Writing For The Web

A lot of the writing you read online — in the “tech” sphere, anyway — is dreadfully unexciting. I don’t just mean in choice of topic: almost everyone recognizes that there are far too many sites that parrot the same news everyone else is running, or link to the exact same things as Daring Fireball.

It’s poor in execution, the craft of telling the story. There’s a general preponderance of poor writing: not bad writing, just lazy, slapdash, trope-heavy stuff. It’s vanishingly rare to read a post where the writing isn’t just a mauve, leaky vessel for the point or information being conveyed.

It’s easy enough to blame this lack of quality on lack of effort, but I think that this problem is as much the fault of the nature of the arena as it is that of individual writers.

In my efforts to improve the quality of the writing on this site I’ve pondered the process of writing an article. I think you can plot quality against effort/time on a graph like this one:

This graph assumes that the writer is someone who practices their craft regularly and has a firm grasp of the tools of their trade.

Generally a manuscript doesn’t improve at a steady rate. There are bumps in the process: places where the quality leaps up. Conversely, there are points where a decent amount of effort doesn’t really yield much result, for a while.

The first big improvement comes from putting more than a cursory amount of effort/time into a piece. Most linkblogs aren’t examples of good writing, because the posts are fleeting, outward focused, and quickly dealt with. Neither is something that you dash down in two minutes. (Unless they happen to be two minutes in the middle of a long day of writing.) A big component of making this first big leap can be the planning stages.

The second improvement comes from editing the piece. Editing is so important that maybe this should be a steeper part of the graph. Great, solid editing can take a mediocre piece to dazzling heights. This is the reason that guys like Jeffrey Abbot and Jason Rehmus do what they do.

After that comes the long slow upward slope to brilliance. The difficulty of this part is why truly fantastic writing is seen so seldom online. Spend as long again polishing an article, or write another one? Covering more topics, attaining more relevance, keeping up with the march of progress: these are all fine goals. But they tend to occlude the creation of the very best writing, because excellence takes time.

The obvious ideal is timely, brilliant pieces of writing on many subjects. But I think it’s often worthwhile making a compromise. A good piece of writing that’s published is better than a great piece of writing that’s never finished.

If there’s a lesson here it’s this: make sure you put in the effort at those bumps on the graph where it really pays off. Throw those low-hanging fruit in your canvas tote bag and scamper off into writing Nirvana.