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Chris Johnson holds a PhD in Linguistics and is the author of The Name Inspector blog. (Jordanna Bailkin)

'Microstyle' Marketing: Slogans For The Self

by Alexander Chee
Aug 1, 2011

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Microstyle

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In another age, Christopher Johnson's Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little might be called "How to Succeed in Advertising." But it comes now, and might then be called "How to Succeed in Advertising ... Yourself, In the Age of Personal Branding." Johnson, a former aspiring poet turned name doctor and author of The Name Inspector blog, has written a book about taking the tactics of advertising, poetry, puns and lyrics so that you too can get RT'd, starred, "liked," +1ed, hired, loved, famous, followed.

Have you heard about the noise of the culture, and how it's drowning out everything inside of the culture? Johnson aptly names this "the verbal attention economy," a place where we are all readers on high-speed Internet with multiple browser windows open, clicking "close tab" as soon as we get bored, perhaps, but also when we get suspicious. We are, Johnson insists, a much warier public, and we are slowly warming to the idea that we are all brands. Johnson wants to show you how to survive and thrive.

Johnson's thesis as to the importance of his book, an awkward open proposition for any intro, is that the age of the Internet has us writing more than ever before, and reading more as well. But we write shorter in each of the messages. As we move our now impossibly strong and agile thumbs across our tiny keyboards, texting, writing status updates, commenting on threads on other status updates, Tweeting, Facebooking, Google+ing, Johnson proposes that the average American writes in the aggregate more than he or she ever has. The way to the next job, relationship, networking connection or contract might just be a Tweet, and are yours good enough?

Microstyle has a lot to tell you, and the Name Doctor has broken it down in 23 short chapters with occasionally amusing titles like Use Ambiguity for Good, Not Evil, in which he breaks down how to first be aware of inappropriate ambiguity so that you can then use it for winners like country singer David Bellamy's "If I told you you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me?" Coin A New Word explores how we ended up with Uncola, YouTube, website, podcast. And in Teach an Old Cliche New Tricks, a favorite, he takes you through, say, using conventional metaphors in literal contexts, where they are literally true, which he calls demetaphorization (Canon, using "Image is everything" in a campaign).

As a literary writer, when I'm on Twitter I sometimes feel like I'm just making up messages for message t-shirts, or engaging in a fantasy of being a headline writer at the New York Post, and the reason for this, I discover in Microstyle, is ... I basically am. In order to be noticed inside the waterfall of one-liners that is the Internet, I have, per Johnson, adapted myself to the task. Language in our current age, he insists, "serves two purposes: communicating something to people, and blazing a trail through the tangle of digital signals that is the web." Inside of his book, though, it is still 2010, and we are thinking still about the dominance of the network known as "Twitter," which had many scrambling as they sought to figure out their relationship to it — how did you use it? How could you make money off of it? Why were CNN anchors reading them aloud on the air in stagey voices, and asking you to tweet them before finally learning to ask for @replies? Could Twitter expand your brand, could it sell a book?

All anyone seemed to know anecdotally in my circles was that we were all ignoring our blogs more than ever before, as well as each others, and cursing at our devices as we tried to make everything fit into 140 characters or less so we could send it into what was essentially the world's largest chat room. And now, the hottest thing on Twitter is ... Longreads. Byliner. Instapaper, the Kindle Singles program, which have all been said to have saved long-form writing by creating excitement around it. And yet your longread recommendation (and the trend itself) arrives to you via Twitter.

All of which is to say, there are some arguables, certainly — I don't think mistakes in Microstyle, for example, are less important than in what he calls Big Style. Johnson asserts they can be corrected by "issuing a swift correction and maybe a little self-deprecating joke" — well, we've now watched people lose jobs because of Tweets and Facebook updates, we've seen it end careers. And so there is a way the introduction's manifesto sounds a little like past its due date as a manifesto, and it does claim to be a manifesto for shorter writing. If I were to sum it up for you, I'll use, per Johnson, an Internet meme: Shorter Manifesto: We are all shorterers now. Not so much making something smaller as making effective small things out of language and associations. And so for now, we are all still updating away, about how much we enjoy our longreads, and in the meantime, this book explains why you can even guess what I mean by longread even if you've never seen #longread on Twitter, even if you've never gone anywhere near a Tweet. Which is why you should probably go read it.

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