Pragmatic 28: The Changing Face of Writing

9 July, 2014

CURRENT

Jason Snell has been writing for 25+ years - the most recent two decades in the Tech space. We dive into how writing styles for tech have evolved recently, how to structure and focus your writing, understanding editors and having passion when you write.

Transcript available
Welcome to Pragmatic. Pragmatic is a weekly discussion show contemplating the practical application of technology. Exploring the real-world trade-offs, we look at how great ideas are transformed into products and services that can change our lives. Nothing is as simple as it seems. Pragmatic is sponsored by LifeX. Visit lifex.co/pragmatic for more information and to take advantage of a special discount off their amazing LED smart bulbs exclusively for Pragmatic listeners. I'm your host, John Chidjie, and I'm joined today by my guest host, Jason Snell. How are you, Jason? I'm doing great. Thanks for having me. Well, thank you for coming on. I've been following your work for quite some time, so it's sort of a bit surreal to be talking to you but I wanted to get you on specifically to talk about one thing and it's it's interesting I find in engineering one of the things that I never thought when I was younger was just how much writing that would be involved so much so much documentation and so much writing and one of the things I've struggled with is bridging that gap from starting out with I can put words on a page to you know what are the right words to put on the page it It sounds simplistic, but it's really a lot harder than people think. So in terms of your background, if I remember correctly, and please correct me if I'm wrong, you went to University of California, San Diego and worked at the UCSD Guardian. And that was starting about 1988. Is that correct? Yeah. It sounds like you've been reading my Wikipedia page. It's quite possible, yes. And you have a Wikipedia page too. Congratulations, I think. Yes. Yeah. Somebody needs to update it. It's getting kind of old. - And I'm not allowed to update it myself. You can't edit your own Wikipedia page. I learned that lesson the hard way. - Yeah, I'm hearing John Syracuse are in the back of my head right now complaining about that, yes. - Oh yeah, I got to witness all sorts of Wikipedia wars once somebody made a page for me. Yes, I went to UC San Diego and was the editor of the school paper there. And then left there, went to, when I graduated, I went to graduate school in Berkeley at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, met an editor for Mac User magazine back in the day. And I was always interested in media and writing and things like that, as well as technology. And so that was a perfect fit. And I was actually a Mac User reader. And so I got an internship. And then they liked me, so they hired me. And I have been doing this ever since. So it's been-- in January, it was my, basically, 20th anniversary of being paid full time to be a technology journalism guy. Wow. OK, cool. Well, definitely a fair amount of experience there. And I don't mean that in a way to make you feel old or anything, I'm sorry. But no, and well, I've been doing engineering, not coming close to 20 years now, but it's the sort of thing that in engineering, you're paid to be an engineer. You're not paid necessarily, you're not really paid to be a writer. But what you inevitably learn is you end up doing a heck of a lot of writing. And it's a, it's a, there's enough different subtle drivers in that technical writing compared to the sorts of writing that you do. But I think it's gonna be an interesting exercise to look at, compare and contrast and see ways that people can improve. So I guess everyone in their life that has gone through some form of formal schooling knows how to read and write. And I guess that's sort of a broad statement and maybe that's a first world kind of statement, but I'm expecting the majority of people listening to this have been through school and can read and write. If not all, then the vast majority of. And I guess my issue is that a lot of people seem to have this concept that, "Hey, I can put words on a page, therefore I'm a writer, you know, and I can start a blog, start a website, write a book, be a journalist." And that if you just keep doing that, that success will just happen to them. And I think that that's, well, perhaps somewhat simplistic. I think that it's a matter of understanding the different styles of writing. And I guess my background is that I don't think about this enough, and maybe that's part of my problem when it comes to writing stuff for my site. Tech distortion is getting my head in the right space, clicking out of engineer mode, as it were. But I think it might be interesting just to talk about the different styles of writing just quickly. And, um, so first of all, uh, there's expository writing and descriptive writing, persuasive writing and narrative. And when you're writing for a factual information about a subject, you almost, I think, almost exclusively sort of tend to live in expository writing. And because you're just describing the detail about a subject, if you're reviewing a product or if you're, if you have a commentary on an event that's happened. Whereas if you go into the descriptive, you end up using lots and lots of adjectives and putting lots of detail around events, places, characters, those sorts of things. But there's sorts of... it tends to be sometimes there could be a little bit of a blend of descriptive in with the expository, I suppose. Persuasive is the opinion piece. It's the... I'm the editor of the magazine and I'm gonna write. I guess from your point of view, that's something that you would probably do more so than I would. But narrative is pretty much out, I think, because, you know, as the author putting themselves in a position of a character or narrating a story that has no real place in what either of us do. I don't know, I could argue that I use all of those techniques. Not to upset the four slots of different kinds of writing, but you could argue, I mean narrative a little bit less so, but a lot of the stuff, so let's say I'm writing a review of a new iPhone. Part of that is going to be me describing what the new iPhone looks like and what the ports are and how does it feel and you know how heavy does it feel and how does it feel when you hold it and all those things. There's going to be some persuasion because I'm gonna have an opinion about what's good and bad about it. There is going to be some some drier sort of like recitation of information about it and potentially there is going to be the story, the storytelling aspect of it, which is how do you make this piece that you're writing more interesting. And you know, most, not a lot of reviews or not a lot of stories are like that, but that does happen from time to time where the act of using the product becomes part of the story as well. And you're sort of telling your story as a way to explain some aspect of the device. Like maybe not an iPhone for an example, but maybe something like a GPS app where you tell the story about getting lost in your car as a part of explaining why you would use it or explaining why the app isn't very good, 'cause if you got lost while you were using it. So I'd say those are all tools. When you're being taught how to write, you're very much sort of told, you write a persuasive essay, or write a descriptive piece. - Absolutely. - Those are all good muscles to tone and train on, But in the end, I do think that you end up a lot of times using all of those techniques in different places. And I found that even writing about tech, that you do do that. I mean, it's not-- there was a time, I think, when writing about this stuff was considered more straightforward. Even-- I felt it even a little bit when I started in the '90s that this idea that a review is going to be this perfect, pristine thing that has no personal bias, and it's just you're just of detailing the facts and then you walk away and these days that you know that's just not that's just not how it's done. Yeah and I'm glad you brought that up because I did actually want to have a point to talk about that because if my recollection and um you know I guess I'm getting on so in years but hey when I was younger and I was reading this sort of stuff back in the you know the well the early 90s late 80s and I started to get more of an interest in that and started buying uh you know magazines and so on about that technology and oh wow look at these portable computers that weigh you know 10-15 kilograms or something crazy. You know when I was reading that stuff it was all very factual very much written a lot like you would read a newspaper. As opposed to not reading a newspaper I mean not not an opinion article but a factual yeah as you say there's no... Yeah it's right this is these are the hard facts and you know we're gonna get these facts into you and that's it. Whereas now whereas in the last probably 10 to 15 years, perhaps more so the last 10. And maybe I'm wondering if this is an influence of blogging platforms and whether or not people feel that there's more of a connection with your reader if you are less factual and add a little bit more descriptive, a bit more persuasive into the pieces you write. What do you think? So an old boss of mine, Rick LaPage, used to point out, and I think he had worked at Mac Week and then he worked at Mac World and was my boss for several years. And he would always talk about how reviews are the point of view of the person who writes them and they're all personal and they are all subjective and that you can use objective evidence, but that in the end, a review is one person's opinion. And that was counter, I mean I think when he started making those arguments before I worked with him, it was probably quite iconoclastic to do that. That you were very much saying, going up against this feeling that