Meta: What Do You Want to See Here?

September 4th, 2013 by Potato

I tend to write long blog posts, using as many words as I need to get my point across. Sometimes more than that just for the sake of a non sequitur. This verbosity is in part because this is something I do in my spare time when I should be sleeping, so I don’t take the time to make them shorter, in part because I tackle a lot of complex multifaced issues with much to say or explain, and in part because I know for a fact deep down inside that the internet doesn’t have a word limit. But mostly because I trust that my audience contains smart, well-read (and attractive, did I mention attractive?) people with attention spans that are up to the challenge I present to them. If I post a 1,200 word article once a week, and they prefer a daily 250-word snippet, well, they can spread it out and make it last at their own pace. If I don’t post every day, I’m sure they’ll find something else to occupy their time and that doing so doesn’t mean they won’t read what I have to say three days hence.

This goes against the advice of a lot of studies on reading habits and ess eee ooo1, which say that articles should be short (~250 words), skimmable with bullet points, key points highlighted in bold (or random sentences if you don’t know what your key ones are, or just alternate bolding sentences if you hate eyeballs2), liberally sprinkled with keywords, and posted on a regular schedule (preferably 5 days a week). Even better if you can intersperse unrelated3 text links with the body; the more like your ads you can make your text the more likely it is a reader will get confused and click. At this point every time I see one of these robot-generated top X ways to Y posts I just skip right on by. I simply have no interest in posts written by robots for robots. So little effort and expertise is put into those things that they’re often worse than useless.

Yet this is the majority of what you’ll find out there because that’s what makes money: the reason ess eee ooo is so important is because by and large your loyal daily readers don’t click on ads, it’s the visitor deposited from a web search that tends to traffic the advertisers (whether on purpose or because they haven’t yet mastered the confusing layout to parse content from ads has not been determined). However, they also don’t tend to scroll — seriously, research from other sites finds that the majority of viewers will only read what fits on the screen when they first land (in our case, that would be about 300 words), if that much. I write for many reasons, but maximizing revenue4 isn’t one of them. If I’m going to say something that you’ll enjoy (or you’ll at least walk away from a little wiser) then you’re going to have to scroll with me a bit. Put your head under, explore the depths with me. It could be fun.

One thing I’ve never understood is the use of completely unrelated photographs. Many sites (including almost every online story for a newspaper) have an image box that must be filled, even though 99% of the time it’s a completely unhelpful unenlightening bit of clip art or a stock photo. Yet even where I work — writing science stories for lay and non-specialist audiences — we always include a figure (which ~50% of the time is some unrelated bit of stock photography and ~40% of the time is some only loosely-related bit of general anatomy/technology), and target our stories to <250 words. I don’t understand why this is such a universal requirement (the photos moreso than the word limit) — indeed, I’ll note that Sandi provided one when linking to my last post5. I’ve come up with a quick mnemonic to help myself: at work I primarily edit, write succinctly and avoid Oxford commas or talking to myself while wearing pants and a button-up shirt; at home I mostly write without editing, use proper punctuation, talk things out with my cat whilst in my skivvies, and I only use figures when they actually add information or enlighten.

Another trend is the disappearing paragraph. It is partly due to the deteriorating writing skills in our civilization: structuring a post/essay into paragraphs of related sentences with a logical flow isn’t a priority when texting and twitter preclude even multiple sentences. It’s also partly because of the nasty influence of newspaper editors: when laying out a story to fit the newspaper page editors will often need to crop an article to fit at any point. So they encourage their writers/reporters to compose articles as single-sentence paragraphs, often with no relationship between any of the ones near the end so that the article can be cut at any given point from about the halfway point on and still make some kind of sense (even if inelegantly) to the reader. Now, I don’t think the dying newspaper industry is one bloggers should want to ape, but the reality is that some of the more commercially successful bloggers have gone on to get columnist gigs (e.g. in personal finance see Robb and Krystal), which allowed them to learn such habits directly from the newspaper editors. And from there to the PF bloggers who are inspired by their success, follow them, and mimic their style.

But as annoying as this style is to sit down and read as a coherent story, it’s moderately good for skimming, as when skimming we tend to go topic sentence to topic sentence (though with next to no paragraphs they’re almost all topic sentences). And skimming, of course, is what the big-money search engine visitor is looking to do before going back to read the context of their sought-after term. Plus it’s easier to blend in the often single-line referral links since the body text starts to look more like them (though again, I don’t think modifying your writing to come off as ad copy is really a virtue to pursue, said the guy who spends money on his blog).

