Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Blogs, Books and Papers

I often ask myself why I, who find it so easy to write a blog a post, have such difficulties writing books and scholarly papers. It's important here to keep in mind that the blog post is a relatively new academic genre. (A journalistic blog post, by the way, is a different kind of writing than an academic blog post.) Perhaps my cavalier attitude about blogging comes simply from the lack of any clear, commonly accepted standard. We don't really know what it is yet, so we don't know how to do it well or badly. Recall that the name of the barrier to writing that derives from our unwillingness to do something badly is Vanity. There is a general feeling around blogs that if you don't like what you're reading it's your own damn fault. After all, you're basically reading someone else's diary. Sure, he left it open on the desk for you to see, but still, in a sense, nobody asked you to read it and certainly not to form an opinion about it.

Well, obviously, that's not really true. Many blogs these days are written to be read by others and in order to influence their thinking. We bloggers can't say we don't take any pride in our work. We do. We look at our stats. We promote ourselves in other social media. We like being talked about. And yet, even with all those occasions for my (formidable) vanity to express itself and block my writing, I don't seem to have any trouble communicating in this medium. Why not?

I have to two theories, which may both be true. First, a blog post makes entirely differently demands of its readers. It is generally short and self-contained. It may, certainly, be importantly related to some context, but the reader is expected to either recognize that context or just be serenely untroubled by the content of the post. The reader can, often, also engage directly with the post (in the comments) or might write a post on their own blog in response. There's something conversational and, therefore, ephemeral about the act of reading. You're just trying to understand the post well enough to respond within the hour. Or not. There's no presumption that you're going to have to spend a long time reflecting on the post, digesting it.

When writing books and papers, by contrast, I feel that I owe the reader a richly textured, multi-layered literary and intellectual experience. I am myself too often disappointed with books and papers that have too little content or too little form.

The second important difference between blog posts and other kinds of writing is that it is written directly to the reader. There is no editorial oversight. (This is absolutely crucial, in my mind, to the definition of a blog. I was recently approached about contributing to a collective blog but my interest was strongly dampened when I was told that each post would have to be approved before posting.) There are all kinds of good things to say about editorial oversight, but the whole point of blogging is to be able to speak your mind directly, without the task of getting it past someone. (There may always been an "implied editor", however.)

When writing something that has to pass through an editorial process I always feel like I'm placing the editor himmerherself at risk. There's always that kind of criticism of crappy papers that openly wonders "how this garbage got through peer review", etc. So part of what blocks me as a writer is the idea that it's not just my reputation that is at stake. I wonder if that sounds strange.


randallwestgren.net said...

For someone who claimed that summer -- and its attendant slower pace -- had arrived, you have been very busy.

Let me ask you to push these thoughts a bit further. Separate your response into two: one that refers to yourself (or someone with your blog-pathology) and the other that refers to any person wishing to improve writing through coaching and practice.

Can one effectively use the blog to create written output in blog-sized chunks which can then be edited into a longer piece? Or does the informality of the blog inhibit this ( I wonder about the ability to convey authority...)? Is the blog a form of practice/composition that may make the subsequent and separate act of thinking about the scholarly argument and writing more efficient or effective?

Thomas said...

That may be worth a post of its own, but here's a short answer:

No. You can't train your academic writing ability by blogging. It's like trying to improve your Bach by playing improvised blues riffs ... I know, I know, someone is going to come along and say that's a great "creative" idea! But in my experience it's just two different beasts. Jazz may keep your fingers in a kind of shape, but it's just not going to move you forward on Invention No. 13. (To take an example I'm excruciatingly familiar with.)

I've recently submitted an invited piece that was built largely out of blogs posts (going back to the early days of this blog). It was an interesting exercise, but at the end of the day I don't recommend it.

Blogging is like jogging for, say, a professional soccer player. It's perfectly healthy, but it's not going to improve your game. Sorry.

randallwestgren.net said...

Don't apologize. I was interested in your answers from a purely academic perspective. I was provoked by all the recent exchanges on motivation and some bloggers that visit your site that have a foot in the the blogosphere and a foot in scholarly inquiry.

To carry the metaphor further, if I do not jog to maintain some modest level of fitness then I really have a painful start to serious futbol training. ;-)

Thomas said...

Yes, as a kind of fitness regimen, blogging is a valid use of one's time. Also, it is possible (and I've experimented with it here at RSL at times) to have a blog to which you post, say, one (perfectly academic) paragraph every day, which you can then put together as an article in the future. I guess I would say that that's not really "blogging", since it's pretty difficult to engage with a paragraph that is obviously intended as part of a larger whole, and whose meaning is dependent on both its specifically cited references and its disciplinary frame of reference.

Andrew Gelman said...


My experience is different from yours (as expressed in your comment of 3:29pm above). For me, blogging has improved my professional writing, I think.

Thomas said...

I don't doubt it entirely. Maybe in the sense that journalism can be good for a novelist, as I quote Tom Wolfe talking about on my "About" page.

But in your case it must be really difficult to distinguish the effect of all the actual academic you writing you also do from the effect of the writing you do on your blog. It would be surprising if someone who writes as much as you do didn't see some improvement.

You're the statistician, so you'll be able to model this better than me, but let's say there are n amount of words written on your blog and m amount of words written "for scholarly publication" in your personal corpus. Now, there is a certain (I don't know how) measurable improvement in quality*, and a component of that can be attributed to n and a component to m. Now, my point is that if all you wanted to do was to become a better academic writer then the blogging was not the more efficient way of doing it.

*An earlier version of this comment had "quantity" here, which of course makes no sense.

Jannik Lindquist said...

The greatest thing about blogging is that it facilitates a much more immediate and varied feedback than you could ever hope to get from strict academical writing - and since the purpose of academic writing is dicussion of ideas, blogging is - in my opinion - extremely relevant for anyone who wants to improve their academic writing. If you were a composer and wanted to fully explore a certain theme, it would clearly be benefical to investigate that theme both with your "jazz"-friends and with your "classical"-friends