everything is very scientific and there's no personal opinion and when we tell you what the best hard drive is, that's because it's the best hard drive. And you know, the fact is, a lot of this stuff, it really is like writing a movie review more than a lab report. And I always, you know, what Rick said really, really struck me that not only does that make it entertaining to read, and one of the reasons you write the way you need to write is to make people want to read it, but also, you know, getting across your perspective is useful because people understand where you're coming from, and if they trust you and they understand that you know about this stuff, they're going to give your opinions weight. Whereas if you're just sort of coming across as a robot, they don't really know where you're coming from, just sort of like from on high, but there's no authority there except like the brand name. The PC magazine said this and therefore you should believe it, which is definitely what all of the computer magazines were like in the 80s and early 90s. But I like that too because that takes a little bit of the pressure off of you. You can be who you are and explain why you think this. It also, honestly, this is one of my reviewer pet peeves is it also makes you as a reviewer start to think about what your own biases are and note them, which I think makes the review better. Because I think this is, and I'm not thinking of anybody in particular, there are a lot of people who do this, but one of the things that bothers me about a lot of reviews in general, not just tech reviews, but book reviews or record reviews or whatever, is that people are very focused on their opinion. And I know this sounds crazy, but it's like, they come from a background and they are concerned about the way they would use this product, let's say, in their life. And if it doesn't fit with them, then it's bad. And that's terrible because you do need to put yourself, if you're a good writer, a good product reviewer, you need to put yourself in, understand your place and that there are other people who have different lives and different needs. And think about using your knowledge as a reviewer, think about those people and who might like this. Why was this product created? Is it something that other people could use? And if you can't do that, at the very least say, "Look, this isn't for me," which is different than saying, "This is bad." And so that was a lesson that I learned. I'm not sure if I'm answering your question or not, but this is a lesson that I learned that I really have taken to heart. And honestly, I think the way that the writing on the web these days about technology and I think writing in general these days, everybody seems to have come around to that to some degree. It is about a personal thing. Some people get really focused on them and they miss that larger perspective, which I try to always hold in. I might, you know, when I say I don't like something, I'll say, look, I have an 11-inch MacBook Air. This doesn't make sense for me, but maybe this is why they did it. And maybe if you have a bigger screen, then it would be fine. So I can criticize something, but also kind of recognize that it's coming from a specific place, which is me and the way that I use this product. It's a little like if you read an album review of a new album that just got released, and it's from somebody who's hated all of the previous output of that artist, and you're a fan of that artist, that review tells you nothing, because what you want is a review from the perspective of somebody who is where you are. And that's always, you know, and so when you lose perspective like that, I think you're not doing anybody any favors. So I think that's... You're writing a review for yourself and not for anyone else. Okay, and what's the... I mean, that's fun, I guess, but what's the point if you're trying to... If the purpose of writing is to communicate with other people and be persuasive, laying your cards on the table, which people used to be afraid of, of what are your biases, where do you come from, why are you writing this? But it actually is a strength because then people understand and then they can choose to agree or disagree, but at least they know where you're coming from. It's funny, it didn't used to be that way. There very much was this strain of, "It needs to come from on high, you've got all the lab data." Macworld and I think others, but I saw it at Macworld when I started, actually had a spreadsheet that you were supposed to fill out. So you'd do your opinions and then you'd put them in a spreadsheet with numbers. You'd numberify them along with lab data and it would spit out a rating. And that was the rating. you couldn't say this feels like a three and a half out of five. It would say, no, this is four, or this is-- at one point, it was like, this is 3.6. And it was all fake and stupid, because it was trying to make this thing completely robotic and quote unquote "objective." And all it was doing was using the biases of the spreadsheet and whoever had made the spreadsheet, and not the person who actually used the product, which seemed like a-- - Yeah, I didn't. As soon as I had the ability to throw that spreadsheet away, I did. - Well done. Excellent, cool. Well, that's something I didn't know, that's for sure. I mean, fascinating. Some of the things you said, I just wanna quickly follow up on. And I guess one of the problems that I sort of see with, well, not problems, but part of the evolution of what we've seen with this change of tone and perspective of the author when we do a review, has to do with the original sort of the journalistic style or the new style of reporting whereby everything is sort of explicit precise you sort of you kind of you show a balanced perspective and or you rather you try to show up with your mind if you're good at it you show a balanced perspective and you know you take that opinion out of it and as you sort of move away towards that it's it's what just a paraphrase it's okay to add a little bit of your personal opinion so as you temper that with some balance and say, "Well, here's my use case. This is why it matters to me. But in terms of my criticisms, how I'm going to criticize this product, service, whatever it might be, well, I'm going to back that up with, here are my reasons why. Oh, and by the way, here's also my personal bias." And then that way, I guess, as you say, all the cards are on the table. And so, the reader can then make a more informed decision. And I think that that balance is critical and I completely agree and I think that that's something that is sorely lacking in a vast majority of, I don't want to say bloggers because it sounds almost dismissive because it's not, it's just that there are people at different stages when they're developing their own online writing and I guess one of the things that I always enjoy about reading your reviews is that all of that is already there. So you've reached that point after all this, all these years of refinement. And then you can read someone who's been writing on the web for a year or two and you read it and it's like, "Ugh, okay, I can't quite put my finger "on what it is." But part of why I wanted to get you on and talk about this is, well, for my own benefit as well, I guess, to try and get my head around it. 'Cause I can't put my finger on it, but I'm starting to be able to put my finger on it now, exactly what's wrong with some reviews. So I'm glad you brought that up. So, I guess one of the next thing I want to talk about is jargon and detail. And it's one of the... Yeah, I know. It's one of those things that I've struggled with and I know a lot of people struggle with. And from an engineering point of view, I struggle with that as well, because different documents are for different audiences, and knowing your audience is extremely difficult. - Oh, yeah. So, writing for a magazine like Macworld, is it fair to still call it a magazine? I mean, I know it's a magazine physically, but there's so much online presence. - Yeah, I don't even think of it that way anymore. We really all write for the website and then some of it gets in a magazine that some people see, but yeah. - So, for a publication, perhaps is the best way of putting it then. - Okay. - Yeah, how do you refer to it internally? The web thing, I'm sure it's something. We would just say the site or Macworld and not but you know, I think we're all basically focused on the site. Yeah Yeah, you're right about levels levels of levels Who are who are you trying to reach is always the big question when you're writing anything right is who is this for? Yes, absolutely so when you're writing for such a diverse audience because you you're going to have people that have got a very small amount of experience that have heard of Macworld or have picked up something off the shelves or have have wandered across the website after doing a Google search and they see Jason Snell's review of the iPhone 5 or 5S or whatever it is, or Yosemite more recently, and they're going to have a very different level of technical knowledge versus someone who's been following Apple for the last 5 years or 10 years. How do you balance and take control of the depth of that detail when you're writing? You know, you have to know who you're writing for. I mean, you do. And you can't just say, "Well, this could be anybody on the internet." I mean, because it could be. It could always be anybody. You have to say, "What's my target audience? Who am I trying to reach here?" And ideally, you internalize that eventually. And you realize, again, you're not going to hit everybody, and people are going to have... I've had feedback, I think I even wrote in one of my 7,000 word long iPhone reviews at one point, I made the point that there's going to be a group of people who read this article who wishes it was 15,000 words and another group who thinks it's 4,000 words too long. And you just have to make a decision. And when I write an OS 10 review, it's a third of the length of John Syracuse's OS 10 review. And that's not because I couldn't write 20,000 words about OS X, because I most certainly could. I'm not saying it would be better than John's, but I certainly could match him on volume if I really tried. But it's not what my site is for. And if I was writing for CNN or Yahoo or the San Francisco Chronicle or the New York Times, I would probably write 600 words or 800 words about it and have to stop because it's a different audience. And so that always, you internalize it. So for Macworld, I've got my own sort of map about who these people are, which is that they are excited about Apple stuff and they wanna know, and they're technical enough that they have come to this website to find more detail than they're gonna get in a newspaper or something like that but they're also not, I'm not searching at the level of Ars Technica where I'm speaking to developers and people who understand detail, incredible, and want to get down into that level of detail of what's happening behind the scenes at a super nerdy level. I'm trying to be a level up from that. And that's just the level that I've set. And you're not gonna be able to please everybody, but you try to imagine that. And that is always the case, is you're trying to figure out who that audience is. 