Joho the Blogblogging Archives - Joho the Blog

September 1, 2015

Is it time to start newsletters again?

My Boston Globe op-ed yesterday argued that blogging still matters. But it’s also got me wondering: Is the time ripe for newsletters again?

I wrote a personal newsletter for about ten years. It started out as an in-house mailer at Open Text where I was VP of Strategic Marketing in the mid-1990s. It came out every week or two and was titled DWOTIO: David Weinberger’s Open Text Inside Out (I think). News, views, humor, witty repartee with people who sent me email about it.

I’d coined the phrase “hyperlinked organization” there, and when I left I started a new newsletter called “Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization,” or JOHO. Hence the name of this blog. The phrase “hyperlinked organization” didn’t quite catch on (Deniro decided to make “Analyze This” instead), but I stuck with it and started sending out a free newsletter about every three weeks.

Each issue had one substantial essay, a couple more that were lighter and quicker, and witty repartee with people who sent me email about it. It also had a a humorous contest that no one ever entered, a “cool tool,” and a very brief write-up of an article about a company doing something interesting with the Web.

It took a lot of time, and not just to write it. It took me way longer to create HTML and text versions than you’d think; back then not all email readers supported HTML. Even just had formatting the HTML was a pain in the tuchus. (It’s way easier now, kids.)

But it was totally worth it. I had a direct connection to 7,000 people. They wrote in and I responded in the newsletter itself. It got me writing. When I wrote “In the future, everyone will be famous to 15 people,” that’s what I meant.

Then blogging happened.

For about ten years, I posted every day, often more than once. It took more and more of my energy. RSS let you subscribe to my blog. So what did my newsletter add? It faded away.

But now I’m thinking it might be time to start it up again.

Blogs are a pull medium, but not a lot of people pull on this blog. Newsletters are an opt-in push medium. I don’t know (and I don’t want to know — really, don’t tell me) how many people check my blog with any frequency, but I suspect it’s in the dozens. I love those people deeply, but that means that if I want to each a wider audience, I have to publish in the equivalent of online magazines. I do that and I’m truly glad for the opportunity. It’s a privilege. But that doesn’t establish the sort of intimacy that ritualized reading can.

It also means that my voice as an author works only for that one article, and the reader only hears me in that one voice. Turn the web page and the next author has to her establish her own presence. But a newsletter is a space that more fully expresses the author. JOHO was famously garish, ugly and amateurish. Welcome to me, people!

So, it’s tempting. I would still blog, of course. But: Can I come up with enough mid-range articles? Can I come up with a set of repeating pieces — like the old “Cool tools” — that will be interesting enough but won’t paint me into a corner? Would anyone read it? Would it be worth the commitment?

I don’t know.

But I’m not the only blogger in this situation. With mainstream web magazines providing a way to reach a lot of people with longer-form articles, blogs working for shorter and more informal pieces (or for anything you want), Facebook for quick personal posts, and everything else for everything else, the ecosystem might be ready for the next round of personal newsletters. Maybe.


August 1, 2015

Restoring the Network of Bloggers

It’s good to have Hoder — Hossein Derakhshan— back. After spending six years in an Iranian jail, his voice is stronger than ever. The changes he sees in the Web he loves are distressingly real.

Hoder was in the cohort of early bloggers who believed that blogs were how people were going to find their voices and themselves on the Web. (I tried to capture some of that feeling in a post a year and a half ago.) Instead, in his great piece in Medium he describes what the Web looks like to someone extremely off-line for six years: endless streams of commercial content.

Some of the decline of blogging was inevitable. This was made apparent by Clay Shirky’s seminal post that showed that the scaling of blogs was causing them to follow a power law distribution: a small head followed by a very long tail.

Blogs could never do what I, and others, hoped they would. When the Web started to become a thing, it was generally assumed that everyone would have a home page that would be their virtual presence on the Internet. But home pages were hard to create back then: you had to know HTML, you had to find a host, you had to be so comfortable with FTP that you’d use it as a verb. Blogs, on the other hand, were incredibly easy. You went to one of the blogging platforms, got yourself a free blog site, and typed into a box. In fact, blogging was so easy that you were expected to do it every day.

