Ten Reasons Why Most Internet Writing Is Terrible

Forgive me for indulging in a bit of a rant here. I recently checked a particular RSS feed and, of the first ten articles, 7 of them were in the style of this post’s title. For the two people on the Internet who have not caught onto this trick yet, this is because list-style articles are widely considered to be good bait for digg et al and engage finicky Internet readers who don’t want to read so much as scan. And, I concede begrudgingly, there is a place for that and used in moderation 10 Actionable Tips For You To Increase Widget Sales has some value for people. As a writer, however, I would caution you against overly imbiding.

The reasons (of which there will not be ten, and they will not be numbered) boil down to the following: if you write for people with the attention span of an ADHD flea who is hopped up on methamphetamines, then this is who you’ll end up with for readers. Yes, you’ll get the odd link here and there, and the Internet is full of high PR/high traffic sites whose readers are there precisely because they want articles that they can absorb in 90 seconds or less. However, and this is rather important, this is not the sum toto of value on the Internet. For people who actually read what they “read”, the top ten lists are just so much dross: everyone does them, they rarely contain insights (especially after you’ve seen one on the given topic), and they go in one ear and out the other.

Now, you have to ask yourself, why do I write? If you’re a queer sort whose personal worth is measured by how many top ten lists you have produced in your life, well, do what makes you happy. If, on the other hand, you’re trying to build a base of loyal readers, for whatever reason (you hope to use your blog to get traffic, you intrinsically enjoy writing for an audience, whatever), Top Ten lists will not get you there. Say, for example, you have a blog to promote your widget management software. Ten Ways To Manage Widgets is a good way to get a lot of hits in a hurry, but the majority of them will be in and out in 90 seconds and if you asked them two minutes later they’d be unable to recall your name.

If, however, you over time build up a reputation for writing nuanced, in-depth analyses of the pleasures and perils of widget management, people will take notice. Other widget aficionados will begin writing articles about you and putting you on their blogroll (and saying “Wow , he can write, too!”) . This is what you want for a couple of reasons. The first is that it pleases your harsh mistress, Google. You see, blogs (and digg, and social bookmarking, and everything else Web 2.0 can come up with) exist in snippets of time. You never look at the same blog twice, in the same way you can never enter a river twice. Google, on the other hand, really wants to be able to enter the same 100 million rivers on a daily basis. And so there is a little tension here with links-which-will-soon-be-irrelevant: since Google reserves most of the link-juice for links which are on the front page, links which fall to the archives are worth rather less to you. Links which fall to the archive in the space of literally hours (helllllo, Digg) are worth, in SEO terms, practically nothing.

You know the one type of link which never falls to the archives? Blogrolling. Getting blogrolled requires someone to make a commitment to you. You don’t get blogrolled after the first visit any more than you get to meet the parents after the first date. You have to impress (some would say seduce) the prospect over time, and if you continue to provide value to them over weeks or months then you’ll end up on their blogroll. That is good for you — not only will you get SEO mana, but they’ll visit you more frequently, comment on what you have to say more frequently, and count you among their few trusted sources of information. And when they trust you, their readers will come to trust you. And so trust for you expands throughout your niche and eventually makes you money.

Another reason you’ll want to write to be read, not to be scanned, is the growth of RSS readers. RSS readers are a disruptive innovation in how people read blogs. They change the ballgame almost as much as the existence of Google changes the ballgame for web design. In the absence of an RSS reader, people congregate to a starting point (a portal, Slashdot, digg, a known-trusted blog) and begin getting their daily dose of news there. They might leave that site a dozen times over their news-cycle but they always come back to it. None of the dozen sites they visit “owns” (I’ve always thought this use of the word was vulgar) them — they keep coming back to the aggregator. RSS readers make every reader into their own aggregator. I cannot overemphasize how fundamental a change this is. Now, even though perhaps 1% of the blog reading public has ever blogrolled anyone, a huge percentage of your readers are trying to make a forward-looking decision about your blog: it’s good today, but will it be good tomorrow when I open its RSS feed? Quality writing is a great way to convince folks that yes, you will be there for them tomorrow.

Incidentally, articles which are well-written often tend to stand the test of time better than articles which are not. If you constantly keep cranking out the top 10 lists to an audience who thinks yesterday was ages ago, you’ll have to produce something new every day or the readers will stop coming. If, on the other hand, you write pieces which are both genuinely useful and written well, people will continue to find those and refer other people to them long after they have fallen off your front page and the radar screen of the Internet’s mayflies. My blog is pretty tiny in the grand scheme of things, and yet yesterday 60 people (yikes, two months ago I didn’t even know sixty people) decided to take some time out of their day to read something I wrote about customer service some two to three weeks ago.

