Writing for the Internet 101, by an “Experienced” Person

This morning, I got a series of questions from a curious friend of mine, who is a very gifted writer and artist who just began writing in a new milieu (this one) for a larger audience (a much bigger audience than mine). Since many of my readers are themselves either academic bloggers, post-academic bloggers, or academics who are interested in writing crossover or popular material, I thought I would reproduce his questions with some thoughtful(esque) answers, for anyone who is interested. If you have any more questions about what it is like to Write For the Internet, please post them in the comments.

1) Do you read comments beyond direct ones via email or twitter, etc?

I started out doing it, but I have stopped. I also only pay attention to a select segment of my Twitter comments, and immediately “mute” or “block” anyone who is flaming me. I answer almost all of my email, but sometimes all I have in me is one or two sentences. My least-favorite genre of email I get is “I am normally your fan, but… [+2000 words of quibbling with which someone very much wants me to engage in an academic-style back-and-forth for two days. I do not have the bandwidth for this, but I try my best].”

But, back to web comments (and I don’t mean those here — I read every single blog comment, I appreciate them all, and I reply to almost all of them, even if it’s just to write 😀 or something).

It is so, so tempting to read Slate and Chron comments, or those wherever you write (“These people are talking about meeeeeeeeee!”), but think about it this way: Would you deliberately solicit the oft-uninformed opinion of a sociopath? (YES/NO). If YES, then do read your comments, because recent psychological research has shown that there is a disturbingly large crossover between the small segment of the population that writes most internet comments in the world (i.e. “trolls” or “baits” or “flames”), and the small segment of the population that registers on the psychopathy/sociopathy spectrum. IF NO, then just never click on them ever. Ever. It’s far, far easier not to read comments at all than it is to read just a select few. Don’t crack open that egg.

Every once in awhile, someone who assumes I read all my comments will bring a thread up to me or link me toward a vociferous defense, and I know they’re just being nice, but I would still rather not know about it. I get enough feedback, much of it critical (but at least mostly thoughtful), by direct means, so I do not need to go looking for it.

FUN FACT: Over a year ago, I did go looking for it. I searched my own name in the forums (or “fora,” as those pedantic little fuckers would call it) of the Chronicle of Higher Ed, where academia’s saddest sacks go to congregate and hate on people for no reason. I read, from beginning to end, a thread about “My Academic Metamorphosis,” one of my earliest I Quit articles, and it hurt me so badly to read these completely tangential and often factually incorrect assumptions (my parents didn’t love me, or some such) that it triggered the first, last and only migraine I have ever had. Half of my body went numb and I thought I was having a stroke, but instead I just couldn’t be anywhere near light for two days. It was so dumb, and it was all my own doing.

So, in the end: Just do your god damnedest not to read the comments, ever. (If you must, however, then extract a few of the worst ones, reproduce them on your blog, make fun of them, and then watch the people who made them FREAK THE FUCK OUT ON how much of a “bully” you are “invading” their “privacy,” LOL).

2) How do you deal with addiction dynamics around how exciting it is to get instant feedback via articles vs non responsiveness that comes with longer term academic work?

That’s a very, very good question. The easy answer is: The addiction feeling goes away very fast. If you start to write more often, you very quickly get bogged down in responses; you get a lot of Facebook friend requests from strangers, some of whom do not have friendly intentions, which I learned the hard way — now I have an Official Facebook Author Page (I only made it two days ago, so please “like” it; I like you!), and I have locked my personal FB page down completely. I use a different name, I don’t use a pic of myself as my profile, and I removed all information that could identify me as me to anyone I don’t know. I will continue not to accept requests from anyone I don’t actually know, because this helps me avoid the constant lure of me-feedback, which causes egomania, or at very least total overinflation of the size of my audience (WHICH IS MODEST, and I am grateful for every person in it).

For the time being, I’d recommend the following: Lock down all of your social media except Twitter, and try to exercise some better self-control than I do at interacting with critics, and instate an very strict No Googling Self rule and an Internet Curfew of 8, 9 or 10 p.m. where you simply do not go online at all after a certain time.