And there’s the rub. The early blogging enthusiasts were people who had the time, skill, and desire to write every day. For most people, that hurdle is higher than learning how to FTP. So, blogging did not become everyone’s virtual presence on the Web. Facebook did. Facebook isn’t for writers. Facebook is for people who have friends. That was a better idea.

But bloggers still exist. Some of the early cohort have stopped, or blog infrequently, or have moved to other platforms. Many blogs now exist as part of broader sites. The term itself is frequently applied to professionals writing what we used to call “columns,” which is a shame since part of the importance of blogging was that it was a way for amateurs to have a voice.

That last value is worth preserving. It’d be good to boost the presence of local, individual, independent bloggers.

So, support your local independent blogger! Read what she writes! Link to it! Blog in response to it!

But, I wonder if a little social tech might also help. . What follows is a half-baked idea. I think of it as BOAB: Blogger of a Blogger.

Yeah, it’s a dumb name, and I’m not seriously proposing it. It’s an homage to Libby Miller [twitter:LibbyMiller] and Dan Brickley‘s [twitter:danbri ] FOAF — Friend of a Friend — idea, which was both brilliant and well-named. While social networking sites like Facebook maintain a centralized, closed network of people, FOAF enables open, decentralized social networks to emerge. Anyone who wants to participate creates a FOAF file and hosts it on her site. Your FOAF file lists who you consider to be in your social network — your friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, etc. It can also contain other information, such as your interests. Because FOAF files are typically open, they can be read by any application that wants to provide social networking services. For example, an app could see that Libby ‘s FOAF file lists Dan as a friend, and that Dan’s lists Libby, Carla and Pete. And now we’re off and running in building a social network in which each person owns her own information in a literal and straightforward sense. (I know I haven’t done justice to FOAF, but I hope I haven’t been inaccurate in describing it.)

BOAB would do the same, except it would declare which bloggers I read and recommend, just as the old “blogrolls” did. This would make it easier for blogging aggregators to gather and present networks of bloggers. Add in some tags and now we can browse networks based on topics.

In the modern age, we’d probably want to embed BOAB information in the HTML of a blog rather than in a separate file hidden from human view, although I don’t know what the best practice would be. Maybe both. Anyway, I presume that the information embedded in HTML would be similar to what does: information about what a page talks about is inserted into the HTML tags using a specified vocabulary. The great advantage of is that the major search engines recognize and understand its markup, which means the search engines would be in a position to constructdiscover the initial blog networks.

In fact, has a blog specification already. I don’t see anything like markup for a blogroll, but I’m not very good a reading specifications. In any case, how hard could it be to extend that specification? Mark a link as being to a blogroll pal, and optionally supply some topics? (Dan Brickley works on

So, imagine a BOAB widget that any blogger can easily populate with links to her favorite blog sites. The widget can then be easily inserted into her blog. Hidden from the users in this widget is the appropriate markup. Not only could the search engines then see the blogger network, so could anyone who wanted to write an app or a service.

I have 0.02 confidence that I’m getting the tech right here. But enhancing blogrolls so that they are programmatically accessible seems to me to be a good idea. So good that I have 0.98 confidence that it’s already been done, probably 10+ years ago, and probably by Dave Winer :)

Ironically, I cannot find Hoder’s personal site; is down, at least at the moment.

More shamefully than ironically, I haven’t updated this blog’s blogroll in many years.

My recent piece in The Atlantic about whether the Web has been irremediably paved touches on some of the same issues as Hoder’s piece.


January 25, 2015

[2b2k]’s updates: A new rhetorical form for journalism? is working hard to take the Web down a notch — the notch where, say, an announcement by NASA that they’ve discovered a possibly habitable planet in another galaxy gets the headline “Scientists find another Earth…and you won’t believe what it’s going to do to the value of your home!”

Jason Calacanis, the founder of the site, and someone I hadn’t talked with since the glory days of blogging, emphasized the site’s commitment to the “atomic unit” of journalism, a particular type of summary that he calls an “update.” It’s not often you get a new rhetorical form, especially for something as important as journalism. But does it work? Does it serve a role we need or want?