'Cause it's almost impossible to write anything if you don't have some idea of who you're speaking to. And that can be, you know, it's a bell curve, right? So you're sort of imagining the peak of the bell curve and the range around it. And I don't wanna say this like it's totally, like I sit down and I go, okay, what demographics am I targeting today? Because that's not what I'm doing. But I am thinking, who am I writing this for? And so like when I'm writing about OS X Yosemite, that is a story for Macworld. It is for people who are probably using Mavericks and certainly are aware of the march of OS X over the years. I'm not writing that story for somebody who is using Windows and thinking about switching to the Mac. Because that's just not what my story is about. Those people are out there and they might even find that story on the internet. And if I think that there is a market for that kind of story, I will say to the editors at Macworld, maybe we should do a story about, you know, for switchers thinking about going to Yosemite. But that is a different story and that's not the story I'm writing. So you've got to have that in mind, even if it's just a default. And that can make all the difference. Andy Anotko talks about this a lot. He and I are in sync about a lot of this review stuff. The incredible importance of knowing who your audience is and laying all your cards on the table about your own biases and where you're coming from and trying to reach a broader audience and trying to understand why other people might want or not want a particular product and trying to broaden it out from there. Because my audience is also not me, right? We talked about that earlier. It has to be this broader audience. And I read John Syracuse's review of OS10. I'm happy to go down that deep, but that's not my audience. So that's part of the trick, too, is picturing that person who isn't you and trying to reach them while also channeling your own experiences and biases and things like that. When I think about it like that, it's a little bit like breathing or riding a bike, where it's something you do all the time and you don't think about it. Or like tying your shoes, if you try to break down how you tie your shoes into little bits, it starts to fall apart because you realize you've just sort of internalized it as a block, and I tie my shoes, and then you start to pick it apart and it gets a little weird. This is sort of like that, where it's not like I sit down every day and think about these points, but they're definitely going back there. And it goes back to your point about somebody who hasn't been writing as long, isn't as experienced with it, might not have all of that stuff internalized. still, you know, over time, they're still going to learn those lessons and figure out how to set the right level. Absolutely. And I think that part of the experience comes back to feedback that you've received along the way from various readers, as well as your own personal choices as to where you would like to take the writing that you're doing. And obviously, when you've got a site like Macworld, it's obviously much larger, it's got a lot more momentum behind it, a lot more history, and there's a different set of expectations but I think that a lot of people need to ask that question and it's something that I will admit I will confess to having struggled with a little bit with tech distortion is how deep do I go you know my audience that I have on my side is not huge in fact it's probably miniscule compared to Macworld's but the point is that you have to have some kind of conscious decision and say I'm going to consistently write at this sort of depth because if you don't, what I fear happens is that you will lose the people that are not technical enough or you can't retain the people that are technical enough. - Yeah, if you try to broaden your focus, you end up not having a focus and then broadening your focus generally does not mean you have a bigger audience. It means you have a smaller audience because now nobody is happy. And that's, yeah, this is the lesson I learned. And actually, since you're not a listener, this is actually fitting. This is a lesson I learned with The Incomparable, which is I wanted it to be ... That's my podcast. I wanted it to be what I wanted it to be. And it is unabashedly the stuff I'm interested in, in this particular area and nothing else, and that's just what it is. And that has resonated with a lot of people, incredibly more people than I ever expected, and it resonates more with them than I ever expected. It really has proven to me the power of podcasting as a medium. With that said, it is not for everybody, and I think those go together. The reason that it is sticking with the things that delight me gives it an energy that it wouldn't have if I felt like I needed to make some decisions to try and have more popularity or have it be broader. And likewise, I think it would maybe not resonate nearly as strongly with the people it does work for because of that. And so that's a choice. I could make it super narrow, or I could make it try to have the super broad appeal, and instead I've kind of hit exactly what I want it to be. And when it works, it works really well. And it doesn't work for everyone. And I'm okay with that too, right? Accepting the fact that this thing that I made, I made it the way I wanted to. I didn't make it for everybody to use it. And that's fine, because I don't think it would work if I made it for everybody. I think nobody would like it if I made it for everybody out there, because I'd be rethinking second-guessing myself and pandering and doing all sorts of things that would just make a bad product. Absolutely and in some respects I also think that that's part of what's wrong with mainstream journalism at least traditionally is that they tend to go for the things that will get the will sell the product get the well the modern equivalent page views and so on and they it's it's more about reaching that biggest demographic or having a sections of the newspaper or the news report or you know whatever that targets slightly different demographics to cover as many as possible. Whereas it seems to be a trend with blogs and with podcasters is they're far more personal about what an individual would like to do and they're not concerned with getting a massive audience they're concerned with doing something that they're passionate about like you say with The Incomparable that's something that you're passionate about in the same way that I'm passionate about Pragmatic. It's one of those things that adds a different spin on things. But market, well, I almost said market share. I guess it is kind of a bit like market share. It's like that's not what it's about at all. It's about focusing on that audience specifically, but you're only focusing on it because that's where you're interested in. And I think that that energy gives it that special something. It's something that didn't exist 15 years, 20 years ago, I think. I think a lot of these tools that have come into the hands of people like ourselves and everybody really, is that someone can choose to do that. It's so much easier now. The bar is so much lower and it's so much easier to get into this than it used to be. In the 200th episode of The Incomparable, I had a conversation with John Siracusa and Dan Moran and Serenity Caldwell. We were talking about being nerdy teenagers and feeling isolated and how the internet has really changed that. This is what we're talking about here, is that the internet has aggregated together large parts of the world to the point where you can have the most esoteric interest and find lots of other people who share it. And that means that there is a market, if you want to call it that, for things that were previously never considered things that would have enough of a critical mass to be worth serving, because the internet puts all those people together. And it might be one person in a town, but there are lots of towns and you end up with thousands of people who are interested in these esoteric subjects. It's funny, I feel like the internet ... I'm actually recording a podcast later today with Glenn Fleischman about a version of the same topic. I feel like the internet has really polarized, at least media, in terms of audiences, where you either need to be serving, trying to serve the widest possible audience, which is what you were just saying, or you are serving the most engaged, the people who are the most enthusiastic about a particular