If you’re reading this online – stop
This column is not for the vitriolic online mob
Responses to columns are almost invariably toxic
For the avoidance of doubt, I’d like to stress that I don’t write for The Irish Times’ online edition. My column is reproduced there, it’s true, and you may well be reading it in that form, but I do not, when I write it, address the audience which might read it there. I write for those who buy and read the print edition – the “newspaper” – for which I’ve been writing since 1990. Should it ever come to pass that The Irish Times ceases to exist on paper, I’ll find another way of earning a living.
My attitude has more than somewhat to do with the sewer of toxic hatred that runs underneath this column every Friday online. Nevertheless, my objection is not purely aesthetic. It’s also grounded in a belief that there’s a profound difference between writing for a screen and writing for a page.
Writers rarely appear to envisage precisely whom they write for. Some claim to address just one person, although with a certain vagueness as to who that may be. Others think of themselves as addressing large audiences, though this seems implausible, for how can any statement be formulated with a host of unknown others in mind?
I have a theory that most writers don’t write for people at all, but for something inanimate, lethargic and apolitical: the page. The relationship between author and page is open, intimate and non-judgmental. When you write for a page, there are two stages. Firstly, you write what you believe to be true. Then, after a pause, you decide what to publish. This reviewing process may include consideration of everything from libel risk to personal qualms which surface on mature reflection.
The best writing advice I ever got came from Brendan Kennelly: write as if you were dead. The only writing that’s worthwhile is something unsafe, which often means that the second phase of the process involves a recklessness in green-lighting things with the potential to become embarrassing or awkward for their author.
For the reader, there’s a concomitant process. Most readers of books, and anything but the most perfunctory of news reports, do not read purely for information, but to reach the places they can be brought to with words.
To write for a screen, in the sense of writing for online consumption, is entirely different. Whereas you can whisper or scream on to a page, you can only yell towards a screen. Because everything written specifically for online consumption is written in the expectation of addressing a hostile community, the writing process demands, as a prerequisite, either a defensive or antagonistic demeanour.