It’s an interesting exercise: If you had the opportunity to design a new rhetorical form that will fit news onto a mobile device — that’s where people will read most of their news, Jason is convinced — and will do the best job possible of conveying information without sensationalizing it, what would you come up with? Something longer than a tweet, or a headline crawling under Wolf Blitzer? Full sentences? Definitely free of clickbait. But would you use bullet points?would the headline try to summarize or capture interest? Would you have a headline at all? has its answer to the question, and it follows the form quite rigorously. An “update” — a name I find misleading since there may not be an original story it’s updating — starts with a sentence of 12-15 words in boldface that express the basic news. That’s followed by another sentence or two telling you what you most need to know next. There’s a relevant graphic element, but no headline, so there’s no need to try to flag the reader’s interest in just a few screaming words.


Screencapture of an update

An update also contains a link to the original article — the actual source article, not one that another site has aggregated — the author’s name, and the name of the person who curated the article. And tags: embedded as links in the article, and one at the bottom if needed. This seems to me to be the Minimum Right Stuff to include.Updates are written by the fifty people around the world has hired for $12/hour.

So, how does this human-crafted rhetorical form hold up against the snippets Google News algorithmically derives and features under its headlines?

Here’s Google’s report on what is the top story at as I write this:

Yemen’s President, Cabinet resign
Yemen’s President resigned Thursday night shortly after his Prime Minister and the Cabinet stepped down — seismic changes in the country’s political scene that come just one day after the government and Houthi rebels struck a …


A report from close to Yemen’s prime minister says the government has offered its resignation. There is no word yet on whether the president will accept the resignation. Houthi rebels still hold the capital, and the president is still a virtual prisoner in his home.’s seems obviously preferable. Google (which is summarizing a post at in this case) squanders most of its space simply telling us that it’s a big deal. tells us four things, which is three more than Google’s summary.

Another example, this time for the second article at (for which you have to do an explicit search at Google News). Google News:

Pentagon Scolds Air Force for Wasting Nearly $9 Billion on 
Drones are expensive. Aircraft like General Atomics’s MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper cost millions of dollars piece, while the cost of …

A memo from the Pentagon says the U.S. Air Force’s investment in drones is extravagant. The memo suggests that the Air Force is wasting as much as $8.8 billion in maintaining 46 Reaper drones. The memo says the Air Force has not justified the expanding drone fleet. hands down. Plus, the Google News snippet comes from Gizmodo, which seems to have based its post heavily on an article in The Guardian. links its update directly to The Guardian. There’s nothing wrong with what Gizmodo has done; it’s explicit about its use of info from The Guardian and adds its own commentary and links. But I’d rather have Google News snip directly from the source.

One more example, the third item at Google News:

AirAsia flight QZ8501: black box reveals final moments
The cockpit voice recorder from AirAsia flight QZ8501 has revealed that “screaming alarms” warned the pilots of immediate danger before the …

Divers find six bodies from AirAsia flight QZ8501 but are unable to enter the fuselage. It is believed the majority of victims will be found there. Indonesia’s Rear Admiral Widodo says the wreckage will be lifted to the surface Friday. So far, 59 bodies have been found.

The score is 3:0 in favor of as far as I’m concerned.

Now, that’s not to say that is a superior news service. Google News covers many more items at this point, and refreshes more often. In fact, in the time it took me to copy and paste these examples, Google News had a posted a fresher story about the events in Yemen. Also, Google News lets you browse among many newspapers’ coverage of the same event. (Jason responds that gets posts up in 2-7 mins after an event hits the Web, and it immediately posts submitted links even before a human has written an update for it.)

But when it comes to the actual content the two services provide,’s human-crafted text does the job of educating us quickly far better. Google News doesn’t even try that hard; it aims at giving us enough that we can see if we’re interested enough to click on the link and read the whole story.

Then there is the broader difference in what we’d like such services to do. Google News is a form of headline news. If we only read the Google News page without clicking into any stories, we’ll have very thin knowledge of what’s going on. In fact, it couldn’t get any thinner. With, if we just read the boldfaced first sentences, we’ll come out knowing more than if we read the Google News headlines. We do want to be sure that people understand that three sentences are never the whole story. Unless the first sentence contains the word “Kardashian,” of course.

I don’t know if can scale the way it needs to in order to survive; Jason is very focused on that now. Also, I don’t have confidence yet that is giving me a reliable overview of the moments’ news — and, no, I don’t know what a “reliable overview” means or how to recognize one. But I do like the update as a rhetorical form. And since Jason says that will have an API, perhaps it can survive at least as a service feeding other news sites … maybe even Google News if Google could overcome its bias in favor of the algorithmic.

