By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-05-31 21:00:00 No comments

Some time back I eyed using a service like Substack or Medium for some vein of my blogging, but after some more thought I've pulled back on the idea. The biggest problem with them is the same thing I have with Facebook and Twitter and the like: you're at the mercy of a platform that you don't own and can't control. Building a livelihood atop something that capricious just seems nuts to me. I know, I know, plenty of "name" bloggers and journalists have done it, but that's because they have existing name value they can bring with them wherever they go, not because platforms like Substack are such sizzling great ideas.

Browsing some of Substack's authors brought back to mind why blogging is tough. In some ways it's even tougher for established names than it is for beginners, because an established name who sets up a Substack or Medium account runs the risk of having more freedom than they can manage well.

The problem with having no editorial limits is also that you have no editorial discipline or direction. Yes, you have no one to tell you what ideas are stupid or not worth pursuing, which is great. For people who have long chafed at the length of their editorial leash, this is a magnificent liberation. But you also no longer have anyone to step in and tell you that something is unfocused, that it doesn't support your argument, that you've said in 5,000 words what could be said in 500 because you chose instead to tell long digressive stories as "examples" or "thought experiments" (hello, Slate Star Codex), or warn you about any number of other indulgences. No one save your audience, that is, but audience members rarely effect the same kind of editorial discipline than an actual editor does. This goes a long way towards explaining why most of the Substack material I've seen is so windy. Make that blowsy: outsized, sloppy, oblivious to its faults.

There's value in producing often and keeping things small and focused. The statistics I've seen about user engagement indicate that most people tap out at around 1,000 words. Or, if they don't, they stop reading and simply continue to slide their eye down the page until they bang into the page footer. There are exceptions -- e.g., articles that are heavily researched and contain actual journalism, and aren't just huff-and-puff pieces -- but I'm thinking specifically about blogging here, where most of it is opinion or insight, and thus requires tightness and directness to be worthwhile.

Bloggers have to disabuse themselves of the delusion that all their words are sacred. There's more value in shorter, more iterative pieces than there is in longer ones. I've tried to keep things under 1000 words at a time here for that reason. I'd rather people consider all of what I have to say instead of just the part they read before they got bored. With Ganriki, I used to write 2500- and 3000-word articles routinely, until I took a good hard look at what I was doing and realized any one of them could be cut to half that without losing anything. Too much of it was showing off and not enough of it was actual discussion.

One of Kurt Vonnegut's dictums was to take pity on the reader. Being succinct, whenever possible, seems like a good general embodiment of that advice.

Tags: Substack blogging