Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘success

Useless guides on writing

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For natural reasons, I have looked into various writing guides lately. Almost all have one thing in common–they are proof that the author is not qualified to write on the topic… (Often reducing my skepticism to the claim, “those who can do, do; those who cannot, teach”, in the process.)

Consider William Zinsser and his “On Writing Well” (specifically, the “30th anniversary edition”): The introduction begins with one of the worst “anti-hooks” (cf. parts of [1]) that I have ever seen—a discussion of an only tangentially relevant photograph. This is followed by a paragraph on how visitors are drawn to the photograph, followed by a paragraph on how writing has gone electronic but the photograph remains relevant (in the opinion of the author). What follows then, I do not know, because I decided to skip the rest of the introduction…

Now, does the story about the photograph have a valid and valuable point? It probably does, but this point could be made much better by actually getting to that point! (Which might be that writing is ultimately about the writer, or ultimately a human activity, or similar.) Even what might be valid about the photograph could be condensed to three sentences instead of three paragraphs.

The first regular chapter does contain a few good points and an interesting contrast between two authors, one who writes as a “vocation” (Zinsser) and one as an “avocation” (a “Dr. Brock”). However, this chapter, too, starts with an anti-hook: irrelevant background on how the two came to form a panel and discuss their writing with a group of students. I almost skipped ahead another chapter then and there. This type of writing might, barely, be acceptable in fiction, but not in a non-fiction work where the reader actually reads with the purpose of learning. (If I had seen these two anti-hooks in fiction, I might instead have complained about the blandness of the writing—the excuse that they would simultaneously serve as good examples of fiction does not hold.*)

*Obviously, the standards for writing fiction and non-fiction are different, and so are the purposes of fiction and non-fiction. It would be conceivable that these writing guides are poor, because an author who is good at fiction does not have the skills to write non-fiction. However, these anti-hooks would only very rarely make good fiction either—be they by Zinsser or someone else.

I persevered, going through such irrelevancies as the color of Dr. Brocks’ jacket…, and found material that a better writer would have condensed into no more than half the space—likely less.

Chapter two, admittedly, begins with a reasonable introduction: “Clutter is the disease of American writing.” (and an equally reasonable and relevant continued first paragraph).* Even Strunk (“Omit needless words.”) might have approved.

*I might have objected to the common misuse of “America” to refer to the United States of America, the likely unnecessary U.S. restriction, or questioned whether the rest of the paragraph was needed. I definitely have problems with the hypocrisy of his complaint in light of his own writing… (Notwithstanding my own wordiness—this is a point that I am far from mastering.)

But: A few pages later, I encountered the outrageously ignorant PC claim that use of “he” for “the writer” and “the reader” would be sexist… Note: not “outdated”, not “offensive to some groups”, not “contrary to modern norms”—but “sexist”! I am skeptical enough ([2]) to the relevance of the alternative motivations, but the use of “sexist” is inexcusable and entirely out of line, making implications about the intentions and mindset of others that are pure speculation—and usually wrong.

At this point, I could no longer take the author seriously, and threw the book away.

Similar problems appear to be quite common in this type of literature.

A particular annoyance is the “expert” who has his mind set solely on the writing of best-sellers, with no regard for other purposes of writing. True: I would love for my writing to earn me an early retirement (and I am not above writing a “pot-boiler”). However: That is not why I write… I write in the hope to develop myself further, to reach some degree of competence as a writer, and to, possibly, leave something behind that will be considered a strong literary accomplishment.*** In the choice between the success and accomplishment of, respectively, Stephanie Meyer and Kafka, I would take Kafka any day.* And: how many of these “experts” have actually written a best-seller (in fiction) of their own?** Indeed, comparing likely scenarios, my best bet to lead a comfortable life with early retirement would be to continue my career as an IT consultant.

*Where I go by Kafka’s success during his life time. What followed later, was of little use to him… (And it is hard to name worthwhile “serious” authors that have had few readers, and have been read by me, and will be recognized by the typical reader of this text.)

**I have personally read only one book on writing by someone who qualifies—Stephen King’s “On Writing”. While this book is quite weird, it has also, so far, been the most useful.

***Also see some texts on the same attitude from my pre-fiction days, e.g. [3], [4].

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Written by michaeleriksson

August 15, 2019 at 1:00 am

How to write a successful blog

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Occasionally, I come across blog entries on how to be a successful blogger. These invariably seem to deal with questions like increasing the number of visitors, gaining “followers”, or similar. While this may seem reasonable, as a first impression (and may well be valid for a minority even on a thorough investigation), my take is very different—success is not automatically the same thing as having traffic, but will depend on what one actually wants to gain and achieve. Worse: Some even equate “popular” with “good”—by which token Henning Mankell would be a “better” author than Heinrich Böll…

Below I will elaborate by quoting (with minor modifications) two comments of mine:

The human element…

You are not wrong in that the human element is highly beneficial for writing a popular and easily digestible blog (or, m.m., book/movie); however, we all have to ask ourselves “Why do I write? For whom do I write? What do I want to achieve?”.

Speaking for myself, I would write even if I was never read by anyone—writing has immediate benefits for me on other planes than just gaining readers. To me, a good blog entry is a blog entry that makes me think and gain insight (be it through writing it or through reading it on someone elses blog). Besides, let us face it, if I wanted to maximize the number of visitors, I would be running a porn site :-)

Looking at others, they may have very particular interests, write for a niche-market, or otherwise have reasons to write in a different manner. Britney Spears is more popular than Andrew Eldritch (by a show of hands: How many of you have ever heard of him?), but I doubt that he would wish to become a superstar if it involved emulating her music—and we should all be thankful that he does not emulate her wardrobe.

