Why Andrew blogs

Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan, celebrity blogger and acerbic teller of truth, writes a long treatise on why he blogs in The Atlantic. He’s been at it far, far longer than I have, but his reasons are the same as mine. Some excerpts:

On finding a telos and a voice as a blogging virgin:

I remember first grappling with what to put on my blog. It was the spring of 2000 and, like many a freelance writer at the time, I had some vague notion that I needed to have a presence “online.” I had no clear idea of what to do…

I realized that the online form rewarded a colloquial, unfinished tone. … So I wrote as I’d write an e-mail—with only a mite more circumspection. This is hazardous, of course, as anyone who has ever clicked Send in a fit of anger or hurt will testify. But blogging requires an embrace of such hazards, a willingness to fall off the trapeze rather than fail to make the leap….

On the sense of liberation from the evil editor:

It was obvious from the start that it was revolutionary. Every writer since the printing press has longed for a means to publish himself and reach—instantly—any reader on Earth. Every professional writer has paid some dues waiting for an editor’s nod, or enduring a publisher’s incompetence, or being ground to literary dust by a legion of fact-checkers and copy editors. If you added up the time a writer once had to spend finding an outlet, impressing editors, sucking up to proprietors, and proofreading edits, you’d find another lifetime buried in the interstices. But with one click of the Publish Now button, all these troubles evaporated….

On the intimacy and authenticity of blogging:

That atmosphere will inevitably be formed by the blogger’s personality. The blogosphere may, in fact, be the least veiled of any forum in which a writer dares to express himself. Even the most careful and self-aware blogger will reveal more about himself than he wants to in a few unguarded sentences and publish them before he has the sense to hit Delete. The wise panic that can paralyze a writer—the fear that he will be exposed, undone, humiliated—is not available to a blogger. You can’t have blogger’s block. You have to express yourself now, while your emotions roil, while your temper flares, while your humor lasts. You can try to hide yourself from real scrutiny, and the exposure it demands, but it’s hard. And that’s what makes blogging as a form stand out: it is rich in personality. …

On how the new medium of blogging is likely to reinvigorate the older text media:

A blogger will air a variety of thoughts or facts on any subject in no particular order other than that dictated by the passing of time. A writer will instead use time, synthesizing these thoughts, ordering them, weighing which points count more than others, seeing how his views evolved in the writing process itself, and responding to an editor’s perusal of a draft or two. The result is almost always more measured, more satisfying, and more enduring than a blizzard of posts. The triumphalist notion that blogging should somehow replace traditional writing is as foolish as it is pernicious. In some ways, blogging’s gifts to our discourse make the skills of a good traditional writer much more valuable, not less. The torrent of blogospheric insights, ideas, and arguments places a greater premium on the person who can finally make sense of it all, turning it into something more solid, and lasting, and rewarding….

In fact, for all the intense gloom surrounding the news-paper and magazine business, this is actually a golden era for journalism. The blogosphere has added a whole new idiom to the act of writing and has introduced an entirely new generation to nonfiction. It has enabled writers to write out loud in ways never seen or understood before. And yet it has exposed a hunger and need for traditional writing that, in the age of television’s dominance, had seemed on the wane.


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Blogging whiteness into a book

Well, hats off to Christian Lander, who somehow turned a blog about Stuff White People Like into a book. No qualms about blogging and book-writing for him.

The other thing that must be said, of course, is that he gets it uncomfortably right. I’m whiter than I thought, as found I out here, here, here and here, among other places. Here, too, but then he got the definition slightly wrong. Here is mine.


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Snarky and confessional? Or humorous and expert?

The folks at Technorati have finally produced their latest “State of the Blogosphere” report, and an interesting tidbit of Day 2 concerns how bloggers describe their own style.

Although there is a perception of blogging as a means for writing a tell-all or gossiping about others, snarky and confessional were at the bottom of the list in terms of blogging styles. Half of bloggers consider their style to be sincere, conversational, humorous, and expert in nature…

Asian bloggers tend to be more motivational and confessional, while European bloggers are more confrontational. Women tend to be more conversational in their blogging style, while men tend to be expert. Finally, those under 34 are more confessional in their blogging style, while those over 35 are more expert in their style. Fewer than one in five bloggers consider themselves snarky or confessional.

In chart form, this is how that looks:

Now, an immediate problem is that this is how bloggers described themselves. I suspect that this chart would look very different if you had asked bloggers to describe other bloggers. Nobody will admit to being snarky, but you might enthusiastically volunteer that blogger who just made fun of your latest post as a snarker.

Be that as it may. I myself try to be (in this chart): sincere, conversational, humorous and yes, expert, but humbly so (what I enjoy most is learning from you guys). If any of you ever feel that the style of this blog is anything other than that, shout it out in the comments at once.


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Finding my third voice

My first follow-up to my recent brainstorm on the pros and cons of blogging would be to list one clear benefit: It has already helped me to find my “voice”.

What is voice? I’m not talking about anything to do with my vocal cords. I’m talking about that subtle quality of tone that a writer has and needs.

I suppose it was inevitable that, after eleven years at The Economist, I would internalize its voice and default to writing in it. Cosmopolitan and British in spelling, humor, irony and worldview. Witty, incisive and subtle at its best; snide-sounding when it goes awry. Not necessarily my voice, but by habit and daily routine my first voice.

When I wrote my book proposal, that turned out to be inadequate. That first voice was only masquerading as my authentic voice, which in fact I still had to find, or re-discover, in order to take the reader through my 200 pages. I had assumed that it would be a matter of snapping my metaphorical finger and, voilà, suddenly I’m writing in my own voice. Instead, it took a while longer to sound genuinely like myself and nobody else.

