Yeah, I blog…

A while back I realized I’d hit fifty blog posts, and particularly as recent entries have averaged—with some variance—about 4000 words, that’s heading towards 200,000 words, or two short paperbacks, or about the length of one of the later volumes of the Harry Potter opus, or 60%-70% of a volume of Song of Ice and Fire. So despite my general admonishment to publishers that I am where book projects go to die, maybe at this point I have something to say on the topic of blog writing.

That and I recently received an email—I’m suspicious that it comes from a bot, though I’m having trouble figuring out what the objectives of the bot might be (homework exercise?)—asking for advice on blogging. Oh, and this blog has received a total of 88,000 views, unquestionably vastly exceeding anything I’ve published in a paywalled journal. [1] And finally I’ve recently been reading/listening, for reasons that will almost certainly never see the light of day [2] on the process of writing: Bradbury (magical) [3], Forster (not aging well unless you are thoroughly versed in the popular literature of a century ago), James Hynes’s Great Courses series on writing fiction, as well as various “rules for writing” lists by successful authors.

So, in my own style, seven observations.

1. Write, write, write

Yes, write, write, write: that’s the one of two consistent bits of advice every writer gives. [4] The best consistently write anywhere from 500 to 1500 words a day, which I’ve never managed (I’ve tried: it just doesn’t work for me) but you just have to keep writing. And if something doesn’t really flow, keep writing until it does (or drop it and try something else). And expect to throw away your first million words. [5]

But keep your day job: I’ve never made a dime off this, nor expect to: I suppose I’ve missed opportunities to earn some beer money by making some deal with Amazon for the occasional links to books, but doesn’t seem worth the trouble/conflicts of interest, and you’ve probably also noticed the blog isn’t littered with advertisements for tactical flashlights and amazing herbal weight-loss potions. [6] Far from making money, for all I know my public display of bad attitude has lost me some funding opportunities. Those which would have driven me (and some poor program manager) crazy.

2. Edit, edit, edit

Yes, in a blog you are freed from the tyranny of Reviewer #2, but with great power comes great responsibility, so edit ruthlessly. This has been easy for me, as Deborah Gerner and I did just that on the papers we wrote jointly for some twenty years, and at least some people noticed. [7] And as the saying goes, variously attributed to Justice Louis Brandeis and writer Robert Graves, “There’s no great writing, only great rewriting.”

In most cases these blog entries are assembled over a period of days from disjointed chunks—in only the rarest of cases will I start from the proverbial blank page/screen and write something from beginning to end—which gradually come together into what I eventually convince myself is a coherent whole, and then it’s edit, edit, edit. And meanwhile I’ll be writing down new candidate sentences, phrases, and snark on note cards as these occur to me in the shower or making coffee or walking or weeding: some of them work, some don’t. For some reason WordPress intimidates me—probably the automatic formating, I note as I’m doing final editing here—so now I start with a Google Doc—thus insuring an interesting selection of advertisements subsequently presented to me by the Google omniverse—and only transfer to WordPress in the last few steps. Typically I spend about 8 to 10 hours on an entry, and having carefully proofread it multiple times before hitting “Publish,” invariably find a half-dozen or so additional typos afterwards. I’ll usually continue to edit and add material for a couple days after “publication,” while the work is still in my head, then move on.

3. Be patient and experiment

And particularly at first: It took some time for me to find the voice where I was most comfortable, which is the 3000 – 5000 word long form—this one finally settled in at about 3100 words, the previous was 4100 words—rather than the 600-900 words typical of an essay or op-ed, to say nothing of the 140/280 characters of a Tweet. [8] My signature “Seven…” format works more often than not, though not always and I realized after a while it could be a straitjacket. [9]  Then there is the early commenter—I get very occasional comments, since by now people have figured out I’m not going to approve most and I’m not particularly interested in most feedback, a few people excepted [4]—who didn’t like how I handled footnotes, but I ignored this and it is now probably the most definitive aspect of my style.

4. Find a niche

I didn’t have a clear idea of where the blog would go when I started it six years ago beyond the subtitle “Reflections on social science, politics and education.” It’s ended up in that general vicinity, though “Reflections on political methodology, conflict forecasting and politics” is probably more accurate now. I’ve pulled back on the politics over the last year or so since the blogosphere is utterly awash in political rants these days, and the opportunities to provide anything original are limited: For example I recently started and then abandoned an entry on “The New Old Left” which reflected on segments of the Democratic Party returning to classical economic materialist agendas following a generation or more focused on identity but, like, well, duh… [10]  More generally, I’ve got probably half as much in draft that hasn’t gone in as that which has, and some topics start out promising and never complete themselves: you really have to listen to your subject. With a couple exceptions, it’s the technical material that generates the most interest, probably because no one else is saying it.

5. It usually involves a fair amount of effort. But occasionally it doesn’t.

The one entry that essentially wrote itself was the remembrance of Heather Heyer, who was murdered in the white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville on 12 August 2017. The commentary following Will Moore’s suicide was a close second, and in both of these cases I felt I was writing things that needed to be said for a community. “Feral…”, which after five years invariably still gets couple views a day [11], in contrast gestated over the better part of two years, and its followup, originally intended to be written after one year, waited for three.

