Writing better dialogue

Good at dialogue

Good between the lines

I don’t normally write dialogue in my day job at The Economist. Nor is dialogue a major part of my forthcoming book. But it is a small part of it, which is to say that I’ve inserted precisely one single dialogue between Hannibal and someone else that is not actually in the ancient sources (ie: Livy, Polybius, Cornelius Nepos, Appian, etc). This was necessary, as you guys will eventually see when I start blogging parts of the book.

The discovery that I made as a writer is that dialogue is

  1. very different from other prose, and
  2. difficult to do well, really well.

It should sound the way an actual conversation would sound, between real people, and between the specific people in their specific context in that particular dialogue. Not corny but meaningful, not overpolished but not sloppy.

In my first draft, the particular dialogue I am talking about was one of the weaker parts of the chapter it appears in. And that’s OK. I knew it at the time.

In this second draft that I am working on right now, I think I finally hit the sweet spot.

How? It helped that I practiced.

I wasn’t even aware that I was practicing when I wrote down–essentially transcribed–the conversation I had that night in a taxi cab when things went a bit wrong.

But then Cheri said in the comments that the dialogue reminded her of Hemingway’s A Clean Well-lighted Place. That was charitable of her, and it is not necessary to take her compliment too literally. But it did make me go and read that dialogue by Hemingway, and to my delight I think I understood what Cheri meant: There was a certain sparse, masculine, between-the-lines, staccato tone to the whole thing. It sounded the way a real dialogue between men sounds. Dialogues between women are very different.

And so I was able to transfer, not the content, but the tone of that dialogue into my second draft. It works. And so this is yet another way in which my dabbling in blogging has helped my craft as a writer.

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Blogging’s raison d’etre

The Hannibal Blog is almost a year old now, so naturally I have pondered this phenomenon of blogging from time to time. I started pondering it long before I had a blog, for my day job. I then kept pondering it last fall, still for my day job, when I declared, tongue-in-cheek and not all that seriously, the “death of blogging“. But really, I was just savoring the irony that just when blogging was ‘dying’, I was starting my own blog.

Well, the New York Times has come to the same conclusion–ie, that blogging is, if not dying, at least moribund or ailing or sickly or something of that sort. But I detect no irony in the piece. It just quotes bloggers or former bloggers saying … absolutely silly things in a very earnest tone.

Thus I am told that

many people start blogs with lofty aspirations — to build an audience and leave their day job, to land a book deal, or simply to share their genius with the world.

Er, hang on. There are actually people who think they are going to leave their day jobs … to blog?

And regarding book deals, isn’t the natural order to do it the other way around? I mean, I got a book deal, and then it occurred to me that a blog might be a good complement.

As to sharing genius with the world, what’s wrong with just sharing thoughts and refining them? No need for genius.

Clearly, I am not on the wavelength of this article. But I plod on and learn that

blogs have a higher failure rate than restaurants [with] 95 percent of blogs being essentially abandoned

Well, isn’t that what you would expect if those blogs were started by people hoping to quit their day jobs, get book deals and share genius? There’s only so much in the way of day jobs, book deals and genius to go around.

One former blogger, “sounding a little betrayed” (!), is quoted saying that

Every once in a while I would see this thing on TV about some mommy blogger making $4,000 a month, and thought, ‘I would like that.’

Sorry, but did you have anything to say? Or are you demanding $4,000  just for simultaneously procreating and having a WordPress account?

And so it continues, with more revelations:

Many people who think blogging is a fast path to financial independence also find themselves discouraged.

What can I say? Except that I clearly see blogging in a very different way. How do I see it?

  • As a scratch pad for my sloppy, chaotic thoughts, before I clean them up and organize them for my day job or my book or something useful.
  • As a hobby or diversion or outlet for thoughts that I would express anyway–just to fewer people, via email or dinner conversations.
  • As a great way to get intellectual stimulation from people like you guys who leave these great comments and emails, with eclectic ideas and book tips that I would never otherwise know about and that make my table groan under the weight of unread texts.

That’s plenty, isn’t it?

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Patanjali’s Yoga Tweets

You know already that I consider Patanjali the greatest thinker ever, and that I have amused myself by pondering the resemblance between his medium, sutras, and the one you’re reading right now, blogging.