subject. And that seems to be where we are right now in in terms of media on the internet. You're either trying to go for everybody and that's viral videos and maybe even websites like the New York Times or Yahoo or places like that, or you are super narrow like a lot of tech websites where it's like we're here for people who really care enough about tech that they're gonna read 20 articles about tech from our website every day. And what's missing, which I think is interesting, is people who are mildly interested in things. Now it's sort of like you're either not interested in anything and feel no passion except for videos of cats or you are super into it and there's a website for you. But this, I think this leads to another challenge, which is what if you're into it but not super into it? I was listening to, oh, what was that? It was, oh, it was "Random Trek," which is this podcast that Scott McNulty started out of "The Incomparable," and one of his guests was admitted to having not watched a couple of the "Star Trek" series. And he was like, oh, the "Star Trek" fans are gonna kill me. I'm like, I like the original series and "The Next Generation," and then I kinda stopped watching. And I thought, you see, there is an interesting internet effect, which is, you're somebody who is actually interested in the subject, but you're not as far deep down into it as the true fans are. And so you start to sort of feel like you either have to go all in or you have to back away. And I think that's a weird place we're in right now, culturally. And I'm not quite sure what the solution is, but I think it's interesting that there's sort of like, you either have to like completely commit. And I get this feedback from my podcast too, right? It's like, why don't you just talk about comics every week? or why don't you just talk about TV every week? And the answer is I'm not interested in any of those enough to make it the same every week. That's why it's not about the same thing every week. I just can't get that deep down in. And yeah, so I think it's just a funny place we are in society where the people who are super enthusiastic about something, they can find their people and that's great. And then there's sort of the broad, again, click here to see pictures of cats. And then there's this vast in between that is, we haven't really figured out how to make that work yet. That kind of got served by magazines and newspapers and things like that, where you just sort of got a general interest publication and that's kind of faded away. - Absolutely right. And I just want to pause for a moment and quickly talk about our sponsor before we continue. And our sponsor this week is LIFX, spelled L-I-F-X. And it's a smart light bulb that gives you previously unheard of control of your lighting. Each bulb is Wi-Fi enabled, it can give you light in whatever colour of the rainbow you like. It's an energy efficient LED light bulb that you can control with your smartphone. With over 1000 lumens at your disposal, it's incredibly bright but consumes only 18 watts of power at maximum, although most rooms use only half of that. Controlling the brightness, colour and there's a range of cool effects, it's really easy on your smartphone using the LIFX smart bulb using the smartphone app. The LIFX smart bulb is also made to last. 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That's again, that's spelled L I F X dot co slash pragmatic to learn more and enter the coupon code pragmatic for 15% off the total price of your order. Thank you to LIFX for sponsoring Pragmatic. So one of the other things then to just to continue on about with knowing your audience is something else that the internet has done, which some people get frustrated by. And I've seen a few interactions with yourself and other people on Twitter in particular, about the internationalization of, of what we do, where I write an article, you know, And I guess the simplest and most obvious example is that something's happening in the fall, which, you know, of course in Australia, we don't call it the fall, we call it autumn, but that's not really the point. The point is that we're out by six months 'cause everything shifted because of the tilt of the earth. So where it's summer where you are, but it's actually not, it's now it's winter where I am right now in Australia. So that becomes a rather interesting dilemma. And some people, and not just that, also the whole issue of publishing times and time zones and what I find interesting is that a site such as Macworld that has such a large audience internationally, fair enough I suspect and maybe you can confirm, but the majority of your readers would be based in North America so perhaps in that respect some of that is taken care of but I would expect that there's still a reasonable slice of the international audience and I'd like you to see what you think about how you approach internationalization for the one a better word, of the articles? So that's a great question. There's a lot there. I think one of the challenges, and this will probably go away in the next five or 10 years, one of the challenges is, as a media company, we have our business unit is in the US. And IDG is worldwide. And there's an IDG in Australia. There's an IDG in UK and Germany and many other countries. There's Macworld in Australia. There's a Macworld in the UK. There's a Macworld in Germany. And yet we are not directly tied to them. We are our own business unit for the US that runs Macworld and PCworld and a couple other websites in the US. And so the US is ... Well, and the other part of this is ad serving, which is our sales force sells ads in the US to companies that largely want to buy US traffic. A lot of the sales that they do are specifying US traffic. They are buying, their budgets are US budgets to reach US audiences. And so if half of our traffic is from outside the US, which is I think roughly the case, then half the traffic we generate can't fulfill the ads that are sold by our sales force. So if they want to buy 6 million page views, we have to generate 12 million page views because we can't really, it's very hard to write US specific articles that generate US traffic. articles in English, and people speak English, not only in all the predominantly English-speaking countries, but really the world over. And so, this is a problem, because I think, I said five or 10 years, this will be solved. I suspect that with the rise of ad networks, we're all going to get a lot better at monetizing, sorry to use that word, but we're talking about internet ad sales, so if you're ever going to use that word, now's the time, monetizing international traffic. A lot of media companies don't make a lot of money off of this kind of traffic. It would make sense that IDG, for example, with its UK business unit, would let those business, those salespeople in the UK also have access to all of IDG's worldwide traffic from the UK, from UK visitors, so that, for example, they could sell the ads on our site for UK visitors and that they would get a cut and we would get a cut. And that doesn't happen yet. I think eventually ad networks will make that all different. So part of it is that, which is, although we know we are reaching half of our audience outside the US, almost all of our revenue comes from the US audience. And so on that level, I've told people this, you've seen it on Twitter, which is we're a US site, and a US site, we're focused on the US, and we're aware that the rest of the world exists, but we are a US site. Especially when it's angry people in the UK, we're like, "There is Mack World UK, you know. They are focused on you." And the other thing is localization is hard. It would make our jobs a lot harder if we had to mention that it's US dollars, or here are what the prices are elsewhere, or that this rationalization about why this product is best doesn't work in certain countries because this product is different and there or other products that compete there but not here. And we read about Amazon and people say, "Ah, but Amazon doesn't work except in the US and the UK "for all of these different media types." It's like, well, that's true, but we can't, I mean, we could do that, and if we really felt that our duty was to cover the entire world in detail, I suppose we would do it, but in reality, we are, in the US, speaking to a predominantly US audience, and that's our focus. So we will mention the rest of the world, but it's hard. You know, the upside is that being an English publication opens you up to this enormous worldwide market wherever you are in the world. And the example I always like to give is Federico Vatici, who is in Italy, but he chose to do Mac Stories in English. And so as a result, he can reach the entire English speaking world, including people who speak it as a second language, with that site. And if he had chosen to do an Italian Mac site, we would probably not know who he was. and that would be a shame because he's great. I talked to Andrzej Tomic, I'm gonna slaughter his name. - Andrzej Tomic. - Andrzej Tomic. - Yeah. - From, yeah, Atomic, I like to call him. - Atomic XX, yeah. - Yeah, he is in a very tiny country with like two million people. And as a result, if he does all this stuff in his native language and, you know, I mean, that's a tiny audience. And then he does Storming Mortal in English, and that's got a huge audience, potentially, because it's addressing everybody who speaks English. So it's a beautiful thing, but it's also a problematic thing. And personally, as a writer on Macworld, I'm very focused on the US. And for The Incomparable, I am a little less focused on the US, but at the same time, I live in the US. That is my perspective. I can be open to other perspectives, but that's my place. But it is funny, if you're a for-profit corporation like IDG is, and almost all your revenue comes from the US, you're really actually not motivated to serve