Confusing the Medium with the Message

Marshall McLuhan meets Molly McCluskey

Marshall McLuhanWhen Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message”, he was talking about context.  The content of a message can only exist because there is a means for delivering it.  You can only read this blog post because the blog exists and WordPress exists to host it, and the Internet exists as a carrier and you have a device with a browser to allow you to read it.  All of that context surrounds the message; you can’t get the message without the context.  McLuhan’s point was that the context is absorbed at the same time as the content; it becomes part of the message.

Molly McCluskeyNote that the context is not only technical – the means of delivery of the content – but also social.  That brings me on to Molly McCluskey.  Besides being a playwright, Molly is a freelance journalist and member of the (US) National Press Club in Washington DC.  The press club held a panel event about blogging, after which a couple of Molly’s Tweets caught my eye:

“[Young adults] are too informal when pitching.  Don’t ‘hey.’  Take yourself seriously.”
“Or as I say less politely, ‘We’re not friends.’  Pitches of all kinds should be professional.”

As a publisher, I share this opinion of pitches.  The form of the communication is dictated by the social context, not the technical context, so even if the approach is by e-mail, it’s still a business transaction, and the format needs to reflect that.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that the tone has to be unremittingly formal, but the form has to reflect the purpose.

(I feel that I should point out that I don’t always get this right.  Sometimes in trying to get a point across in an exchange with a writer, I am too blunt or too flippant.  In trying to be clear and memorable, I am taken to be rude, sarcastic and condescending.  The results of this include affronted writers and subsequently many refinements to messages of the sort that I have to give out many times.)

If you are addressing a publisher, offering work for possible publication, then the social context is a business one.  Part of the message – the implicit part of the message – is your ability to fulfil the role of writer.  One offer of play scripts came in an e-mail written entirely in lower case with almost no punctuation.  I was so irritated I told the writer that we had no interest in compensating for the lack of a shift key on his computer.  The writer responded that he knew perfectly well how to punctuate as he had a degree in English from Cambridge University.  His opinion, from this lofty academic perch, was that e-mail was informal; however that confuses the technical medium with the purpose of the communication.

Another of my opinions is that if an author wants me to do something with a script, it’s reasonable that he or she should ask me.  I received three e-mails from someone I’d never heard of, each with a play script attached.  Nothing else.  No greeting.  No preamble.  No question.  Just a play script.  I e-mailed back, with the simple question “Why have you sent me three scripts?”  Now he could have replied “I would like you look at them with a view to publication.”  What he actually said was “What do you reckon?”
I reckoned I had no interest in dealing with someone whose work was presented in such an unprofessional way.

Along with the content, the  punctuation, grammar and spelling are all part of the medium of business communication.  The message they convey is competence.

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