Successful writers of fiction often speak of times where their characters—which is to say, their subconscious—take hold of a plot and drive it in unexpected but delightful ways. For the non-fiction writer, I think the equivalent is when you capture a short-term zeitgeist and suddenly find relevant material everywhere you look [18], as well as waking up and dashing off to your desk to sketch out some phrases before you forget them. [12]

6. Yeah, I’m repetitive and I’m technical

Repetitive: see Krugman, P., Friedman, T., Collins, G., Pournelle, J., and Hanh, T. N. Or, OMG, the Sutta Pikata. And yes, there is a not-so-secret 64-character catch-phrase that is in pretty much every single entry irrespective of topic.[13] As in music, I like to play with motifs, and when things are working well, it’s nice to resolve back to the opening chord.

Using the blog as technical outlet, notably on issues dealing with event data, has been quite useful, even if that wasn’t in the original plan. Event data, of course, is a comparatively tiny niche—at most a couple hundred people around the world watch it closely—but as I’ve recently been telling myself (and anyone else who will listen), the puzzle with event data is it never takes off but it also never goes away. And the speed with which the technology has changed over the past ten years in particular is monumentally unsuited to the standard outlets of paywalled journals with their dumbing-down during the review process and massive publication delays. [14] Two entries, “Seven observations on the [then] newly released ICEWS data” and “The legal status of event data” have essentially become canonical: I’ve seen them cited in formal research papers, and they fairly reliably get at least one or two views a week, and more as one approaches the APSA and ISA conferences or NSF proposal deadlines. [15]

7. The journey must be the reward

Again, I’ve never made a dime off this directly [16], nor do I ever expect to unless somehow enough things accumulate that they could be assembled into a book, and people buy it. [17] But it is an outlet that I enjoy and I also have become aware, from various comments over the years, that this has made my views known to people, particularly on the technical side in government, I wouldn’t ever have direct access to: They will mention they read my blog, and a couple times I believe they’ve deliberately done so in the earshot of people who probably wish they didn’t. But fundamentally, like [some] sharks have to keep moving to stay alive, and salmon are driven to return upstream, I gotta write—both of my parents were journalists, so maybe as with the salmon it’s genetic?—and you, dear reader, get the opportunity to read some of it.

Footnotes

1. But speaking of paywalled journals, the major European research funders are stomping down big-time!  No embargo period, no “hybrid models”, publish research funded by these folks in paywalled venues and you have to return your grant money. Though if health care is any model, this trend will make it across the Atlantic in a mere fifty to seventy-five years.

2. A heartfelt 897-page Updike-inspired novel centered on the angst of an aging computer programmer in a mid-Atlantic university town obsessed with declining funding opportunities and the unjust vicissitudes of old age, sickness, and death.

Uh, no.

African-Americans, long free in the mid-Atlantic colonies due to a successful slave revolt in 1711-1715 coordinated with native Americans—hey, how come every fictional re-working of U.S. history has to have the Confederacy winning the Civil War?—working as paid laborers on the ever-financially-struggling Monticello properties with its hapless politician-owner, now attacked by British forces seeking to reimpose Caribbean slavery (as well as being upset over the unpleasantness in Boston and Philadelphia). Plus some possible bits involving dragons, alternative dimensions most people experience only as dark energy, and of course Nordic—friendly and intelligent—trolls.

Or—totally different story—a Catalonian Jesuit herbalist—yeah, yeah, I’m ripping off Edith Pargeter (who started the relevant series at age 64!), but if there is the village mystery genre (Christie, Sayers (sort of…), Robinson) and the noir genre (Hammett, Chandler, Elroy), there’s the herbalist monk genre—working in the Santa Marie della Scala in the proud if politically defeated and marginalized Siena in the winter of 1575 who encounters a young and impulsive English earl of a literary bent who may or may not be seeking to negotiate the return of England to Catholicism, thus totally, like totally!!! changing the entire course of European history (oops, no, that’s Dan Brown’s schtick…besides, those sorts of machinations were going on constantly during that era. No dragons or trolls in this one.) but then a shot rings out on the Piazza del Campo, some strolling friars pull off their cloaks to reveal themselves as Swiss Guards, and a cardinal lies mortally wounded?

Nah…I’m the place where book projects go to die…

3. Ah, Ray Bradbury: Growing up in fly-over country before it was flown over, writing 1,000 words a day since the age of twelve, imitating various pulp genres until his own literary voice came in his early 20s. A friend persuades him to travel across the country by train to visit NYC where after numerous meetings with disinterested publishers, an editor notes that his Martian and circus short stories were, in fact, the grist for two publishable books—which I of course later devoured as a teenager—and he returns home to his wife and child in LA with checks covering a year’s food and rent. Then Bradbury, then only a high-school education, receives a note that Christopher Isherwood would like to talk with him, and then Isherwood says they really should talk to his friend Aldous Huxley. And by 1953, John Huston asks him to write a screenplay for Moby Dick, provided he do this while living in the gloom of Ireland.

