I told you in the previous post that, for the first time, I deleted a post (it no longer matters what the post was about) because I came to the conclusion that it was badly written by my standards.
Upon further reflection, that made me realize that I have to “shrink” this blog. Now I’ll explain what I meant by that. (And yes, I savor the irony that I will talking about a “shrinking” a blog in a 2,000-word blog post.)
I) What I consider “badly written”
I write so much that the mechanics — syntax, grammar, flow — are rarely bad anymore. But that’s not what writing is about.
Ultimately, words deserve to be spoken or written only if they communicate what the speaker or writer wants to communicate. And that very much includes not only the substance denoted but also the tone, voice and other bundles of connotation.
We all know that perfect control over the meaning(s) of words, especially written ones, is impossible. That is why Socrates refused ever to write, and always only spoke. Just think of our ongoing debate about the words (and punctuation) in a phrase written 219 years ago:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Did the writer intend that only “a Militia”, and “a well regulated” one at that, was to have the right to bear arms? Or that “the people”, collectively and individually, should have that right, although it might also be, you know, nice if a Militia were around? Who knows?
This conundrum — that writers lose control over their words as soon as they make contact with any audience — led people like Jacques Derrida to suggest that we stop even pretending that we can control meaning: Words mean whatever anybody wants them to mean, so get over it.
I don’t subscribe to that. A good writer should have some control over his words, the way a good rider should be able to rein in his horse. Naturally, horses sometimes go berserk, as do words. But that’s when it’s time to kill a blog post.
That the now-deleted post had to be dispatched became clear not when it led to vigorous debate (as many posts here on The Hannibal Blog do), but when the comments looked to me, the writer, as utter non-sequiturs. I looked at some of them and could only say: “Huh?” How did the commenter read this meaning into this post?
This is when I remembered my Second Secret to Good Writing, which is empathy. Don’t blame your audience. Re-examine your words.
My words had not just evoked an unintended response, but in a few individual cases the opposite of the response intended. That should not happen to a good writer.
And so I decided that the words had to die.
II) Why might this have happened?
1) The issue of quantity
Less than a month ago, I wondered whether there was “a Laffer Curve” of writing — in other words, a point beyond which increasing quantity (of words written) decreases quality.
I was pondering that question because, over the past couple of years, the number of words I produce, and am expected to produce, has inexorably been increasing.
When I started at The Economist in 1997, we were expected to write articles for the weekly (print) issue. And that was it. (Quite enough, I thought.)
I first recall internal discussions about “blogs” in 2006. I might have had something to do with that, because I wrote a Special Report in 2006 about “the new media.” In it, I said that all the new media (including blogs) would collectively transform society, which they clearly have done. But I never said that individual news organizations had to add blogs.
But blogs we began having, even at The Economist. For a while we didn’t really take them seriously. But now we do. And we have more and more of them. And we are expected to “feed” them. So, in addition to the articles we write, we write blog posts.
We also do podcasts, and those often take a surprisingly long time (the logistics, not the actual talk time). And we do video pieces. Those take even more time to set up.
To take this week as an example, I produced two articles, two blog posts and one podcast … in four days (because on Friday I allegedly started a holiday.)
Our heritage, our “print DNA”, means that we will always put the utmost effort into the print-issue articles. So that’s still where the research, fact-checking, deliberation, travel, background reading, interviewing goes. (And real-life logistics have an annoying habit of not aligning perfectly with The Economist’s Greenwich-mean-time deadlines.)
But that doesn’t actually leave all that much time to produce all that other stuff.
Then add a personal blog in support of a forthcoming book, such as The Hannibal Blog.
Yup, now this amounts to a lot of words. Some of those words will not be redacted, honed, polished, and stress-tested as much as they should be. This must mean, from time to time, that some words are less than optimal.
Conclusion: Don’t produce more, perhaps less.
2) The issue of audience expectations
I recall an internal discussion once where the theory was put forth that the web audience is sophisticated. In other words, readers of blogs (whether on The Economist’s web site or WordPress) know that the medium is more intimate, conversational, relaxed, aphoristic and subjective. Blogs are essentially personal diaries, except public and social.
Readers, goes the theory, do not expect a blog post to be balanced, polished and fact-checked. They can discriminate between a blog post and an article.
Not only that, but they like to have that less formal window into the writer’s soul, they like hearing about what happened to him on the way to this-or-that, what he was thinking when so-and-so said something-or-other. It’s like knowing somebody by email and then seeing a handwritten note from him: the handwriting, with its imperfections, says something. Or like meeting a public figure and getting a peek behind the scenes.