As much as I disdain writing for search engines, if it also improves readability I’ll give it a whirl — though I’m doubtful on that point. It’s hard (for me) to tell a coherent story in 200 words, harder still to limit myself to 6 bullet points. But if my actual, human readers of whom I am fond think that my writing style is too academic/mental patient fusiony then I’ll consider change. For a little while.

There has also been some discussion on the value of comments lately. John Scalzi (as usual) has some good things to say on comments: “In a general sense, though, I think it’s well past time for sites (and personal blogs) to seriously think about whether they need to have comment threads at all. What is the benefit? What is the expense? Blogs have comments because other blogs have comments, and the blog software allows comments to happen, and I suspect everyone just defaults to having comments on.” That comment about the default did make me think, and personally, I love the comments. They did definitely start because of the WordPress default to have comments — I never thought about it on the old notepad site.

At this point, I get about 1000 spam comments for every legitimate one (partly a function of my decreased posting frequency since graduating and reproducing, which brought down the comment signal as you all have fewer opportunities to respond). That’s a pretty low signal-to-noise, but it doesn’t take me that long to clean out the spam bin, and I do love your (few) comments. I have been slowly deactivating commenting in posts older than about 3 months, as really no human comments much on a post much older than a few weeks (and I can always add a comment from email if someone does). I’ve also stepped up the blacklist threshold — putting more comments directly into the trash without ever having to double-check the filtering (I sure hope no one legitimately wants to talk about a Zune — those 4 letters instantly delete your comment with no hope of recovery). So far no one has complained of a comment disappearing (though many of you do get comments stuck in the grey list for a few hours). I think this is a decent way to go: I find registering to comment too restrictive, and though the comment volume is low I can’t imagine turning it off completely on you guys.

I had one other set of pressing questions to ask, but this is already at 1200 words so it’ll wait for another post (I’m doing it already!).

Now my question to you, dear readers, is what do you want to see here? Does the style work for you, or would you prefer I arbitrarily cut posts off at 300/500/1000 words and make you wait a day for the (usually not very) thrilling conclusion? Are you confused when you come across a period and it’s not followed by a line break? What topics would you like to read about (in particular any I’m not hitting on now)? What do you want to ask of me or find out that you haven’t thought to ask before this incredibly open and unexpected question floated in front of your eyes? Do unrelated stock photos actually make you want to read an article?

I don’t know how much I can (or want to) change my style, but if you guys seriously groan every time you have to [gasp!] scroll then I can start breaking my rants into subposts/chapters. Likewise, I’ll probably write about finances and cats in the proportion that they capture my attention anyway, but can throw in some more on other topics if you’re missing them.

1 – I don’t even want to spell that term out for the spam magnet that it is, but for those who don’t know it’s search engine optimization, the black art of trying to drive more people to your page in ways other than being legitimately awesome and popular.
2 – fuck eyeballs amiright?
3 – saying “related:” does not make it so.
4 – here, at least. Freelancing/professionally it’s all dolla dolla bills.
5 – and against all earlier ranting, the post was about sampling, and the totally apropos photo appears to be of someone sampling a population of potatoes.

10 Responses to “Meta: What Do You Want to See Here?”

  1. wayfare Says:

    I’d just like to point out to your dear readers that this is the crazy that I live with on a regular basis.

  2. wayfare Says:

    And that picture of the person sampling a population of potatoes was brilliant.

  3. wayfare Says:

    And as a reader, my feedback is that I am confused when I come across a period and it’s not followed by two spaces.

  4. mcmatterson Says:

    Keep up precisely what you’re doing. Particularly enjoy the RE bear and fatherhood stuff.

  5. Netbug Says:

    More Kittens!

  6. Potato Says:

    Rebel scum. People (‘s egos) died in the war that brought single-keypress variable-spacing standards to the world. You disrespect them with your ancient rituals and superstitions.

  7. Michael James Says:

    More guest posts! I just love the formulaic drivel. Miranda Marquit for prime minister or president or something.

  8. Robb Says:

    Umm, thanks for the link?

  9. Sandi Says:

    Exactly what you’re already doing. Write whatever the hell comes to your mind: your thought process is what made me dig through your archives in the first place. Also: more about how to scare fat out of food, please.

    In my defense, that was listly that grabbed a picture from the wilds of the internet to add to your post. I would have done the same, but probably added ninjas. Or at least a blindfolded goddess of justice or something with equal gravitas.

  10. Potato Says:

    Robb: you’re welcome! (B&E is a case of a successful PE blog and an exemplar of the use of the Star’s style guide, which is effective for some purposes — it’s merely at odds with my own fanatical opinions on style)