In any case, the update form has created seems to me to be a worthwhile addition to the rhetoric of journalism.


November 7, 2014

The Blogosphere lives!

There was a reason we used that ridiculous word to refer to the loose collection of bloggers: Back in the early 2000s, we were reading one another’s blogs, responding to them, and linking to them. Blogging was a conversational form made solid by links.

It’s time to get back to that. At least for me.

Tweeting’s great. I love Twitter. And I love the weird conversational form it enables. But it’s better at building social relationships than relationships among ideas: I can easily follow you at Twitter, but not ideas: hashtags (lord love ’em) let us do a little tracing of tweetful interactions, but they’re really more for searching than for creating dense clouds of ideas in relation.

Facebook’s great. I mean, not so much for me, but I understand it’s popular with the kids today. But there again the nodes are social more than ideas. Yes, you can certainly get a thread going, but a thread turns the post into the container.’s great. I actually like it a lot, and publish there occasionally. But why? I don’t use if for its fluent writing experience; these days I prefer more rough-hewn tools such as Markdown. Medium is a comfortable way of publishing: posting something in an attractive form in the hope that strangers will read it.

I’m in favor of all of these modalities: the shout-out of tweets, the social threading of Facebook, the old-school-made-new publishing of But…

Blogs are — or at least were — different. They are an individual’s place for speaking out loud, but the relationships that form around them were based on links among posts, not social networks that link among people. I’m all for social networks, but we also need networks of ideas.

Bloggy networks of ideas turn into social links, and that’s a good thing. An entire generation of my friendships formed because we were blogging back and forth, developing and critiquing one another’s ideas, applying them to our own circumstances and frameworks, and doing so respectfully and in good humor. But the nodes and the links in the blogosphere form around topics and ideas, not social relationships.

Blogging was a blogosphere because our writing and our links were open to everyone and had as much persistence as the fluid world of domains enables. You could start at one person’s blog post, click to another, on to another, following an idea around the world…and being predisposed to come back to any of the blogs that helped you understand something in a new way. Every link in every blog tangibly made our shared world richer and more stimulating.

Appropriately, I’m not the only person who misses the ol’ sphere. I came across a post by my blogging friend Thomas Vander Wal. That led me to a post on “Short-form Blogging” by Marco Arment. He links to the always-interesting and often awesome Gina Trapani who also suggests the benefits of thinking about blogging when you have an idea that’s about the size of a paragraph. Jason Snell, too. Jason points to a post by Andy Baio that’s exults about what could be a resurgence of blogging. In the comments section, Seth Godin raises his hand: “I never left.”

Isn’t it obvious how awesome that is? A clickable web of ideas! What a concept!

So, I’m happy to see all the talk about shorter posts as a way of lowering the hurdle to blogging. But my main interest is not in getting more paragraph-length ideas out in the world, although that’s good. But it’s especially good if those paragraphs are in response to other paragraphs, because I’m mainly interested in seeing webs of posts emerge around ideas …. ideas like the value blogs can bring to an ecosystem that has Twitter, Facebook, and Medium in it already.

Blogs aren’t for everyone, but they are for some of us. Blogs aren’t for everything, but they sure as hell are for something.

(And now I have to decide whether I should cross-post this at And tweet out a link.)


January 8, 2014

What blogging was

At a recent Fellows Hour at the Berkman Center the topic was something like “Whatever happened to blogging?,” with the aim of thinking about how Berkman can take better advantage of blogging as a platform for public discussion. (Fellow Hours are private. No, this is not ironic.) They asked me to begin with some reflections on what blogging once was, because I am old. Rather than repeating what I said, here are some thoughts heavily influenced by the discussion.

And an important preface: What follows is much more of a memoir than a history. I understand that I’m reporting on how blogging looked to someone in a highly privileged position. For example, the blogosphere (remember when that was word?) as I knew it didn’t count LiveJournal as a blogging service, I think because it wasn’t “writerly” enough, and because of demographic differences that themselves reflect several other biases.


I apparently began blogging in 1999, which makes me early to the form. But, I didn’t take to it, and it was only on Nov. 15, 2001 that I began in earnest (blogging every day for twelve years counts as earnest, right?), which puts me on the late edge of the first wave, I believe. Blogging at that point was generating some interest among the technorati, but was still far from mainstream notice. Or, to give another measure, for the first year or so, I was a top 100 blogger. (The key to success: If you can’t compete on quality, redefine your market down.)