people outside of the US. And it's not like we're gonna put American flags everywhere and say USA, USA, and try to scare people away who are from outside the country. But it's actually kind of, it works against us being more focused on the rest of the world because we don't actually make any money from outside the US essentially at this point. And I think it would be, the awareness would change if the business needs change. But right now it's very hard to have people come to us and just say, it's US traffic. And I always tell them, we can't control that. We just write stories and people come. We can't like write US stories. That's not how it works. Yeah, understood. Absolutely. And it's an interesting point about the financial drivers behind it, the advertising. And I think that part of the problem with the advertising, well, there's two problems. I suppose there's the tax element, because if you have a company that's spread around the world, the individual tax laws in individual countries can be an issue with getting revenue shifted around between countries. So if you get ad revenue that comes from Australia, shifting that across to the US or vice versa and so on, and gets difficult and Apple makes profits in other countries, for example, and they can't bring that money back to the US. So I understand that issue. There's also the other issue, which is a lot of these companies, like you've mentioned Amazon, perfect example, they're only really active in a very small handful of countries. And most of this stuff is really only available in the US. And when I get upset about that in an article, I'm not upset with you or with Macworld or anything, I'm upset that Amazon, come on guys, ship here, please. I want Amazon Prime, I want all that stuff too. But, you know, alas, that's the nature of-- - Yeah, and sometimes it rains down on us for being the bearer of that information or the reminder of those frustrations. I wrote a story-- - You're the messenger. You got shot. - Exactly. I wrote a story for a crazy Apple rumor site a few years ago when it was active. I guess it was probably more like 10 years ago now, John Maltz's site that was, the headline was iTunes Store Never Ever Coming to Canada. And that was my getting my frustration about it, every time we would write about iTunes in the early days of the iTunes store, we would get angry comments from Canadians who were just furious because it's not in Canada. And they would direct at us and say, "You didn't mention it's not in Canada!" It's like, well, how many times do we need to mention it? So then I wrote a story that was like, literally, Eddie Cue and Phil Schiller announced that Canada, just forget it, Canada. You're never gonna get it, just 'cause it was, you know, I totally get it. I think we're all aware of the international audience and that a lot of stuff that's a little less traditional is much better at being able to serve that. But it is true, a lot of businesses too, their budget is for one country. And so you see some, the web is international, but large other parts of where money is in the world are not, and that includes things like, why is Amazon not in more countries? Part of it is rights issues. You know, part of it is that other businesses are not, like movies and TV and things like that, require separate, and music even, require separate deals for every country, even though the internet doesn't work like that. And all of us who have been on here for a while, we're citizens of the internet. It shouldn't matter. You know, it shouldn't matter where that company is that's selling me software, because I can just download it and give them a credit card number, and they get money and I get software and we're done. It shouldn't matter and yet, in a lot of other places, and we know it won't matter eventually, but right now it does. And so I think that all factors into it too. I love the fact that our stuff reaches a broader audience and I know with the Incomparable, but that podcast reaches an amazing number of countries and I love that. It's fantastic, but it is a real challenge, but we're not doing it despite anybody, not even Canada. - No, no, no. (laughs) And this is the thing is that I didn't expect it, you know, obviously that, I didn't expect that you would be, it's just that it's one of those things that I try, and I guess my background is obviously very different because I'm not, I'm writing a tiny little blog in a corner of the internet, if there is such a thing as a corner in the internet, technically, but anyway, the point is that it's a little, very small dot blip on a radar, on the corner of a radar somewhere. And yeah, I want to make my articles when I write them to be, when I say internationalized, it's simply you strip out the stuff that is not location specific. So, yeah, instead of saying it's going to be in the fall, you'd say that would be in likely September, October or something like that. And then of course, when I was thinking about this before the show, I thought to myself, well, what if you're not working on a Gregorian calendar, I suppose? And I guess you got to draw a line at some point, don't you? But I mean- This article that I have open right now in BB Edit actually uses the phrase "Do this fall" for OS X Yosemite. And it's difficult because the alternative there is for me to say "Do between September and November" or "Do between mid-September and mid-December of this year," which is, again, too far to go, but you know- It doesn't flow. Right. And I could say "Do this fall, spring in the Southern Hemisphere," but again, that's- Well, that doesn't flow either. It's kind of, yeah. So it's hard. But if you're in Australia and you're trying to reach that broader audience, I mean, the larger selection of your potential audience is in North America and Europe, right? So you ... Sure. And that's what Vitici probably goes through every day, which is he's modeling, I think, kind of a US-centric audience to a certain degree, but it also is just this knowledge that the broader they are, the more people they're appealing to. But it's great, but these are all problems that we have. Every time we list a price, every time we do a what Mac should you buy, the way Apple does its prices, especially in Australia, where they're often completely out of whack with exchange rates and therefore horribly overpriced, it was always the knock on Apple in Australia was that they didn't adjust their prices for the exchange rate very often. and so you'd end up with these just ridiculously out of control prices, that would completely change the matters. And I guess what I would say to that is I'm glad there's an Australian Macworld to talk about that. And they get our stories, and they can fix them and make them actually relevant for Australia. Yeah, well, that's true. And when I do read Macworld, I'll tend to actually-- it may sound strange, but I actually read a bit of both. And yeah, I can... you can tell the stories that they've taken from the main US site and then, you know, sort of filtered them for the Australian site. Right. And as opposed to the ones that are locally written. But you're right, they do tend to localize it a little bit. So, it's good to have, but not every site has that, of course. So, in any case, that's... I think we've talked about that enough. I just want to move on if we can. Sure. The next thing I want to talk about is managing the length of your article. We sort of touched this briefly before, but it's a little bit about the technical depth. But one of the problems that I've seen is that there seems to be a... It's hard to draw the line between what is technically a long-form article anymore and what's considered to be the right sort of length. If you look at a site like The Verge, for example, where most of their articles really only several paragraphs long. If their reviews are there in depth, then you know they can be much longer probably the the 5,000-6,000 word kind of length but it's it's interesting and difficult at the same time to for me anyway to gauge how long an article should be and I guess I'm curious about your thoughts as to how you manage the length of the article based on well I suppose based on the topic more than anything I would expect. Yeah that's That's a constant question. Part of it goes back to who are you trying to reach and do they want more, do they want less? We have this back and forth all the time. Do we want to write a 1,000 word article about a pair of headphones? Probably not. That's probably too much detail. We are not a headphone website. You'd be better off writing a thousand word article about all the headphones we looked at and which one was best. Leave that to Marco. Marco will do it. Yeah, well, yeah, exactly. This is the thing is that you can go too far that way and you can go too far the other way and not have enough information and people get angry about that. Every story is different and you're trying to imagine that audience that is going to be receiving it. Length, you know, I suffer from this. I write long. write way too long. And sometimes I think that's, and like I said, some people think that's great and some people think that it's way too long. - I'm in the great camp. - I'm well, my target audience does not feel bad about an 8,000 word long iPhone review. That's the, you know, and maybe they would feel bad about a 15,000 word long one, but I write them as long as I think it takes. I tend not to shoot for a word count for those things, but there are other times when you're just trying to get the information out there. So, you know, I got a call the other day about Apple killing Aperture, and I wrote a thing that was probably 700 words that said, you know, Apple killed Aperture, here's what they said, here's what this means, here's one paragraph of background about like when it was introduced and when Lightroom came out, and, you know, I was done, and there was no more that needed to be said. And for news, I think that's the case. A lot of the Verge stories that are two paragraphs long, they're news, they're cheap, they move on to the next thing. There's some search engine optimization happening there where they're just trying, you know, It's the economics of it. They're paying somebody, I don't know what they're paying them, but let's just say 50 bucks for a news post and they work for half the day and they post as many stories as they can and it gets people to the site, but they're not the prestige stories that they're doing. So I don't know. It's a great question. I don't have a great answer other than to say that I try very hard to just sort of write what I think is relevant and see what the length is. That all said, sometimes the length is insane. And yeah, then it's a challenge for my editors to decide if they want to cut it or not. - Yeah, that's just a little brief aside then about editing, 'cause your job title at the moment, are you still editorial director? 