Apparently over the weekend I went from occasionally griping about blogs to actually killing one off: Journalist Bill Peschel headlined his Saturday ‘blog entry “JOHN SCALZI KILLED OFF THIS BLOG” and then credited one of my commentaries on writing online as a tipping point in his decision to can his blog and use the time it had been filling up to concentrate on novels, short stories and other brands of pay copy.
The commentary in question was actually discussing online journals, and not ‘blogs, but the comments work tolerably well when applied to blogging. The point was that while writing online can be fun and a fine way to amuse one’s self harmlessly, in terms of actual writing craft, writing on one’s own Web’s site is good for one thing only: Writing on one’s own Web site. It’s mostly useless for learning how to write professionally — which is to say, learning how to produce pay copy that editors will buy. Not everyone who writes online in a journal or a blog wants to become a professional writer, which is perfectly fine; everyone needs a hobby. But those folks who actually want to graduate to getting paid for writing should spend time trying to sell their work and figuring out how to work with and for editors. Peschel has apparently taken this to heart.
I’ve never had contact with Peschel before (I found his site by tracking backwards through referrer logs, because I’m just that sort of person), and of course I’m mildly apprehensive about providing even a contributing factor to someone’s career aspirations. If everything in Peschel’s writing life goes to Hell from here on out, I hope he won’t crystallize in his mind that it’s my fault, track me to my home and start pounding on my front door with an axe. However, speaking in a broad sense, I approve of any writer making the effort to refine his or her craft, and choosing to take the more difficult route of offering up one’s work for editorial consideration. It’s difficult to put your babies on the chopping block, especially since most everything that gets put on the chopping block gets chopped. But it’s something that just has to get done.
I’ll go a step further and suggest that writing online can become a genuine crutch both for aspiring and established writers. Speaking as a professional writer, I enjoy writing online because it offers unmediated opportunities to communicate, and often what I write here simply isn’t going to find a market elsewhere; not too many editors are going to touch an essay on “Football With Jesus,” or a tutorial on how to write hate mail. And the feedback from writing online is immense relative to what you get offline. I wrote a weekly column in the Fresno Bee that got in front of 150,000 readers (not counting syndication) and I’d be lucky to get one or two letters. The “I Hate Your Politics” screed, with a tenth the readership, has generated 100 times the mail, plus several discussion threads online. Writers like mail and discussion threads, even when (or in my case, especially when) it’s just someone telling you you’re a complete idiot.
This freedom and immediate and active feedback is emotionally much more compelling than, say, shutting the door, writing an article, picking a market and then sending it off and waiting for weeks before receiving a single binary response to it (accepted/rejected). And it’s certainly more fun than spending a few hours coming up with query ideas to pitch to an editor who has to riffle through a couple hundred other query ideas from other writers that same week, many of whom had the same idea you did (yes, it happens, the bastards).
Writers are attention hogs, and the attention we get from writing online, even if it’s to a very small audience, fills up the ego pretty quickly. The problem is that nearly all writers it’s the emotional equivalent of empty calories — it’s ultimately not healthy for one’s career, and eventually even “successful” Web writers want the legitimacy of having other people pay for their work. Sooner or later, if a Web writer wants to make that happen, he or she has to curb the desire for instant feedback, lock the door, unplug the Internet connection, and just get to work.
(There’s also the procrastination angle, of course — these little sites are total time sucks, and that takes time away from paid work.)
Off the top of my head, I can think of three or four people who write primarily on their Web sites who I think should either quit or scale back in order to start focusing on writing in other avenues: Books, articles, novels, whatever. I know at least a couple of these people want to do it but are intimidated by the prospect of “real” writing, or simply like the level of attention they get too much to cut it back. It seems sort of silly to put it this way, but it’s a problem, and in a very real sense, their Web sites are holding them down. They’re like training wheels on your bike. Sooner or later you have to pull them off and ride on two wheels — and risk the crash.
(Yes, yes, the irony of writing on a personal Web site about the perils of personal Web sites. Look — I have two books coming out later this year, three regular magazine columns and a weekly newspaper column, not to mention rich, creamy, sinful corporate work. The training wheels are off my bike, thanks. But of course even I still spend too much time doing this. I should be writing a chapter on Jupiter right now. Don’t tell my book editor.)
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t know Bill Peschel at all. But I hope his decision turns out to be a good one for him; I read the first couple of chapters of his novel in progress (P is For Space — think Have Space Suit, Will Travel with a middle-aged guy in the place of a teenage boy, and the Space Shuttle instead of a smelly ol’ space suit) and I’ll be ready to read more when it comes out in book form. Given the choice between having his blog up on my computer screen, or his book on my shelf, I know which I’d prefer to have. If in some small way what I’ve written manages to help that happen, I’ll be honored. I’ll also want 10%.