Where does the blog come in? I haven’t been blogging long. But already I’ve noticed that a blogger’s voice is by default ultra-casual, ultra-personal, occasionally sloppy, but always from the gut. It is not the right voice for an entire book. But it represents an antipode to my usual pole, The Economist. It is a natural second voice.

So sometimes I’m using that second voice as a sort of hooligan to rough up my first voice, a sort of Jeeves butler who needs to loosen up a bit, in order to find my third voice, which is the ideal tone for a book. After a day of writing for The Economist, I might unwind with a blog post, then forget about it and settle into a pleasant evening of writing in a tone that is genuine and relaxed but still disciplined and clean. In short, what I’ve wanted all along.
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The schizophrenic blogger

That’s me, at least for the time being. Which is to say, I’m in two minds about blogging about my book, depending on whom I’ve asked for advice last.

The “pros”:

On one side, there is an army of tech-savvy, media-savvy, modern, sophisticated, worldly people who say to me: Blog! Bloooog! For book authors, obscurity is the enemy, not piracy, theft or plagiarism. So blog, build a community, learn from that community, and then let the community help you when the time comes to launch.

One person whose example sticks out in my mind, as I’ve mentioned before, is Chris Anderson. His first book, The Long Tail, began as an article in Wired (of which Chris is the editor), then became a book-deal, then a blog, and then, well, the book.

I ran into Chris the other day and asked him if he had any regrets at all, and Chris said Nope, blogging about the book has been entirely for the better. He’s actually learned a lot from his blog’s audience (“crowdsourcing” is the fancy new term for that), and it built buzz for the book’s launch.

Intellectually, Chris has also thought about giving entire books away, free, on blogs or otherwise, and this is becoming something of a micro-trend.

The book, it should be said, did rather well. On the other hand, I should also say that I personally, having read the original article and the blog (and finding Chris’s idea profound and spot-on), did feel that I didn’t need to read the book when it came out. I was comfortable that I already knew the ideas behind it very well.

Chris has a lot of support. Tim Sullivan, who is not my editor but an editor of books, at Basic Books as of this week, told me that:

I’m all for divulging in blog-length entries. You can really work through some issues, and I think that it encourages sales rather than depressing them (in most cases). I also think you end up with a better book, in the end, if you can generate involvement from a group of interested outsiders

Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff (left) wrote their new book, Groundswell, using the blog to test and refine ideas and seem to have loved the process.

Jeff Howe (right) has been blogging his book Crowdsourcing, and using the blog in part, well, to crowdsource. (Meaning: to make “open calls” on the anonymous audience to contribute knowledge, in the hope that the best-qualified people may be hiding in the crowd.)

The “cons”:

My mom is a con. Now, it’s no fair poking fun at moms–they are the people whose intentions toward us are purest. So I won’t. I take her concerns seriously. And she has support: Virtually all of the, ahem, “older” people I know react with dread: Are you crazy? Somebody will steal your best ideas! You undermine the element of surprise! Don’t do it! If you must blog, don’t give anything good away.

Then, there is…

Everybody else:

That category, obviously, includes a lot of people. I’m in it myself. Among my colleagues at The Economist, for instance, there is Tom Standage, author of several books, the latest of which is A History of the World in Six Glasses (right). He is one of the most tech-savvy and media-savvy people in the world, and yet he resides slightly toward my mom’s end of the spectrum. He puts up a “teaser” about his book and some updates about the process–launch, book tour and such–but otherwise leaves it to the book itself to make the splash. I take his advice very seriously, especially since his genre of book and style of writing is much closer to mine than the tech-centered books above.

There is also Edward Lucas, who had a blog for many years before he sold his idea for a book on Russia, the New Cold War (left).

Ed says that yes, he did crowdsource. Exactly once, in fact. He had to fact-check a detail during pre-launch production, and put it out there. Within an hour, several people got back to him with the answer.

But beyond that, he says he did not give away much from the book on the blog, which he uses mainly as a personalized and running anthology of The Economist’s Russia coverage. When he tried to have discussion boards on individual chapters, the results were disappointing–“mostly Russians posting obscenities.” He thought about putting the introduction online, and maybe a few chapters, but then decided against it. “The book must promise that it gives you something you can get nowhere else,” he said to me.

And on and on. Everybody has a different view. Basically, nobody knows.

And that leaves me… schizophrenic. Which is not a good thing for a blogger. It’s like blogging with one arm tied behind your back–possible, but tedious.

Within the coming weeks, I will sort out my thoughts on this and decide one way or the other. You’ll know when that happens, because the blog will show it.


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George Orwell, Blogger

Perhaps it was too obvious until now. What, you mean .. publish the diaries of the great writers, thinkers and statesmen of the past? Just like that? For all to see?

And now it is obvious. They’re publishing George Orwell’s diaries, one entry at a time, as if he were a blogger today. Genius!

For a blogger, the first reason to read them is the sheer relief that comes from seeing that even the great Orwell occasionally posted entries that are, well, banal. See, it’s no shame.

The other reason, of course, is that he is still Orwell, the same Orwell who, among other things, penned Politics and the English Language, probably the most incisive essay ever written on language as such.

This is probably for another post, but suffice it to say now that our own style guide at The Economist begins with Orwell’s six cardinal rules for writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

(Notice that the sixth rule is very British, meaning subtly ironic.)

And now: Could every custodian of every great person of the past who left behind diaries and letters please, pretty please, blog them? It would be a boon to mankind.


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