'Cause I lost track of your job title. - I am editorial director for IDG's consumer business unit. - So if you're the editorial director, who edits the editorial director's stuff? - Yeah, who watches the watchman? Well, everybody needs an editor. Everybody needs an editor. So I don't edit as many stories as I used to, but they're lead editors for all my websites. And yes, and this has always been the case that when I write something, somebody else edits it. We have a peer review system. We actually don't have copy editors working on our website anymore. It's all peer review. You have somebody else who looks at it. You might put it in, I might put it in our content management system myself and get it ready to go. But before it goes live, I'm gonna send that link to somebody and say, could you look at this? Or I'll just mail them the markdown file that I wrote and they will edit that and put it in themselves. So it can vary. With my "Macworld" stuff these days, it's mostly Dan Miller or Dan Morin doing that, but it has varied over time. When he worked for us, John Sef used to look at a lot of my stuff too, and Phil Michaels looks at my stuff sometimes. And you find somebody who is sort of responsible for that story and they edit it. And if we have disagreements, I try not to demand, invoke my privilege and say no, I want it to run that way. I very, very, very rarely do that. My argument is that I wrote it this way and their argument is they wanna change it. And usually that's where it goes. Occasionally I'll say, well actually, I was doing that for this reason, here's why. And if they say, oh, okay, that's fine, then it's good. And if they say, well, the reason I changed it is this, and I'll let it go, and it's a conversation. And I try very hard to have that be not something where my position factors in, 'cause everybody does need an editor. And whenever I talk about handing something into my editor, people get very baffled because they're like, "But I thought you were the lead editor." It's like, well, I am, but there's still somebody who is expecting that story, who is going to read it and see if it makes any sense and get it ready to go. And that's also the case if you're not at my level. If you're a news person who's then writing a feature story, you're writing it for someone else. You're not gonna edit your own story. That's not possible. - It's an interesting challenge for people that are writing their own blog where technically they have no editor. And I find, I'm not really sure what the right answer is. I mean, is it, if you were, and this is something that I've sort of struggled with because I've worked with a few editors on and off over the years, but more off than on actually. But anyway, and it's been a very eye-opening experience having a different person's perspective, especially someone who's been doing it for a long time as an editor. But if you're doing your own blog, I almost think that there is some value in, as it were, getting some peer review from people that you know either on Facebook or on Twitter if you really want to polish what you're doing rather than just putting it out there without having any kind of peer review. But funnily enough I don't think a lot of people do that and I'm wondering if there's like a fear or a stigma of some kind because it's meant to be "oh I can just blog about whatever I want" as opposed to the point of a peer review is to improve the quality of what you're putting out and in some respects to give you that different perspective and that helps you to focus. I wonder if that's something that people should consider and maybe that's something I should be considering as well. Yeah, it's hard. It's hard. I mean, part of it is that the blogging systems generally don't let you do that, right? You can post it or not and then you're like, "Well, what do I do? Do I send them the text that I'm going to paste in and then they're not going to see if there are any images or whatever?" It gets complicated. It would be nice if they all had sort of a preview URL that you could send to people and they could see it but nobody else would know that it's there because that's what we do internally is we'll send around the preview stuff that's on the staging server and not the live server and people can look at that even just to give a thumbs up. When I'm doing stuff on my own, you know, that you read it over more times and you, you know, for big things I would say yes, it's very hard for things throughout the day to keep pestering your friends and saying, could you look at this, could you look at this? I think, you know, if you've got somebody-- - Pushing friendship. - Yeah, unless you've got somebody who also their own site and you sort of like go back and forth and say, "Hey, could you check this out?" And then they say, "Could you check this out?" And you're kind of like helping each other out. I could see how that would work. Also, the audience, I mean, the beautiful thing about the web is unlike print where it gets printed and that's it, the web is changeable. So I hate to say it, but one of the great things about the web is if you post something and your audience is, they're going to be paying attention and they're going to tell you. They're going to say, "No, that's not true. I did this the other day with one of my Yosemite pieces. I wrote a thing about private browsing and didn't mention the fact that there is a private browsing mode in older versions of Safari because I never use it and I know it's there, but I just never use it. And so I had two people say, "Well, actually private browsing is in Safari now." And within five minutes of that story going live, that paragraph had been rewritten to make it more clear that there was now a per window private browsing mode and that the old private browsing mode wasn't ... I didn't find it very useful because it was under the Safari menu and it was like everything went private and then you had to go back to public. And so in that case, the audience helped. Those people who saw my link on Twitter and gave me comments back in those first five or 10 minutes within, presumably like 90% of the people who read that story never saw those issues because the audience had fixed them for me. And I would try very hard to have everything be perfect before it goes out there, but the fact is, if it's just you, other people are ... And in this case, my editor didn't see that either. So, relying on the audience, I think is a good thing. And I think that's okay. I think relying on them to notice things and be able to fix those things is perfectly fine. Although it's always better to have a second set of eyes on something, always. Yeah. It's an interesting way of thinking about things is that I then start to see that your audience essentially become your assistant editors. And the larger your audience, the more that assistance, what wanted or unwanted assistance and feedback. But anyway, all right, cool. So I think we need to keep moving on. And the next thing I wanted to talk about, and because there is actually, I was surprised, I thought, yeah, I wonder if I'm going to have enough to talk to Jason about. There actually is quite a lot to talk about. And one of the things I really wanted to touch on is what are the elements that you think go into making a good article? And I'm going to start just with my list and we'll go from there, I guess. I think that in order to make the best possible article is that you need to stick with the message. Well, first of all, be clear about the message that you're trying to convey and stick to it. So I think that rambling is the enemy, definitely. And I'm guilty of that time and again. And I like to say I'm working on it. So hand up, yep, I'm working on that. I tend to start when I'm building an article with a beginning and an ending, more so than an outline. Although then I sort of tend to fill in the outline in the middle. And I guess that, sort of mixing the two up there, but I guess for me, it's about the message. It's, and we've already talked about understanding your audience. So that's sort of implied, we've already talked about that, but I just, I find there's so many articles out there that just aren't focused enough. And I guess, yes, what are your thoughts? - That's a pretty short list that you've got. - I have a longer list, but I just realized that we've covered it off previously. - All right, well, rambling is the enemy. There's a lot, when I'm editing stories by people who have not done a lot of writing before, there's a lot of throat clearing, we call it, which is the, as a, you know, I think professional writers, or I don't even want to say professional, experienced writers, 'cause not all experienced writers are professionals. Experienced writers, they are as guilty of throat clearing as anybody else, but they learn to do it and then get rid of it because it's not what the article is. And this is the, you know, you take a long run