Now, clearly it’s easier to write top-ten lists than it is to write well. Writing well, though, is a skill which can be taught and which can be learned. Imitate writers you admire. You’ll eventually end up with a voice of your own, but it will tend to bear a little resemblance to your favorite authors. Practice, practice, practice. Spellcheck and have a decent, but not slavish, respect for the formal rules of the English language. (Poor writers ignore the rules, good writers follow the rules, great writers break the rules, and the very best writers make the rules.) Finally, write in a way that shows off your own voice, personality, and ideas, the better to stand out against a sea of mediocrity.

[Edit: Fixed my English.]

No Responses to “Ten Reasons Why Most Internet Writing Is Terrible”

  1. Gavin Bowman August 13, 2006 at 9:13 am #

    I just blogrolled you yesterday. You’re doing a great job here, keep it up.

  2. parker August 13, 2006 at 1:59 pm #

    You make some excellent points here. The “top ten” thing is getting so obvious that its reaching the point of absurdity. I suspect people will soon become immunized to any article titled like that, because so many of those posts are just plain junk and readers will only get burned so many times before learning to stay away.

    Anyway, it’s pointless to try to pump out quickie substance-free list-style articles, because you are essentially competing againt hundreds of millions of other folks who can do exactly the same mindless thing (picture cubicle farms in developing countries where highly educated folks are grinding out their daily quota of top-10 lists). Why would anyone get into blogging just so they could churn out low-value commodity product?

  3. Tam Hanna August 13, 2006 at 3:11 pm #

    Hi,
    good post here.

    I personally think that blog posts should not get too long. I started writing TamsPalm on my PDA(I live on my Palm Tungsten T3), and thus always was rather short when bringing my point along.

    Personally, I prefer well-written short aticles that shove their point in like a gun bullet to suadas – but this obviously is a metter of choice!

    Best regards
    Tam Hanna

    P.s. I know that my blog is called TamsPALM – but it stopped beeing strictly Palm Os focussed a long time ago – I just love UI design, management, marketing, etc way too much…

  4. bloglily August 13, 2006 at 6:42 pm #

    Thanks for the clearly written piece. How nice to see a good writer practicing what he preaches! One very small thing — you might want to check your use of “its” when you should be using it’s (for it is). Occasionally, you’re missing the apostrophe: a small thing and easy to fix! Your bingo program sounds like a lot of fun, as does your business and I wish you much good luck. I’ll certainly be returning to hear how things are progressing. Best, BL

  5. Patrick August 13, 2006 at 6:51 pm #

    Crimety, I thought I had fixed that way back in the 9th grade after my teacher threatened to drop me a letter grade for it. I guess not. Thanks for the heads up.

  6. bloglily August 14, 2006 at 1:45 am #

    Oh you’re welcome. I didn’t mean to be prissy. I just had a moment of thinking, wow, that’s a great post, and I wish I could go in there and make it totally, absolutely, shiningly, pristinely perfect. It’s what you do with things you wish you’d written! Best, BL

  7. Patrick August 14, 2006 at 4:21 am #

    Trust me, I’m a (mostly former) English teacher. I know how one repeated mistake is like a pebble in your shoe.

  8. Mike August 14, 2006 at 1:56 pm #

    Terrific post. I’ve been trying to figure out how to write for blogging and the top ten list format has grated on me. I couldn’t figure out why until just now.

  9. goose August 16, 2006 at 2:21 am #

    Patrick — great stuff.

    However, speaking of RSS feeds — why don’t you have your feed listed on your home page with that nice orange icon? I couldn’t find it anywhere on your site — so I had to kludge it it based on other wordpress feed formatting.

  10. Patrick August 16, 2006 at 2:27 am #

    Ah, sorry about that. I hadn’t realized people actually clicked the links — I just use the autodiscovery button my my RSS readers. The link is back up there.

  11. goose August 16, 2006 at 2:57 am #

    I use Thunderbird for my rss feeds and copy link locations to paste into its subscription manager.

    Thanks, keep up the great blogging!

  12. Eric D. Burdo August 16, 2006 at 3:25 pm #

    I read this article this morning:

    http://www.seobook.com/archives/001792.shtml

    I agree with you Patrick about getting readers to stick around, sometimes the best way to get quick links is via those top 10 lists.

    I try to use both in my websites. Mostly longer articles for the “meat” and a sprinkling of lists and polls to give some icing for people. Some folks just ignore them, and some never read the longer articles, but I get a good average of traffic and regular readers.

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