Material Transparency: A Manifesto on a Writer's Personal Brand

by David Miller Oct 29, 2009
Writers do “not write the truth about themselves. They leverage words to obscure things. They write the truth about other people, and leave themselves out of it.” -Lewis Samuels.

THIS POST really began 3 weeks ago in a piece called 3 writing styles that ruin your stories. It was supposed to be about awareness of styles, but what really came out was an attack on marketing language.

I feel like I’ve been trying to clarify something in my mind ever since.

A couple weeks later, David Page wrote “Do ‘freebies’ undermine honesty in travel writing?” It was a reaction to the New York Times and Newsweek and other publications’ policies prohibiting writers from having any “material connection” (i.e. comps or freebies) to their subject matter, which, as he pointed out, often leads to writers simply pretending they don’t have material connections.

Finally, yesterday, as I was finishing a very quick post on the circulation losses all but one of the top 25 major dailies I wrote “news needs to come from ever more local sources, and, in my opinion, be liberated of the classic ‘objective’ paradigm, moving instead towards a new ethic of material transparency.”

That last little term just kind of appeared. I don’t remember reading it anywhere, but it seems to describe what it is I’ve been thinking about over the past few weeks. And since I feel like I’m claiming it here, I need to elaborate:

Material Transparency:

1. Material Transparency is an underpinning or ethic of a writer’s personal brand.

It’s based on the artistic goal of writing with as much credibility or transparency as possible, (see this piece by Tom Gates for a good example), and the professional goal of having this transparency or style itself be ‘marketable’.

2. The original blueprint for Material Transparency is New Journalism.

“To me, self-aware writing is smart writing. I never forget I’m reading a book. . . I always know it’s words on a page. So I’m not going to try to pretend that the person who reads my book isn’t going to be as smart as I am or is basically going to give themselves up to whatever concept I might be proposing.” –Chuck Klosterman

When Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and others abandoned ‘objective’ reporting, instead writing subjectively and recognizing their own part in / effect on a story, they revealed truths about character, place, and events that could not be accessed otherwise.

3. The key stylistic element of Material Transparency is self-awareness.

When a writer simply says something, but says it in a way that is overtly aware of his / her limitations, problems, dilemmas, biases, stoke, it increases credibility. When a writer uses words or rhetoric to ‘suggest’ something, it becomes less transparent.

“It’s a really crowded world out there, and everybody is clamoring for attention and you use what you’ve got,” he says. “And what I’ve got that makes me original is that I’m a rez boy.” –Sherman Alexie

4. The key professional element of Material Transparency is self-promotion and/or promotion of your crew.

The currency of the internet is mentions, pageviews, links. Whether the mentions are positive or negative seems to matter less than how many there are.

How can you use your unique story, style, and material connections to increase the relevance of your own personal brand and thus make you more attractive to other writers, editors, sponsors, publishers?

5. Getting paid or comped or sponsored or hooked up in any way always has to be recognized explicitly.

Ideally this should be part of the story itself, part of the narration. Sponsors, advertisers, people in your crew–the biggest way you can promote them is to include them in your story.

6. Any product or service or artistic work that is reviewed must be done earnestly and transparently.

Remember that even reviewing something negatively still generates publicity for someone and has the overall effect of building interest.

“It’s all about respect, and when there is no respect there is a confrontation, be it verbal or physical.” –Rickson Gracie, surfer, UFC champion

7. Respect for other writers is based on skill and style as opposed to favoritism, or a writer’s putative achievements or recognition.

You should name who your influences are, be open about what you’re reading, listening to.

8. If everyone were materially transparent, we might not like what we read about ourselves or the world, but we’d have a better idea of who our friends and enemies really are.

Journalists should follow the example of Jorge Lanata and explicitly state their political positions.

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