Well, that’s the theory. The reality is that audiences get confused. Many readers/listeners/viewers merely see the brand, and do not discriminate among media. The brand could be The Economist or, at micro scale, The Hannibal Blog. But what if the human beings behind the brands straddle their boundaries? When is the writer allowed to speak personally, and when is he expected to be a journalist upholding a 160-year-old brand?
This is not a new issue. Correspondents of The Economist have always gone to dinner parties (OK, rarely) and often moderate panels at conferences, for example. When we’re chatting with our table neighbor, are we allowed to kid around and speak our minds? How about when we’re on a podium?
Blogging (and all its descendants, such as tweeting) is a genie that is out of the bottle and won’t go back in. I’m simply flagging a new tension. And a new need to make explicit to audiences what they should expect in which context.
Here on The Hannibal Blog, by the way, you get me, just me, my quirky, personal musings, which represent nothing else.
Conclusion: Don’t assume that readers let you speak “off-the-record”, be circumspect. If in doubt, say less.
3) The issue of scope
You may have heard people described as coconuts or oranges. Coconuts mix everything together inside, oranges come in neat sections.
Well, most people are coconuts, especially at The Economist. We have many interests, strange hobbies, and what’s interesting is what you get when you mix it all up. One of my favorite colleagues is simultaneously a connoisseur in the subjects of sailing tall boats, all matters Mongolian, Tango and bird watching, and that is only the beginning of a long list.
Should he stick to his beat in writing articles? Should he have a blog for each interest? On The Economist’s web site or on his own? Is it alright if he mixes it all together, the way it is mixed in his own soul?
In my case, for example, I started this blog about two years ago, intending to make it purely about the book I was writing. This was naive. I soon realized that the process of publishing a book takes a lot longer than the writing of it (and I now expect the book to be out next year). So what do you do in the mean time?
I was advised not to publish excerpts, because that would give the book away. So I began blogging about other stuff. All those other interests. Pretty soon, that included the whole dang coconut, even The Economist.
And again, it’s possible that some of you got confused.
I now face the interesting development that The Economist is constantly, almost every week, making available to me new “coconut straws”. Just one example: This summer we started yet another blog, called Johnson. It is about Language. I have not contributed to it yet, but it so happens that Language is one the big threads on The Hannibal Blog. Obviously, I have to rethink that. My future language posts should probably go to Johnson, not The Hannibal Blog.
Conclusion: Reduce this blog’s scope; become an orange; write about fewer and better defined topics. No politics.
4) The issue of fear
When you write you make yourself vulnerable. When you write on a personal blog you are even more vulnerable. Who knows what weirdos show up alongside the intended audience? Who knows who does what with your words?
That can lead to fear, and fear leads to the worst writing. And bad writing, for a writer, equals failure.
The most important prerequisite for being a good writer is therefore an ability to overcome fear and find courage. You must say something interesting, which invariably means that somebody somewhere could take offense (even when the topic might at first blush seem innocuous — no topic stays innocuous if it gets a large enough audience.) And you must say it clearly, which is to say simply and thus strongly.
This gets into one of the big topics in my book, the tension between tactics and strategy. Writing well (ie, with courage and risk) about many topics is like a country fighting a war on many fronts. You will eventually lose. Writing more timidly or carefully about all these topics is like fighting less fiercely on all those fronts. You will — again — eventually lose. So you must choose your topics (your fronts) strategically.
Conclusion: Again, write about fewer topics in each medium, such as this blog.
I want to end by giving a little shout-out to two bloggers who, in their very different ways, have explicitly or implicitly addressed some of the issues above.
First, there is “Phil”. I don’t know what his real name is and I don’t need to know. He has several blogs, indeed he seems to keep switching blogs and starting new ones, to my ongoing confusion. His current “main” blog seems to be here.
Phil once observed, either in a comment here or in a post on his own blog, a phenomenon: Time and again, Phil finds an interesting new blogger, a strong and idiosyncratic voice, and follows that voice. After a while, that blog becomes popular. And then, as its audience grows, the blog becomes … bad.
(Phil, if you can provide the URL to your observation, I would like to link to it.)
So I speculate: Perhaps Phil, by starting new blogs all the time, is conflicted as we all are about gaining an audience. An audience gathers, and he runs away to start a new one. Because he understands, as we all do, that audiences are a threat as a well as a blessing.
2) “Man of Roma”
The other blogger who deserves a shout-out here is Man of Roma. He is a bon vivant and connoisseur of classical wisdom. And this summer he did something very civilized: He simply left (his blog, that is) and enjoyed himself, knowing that the audience that matters, which includes me, will be there whenever he returns.