On Blogging Well and Writing Poorly

Based on the number of reader remarks at the bottom of yesterday’s post, my write-up of Greg Maletic’s wonderful documentary “Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball” wasn’t exactly a hit.

Was that because pinball isn’t among the topics that ignite tremendous passion, at least among the Subtraction.com audience? Maybe. But I think it’s more likely because of the way I wrote the piece.

I’m a long-time reader and fan of The New Yorker, and yesterday’s piece was my clumsy attempt at aping a bit of its editorial style. That magazine’s matter-of-fact yet constructionally elaborate prose has always been very attractive to me, both because it’s so incisively compelling and because it’s so efficient. I tend to go on and on when I write, using a lot of words to say relatively little. Writers for The New Yorker use a lot of words to communicate quite a lot of ideas with great richness. Can you blame me if it’s something I aspire to?

My Secret Passion for Pinball

I won’t pretend that I came anywhere close to the quality you’ll find every week in that magazine, but I do know one thing: in the interest of capturing a particular kind of style, I temporarily forsook two key elements that I’ve come to understand are essential to blog writing.

First, the idea that blogging often works best when it’s personal. Re-reading what I wrote yesterday, the post comes off as dispassionate, stand-offish, even cold. I was vaguely aware of this from the start, but became even more aware of it when Greg Maletic wrote me an email to say, “It’s so gratifying to hear of a non-pinball fan that enjoyed the film.”

Actually, I count myself a pinball fan, for sure. I may not know much about the history, art or business of pinball (I’m much further along in that knowledge now, thanks to “Tilt”), but I’ve always enjoyed it. When I walk into an arcade, I’m typically disinterested in the video game machines, and am invariably drawn to the pinball machines instead. In fact, I spent an entire leisurely, jobless summer immediately after college wasting quarter after quarter playing Midway’s “Addams Family” pinball game in the arcades of Washington, D.C. Good times.

That I didn’t mention that sorta interesting bit of trivia at all seems like a mistake, in retrospect. As does the fact that I eschewed another common blogging practice: writing in such a way as to engage the audience in conversation, rather than writing at the audience, as if readers were captive to my prose. I’ll admit it: there was a certain highfalutin, know-it-all tone to yesterday’s post that didn’t necessarily invite engagement. (For those who did add their remarks, special thanks.) Perhaps moreso even than acknowledging a personal dimension, blogging works best when it’s a conversation between blogger and audience.

To Write Better Should I Blog Less?

I fully accept these particulars of the blogging medium; blogging is not just journalism or journal-keeping or email conversation, but a medium of its own, with unique rules of play. It’s a wonderful medium, actually, and I enjoy it immensely; I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have written some 1,170 blog posts over the past seven years if I hadn’t.

One thing I worry about though, is if by becoming a better blogger over the years I haven’t also stunted my progress towards becoming a better writer. I often describe my persistence in this medium as predicated on my generally unflagging compulsion to write. I’ve certainly grown some as a writer while authoring Subtraction.com, but how much closer am I to writing the book that I want to write, to penning the articles that I want to publish, to developing a more insightful critical voice? Had I not preoccupied myself so many evenings and weekends hammering out hastily composed, poorly self-edited and only glancingly critiqued passages, would I have come any further along as a good writer than I have? To answer that honestly, I’d say I suspect that the answer is yes, I would have come much further. Which is to say that becoming a better blogger hasn’t made me a better writer.

  1. I’ve found that, over the years, quality of writing does little to correlate with quantity of comments. If there’s any correlation, it’s that the higher the quality, the lower the comments count. For example, go to any political blog and look at the comments when somebody makes a blatant error — that’s what I mean.

  2. I don’t know if the post was a miss… I read it and didn’t really get into the pinball part. Yeah, cool, pinball is fun… plus, the connection to user experience, ok. But it did come off a little oblique. And yet, I didn’t know about OpenDoc, and it got me to look that up, and one site led to another, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about all day — how the principles of web 2.0 echo what they were trying to do with OpenDoc: mini functional pieces that work together in a common ecosystem. It’s an extremely different way of thinking about local systems even though I’ve gotten comfortable approaching the internet that way. I didn’t comment on your post, but it was good enough for me to get the nugget of an idea out of it. Thanks.

  3. When I started blogging I fancied it might improve my writing style, but in retrospect it hasn’t… luckily I enjoy blogging anyway 🙂

    IMHO A good post is one that provides some information and personal opinion while effectively inviting people to add their own. I’ve found that it’s often the most half-baked post which attracts the best comments, precisely because I haven’t sewn up the entire topic with a carefully worded essay.

    PS I find myself actually stripping a lot of my posts of opening and closing paragraphs, makes them read more like an extract

  4. I started my blogging hustle less than a year ago — this was fueled by the perception that it would make me a better writer (and one that would write more often).

    As an exercise in using the medium as a tool to elevate my style, voice, etc, there have been some small wins. Overall, however, I don’t think there is a marked increase in writing (especially offline), so there is still some work to be done.

    What type of strategies are you looking at based on your recently discovery, Khoi? ‘Preciate you sharing, as always!

  5. I’m not a totally dispassionate observer in this discussion, but I can say that in my own experience it’s not so much writing style that encourages post remarks as it is this basic fact: posts that get people mad make them want to respond.