up to get started with what you're saying. You say, "Oh, you know, "operating system releases are annual now from Apple "and Yosemite is the latest one. And in the past, I've had issues with the included apps that were there. There was that time when the leather texture was on the calendar app, and they lost one of the panes in the contacts app because of skeuomorphism. Well, Yosemite is here, and it's been a year since the first movements in this front when they did the-- right? And now, but now I'm going to tell you about the apps in Yosemite. And that just is-- everybody does that. And you're sort of thinking, you're taking a run up to like, what is this really about? Here's the background, I'm trying to figure it out. And you know, the fact is that you need to, your lead, your first paragraph or a couple paragraphs or however you want to structure it needs to be, what is this thing about? And and so you write that long thing and then you look and say, Oh, what I really need to say is, hey, OS 10 updates mean apps get updated and a bunch of apps got updated. Here they are. And that's it. And that's all you, you know, that's all you need to say there. So that happens all the time. There's throat clearing, there are personal anecdotes that are off topic. I think personal anecdotes can be really funny as a sides. And if they do illuminate what you're writing, but there are a lot that are sort of like, why is this here? I don't want to hear about this trip that you took. I don't know. I don't read every one of your articles. And so I don't know the story you've been interweaving in every single article about your own personal life. I don't want to hear it. It doesn't answer the question of what are you here to do? So I think that's always the question that I ask myself when I'm looking at leads is what is the story here to do? What is its purpose? What's it trying to get across? Because stories are, anything written, it's a machine to have an impact on somebody else's brain. You are trying to change the way they think or inform them or do something and one of the things you have to do is say up front, "Hey, this is what the story's going to be about." Otherwise, they're just going to close the browser tab. They're not going to read on unless you say, "Here's what I am here to do." And then you talk about having a beginning and ending more than an outline. I will have outlines that are generally not outlines, but they're lists of things. It's like, these are the things I want to cover. And then as I go, I'll see them in my little, just like down below in my text editor as I'm writing. I'll know these are points I need to hit. And occasionally something will come to me and I'll put it in as a point I need to hit. And then when I get there, I'll hit it and I'll delete that item. But it's more like a list of things to be crossed off that I should mention these things. I do think good beginnings are good, like I just said, and you wanna know what you're there for. And tying it up in a bow at the end is great, as long as it isn't kind of too ridiculous. It's always nice to be able to say, to let the reader know they've reached the end in some way, tonally, not to say the end, but to say something that wraps it up to make people feel like, oh, okay, I completed this experience. If they get to the end, which a lot of readers don't, you should give them a reward and say, yes, you got to the end, good job. - It's interesting you should say that. Sorry, can I just interrupt for a second? A lot of readers don't make it to the end. - Yeah. - Wow, okay. - Oh yeah. A lot of readers don't make it to the end. If you look at something like Chartbeat, which is a real-time analytics tool that we use, it actually measures where people are on the page, and boy, that's depressing. So many people don't get more than halfway down any given article. People just, you know, they load the page and then they go away. You know, some people do. This is why journalists are trained about the inverted pyramid, which is you put the most important things on top and then you continue writing your article in decreasing order of importance until you get to the bottom. And that was partially because newspapers would sometimes just cut the story off at an arbitrary point. And others also because readers would abandon the story at an arbitrary point. And there's some truth to that even now, although I don't write most of my stories in that fashion because I'm not writing hard news stories so much anymore. But the other thing I wanna mention is working with my daughter who is 12 and she is frustrated often by writing. There are a couple things that I tell her as a writer. I say, first off, writing is hard for everyone, including writers. So don't get frustrated just because it's hard for you and think I can't write because it's hard because even professional successful writers also find it hard. It's just hard. But she gets stuck on beginnings. She gets stuck on introductions. And so when you mentioned it's important to have a beginning and an ending, One of the things I tell her is, you don't have to have the right beginning now. You don't, you know, we don't write necessarily linearly. You don't need to write the beginning that you're gonna keep forever. Write a beginning, right? Have it be terrible, have it be generic, have it be a placeholder that says, this is the beginning of the story. I'm gonna tell a story about this and then get into it. And then when you're done, you're gonna see the story you told and that beginning is gonna be way easier to write because you're gonna know where you're going 'cause you've got the rest of it. So that's something that is also important is not just having an idea of the story that you're telling, but that the introduction, that's where you get throat clearing is somebody doesn't know what they're writing about yet. So just put a placeholder, put something generic, put something terrible that you'll never use, and then write your story, and then come back to the top and say, "Oh, well now I know what my story is." That's a good technique that I think more people could probably do. And I think a lot of people don't think about, a lot of people don't think about writing as a craft. They don't think about that there are techniques and tricks and that when you're a novelist, when you're writing a novel, and I learned this as I was writing one of my unpublished novels that I've written in the last few years, is it's not like you put in all the foreshadowing and symbolism and everything that's leading up to the plot twists when you write it through the first time. It's not like writers have everything down and then they write it from start to finish and then they press print and it goes to the publisher and it's done. They go back and ladle that stuff in after the fact when they've taken the journey and they know where their story is going. And even on short form stuff, like what we write on the internet about technology, the same holds true. You don't write it from start to finish. You can write it from the middle with something generic at the top and then go back and fix it when you're at the end. So, you know, people, writing gets treated mystically and is mystified in a way that it needs to not, it doesn't need to be. That it's, you know, they're tricks. Sure, you don't have to write from top to bottom. Yeah, absolutely. And that's a very good point. It leads into the next thing I want to talk about, which is revision. But before we do, I think the problem people face is that they see it from the outside looking in. If they're trying to get into writing more professionally, is they just see the finished result. They don't see the steps in the process that the writer's gone through to reach that final result. And, you know, and I think that there is a certain degree of, oh, well, they're such a good writer for, you know. I just can't put my finger on why, but whereas if they learn more about the difference, it is okay to start in the middle if you want. But I mean, just the way I personally do it, and this is definitely not my way of doing it, it's the only way of doing it, sure as heck isn't, but simply there's different ways of attacking the problem and it's okay to approach writing anything, and that includes documentation in engineering as well as for a blog as well as for a site like Macworld, it's okay to revise it because you can start an article and think, you know, I've just got to get the words down and then I will polish that later. There seems to be a bit of a perception, I think, Matt, is there a perception? I think that people like the idea that good writers are just able to sit down, churn out a piece, not do much revision, and it's all good. And that that is somehow a measure of whether you're a good good blogger or writer for the internet because it's like I can I can sit down in 30 minutes, churn out a piece, hit publish and it's all good. Whereas I tend to prefer and I think and I'm this is my own personal bias here I acknowledge but I prefer to look at articles that have had more consideration that are a little bit longer that I know have have been through revision and have been refined to a point where, you know, they are more fully fleshed out and I tend to shy away from the ones that are, you know, typed in, quick review, hit publish because they tend to not have the depth and I guess revision is one of the next topic I want to talk about it was revision and one of the problems that I face is that I go through varying levels of revision based on what kind of, you know, article I'm writing. At the moment I'm in the middle of just finished a review for something and I am I'm finding myself revised going back and rereading it and I think I've reread yesterday I think I reread it six times and I'm still tweaking it and how at what point is the right point to draw a line and say right that's it and hit and hit basically