Blogging mattered to us more deeply than you might today imagine. I’d point to three overall reasons, although I find it not just hard but even painful to try to analyze that period.

1. Presence. I remember strolling through the vendor exhibits at an Internet conference in the mid 1990s. It seemed to be a solid wall of companies large and small each with the same pitch: “Step into our booth and we’ll show you how to make a home page in just 3 minutes.” Everyone was going to have a home page. I wish that had worked out. But even those of us who did have one generally found them a pain in the neck to update; FTPing was even less fun then than it is now.

When blogs came along, they became the way we could have a Web presence that enabled us to react, respond, and provoke. A home page was a painting, a statue. My blog was me. My blog was the Web equivalent of my body. Being-on-the-Web was turning out to be even more important and more fun than we’d thought it would be.

2. Community. Some of us had been arguing from the beginning of the Web that the Web was more a social space than a publishing, informational or commercial space — “more” in the sense of what was driving adoption and what was making the Web the dominant shaping force of our culture. At the turn of the millennium there was no MySpace (2003) and no Facebook (2004). But there was a blogging. If blogging enabled us to create a Web presence for ourselves, blogging was also self-consciously about connecting those presences into a community. (Note that such generalizations betray that I am speaking blindly from personal experience.)

That’s why blogrolls were important. Your blogroll was a list of links to the bloggers you read and engaged with. It was a way of sending people away from your site into the care of someone else who would offer up her own blogroll. Blogrolls were an early social network.

At least among my set of bloggers, we tried to engage with one another and to do so in ways that would build community. We’d “retweet” and comment on other people’s posts, trying to add value to the discussion. Of course not everyone played by those rules, but some of us had hope.

And it worked. I made friendships through blogging that maintain to this day, sometimes without ever having been in the same physical space.

(It says something about the strength of our community that it was only in 2005 that I wrote a post titled No, I’m not keeping up with your blog. Until that point, keeping up was sort of possible.)

3. Disruption. We were aware that the practice of blogging upset many assumptions about who gets to speak, how we speak, and who is an authority. Although blogging is now taken for granted at best and can seem quaint at worst, we thought we were participating in a revolution. And we were somewhat right. The invisibility of the effects of blogging — what we take for granted — is a sign of the revolution’s success. The changes are real but not as widespread or deep as we’d hoped.

Of course, blogging was just one of mechanisms for delivering the promise of the Net that had us so excited in the first place. The revolution is incomplete. It is yet deeper than we usually acknowledge.

To recapture some of the fervor, it might be helpful to consider what blogging was understood in contrast to. Here are some of the distinctions discussed at the time.

Experts vs. Bloggers. Experts earned the right to be heard. Bloggers signed up for a free account somewhere. Bloggers therefore add more noise than signal to the discussion. (Except: Much expertise has migrated to blogs, blogs have uncovered many experts, and the networking of bloggy knowledge makes a real difference.)

Professionals vs. Amateurs. Amateurs could not produce material as good as professionals because professionals have gone through some controlled process to gain that status. See “Experts vs. Bloggers.”

Newsletters vs. Posts. Newsletters and ‘zines (remember when that was a word?) lowered the barrier to individuals posting their ideas in a way that built a form of Web presence. Blogs intersected uncomfortably with many online newsletters (including mine). Because it was assumed that a successful blog needed new posts every day or so, content for blogs tended to be shorter and more tentative than content in newsletters.

Paid vs. Free. Many professionals simply couldn’t understand how or why bloggers would work for free. It was a brand new ecosystem. (I remember during an interview on the local Boston PBS channel having to insist repeatedly that, no, I really really wasn’t making any money blogging.)

Good vs. Fast. If you’re writing a couple of posts a day, you don’t have time to do a lot of revising. On the other hand, this made blogging more conversational and more human (where “human” = fallible, imperfect, in need of a spelpchecker).

One-way vs. Engaged. Writers rarely got to see the reaction of their readers, and even more rarely were able to engage with readers. But blogs were designed to mix it up with readers and other bloggers: permalinks were invented for this very purpose, as were comment sections, RSS feeds, etc.