Now I come across this witty refinement of the idea. Patanjali, it turns out, was … a Tweeter!

I may yet have to eat my words about Twitter.

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The Blogging Sutras

An old thread

An old thread

I’ve been using the term threads lately. Then Christopher asked me whether that meant simply topics, which it does. Immediately and instinctively, I heard alarm bells ringing in my head: Had I succumbed to a cliché or jargon?

I seem to have picked up the word thread from the blogosphere, for which it seems uniquely suited. Many bloggers weigh in on any number of topics. But organizing disparate posts within each topic becomes a challenge, given that a blog is one single stream of posts mixing all topics together. (Tags help, of course.)

So the word thread seems perfect. Why? Because it’s an old idea for, in effect, exactly that situation.

The Sanskrit word for thread is sutra. It comes from the same Indo-European root that gave us to sew. But ancient Yogis and Buddhists and Hindus began using it as a metaphor for stringing (sewing, threading) together aphorisms into a coherent and larger whole.

Hence Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, or the much more famous Kama Sutras (excerpt above), or any number of other high-minded thought-constructs around a given topic of interest.

So, the term seems to fit. A post is really an aphorism, and a blog is really a clew of threads. (Feel free to cry foul if you smell a cliché, but it works for me. Indeed, I may rename this blog The Hannibal Sutra.)

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Tell me about my threads

My WordPress statistics page tells me that the readership of The Hannibal Blog is climbing at a good clip, but it tells me little else. I know nothing about the interests, tastes and proclivities that brought, and keep, most of you here.

So please take a nanosecond of your hectic online life and vote (ie, click) in the poll at the bottom of this post. I’d like to know which of the threads on The Hannibal Blog engages you most and least. I’m not necessarily planning on changing anything (I will always blog whatever is on my mind), but I’d love to know.

As you will have noticed, The Hannibal Blog currently follows several threads:

  • My book: Anything to do with my book, obviously. But at the moment, while the manuscript is with the publisher, there is not much to report. I have yet to work out the title and publication date with my editor, and I don’t want to give away too much plot too early.
  • Writing: Brainstorms on book-writing and writing in general; and, coming out of that, story-telling and language in general.
  • Ideas: Intellectual currents/nuggets that strike me as interesting, whether or not they have anything to do with my other threads, such as my series on great thinkers.
  • History: Backdrop to some of the stories that will appear in the book, mostly from ancient history, but occasionally from recent times.
  • The Economist: Anecdotes and color from my day-job and life at The Economist. Of great interest to some subscribers, certainly, though possibly not to the rest of you.
  • The media: Musings on my industry as a whole–ie, thoughts on journalism, newspapers, the media.

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Welcome to WordPress, Tom

Tom Standage

Tom Standage

Tom Standage, a friend and colleague at The Economist, has finally migrated to WordPress and started regular blogging. Check in on him regularly. His first five books are a great read and I can’t wait for his sixth, which is on food, but with a historical angle not unlike the one I’m using in my book.

Tom edits the Business Section AND the Tech Quarterly, so you’ll also enjoy his musings on topics such as whether Apple will come out with an eBook Reader this year that might kill Amazon’s Kindle. As it happens, I am testing a Kindle right now. I’ll tell you anon how I think it will affect the future of reading….

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Why some comments are good and others suck

The comments on The Hannibal Blog tend to be excellent–witty, funny, sophisticated–which is a great thrill to me because it suggests that my blog draws interesting (and I dare say erudite) readers.

By contrast, the comments on the website of my employer, The Economist, tend overwhelmingly to be banal, moronic and useless. There are gems in there, but on they whole the comments are so bad that, internally, we recently spent a long, long time discussing what to do about that.

So I was delighted when I came across a very well-thought-out post on the blog of Nicolas Kayser-Bril, a media economist. Given the publication I write for, it should have occurred to me to apply the logic of economics to the problem. Oh well, Nicolas beat me to it.

The problem is captured, as Nicolas shows, in this chart:

As Nicolas explains,

the more commenters you have, the more likely it is that one of them is a troll. … That’s why I drew the blue curve of the marginal value of a single comment. It decreases as an inverse function of the number of commenters, itself a function of the size of the audience.

