Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Maybe write something someone wants to read.

This post by Matt Yglesias concerns itself with the challenges posed to journalists by the fact that editors and advertisers alike can see which articles are being read and which aren't -- the problem here being that if you know for a fact that nobody's reading your important, valuable report on Substantive Issue X, then advertisers won't pay for slots in that article, which means that soon your important, valuable reports won't be written at all. Yglesias writes:
... the thing that I think journalists sometimes forget is that the point of writing on worthy topics is presumably to get people to read stories on worthy topics. In the print world, I think people got too complacent about the idea of reporting out a worthy story, plopping it on page A3, and forgetting about it. Was anyone actually reading that story? It’s not clear to me that they were. On the web if you want people to read worthy journalism it’s made clear that this is actually a two-step process. First you have to produce the worthy content, and then you have to get someone to read the worthy content. That’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge those of us interested in writing on subjects we think are important ought to welcome and attempt to meet. 
That may mean that people who write on worthy subjects earn less, long-term, than people who write about other things. But at the same time, it’s more pleasant to do meaningful work so why shouldn’t that be the case? And part of what it means is that people in the “writing about important things” business need to roll up our sleeves and try harder to make our output compelling to people. If an article about the school board falls in the middle of the wilderness and nobody reads it, it doesn’t actually make an impact. 
I think this applies for writers of all stripes, however. I've lost all patience for writers who constantly complain that no one is interested in all the stuff they're writing. This implies that the stuff they're writing is supposed to be great and important, but in fact -- revealingly -- they rarely make such claims. What they say instead is "How come no one wants to read quiet, subtle fiction anymore?" and "Why doesn't anyone care about stories about X?" Well, generally speaking I suspect that people will read quiet, subtle fiction -- if someone makes them aware of it, and if it's really, really, really good.

Most writers don't seem to believe they should have to make their writing really, really, really good, or alternately they take its lack of popularity as proof that they're doing something important. But why should that prove anything? I'm not generally one to argue that great work will find a huge readership, although I think that generally if we adjusted our ideas about what a huge readership is composed of and how one should get into contact with that readership this would be the case more often. But if you believe in what you're doing, if you think it's genuinely valuable, then you should want to enrich the lives of others by persuading them to read it. You have to believe you've made something worth their time -- not because it's "quiet," not because it's "subtle," not because you're somehow entitled to their attention, but because it's great.

And if you don't believe that, why would you ever ask someone to read it?

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