Over the past year or so, I’ve cut back on the number of sites I write for (beyond those that I own, of course — buying domain names is like taking a trip to the candy shop for me). In January, I’ve got work scheduled to go up on just nine websites that I can think of right now. In a way, that seems like nothing. I’m aware that for a lot of people that’s an incredibly high number. Don’t worry: this isn’t a lead-in to some sort of twisted humblebrag. I know I write more in a day than a lot of other people and I know you don’t really care about the fact. But I would describe myself as prolific — something that many citizens of the internet feel pressured to be. And yet, people question the need to produce so much content.
The reality is that the online content engine does demand us to be as prolific as we possibly can. A link is forgotten in a moment, lost behind all the other interesting things there are to poke at online. The only way to stay on the top of the pile is to keep publishing regularly. We have to be prolific on every two-bit social network, on our own sites, and on those sites that send us traffic. That’s not the new thing that everyone seems to be claiming it must be, however. Creating prolifically goes hand-in-hand with being literate (including media literacy).
Writing for the Sake of Writing
Living your life so that you have to sit down at the keyboard and pound out a couple thousand words at any given time isn’t a bad thing. I realize that the standard follow up to a sudden epiphany about the constant cycle of needing to come up with something new is to bemoan the fate of our civilization. Well, here’s the truth. The gaping maw of the internet is good for us, at least as individuals.
For certain strata of our culture, this constant writing is nothing new: consider Jane Austen, who had plenty of competition for the status of a prolific author during her life. Setting aside the thirteen books, plus assorted short fiction and unpublished work, the lady reportedly wrote 3,000 letters to her friends and family. While not everyone in that day and age was an avid letter-writer, most people carried on what we would today consider a significant correspondence. Of course, when you consider that letters had to handle the information that we would today send by phone, text, email, instant message, or any other electronic system you might prefer, the number is a little less overwhelming. The actual amount written might not be much greater than that sent by those teenagers who manage to send 4,000 texts in a given month.
Today, much of our writing is directed at a more public audience than Jane Austen expected for her letters (though I can just picture any letter with particularly juicy bits getting passed around a whole passle of far-off relatives). But it’s still an act of sending a message, as is any audio or video content we might create in lieu of writing. It’s a good thing to do for the sake of doing it.
At the very least, we can say that few people ever got worse at writing by doing it on a regular basis. If you get trapped in a cycle of emo poetry writing, you might find that the average quality in your body of work isn’t quite what it was before, but that’s the main chance of devolving that I can think of. If you keep your writing private, it may not improve, but it’s not going to go downhill either. But when you send your work out into the world, you have a chance of finding opportunities to make it better, by reading feedback and getting a sense of what works.
Nothing New Under the Sun
One of the dangers that people seem to work themselves up over is that people don’t have enough to write about; when you’re writing a blog post every day about a given topic, you’re going to wind up repeating yourself to the point where you’re only writing the same dribble over and over again. It does happen — I’ve got an Evernote notebook full of examples for an ebook I’m considering writing about how not to have an awful blog — but not nearly as often as one might think. These assumptions don’t give enough credit to the reality that writers often get bored before readers do. We’re flighty creatures, often without even the attention span of a goldfi—OOH SHINY!
This is the reason that there are so many abandoned blogs and half-written NaNoWriMo novels on the internet. Overall, I’m not too worried about repetitive dribble.
Rather, what worries me is that some of us spend most of our time writing about cool things other people have done. It’s a necessary evil: not everyone out there doing awesome things is in a position to turn around and write about it. But that shouldn’t be an excuse not to go do something interesting on your own. Writing can be a worthwhile endeavor as the sheer percentage of my income (one hundred percent, some weeks) that goes to buying books, ebooks and other written works can attest.
A lot of the stuff that you find online isn’t inherently ‘cool,’ though. It’s reportage (which can be tough to turn into an awesome thing on its own), reviews (which can only be amazing on their own if they go through a huge body of work and do some deep digging analysis) and regurgitation (which, online, seems to take the particular form of remarking on some opinion or news item in order to be able to later say that the writer already posted a comment).That’s not to say that we don’t need those things. As a reader, I need reporters and reviewers to filter through everything else out there; otherwise, I could spend all my time just looking at what other people are doing. There’s even a place for the ‘me too!’ writing, even though I’d personally rather not read too much of it. We need to have an understanding of how other people respond to different issues: opinions grease the wheels that keep us all moving forward.
However, there’s got to be some balance. Everyone who regularly creates content should be making a point of going out and doing something seriously awesome on a semi-regular basis. It doesn’t even particularly matter what. I can’t provide a cheat-sheet as to what counts as awesome here; I tried and my editor/husband marked up my post more than I could deal with. What is interesting and worth discussing depends on your audience and depends on you. Figure it out for yourself. Doing anything less will lead you directly down the path to stagnation.
The Benefit of Necessity
So, yes, you need to write (or otherwise create more media) regularly to do well in this online world. You need to do interesting things, perhaps not quite as constantly, to continue to have topics worth discussing online. Both will make you a better writer and both will help you reach those goals that lead you to start producing content in the first place. I won’t think to judge you, but being prolific may have made me a better person in general.
It is no small commitment, I admit. Jane Austen didn’t hold down a job, nor have a busy television-viewing schedule, although she certainly had responsibilities (consider the requirements of doing your laundry without modern conveniences). Ultimately, though, you are the only person responsible for choosing your own priorities. It is up to you to decide if the benefits are worth the costs of being prolific.
Image by Flickr user Rob Campbell