Hence the red line: as the audience grows in size, the total value of comments increases more slowly.

Now for moderation. I’m assuming that the cost of moderating a single comment remains constant, so that the total cost of moderation increases linearly. Just look at the curve. At some point, it costs more to moderate comments that to get rid of them…

My point is simply that a larger audience automatically leads to a conversation of lesser value, relative to the number of participants.

The answer to the vexing issue of why The Hannibal Blog has great comments while The Economist has awful comments thus appears shockingly simple: The former has a small audience, the latter a large audience.

I will let this percolate through my morning brain. There may be concrete, real-world implications in this….

Being a nomad again

Andreas in the airport lounge

Here I am, with my gal Cleo, in the airport lounge. I am reclining on a fake chaise longue, underneath a palm-ish plant, gazing at … a bunch of Qantas and Cathay and BA planes being loaded. My flight is delayed and I’ve suddenly got too much time–not usually a problem I encounter in my life.

So, once again, I contemplate the nomadism of modern life. I have my parents (on another continent) on Skype Video in front of me. I am emailing the people at my destination that I’m delayed. I am working on my presentation, blogging, checking in with my editor about my piece in the upcoming issue ….

Is there anything I am not doing? Oh, right. Thinking.

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The “death” of blogging

The title is not meant literally, guys. It comes wrapped up in British irony. But I did write this piece in the current issue of The Economist about the topic.

I don’t usually use this book blog to point to my (day-job) articles. But I did get a few responses after the deadline from interesting people I tried to interview for this story. So, why not include their views here?

The tongue-in-cheek thesis of my little article is that

Blogging has entered the mainstream, which—as with every new medium in history—looks to its pioneers suspiciously like death …

Blogging, in fact, may “die” as PDAs have died–by becoming invisible and ubiquitous, as a feature in almost every mobile phone today.

Evan Williams

Evan Williams

Here, now, is what Evan Williams, co-founder of Blogger and now boss of Twitter, emailed me on the subject (excerpts). There is confusion, he says, between two things:

1) There’s also now a commercial blogging world. Commercial blogs do not get most of the traffic (in aggregate), but they’re what a lot of people think of when you say “blog.” But the commercial blogosphere and personal blogosphere are really different worlds. Obviously they overlap, but the motivations and activity of one does not reflect that of the other. Gawker’s cost cutting has nothing to do with Cheri Block Sabraw‘s desire to write things for teachers.

2) There are now more casual ways to scratch the same itch that blogging has done for many people. I.e., Facebook, Twitter, and a slew of other social software alternatives. This is definitely effecting the personal blogging world. It has effected my personal blogging — and that of many people I know. Twitter is now my go-to place to share a thought or a link. I still blog on occasion when I have something I can’t squeeze into 140 characters, but that’s rare, and for many people Twitter (or something else) will suffice nicely on its own. However, does that mean they’re not blogging? We’ve never labeled Twitter a “micro-blogging” service, but that’s certainly one of the primary use cases.

This gets to your point of being nowhere and everywhere, I suppose. There are tons of active blogs on MySpace and on Facebook (even though they call them “Notes”). Maybe these are just the new blogging platforms (among other things). I suppose it is PDA-like that blogs are being subsumed into social networks, like PDAs got subsumed into smartphones.

But PDAs went away as stand-alone devices, because there came a point where they held zero advantage over a smartphone. With stand-alone blogs, that may be true for the most casual users, but not for millions of otheres. There are still many advantages to a stand-alone blog: Your own brand, domain, design, etc. Creating a meaningful, independent voice on web, on which can be launched a movement, a brand, a career, or simply a good story, is best done with a stand-alone blog.


Charlene Li

Charlene Li

I also pinged Charlene Li, who is perhaps the best social-media analyst out there, formerly at Forrester, now at Altimeter Group.

If you think about blogging as a specific content publishing tool and formatting of content, then yes, it is being usurped by businesses and traditional media companies. In fact, traditional online content management systems and collaboration suites like Sharepoint are integrating blogging into their platforms.