Owned vs. Shared. I don’t mean this to refer to copyright, although that often was an important distinction between old media and blogs. Rather, in seeing how your words got taken up by other bloggers, you got to see just how little ownership writers have ever had over their ideas. If seeing your work get appropriated by your readers made you uncomfortable, you either didn’t blog or you stopped up your ears and covered your eyes so you could simulate the experience of a mainstream columnist.

Reputation vs. Presence. Old-style writing could make your reputation. Blogging gave you an actual presence. It was you on the Web.

Writing vs. Conversation. Some bloggers posted without engaging, but the prototypical blogger treated a post as one statement in a continuing conversation. That often made the tone more conversational and lowered the demand that one present the final word on some topic.

Journalists vs. Bloggers. This was a big topic of discussion. Journalists worried that they were going to be replaced by incompetent amateurs. I was at an early full-day discussion at the Berkman Center between Big Time Journalists and Big Time Bloggers at which one of the bloggers was convinced that foreign correspondents would be replaced by bloggers crowd-sourcing the news (except this was before Jeff Howe [twitter: crowdsourcing] had coined the term “crowd-sourcing”). It was very unclear what the relationship between journalism and blogging would be. At this meeting, the journalists felt threatened and the bloggers suffered a bad case of Premature Triumphalism.

Objectivity vs.Transparency Journalists were also quite concerned about the fact that bloggers wrote in their own voice and made their personal points of view known. Many journalists — probably most of them — still believe that letting readers know about their own political stances, etc., would damage their credibility. I still disagree.

I was among the 30 bloggers given press credentials at the 20042005 Democratic National Convention — which was seen as a milestone in the course of blogging’s short history — and attended the press conference for bloggers put on by the DNC. Among the people they brought forward (including not-yet-Senator Obama) was Walter Mears, a veteran and Pulitzer-winning journalist, who had just started a political blog for the Associated Press. I asked who he was going to vote for, but he demurred because then how could we trust his writing? I replied something like, “Then how will we trust your blog?” Transparency is the new objectivity, or so I’ve been told.

It is still the case that for the prototypical blog, it’d be weird not to know where the blogger stands on the issues she’s writing about. On the other hand, in this era of paid content, I personally think it’s especially incumbent on bloggers to be highly explicit not only about where they are starting from, but who (if anyone) is paying the bills. (Here’s my disclosure statement.)


For me, it was Clay Shirky’s Power Law post that rang the tocsin. His analysis showed that the blogosphere wasn’t a smooth ball where everyone had an equal voice. Rather, it was dominated by a handful of sites that pulled enormous numbers, followed by a loooooooooong tail of sites with a few followers. The old pernicious topology had reasserted itself. We should have known that it would, and it took a while for the miserable fact to sink in.

Yet there was hope in that long tail. As Chris Anderson pointed out in a book and article, the area under the long tail is bigger than the area under the short head. For vendors, that means there’s lots of money in the long tail. For bloggers that means there are lots of readers and conversationalists under the long tail. More important, the long tail of blogs was never homogenous; the small clusters that formed around particular interests can have tremendous value that the short head can never deliver.

So, were we fools living in a dream world during the early days of blogging? I’d be happy to say yes and be done with it. But it’s not that simple. The expectations around engagement, transparency, and immediacy for mainstream writing have changed in part because of blogs. We have changed where we turn for analysis, if not for news. We expect the Web to be easy to post to. We expect conversation. We are more comfortable with informal, personal writing. We get more pissed off when people write in corporate or safely political voices. We want everyone to be human and to be willing to talk with us in public.

So, from my point of view, it’s not simply that the blogosphere got so big that it burst. First, the overall media landscape does look more like the old landscape than the early blogosphere did, but at the more local level – where local refers to interests – the shape and values of the old blogosphere are often maintained. Second, the characteristics and values of the blogosphere have spread beyond bloggers, shaping our expectations of the online world and even some of the offline world.

Blogs live.


[The next day:] Suw Charman-Anderson’s comment (below) expresses beautifully much of what this post struggles to say. And it’s wonderful to hear from my bloggy friends.


November 24, 2013

How to write

I spent some time this morning happily browsing advice from famous writers on how to write, thanks to Maria Popova’s [twitter:BrainPickings] own writings on those writers writing about writing. Here’s Maria’s latest, which is about Anne Lamont’s Bird By Bird, an excellent (and excellently written!) piece that also contains links to famous writers on said topic.