4. And—beyond edit, edit, edit—about the only one. For example, Bradbury felt that a massive diet of movies in his youth fueled his imagination; Stephen King says if you can’t give up television, you’re not serious about writing. About half of successful writers apparently never show unfinished drafts to anyone, the other half absolutely depend on feedback from a few trusted readers, typically agents and/or partners.

Come to think of it, two other near-universal bits of advice: don’t listen to critics, and, closely related, don’t take writers’ workshops very seriously (even if you are being paid to teach in them).

5. Which I’d read first from Jerry Pournelle, but it seems to be general folklore: Karen Woodward has a nice gloss on this.

6. Or ads for amazing herbal potions for certain male body functions. I actually drafted a [serious] entry for “The Feral Diet” I’d followed with some success for a while but, alas, like all diet regimes, it only worked for weight loss for a while (weight maintenance has been fine): I ignore my details and just follow Michael Pollan and Gary Taubes

7. High point was when we were asked by an NSF program director if it would be okay to share one of our [needless to say, funded] proposals with people who wanted an example of what a good proposal looked like.

8. Twitter is weird, eh? I avoided Twitter for quite some time, then hopped—hey, bird motifs, right?—in for about a year and a half, then hopped out again, using it now only a couple times a week. What is interesting is the number of people who are quite effectively producing short-form essays using 10 to 20 linked tweets, which probably not coincidentally translates to the standard op-ed length of around 700 – 800 words, but the mechanism is awkward, and certainly wouldn’t work for a long-form presentation. If Twitter bites the dust due to an unsustainable financial model—please, please, please, if only for the elimination of one user’s tweets in particular—that might open a niche for that essay form, though said niche might already be WordPress.

While we’re on the topic of alternative media, I’ve got the technology to be doing YouTube—works for Jordan Peterson and, by inference, presumably appeals to lobsters—but I suspect that won’t last both because of the technological limitations—WordPress may not be stable but the underlying text—it’s UTF-8 HTML!—is stable—and the fact the video form itself is more conversational and hence more transient. Plus I rarely watch YouTube: I can read a lot faster than most people speak.

9. Same with restricting the length, which I tried for a while, and usually putting constraints around a form improves it. But editing for length is a lot of work, as any op-ed columnist will tell you, and this is an informal endeavor. The “beyond the snark” reference section I employed for a while also didn’t last—in-line links work fine, and the ability to use hyperlinks in a blog is wonderful, one of the defining characteristics of the medium.

10. I’ve got a “Beyond Democracy” file of 25,000 words and probably a couple hundred links reflecting on the emergence of a post-democratic plutocracy and how we might cope with it: several unfinished essays have been stashed in this file. Possibly that could someday jell as a book, but, alas, have I mentioned that I am the place where book projects go to die? Are you tired of this motif yet?

11. The other entry which is consistently on the “Viewed” list on the WordPress dashboard—mind you, I only look at this for the two or three days after I post something to get a sense of whether it is getting circulated—is “History’s seven dumbest self-inflicted political disasters.” Whose popularity—this is Schrodt doing his mad and disruptable William McNeill imitation (badly…)—I absolutely cannot figure out: someone is linking it somewhere? Or some bot is just messing with me?

12. Dreaming of a topic for [seemingly] half the night: I hate that. The only thing worse—of course, beyond the standard dreams of being chased through a dank urban or forested landscape by a menacing evil while your legs turn to molasses and you simply can’t run fast enough—is dreaming about programming problems. If your dreams have you obsessing with some bit of writing, get out of bed and write it down: it will usually go away, and usually in the morning your nocturnal insight won’t seem very useful. Except when it is. Same with code.

13. Not this one: that would make it too easy.

14. I recently reviewed a paper—okay, that was my next-to-last review, honest, and a revise-and-resubmit, and really, I’m getting out of the reviewing business, and Reviewer #2 is not me (!!)—which attempted to survey the state of the art in automated event coding, and I’d say got probably two-thirds of the major features wrong. But the unfortunate author had actually done a perfectly competent review of the published literature, the problem being that what’s been published on this topic is the tip of the proverbial iceberg in a rapidly changing field and has a massive lag time. This has long been a problem, but is clearly getting worse.

15. Two others are also fairly useful, if both a bit dated: “Seven conjectures on the state of event data” and [quite old as this field goes] “Seven guidelines for generating data using automated coding“. 

16. It’s funny how many people will question why one writes when there is no prospect of financial reward when I’ve never heard someone exclaim to a golfer: “What, you play golf for free?? And you even have to pay places to let you play golf? And spend hours and hours doing it? Why, that’s so stupid: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods made millions playing golf! If you can’t, just stop trying!”

17. As distinct from Beyond Democracy, the fiction, and a still-to-jell work on contemporary Western Buddhism—like the world needs yet another book by a Boomer on Buddhism?—all of which are intended as books. Someday…maybe…but you know…

18. Like the Economist Espresso‘s quote of the day: “A person is a fool to become a writer. His [sic] only compensation is absolute freedom.” Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Fantastic Mr. Fox). Yep.

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