But if you think of blogging as a “mindset”, then it’s not only healthy, but growing by leaps and bounds. In this way, I distinguish between a corporate blog that does nothing more than publish their press releases (but has not comments) and a blog written from a personal perspective but clearly associated and benefiting a company. Likewise, there are Twitter feeds from companies that are just RSS feeds, while @comcastcares is a genuine person at Comcast who is establishing a relationship with other Twitterers.

In the end, blogging grew because people used it as a way to connect with people and develop relationships. If it *evolves* into new formats, then it’s staying healthy, rather than stagnating.

Chris Alden

And I pinged Chris Alden, the CEO of Six Apart (WordPress’s biggest rival). Excerpts from his reply:

While the hypothesis that blogging is past its prime may be provocative,
it’s not supported by the facts. Our products continue to grow across
the board — we’ve seen more demand for blogging than ever before — and
I believe our competitors are growing too.

It may be that blog “hype” has passed its prime, as blogging has
followed the typical hype cycle and is now in the enlightenment phase
according to Gartner, but that is usually when the real growth actually

We are seeing an explosion of ways in which people and corporations are
using blogs, both for internal and external purposes, and individual
blogging, alive and well, is also evolving. Publishers, businesses, and
individuals now look to blog software and service to run much more of
their web site, in some cases using MT for their entire web CMS
platform, and integrate blogging and social media in a more profound

It is of course true that newer services like Twitter have captured the
time and attention of many bloggers, and some have slowed their
traditional blogging in favor of communicating with friends through
tweets, not blog posts. But we view these as complimentary, not
competing, trends. More often than not, Twitter works in conjunction
with blogs, and many bloggers use Twitter as a new form of RSS — a way
to alert friends that there is a new blogs post. Very often Tweets refer
to blog posts, and vice versa.

We believe that blogging will have as disruptive an impact on the
mainstream social networks as it had on mainstream media. When it comes
to media, blogs were once seen as an adversary, but are now indelibly
part of the media landscape. The same type of adversarial thinking seems
to be in vogue where folks are assuming that we are seeing replacement
technologies battling it out. It sort of reminds us of the bricks/click
debates of the late 1990s. Of course we learned then that the answer
wasn’t either one or the other, but both.

In fact, blogging and social networking actually started together.
LiveJournal had both blogging and friending features, and was created in
1999. It so happens that blogging services, such as Blogger, TypePad,
and WordPress, then emerged focused on the publishing side. Then another
branch grew from that tree when Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook
focused on the social networking aspect…

The story isn’t about the passing of one trend to another, but the
evolution of blogging, and in some ways a return to its roots, and the
integration of blogging with many other forms of social media. …


Thanks to all three of you, and sorry I didn’t have time to get you into the article. (Two of you are mentioned, however.) I actually think that the four of us agree almost entirely, and that you’ve colored in the subtleties.

I mean, how could blogging be “dead” if even … Malaysia’s Mahathir now blogs!!!!

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Backlash moment

I’ve been flying a lot this week, on a route that GoGo now covers (see map). Each time at the gate, a male-female pair of hip, young marketers (the woman in each case being smarter, hipper, attractive and Indian) offered me and the other lop-sided laptop-bag-toting types in the boarding queue a promotion to get connected via WiFi on the flight.

My reaction progressed in two steps:

Step 1) This is great! I will get on the flight, log on, snap a photo or two of the airplane aisle and then blog it right from my seat so that you all can see what a connected urban nomad I am. En passant, I would be corroborating my own thesis in my special report in The Economist on that topic (ie, “nomadism”).

Step 2) What utter nonsense! Have you lost it, Andreas? This is the last redoubt you have for reading. For the next few hours it is you and your biography of Meriwether Lewis, which is 500 pages and must be read and absorbed for you to make progress in one particular chapter of your own book. For once, no kids tugging on you, no phone ringing, no email alerts. Instead, deep, linear immersion. And you are thinking of giving that up just because… you can?

So you had no posts from me while I was in the air. And I’m guessing that you’re no worse off for it.

Incidentally, I noticed that the other lop-sided laptop-bag-toting types also passed on this opportunity for uninterrupted mid-air connectivity, after the same moment of initial temptation. Have we reached the point of backlash? A civilizing counter-trend?

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