The lure of lazy writing

Read a lot of women’s magazines, and you start to notice something. A lot of articles start with first person anecdotes. Our writer has been struggling to schedule date night, to lose weight, to find a method of birth control she doesn’t hate, to get ahold of her finances. She achieves some epiphany, and then we move into the bulk of the article.

There are a few reasons for this first person approach. First, it seems relatable. I’m just a girlfriend sharing a tale! It’s how much of the blogosphere operates, me included, and we’re comfortable with this format. But second, it is really, really hard to find anecdotes from other people — who are willing to let you use their real names — that perfectly illustrate your point.

When you use your own life, however, you can be very selective about details and mold the story into its most convenient form.

I’ve been pondering this as I’m editing Mosaic. Some people like to write about themselves. I’ve never been one for over-sharing. My life also isn’t that dramatic. I was working on a money piece for a women’s magazine once that didn’t pan out in part because I’ve never had any big money problems. I’m lucky, for sure. I’m also kind of even-keeled. Life is not lived in epiphanies. I can’t create rock-bottom-and-redemption-moments where they don’t exist.

I’ve realized, in editing my manuscript, that I’ve sometimes thrown in personal anecdotes because I haven’t done enough work. I haven’t found a story from another woman — who is willing to let me use her real name — that illustrates the same point. Some Laura stories are OK. But this is not a book about me. When I’m writing about myself, I’ve often given in to the lure of lazy writing.

The good news is that I recognize that, and I’ve got time. That’s why I’ve done a number of additional interviews this week (thanks to everyone who volunteered!) and I’m hoping to do more. This is a book about 1000 days in the lives of professional women and their families. I’m just a few of those days. Best to keep the proportion in check.

11 thoughts on “The lure of lazy writing

  1. I’m curious about why it’s so important to have real names? I understand that it looks a little bad to have “*not her real name” next to every person (as is the case in some magazine stories, which can seem made up). But researchers writing an academic article based qualitative data similar data to your interviews would nearly always use pseudonyms. And in memoirs or books based on travels they often mention up front that some characters have their names changed. Just curious…

    1. I can’t speak for Laura’s reason, but as someone who does archival and oral histories, having real names makes it easier for me to follow up on stories that had been reported by others in, say, the 1980s. Being able to do “updates” allowed me to revisit experiences and conclusions with newer information. Anonymity is often better for the participant, however, so these opportunities are rare.

    2. @Lily- I truly dislike the idea of details/names being changed in memoirs or travel stories. If things purport to be non-fiction, they should be true. Non-fiction relies on its truth for its power. The craziest things can happen…because they really did. To a degree, it also means the writer can’t just treat other real people as mere characters in their own drama. Because the other person can see it and say if it was right if you use real names and details. There was a great quote from John McPhee about that, he said in class once. There’s a word for non-fiction in which some details have been changed…and it’s fiction.

      I am not completely against using details without names. One woman wrote on her log that… But I’m trying to limit it and I’d prefer to use real names when at all possible.

      1. Thanks for the reply Laura (and to everyone else who has provided such interesting comments on the issue!)

  2. I can’t speak for Laura either, but I’m guessing she’d have more–and probably different sorts–of volunteers if anonymity were a possibility. That’s not a criticism, just an observation (personally, I don’t qualify because I don’t make enough $$ but would not have volunteered with my own name. I did just complete another time use study that was completely anonymous.)

    *

    But, unrelated, writing about oneself (I say as someone with a memoir coming out today!) is not by definition lazy. I realize you’re talking about writing a particular sort of nonfiction when research is warranted…but the problem there isn’t writing about self, it’s NOT RESEARCHING.

    1. @gwinne- congrats on the launch of your memoir! But then you don’t mind personal information about you being out in the public sphere.

      1. I don’t. But clearly it’s a different thing for me to write about myself than for you to write about me. You’ll also note I blog and comment on blogs pseudonymously…

  3. See I would absolutely be interviewed for this book but only anonymously. If you put your name in there then everyone knows you make more than X. If it was not a $$ book then that would be totally different. Money is private…

  4. I would say yes to more interview requests from journalists if they could be more accommodating about personal information.

    Like, why would the Wall Street Journal need to publish my home city in order to quote me?

    (I said no, and the journalist couldn’t budge, so the interview didn’t happen.)

    It just doesn’t seem relevant to me, especially in the age of the internet where your actual local doesn’t matter much.

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