Some of these pieces were familiar, some not, but all convinced me of one thing: writers should re-label their advice on how to write as “How I Write.” I find myself irked by every one of them into looking for counter-examples, even though I personally agree with much of what they say, and in many instances find their comments remarkably insightful.

Still, I want to push back when, for example, Susan Sontag says:

Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense. Then you can recognize others.

Yet you can’t throw a cat into a room full of writers without hitting someone wildly self-deceptive and unknowing. For example, Sontag’s own writing about writing ranges from breathtakingly perceptive to provocative to transparently self-aggrandizing.

Likewise, Elmore Leonard’s brilliant 10 rules of writing are clearly not rules for how to write, but rules for how to write like Elmore Leonard. (His ten rules are themselves a great example of his own style.) For instance, there’s #4:

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”


I even find myself pushing back against one of his rules that I greatly admire:

“If it sounds like writing … rewrite it.”

I love that…except that what do we do with Bernini? His Apollo and Daphne statue — the one where Daphne’s fingers sprout translucent leaves — is so realistic and yet so marble that one cannot look at it without thinking, “Holy crap! That’s marble!!!” (By the way, I just violated Leonard’s rule #5: “Keep your exclamation points under control.” He’s right about that.) Likewise, are we sure that no poetry is allowed to sound like writing?

Meanwhile, David Ogilvy — the model for Dan Draper in pitch-mode, and a writer I admire greatly — is stylistically in sync with Elmore Leonard, but disagrees with both Leonard’s and Sontag’s rules. (Note: That was a highly imperfect sentence. Welcome to my blog.) Agreeing with Leonard, Ogilvy demands simplicity and avoiding pretentious, abstract terms. But his second rule says:

Write the way you talk. Naturally.

What do you say to that, Elmore? If you write the way you talk, will it sound like writing? And, David, suppose you don’t talk so good?

And Ogilvy’s eighth rule says:

If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.

I’m not sure that Sontag’s insistence that writing requires something like personal authenticity allows for editing by colleagues. Why can’t “Hire yourself the best goddamn editor you can find” be an important Rule for Writers? And before you assume that such a needy writer must be a pathetic schlub who on her/his own is writing schlock, keep in mind that The New Yorker has a tradition of featuring truly superb writers in part because of the strength of its editors.

Maria Popova’s essays on writers advising writers (which, let me reiterate, I admire and enjoy) includes some pieces of advice that are incontestable, but in the bad sense that they are verge on being tautologies. For example, Lamont says:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.

That’s certainly true if it perfectionism means a paralyzing perfectionism, i.e., the sort of perfectionism that keeps you cramped and insane, and that prevents you from doing a shitty first draft. (You have to love Lamont’s rule-violating use of “shitty.”) But there is also a type of perfectionism that makes an author worry over every broken rhythm and soft imprecision, and that ultimately results in lapidary works. Also, I’d venture that for most authors, the real obstacle to getting to that shitty first draft is not perfectionism but the fact that they’re just too damn tired when they get home from work.

The thing is, I agree with Lamont about perfectionism. It’s one reason I like blogging. I’m in favor of filling in the spaces between writing and speaking, between publishing and drafting. Even so, I find myself so insistently pushing back against advice from writers that it makes me wonder why. Maybe…

…Maybe it’s because I don’t think there’s such a thing as “writing” except in its most literal sense: putting marks on a rectangular surface. Beyond that, there is nothing that holds the concept of writing together.

This still makes it better than “communication,” an abstraction that gets wrong what it is an abstraction from. Still, communication provides a useful analogy. To give advice on how to communicate well, one will have to decide ahead of time what type of communication one is referring to. Wooing? Convincing a jury? Praying? Writing a murder mystery? Asking for change from strangers? Muttering imprecations at the fact of dusk? Yelling “Fie! Her!!” in a crowded theater? Even basic rules like “Speak clearly” assume that one is communicating orally and that one is not Marlon Brando auditioning for a part. And even within anyone one domain or task of communication, the best practices are really about maintaining a form of rhetoric, not about communicating well.