    I’m using the word “mad” in a broad sense. Though it can be a post itself that gets under people’s skin, it can just as easily be a post that reminds people of something that gets under their skin (“your post about airline delays reminds me of that one time I flew to Minneapolis…”). As John points out above, a scarcity of remarks can as easily be the result of a well-written piece that states its point clearly and effectively as one that your audience finds disinteresting. Which of the two scenarios happened to be the case in this situation I’m not exactly qualified to answer…but I thought the post to be well-written. 😉

  6. If you want a lot of comments you need to write about topics that people:

    a) care about
    b) are knowledgeable enough to have an opinion about

    Quality of writing bears little impact on the number of comments, though it may effect the quality of comments.

    So – if you want quality comments, write quality posts. If you want lots of comments write on a topic lots of people have a well formed opinion on or involvement with. There’s nothing stopping you from doing both in one go – but it is harder to do.

    As an example, look at a blog like Molly’s. When she does technical posts she gets less replies – but they’re almost always on topic and relevant. When she does more personal or open ended posts she’ll get more replies – but many of them will be rather shallow. Happens everywhere.

  7. I enjoyed the article, perhaps it could’ve been more personal, but I would only post when I have something to say.

    You wrote a fairly self-contained piece about a film that not many people would see. Because of that, less people will comment. I’m still glad you wrote it though.

    As John said, I don’t think number of comments is a good measure of the quality of a post. More articles about pinball I say! 🙂

  8. I actually enjoyed yesterdays post more than some of the other film / tv related posts that you’ve made recently. I’m probably more interested in the interactive design / grids / typography related posts more than these – at least that’s what brought me to Subtraction in the first place – but I don’t expect that you should post about anything other than the subjects you’re interested in!

    I could care less about the Sopranos and The Wire, although Lost would have me interested 😉 If you are writing more about TV series in future please make sure you don’t give out spoilers, shows in the UK run at least a few days behind the US, if not weeks or months so it’s annoying to have to not read blogs to avoid plot spoilers!

  9. Vis-Я-vis the comment on the desire to pen a book, you Љhit the nail on the head’ in mentioning editing. Every good book needs a good edit, preferably from somebody else who has less attachment with the creation of the text and can really cut a swath through the extraneous words and passages.

    A pro/con with blogging is that there is so much to comment on. So, invariably, when writing a post: you publish it, Љwash your hands’ with the subject matter and cross it off the list. Perhaps, instead, we should write a draft, sit on it for a day or two and come back to it to Љmake it sing’ so-to-speak. But in that time, there’s probably a couple more subjects you want to write about!

    On the other hand, blogging is surely comment of the moment. Lose the spontaneity and it may, perhaps, become quite sanitised; or perish the thought—rather boring.

  10. I’ve always enjoyed your writing style, and by always I mean since I stumbled across your blog maybe a year or two ago…

    You just lost me in the pinball article mostly because I’m not a huge fan, so reading that much about it wasn’t something I felt like spending my time on.

    Perhaps your self critique is true, and perhaps it was because you didn’t personalize it, I’m not sure…

  11. re: pinball – i wonder if it’s an age thing. you are *just* old enough to have played pinball because it was everywhere. you are *just* old enough to see the introduction of video games, and *just* old enough to be nostalgic about pinball. i do not know the age(s) of your readers, i suspect it runs the gamut, but my guess is that a large percentage of your readers are younger than you and just don’t have the pinball “experience” – like, do they even listen to elton john? (pinball wizard).

    re: blogging vs writing:
    you should aspire to be a better writer. history won’t remember bloggers. i’m sure i’ll get flamed for this, but it’s true.

  12. I think you are forgetting that there are many people who feel that they should actually watch the movie/read the book/see the play before they open their mouth. I actually double flagged the pinball post because your writing made me really want to watch the film. Your post outlined an interesting little thesis that I would like to explore and by actually watching the movie I could comment on both the movie and the idea. The pinball post and this post are only 25 hours apart – I have a life and have not had a chance to watch the film. Don’t get all ’24 hours a day news cycle’ on us and worry – some posts have a longer digestion interval, that’s all.

  13. Subtraction will always have my rapt attention. I have subscribed to only a handful of blogs continuously since I stumbled on them, and this is one of the few. It’s because you pay attention to so many aspects of the site, not just the writing, and how they impact the overall interaction. As long as you don’t let that slip, there’s little to worry about.

  14. Ragarding quantity of comments, in Austria we have this joke (probably it’s known around the world):

    A family has a son who is already six years old, but hasn’t spoken a single word yet. They’d taken him to a couple of doctors in order to find out what the cause is, but no one found anything.

    But one day, when the family is having dinner, the child suddenly says: “No salt.” The mother is astonished: “You can talk! Why didn’t you say anything in all these years?” And the son replied: “Until now, everything was OK.”

  15. Maybe the majority of people were like me, who found the post interesting but didn’t feel the need to add anything to it or dispute anything in it.

    If it’s comments you’re after, just announce that you’re switching to Windows because it’s better than OS X!

  16. As a non-writer, my blog is the only place I ever attempt to put thoughts to paper, as it were, so I can only hope to get better, as I have nothing to compare it to. My wife, on the other hand, is a professional writer and has become an avid blogger. We both immediately noticed the impact her blogging style had on her professional writing, and it generally wasn’t conducive to client work, even though her blog has become much better as she continues to personalize it.

    For what it’s worth, I enjoyed the post about the pinball documentary, but just didn’t feel the need to chime in.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.