(http://lorelle.wordpress.com/2009/12/02/have-you-lost-the-human-element-in-your-blog/#comment-928380e)

(Some more information on the benefits I gain from writing.)

For most bloggers, the audience should be a secondary priority.

Yes, for those who want to make money or fame out of blogging, the audience must be a priority. However, let us face it, very few actually have success in this area, irrespective of what they try.

Yes, those who want to spread their messages and ideas to others need to pay attention to the audience: Terry Pratchett has had a greater impact on the masses with his ideas than Kant for a good reason. However, while success here is easier to reach, the overall impact of most blogs is small—and often they just compete over an already-believing choir, on which preaching is wasted, while the heathens go elsewhere.

What then is left? Writing for ones own sake, to learn, to gain new insights (including into writing), polishing and developing existing opinions, exposing oneself to external critique, etc. While writing in a notebook is also a valuable exercise, writing for a blog is a better exercise. And here is the big advantage: These are gains that more-or-less any blogger can reach—unlike fame, fortune, and influence.

My advice to the typical blogger: Write primarily for your own sake, with the hope that others will be interested as pure bonus. Do pay attention to the audience, but do not consider maximizing the number of hits per day to be the main purpose.

(http://throughanewlens.wordpress.com/2010/08/03/why-your-audience-is-like-the-mogwai/#comment-232e)

Written by michaeleriksson

August 4, 2010 at 2:54 pm

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What makes a blog reach the front page?

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In my last post, I discussed how one of my own entries rather arbitrarily, and without my control, became a success. (By the current standards of this blog—there are many established blogs that would consider the same traffic a letdown.)

In a next step, this lead me to reflect on the disappointing quality of the blog entries published on wordpress.com’s homepagee: While some are good, most are superficial, have no depth or insight, lack an edge, are not thought-provoking, … The posts that I really consider valuable, I have typically found buried in the tag listings.

What do these posts have that brings them to the homepage? I have no idea what goes on behind the scenes, but a few impressions of beneficial factors:

  1. They are often noticeably longer than the typical post, sometimes approaching the length of a magazine article. However, they do not necessarily say more in the space used than many shorter posts.

  2. They tend to be above average in language quality, measured in e.g. typos; however, are often written in a very bland and populistic style, not entirely unlike e.g. an airplane magazine.

  3. The average number and quality of pictures is far above the overall average. Arguably, however, most pictures have no informational value and many have their only benefit in making the visual impression of the page more pleasing (occasionally, they fail even there). This is, again, reminiscent of how many magazines directed at the masses work.

  4. Most have a picture that fits the homepage entry format well and is of unusually high quality—but which says nothing about the actual article.

  5. Similarly, most have a catchy, but uninformative, title. (Typically, clicking on one of these entries is something I do in complete ignorance of what I will find on the other side. Notably, the homepage does not publish the excerpts that can be found in e.g. the tag listing.)

  6. They often have content that, IMO, will appeal sufficiently to most readers that they are an adequate time killer when nothing else is available—however, they rarely have a great appeal to any individual group. Again, not dissimilar to an airplane magazine…

All in all: If an author could write for an airplane magazine, he might have a good shoot of getting to the homepage. But: How many of us would actually read, let alone pay for, an airplane magazine when something else is available? Do not judge a book by its cover, but by its content—and do not select a post based on how “polished” it is, but look at the actual ideas and insights present.

(Disclaimer: While I have read a few dozen homepage posts in the last two months, I cannot guarantee that I have a representative sample—or that WordPress will continue to make choices matching these criteria. Further, the above analysis is likely incomplete.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 15, 2010 at 8:52 pm

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Quality vs. success—illustrated by the preceding post

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I have often made the observation that highly talented people, high-quality products, excellent ideas, whatnot, are not necessarily successful—while less talented people, lower-quality products, …, can be so to a high degree.

The explanations are many, some “worthy” (e.g. that hard work can make a considerable difference), many “unworthy” (e.g. better marketing, luck with timing, knowing the right people).

My Friday post provides an excellent example: I read an article series in a newspaper that I found offensive, threw together a counter-post without deliberation and planning, and probably spent less than half the time on the actual writing than I do on the average text of that size. In fact, the day after publishing, I spotted no less than five very obvious typos that I felt forced to correct after the fact. I often make errors even in published texts, but in this case my proof-reading cannot have deserved the name.

Still, my post took less than 24 hours to become the most visited on my two-months old blog. (Whether the most read is another question: Other articles may have accumulated a larger number of reads while on the home page.) Further, Saturday broke my daily-hits record by a full 50 %—two thirds of the hits landing on that one post.

How did this success (relative to earlier posts) come about? Simple: A link to my post showed up on one of the articles discussed (possibly through a trackback)—and a small portion of the newspaper’s visitors proceeded to visit me.

In effect, I did not see this traffic because I wrote a post that was more valuable or better written than my other posts—but because I accidentally rode on the “popularity coattails” of the newspaper.

(Similar stories are not unusual on WordPress. I have heard of a few cases where a blog got a months worth of traffic in a day, after a high-traffic site linked to it.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 11, 2010 at 2:24 pm