Another thing that’s good to do is read the work of someone who is famous — Krugman, Thomas Frank, Charles Blow, Melissa Harris-Perry, etc — and remind yourself that while you enjoy what you’re doing and are grateful anyone’s reading, you are small and that’s OK.

3) How long does it take you to write a column now that you’re good at it?

That’s a loaded question, because I’m not sure I’m good at it. But thank you! So, leaving the second part out: this varies greatly. If I am writing a piece of investigative work that requires interviewing people, I collect interview data and quotes over a period of days or, in rare cases, weeks. Then culling that into a working narrative takes, oh, I don’t know, a day’s work, with breaks to do my other jobs? Op-eds are shorter, usually about three or four hours’ work, not counting the time it takes to read source material or do research for links to substantiate what I’m talking about.

It also depends on how much rewriting there has to be done. I work primarily with Dan Kois, the undisputed author-crushing battle-ax of Slate, so I often am asked to rewrite pieces entirely. That can take a day or so. Usually I can turn my changes around in an hour or two, though.

Every once in awhile I’ll have a piece that takes forever. For “A Ghost Town With a Quad,” I researched the salary of every single tenured employee at MSU-Moorhead and that took eight hours. For “Title Nein,” one of the reasons I missed a few updates from the Daily Northwestern and Brian Leiter was that I spent the entire weekend furiously complying with multiple legal reads and rewrites, and didn’t have a news alert on while I was working (LESSON LEARNED, by the way).

It is one of the saddest moments of my career as a journalist that the piece I worked by far the hardest on — I’d say I put about 30-40 hours into “Title Nein,” all told — is mangled beyond recognition with corrections (legit) and “corrections” (kowtowing to Leiter, who is a terrible bully). I was also threatened with a lawsuit based on some Twitter fights I got into with Men’s Rights Activists based on that article (Again, LESSON LEARNED). Meanwhile, the most popular article I’ve ever written, a 500-word BrowBeat post on the history and delights of the Aldi grocery store, took me 25 minutes (I had an old lesson plan from a “History of German Business” class I planned and never taught).

But, I don’t think it’s any secret that I write fast. You don’t pump out 2000-3000 per week (PLUS BLOGS) if you don’t write fast.

10 thoughts on “Writing for the Internet 101, by an “Experienced” Person

  1. Pedant ON

    I think

    “My least-favorite genre of email I get is “I am normally your fan, but… [+2000 words of quibbling with which someone very much wants me to engage in an academic-style back-and-forth for two days. I do not have the bandwidth for this, but I try my best].”

    should be

    “My least-favorite genre of email I get is “I am normally your fan, but… [+2000 words of quibbling with which someone very much wants me to engage in an academic-style back-and-forth for two days]”. I do not have the bandwidth for this, but I try my best.

    Pedant OFF


  2. Also, don’t read your book reviews unless someone else tells you first that it’s a very positive review. I can tell you exactly where my book is reviewed, but I’ve read nearly none of them for all the reasons you mention. Sure, if the book I put 5 years of my life into is crap, then a reviewer is doing everyone a service by warning them off, but I don’t want to know about it.


      • Serious question: is it the dying discipline of German Studies–F*ck you, legislatures, deans, and Boards of Regents!–whose people hate you or is it more broadly people who 100% identify with the system no matter what the discipline?


      • I think both. People who Know the Deal in German (and also know me) either like me or are neutral/amused, but there are also a few who wish I’d shut up about German stuff so that everyone would forget what discipline birthed this beast.


      • Rebecca, if you wanted, you could become the public face of German Studies in the U.S., the go-to person whenever CNN needs a quote about Kafka, Goethe, or Angela Merkel. You might end up in that role even if you don’t want it. Better you than some R1 fullprof.

        GSA’s just down the road from you this year…


  3. Thanks for this! I have put off writing a blog or made many failed attempts for years and am finally in the place to follow it through (also thanks to you because your writing is the kind of stuff that gives me the kick in the butt to do so) so these tips are very helpful!


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