Writing edgy

Writing with edge is easier to do than define. You manipulate your voice, slanting it toward a particular personality. That persona is a fiction, an adopted pose, not necessarily the real you. But it’s easier to pull off if you’re an edgy person.

We could define edgy as “writing with attitude,” as opposed to objectivity or neutrality or evenness. That attitude tends towards smartness, even “smart-ass-ness,” to make up a word. It involves sophistication, even worldliness beyond the normal and the daily. It usually includes wit, bordering on wickedness. The smartness implies a sense of superiority, even snobbishness, and on to arrogance and downright meanness.

That spectrum could describe the range of restaurant and book reviewers, specialties noted for edginess. We associate edgy talk with certain cities, such as Berlin, Toronto, and New York.

Let’s look at an example, David Brooks’s lead on a review of two new restaurants:

“The great thing about being in Washington, D.C., at the dawn of an administration is that there are so many new backs to stab. Every four or eight years, fresh faces come in from all over America, and some old faces come back after having piled up mountains of private-sector cash. All of us who live here permanently have to figure out how we can welcome these people, how we can befriend them, help them, and then suck them dry before sending them back to the miserable little places from whence they came.”

This edgy voice assumes the point of view of the Washington insiders, superior to the newcomers and to everybody else. This piece appeared in Food & Wine, not in the Washington Post. The reader (you) is not included among the superiors. The voice is talking down to you, while mocking others. And that’s the paradox of edgy writing, its tricky stance toward readers.

Let’s look at some of Brooks’s techniques. First, he plays positive language against negative: “the great thing” and “dawn of an administration” against “backs to stab.” “Welcome these people… befriend… help” versus “suck them dry.” Comedians would call juxtaposing contrasting things “setup.” Juxtaposed things interact in the readers’ heads.

Brooks uses “slant vision,” violating expected points of view to show readers a new and surprising way to look at things. The paragraph begins with newcomers to be welcomed and ends with them exiled to their “miserable little places.” Notice the closing phrase “from whence they came,” archaic language asserting old superiority.

Brooks uses irony, saying the opposite of what you mean, to show readers his slant vision. We’re not sure he means it (he just might), and that ambiguity makes us wonder whose side we’re on. His witty phrasing makes you see it from his side, even siding with him against a target that includes yourself. He’s also satirizing the snotty attitude of people who live inside the Beltway, as opposed to the newbies. Consider the attitudes in my word “newbies” (rhymes with “boobies” and “babies”).

He uses exaggeration to show you the insiders’ point of view, while parodying it: “some old faces come back after having piled up mountains of private-sector cash.” And all this heavy lifting in a three-sentence lead paragraph atop a restaurant review.

You run two risks in writing edgy: overdoing it, and being misunderstood. It’s hard to know how far to go, how awful you want to be on the spectrum from kidding to vicious. Edgy drafts tend to get edgier because they’re so much fun to write. You need a good editor to write risky.

You have to assume when writing edgy, especially satirical, that a quarter of your audience will take it straight. Your edgy persona is not really you, but a lot of your readers will not make that distinction. Many people still think Jonathan Swift advised eating Irish babies.

[Any adventures in writing or editing edgy you’d like to share?]

Published in: on May 22, 2009 at 5:37 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Can’t believe “from whence” got through the desk. 🙂

  2. When you use phrasing as archaic as “from whence,” you have to walk your piece down to the copy desk and sit beside them as they edit. I’ll bet Vanity Fair had a talk with Brooks about it.

  3. […] term. A web search on “edgy YA” brought up a couple of blog posts that gave me a beginning. One  defined “edgy” writing as, “writing with attitude as opposed to objectivity or evenness,” […]

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