Create Tension when You Can

You don’t know how to write well.

an icon of a keyboard

That’s not true, probably, and I have no grounds from which to say it, but that approach, fundamentally, coupled with the ‘read more’ is an explicit attempt to induce you to look into what I’m doing and see what the hell I’m talking about. It’s clickbait in text form, and clickbait is a practice we’ve all become convinced is very bad. After all, we know it’s bad, it’s just trying to Farm Engagement and get you to pay attention to a thing, and that’s why actually, the best things, are the people who already have millions of subscribers, have obtuse thumbnails.

We have a framework of common discourse in which the idea of doing things to encourage people to engage with your work is a sin.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing to dislike ‘clickbait.’ If nothing else, clickbait is boring and makes a media landscape (your subscription page, the news front page, the newspapers at the news agency) extremely tedious and repetitive. Did you know there’s an entire genre of magazine for sale here, for sale with money, which is about the ongoing drama inside the Royal Family? Like, twelve people, and what they did for a week, all reported by people who definitely have no idea what the fuck is going on inside that family. That’s an entire business that relies on getting you to spend like twelve dollars on a printed paper magazine to cover literally nothing and the only way they do it is with SHOCKING HEADLINES and PICTURES OF SLIGHTLY DISTRESSED PEOPLE WHO LOOK MELTED.

Same thing, same practice.

Thing is it’s good practice? In terms of writing, something you always want to do is create tension for the reader and then give them an explanation for how you’re going to solve it. Not ‘hey, there’s a problem in Taiwan and here’s how I’ll solve it,’ but how do you get them from the point in the reading where you’ve pulled their attention and you’re going to resolve that attention somehow. It’s not true for all forms of writing! For example, much of my blog is literally a log, it’s a journal of experiences and thoughts and those don’t necessarily have a dramatic flourish, but when I start an article I know I’m doing it in a specific way in order to try and get you to pay attention to me.

It’s important because one of the ways to create tension in your writing is not to introduce something but to draw attention to an existing situation. Most people actually exist surrounded by tension – we all have obligations like bills and politics and brain worms and The Three Eyed Horse That Follows Us When We Sleep. You don’t need to open with an introduction, you can probably just open with a line of dialogue that reminds someone of one of these existing forms of tension.

You can also do this by being an absolute idiot, by the way. If you forward a position that confronts a reader with something that they know is false, the tension there is ‘okay, what does this stupid idiot have to say for themselves to justify that?’ or ‘why would they say something that’s wrong and silly?’

It’s a simple conceptual trick, but it’s a habit that encourages readers to keep listening. Like when I opened this post with You don’t know how to write well.

an icon of a well

It’s probably true. It’s really good odds. There’s a nonzero chance you’re one of the people who follows me professionally from a particular discipline in which case, you’re probably absolutely right that you know how to write well. But even in that space, I know people whose day job is to write well who know they don’t write well who have to then edit and refine the process repeatedly with feedback on the way to get to writing well enough.

But there’s another category, of people who write well, but who don’t know how they do it. You might not even realise that you write well, you might not have heard someone tell you what they like about your writing and what meaningful truth or value you’re presenting to them. There’s a real problem there too because you might even look at your writing and think you haven’t actually done anything good because you’re seeing phrases that you know you borrowed, or ideas and structures you’re just copying from someone else, or that you’re just saying the same thing in three different ways that aren’t actually building new information into the sentence.

And you don’t know how to write well.

You don’t know how to tell someone else how to write well.

There are ways to learn. In the course of my PhD writing, one of the things I’ve learned is that I’m not good at writing well as much as I am good at conveying a speaking voice. My writing style is very much like a cleaner, double-checked version of my oratory style, and much of what you may think of as my good turns of phrase or clear explanations are ‘just’ the result of jokes that I commit to too hard then have to do research to back them up. Sometimes I’ll write a whole article to just dig a hole I then have to clamber out of.

think about how you write. Think about how I write, of course, that’s good, you should do that and also give me money on Patreon to keep writing it. But your own writing, yes, that, like, you may not have realised there are things you do in patterns. It can be hard to check. Read stuff you wrote a month ago and check if there’s something that stands out now you don’t just remember putting the words down. Ever noticed when you start sentences the same way repeatedly? Is that an error, does that make the reading boring, or is it a part of your meter, your style? Does your style work best when you read it aloud? Are you memey? What about the mistakes I’ve made in this article, have you got them on lock?

Are they mistakes?

Writing well is agonisingly hard.

But it starts with finding a way to create some tension, and then you need to dance on it.


  1. @Talen_Lee fuckin banger of an article right here

    I've spent the last couple weeks thinking about this very intently, which I find is a fun bit of serendipity. It started specifically from the prices of me trying to adapt an article from my film crit blog that I wrote over a year ago into a video script, and discovering that the amount of work it would take to bring it from something meant to be read on a screen to something that i read aloud was far farther than i anticipated

    1. @Talen_Lee (also being written that far back meaning that it lacked technique that I've Incorporated into my writing since then)

      1. @Talen_Lee I'm also always thinking about how my writing process is constantly growing and changing over time, and revisiting old work to see what my patterns are and where i take influence from, and now I'm thinking about how long a journey each of my Kingdom Hearts videos has taken from conception to completion. I've technically had drafts of scripts for every game but KH3 written as of 2019, and yet the process of getting those into videos is one of constant revision and re-evaluation

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