There are plenty of tips about how to write the thing one wants to write. These tips can be very helpful. For example, I have a friend who swears by Write Or Die to help her get her shitty first draft down on paper. (No, my friend, your first drafts really aren’t shitty. I was using a technique I recommend that everyone use because I use it: the callback.) That tip works for her, but not for me. Still, I’m in favor of tips! But tips are “How I write” or “How I’ve heard some other people write,” not “How to write.”

How to write? I dunno. Lots of ways, I guess.

Be the first to comment »

December 28, 2011

The end of blogging’s golden age

Brian Solis has responded to Jeremy Owyang’s provocative post declaring the end of the golden age of blogging. Here’s the comment I posted on Brian’s site:

I think in a sense it’s true that the golden age of blogging is over, but that’s a good thing. And not because of anything bad about blogging. On the contrary…

Blogging began when your choices were (roughly) to dive into the never-ending, transient conversational streams of the Internet, or create a page with such great effort that you didn’t want to go back and change it, and few could bother to create a different page in order to comment on yours. Blogs let us post whenever we had something to say, and came with commenting built in. The Net was already conversational; blogs let us make static posts — articles, home pages — conversational.

Thanks to that, we now take for granted that posts will be conversational. The golden age ended because when a rare metal is everywhere, it’s no longer rare. And in this case, that’s a great thing.

Yes, that metaphor sucks. An ecosystem is a better one. Since the Web began, we’ve been filling in the environmental niches. We now have many more ways to talk with one another. Blogs continue to be an incredibly important player in this ecosystem; thank of how rapidly knowledge and ideas have become part of our new public thanks to blogs. But the point of an ecosystem metaphor is that the goodness comes from the complexity and diversity of participants and their relations. I therefore do not mourn the passing of the golden age of any particular modality of conversation, so long as that means other modalities have joined in the happy fray.

Blogging isn’t golden! Long live blogging! :)


August 3, 2011

[2b2k] Open bench science

Carl Zimmer at The Loom points to Rosie Redfield’s blogging of her lab work investigating a claim of arsenic-based life forms. It’s a good example of networked science : science that is based on the network model, rather than on a publishing model.

I find open notebook science overall to be fascinating and promising.

Be the first to comment »

September 28, 2010

Hoder in for 19.5

It’s hard to muster any enthusiasm for Iran’s sentencing Hossein Derakhshan — “Hoder” — to “only” 19.5 years in jail instead of executing him, as they had threatened.

Maybe the Canadian government can do something for Hoder since he holds dual Iranian-Canadian citizenship. I don’t want to have to wait until I’m almost 80 to hear that he’s free.


June 22, 2010

More on internal posting

Seth Finkelstein has challenged yesterday’s post on Blogging and public thinking about whether being a blogger has caused us (some of us? most of us? a few of us?) to refashion our experiences in terms of posts we might make. He points to a post by Mark Dery that focuses on what I think is a misguided critique of Jeff Jarvis’ blogging of the “indecent” details of his medical treatment. [Disclosure: Jeff is a friend.] But, Seth’s point has less to do with the particularities of Mark’s critique than with some broader points Mark makes.

I suggest you read Seth’s comments (which are in the comments section of yesterday’s post), but I’m here going to post part of my reply, because it makes a follow-on point to what I was trying to say yesterday, so please pardon the self-quotage:

The idea that public media alter our inner narratives is hardly new. (Stephen Goldblatt’s book on Renaissance self-fashioning is a great work on this topic.) It seems to me to be a coherent history (resorting to coherence in the absence of evidence) to say we are moving from a time in which media structurally gave rise to celebrity (because the media were mass and one-way) to a new medium that gives rise to some Hegelian synthesis of celebrity and actual sociality. That is, in the age of broadcast, we fashioned experience so that we were stars of an imaginary broadcast; in the age of the Web, we fashion experience so that we are bloggers with a non-massive, semi-social, potentially interactive readership. Under this fact-free analysis, the Web’s fashioning of our experience should be understand in _contrast_ to the celebrity-based stories we made of our lives during the Age of Broadcast.

Note that since I don’t have access to the inner thoughts of all bloggers, I don’t have any actual evidence — thus the reference to coherence and fact-free analysis.


Next Page »

Creative Commons License
Joho the Blog by David Weinberger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Creative Commons license: Share it freely, but attribute it to me, and don't use it commercially without my permission.

Joho the Blog gratefully uses WordPress blogging software.
Thank you, WordPress!