an unscrupulous editor who agrees to publish work that isn’t ready for an audience. Attempting to build a profile on top of work that has been widely lambasted – and that was promoted to a readership far larger than it deserved – is more difficult than it seems. Juvenilia can generate clicks, but for emerging writers, not all clicks are equal.

Discussion

All messages as part of this discussion and any opinions, advice, statements, or other information contained in any messages or transmitted by any third party are the responsibility of the author of that message and not the Wheeler Centre.