stop and hit publish and how do you know and I guess that's a question I've always wanted to ask you oh yeah well so the line that I always use and I can't even remember who said it originally but it's It's a no artist finished, only abandoned. (laughing) - That's good. - And that is, you could go on forever. I use that a lot for podcast editing these days 'cause you could literally edit a podcast forever. And you just don't do it. - No, I don't. - And I don't either. But the same goes true for writing. It's hard to find the end. It can vary based on what the story is. I've had stories that have plagued me where I have spent a lot of time going back and forth on how things are worded. It depends on how you write too. I do a lot of editing as I go for my articles for Macworld where I'll write it and change it and move along in a different way. I think as a writer in general, I think in the spectrum of writers, I am probably a cleaner first draft person than many. A lot of my stuff is not dramatically changed from my first draft when it gets to the end. But I do more structural things. I'll move things around. Oftentimes I'll leave things in the middle that are marked to come back later because I don't know the answer or I am not able to check at any given time and I'll just write around it. I'll just say, put lab test results here and just keep going in order to keep the flow going. And then in the end you come back and you've gotta sand off all those little blemishes and get it into a better condition. Sometimes you write a dummy lead because you're not ready to go and you come back to it and do it later. The novels that I've written have all been during National Novel Writing Month, which is this thing at nanorimo.org. - Nanorimo. - You can go to it. I'm on the board of directors of Nanorimo now 'cause I believe in it so much. And those, the whole point with nano is not to stop and edit yourself, turn off your self-editor, and just keep moving forward and write 50,000 words in 30 days. 'Cause a lot of times what writers get bogged down is they're so obsessed over the sentence that they've written that they won't go on to the next one. And I would say that for all kinds of writing, that is a good tip. That if you are afraid, if you believe that writers just make these amazing things appear full-blown right off of their fingertips as they're typing into their keyboard, and that you'll never measure up, you should be paralyzed about that sentence. But the fact is, that's not how it works. And writers write, great writers write terrible things and then they fix them later. So I guess what I'd say is, if you're having trouble writing, the first thing you should do is stop editing yourself, get the words down, and make that commitment to go back and walk through it again when you're done to make it better because what you'll find is that you'll get in a rhythm and a lot of the stuff you write in that scenario will be good, and you can fix the stuff that's bad, but you will have written it, and having it be written is, believe it or not, number one. Having it be good is number two. Number one is having it be written, and a lot of people get so hung up on number two that number one never happens, and you can't do that. So I would say my novels, the reason my novels haven't been published or self-published, because I would self-publish them, I wouldn't have a problem just to get them out there. The reason they haven't been is because I know I need to rewrite them. I need to revise them. And they're huge. And so that's become kind of daunting for me. But on my smaller scale stuff, my tech writing, you know, the same thing applies. I try to write it. And if I come to a point where I am up against a wall, I will usually put something in brackets that says, you know, something about this here, and then I just keep going. and I'll come back to this something later, either when I'm done or when I'm at a better point and I can grasp that thing. Moving ahead and continuing the writing. So I'd say revision is a great tool to help you. The existence of revision is a tool to help you get the words down. That's its most important thing. And everybody does need either a second set of eyes. I would say I'd much rather have an editor than revising myself. I will do some revision myself if I have a chance. I will give it a second read of my own and make changes. but the number one thing would be to get somebody else to look at it if I can afford that time and if I've got somebody who's willing. But that, for me, the most important thing about the existence of revising your writing is that it gives you a blessing to keep writing, even though you're not sure that what you're writing is good enough. Because in a lot of cases, it actually will be good enough when you read it back, but it's so easy to keep your inner editor on and never be able to get off that sentence. - Awesome. Now, that's good advice and certainly something I need to start, I need to stop revising my current review and just move on. - When you have to write 1800 words or whatever 1666 words per day for NaNoWriMo, you get really good at just getting the words down. And there's something to that. I mean, this is what professional writers say is they're writing a couple thousand words a day. And this is what they do is they will get it down. And then there's a revision period later, but you just gotta get the words down and don't let it, my daughter does this too, like I said, and you just can't let yourself get paralyzed. That is the number one problem with writing is you get paralyzed about, is this sentence good enough? And I don't know what to do here. And just get the words out. Once the words start flowing, you can fix them later. - Cool, excellent, all right. So just one more thing before we wrap up. And I just, I wanna talk about working with an editor and we've talked about other people reviewing your work and so on. And I know I've talked about this previously on previous episodes of the show about different kinds of review, design reviews in particular. But handling criticism and taking, well, I say handling criticism, taking on board feedback, there's a whole bunch of different expressions that cover the same sentiment, which is you're putting your work out there publicly, of course, when you do hit publish, but in order to work with a site like Macworld or to get work in say the magazine or there's a whole bunch of different, the list is endless out there. You do have to work with an editor and because in the end the editor sets the tone for that publication/site. What I found interesting is that the people that haven't worked with, well okay maybe I should rephrase this from my perspective is that I had not worked a great deal with editors per se until the last few years and I started to work with editors on and off about four years ago and it was quite a shock to the system for me and I think there's a lot of people that are listening to this that haven't actually worked with an editor before And when I first started working with an editor, it was difficult because my perspective of what they were trying to convey to me was it was highly critical. It was very much like, well, this needs more detail. That's not really the right way of putting that. And who is your audience? And some of this we've already sort of talked about. But I guess one of the things is that what I wanted to explore, because you've been an an editor for quite some time is when you are actually working with an editor, I guess it's about not taking it personally and learning from it. And in the end, you have to care about what you're writing being on what the editor is in many respects is a gatekeeper. And you have to provide things in the format for the publication that you're writing for, as opposed to taking that as a criticism of this is the way that you write and I don't like it. It's like, well, no, no, no. You know what I mean? It's like, you've got to get your head in the right space. It's like the editor is there to help you. And I just, I'm curious from your perspective on the other side of the fence, do you perceive a lot of frustration from people that are trying to get their work published when it comes past your desk as an editor? Yeah. I mean, and all of us, you know, editors generally have also been writers and are writers and they've been on the other side of it too. I would say a few things. First off, it is a collaborative process and the best way to think of it, especially if you're doing something on an assignment from somebody else, is you are collaborating with your editor. Your editor gave you the assignment. They're actually hiring you to write what they want for their website or publication. And so it is not your canvas. It is not your space. It is their space. And they know the audience and they asked you for this story, and so they would like it. And this is especially true if it's sort of news or a review. It's a little different if it's an opinion piece. But even then, there may be a format issue where the editor knows what the pieces are like, and maybe you don't. So the best thing to do in those situations is always to just think of it as a collaboration. The editor is not there to embarrass you. The editor's job, the editor's there ideally to do two things. And the first thing is, they wanna work with you to get the story in publishable form for their publication. So, you know, they're trying to make it better. They're not trying to make you feel bad. And if you listen to what they have to say and learn from it, and this is the key, and it's harder for some writers to get this than others. If you learn from it, you are learning what they want so that you can give it to them. Because again, you're not, it's their publication. You're not gonna educate them on how you write so that they will accept your particular style. You are learning what they like so you can give them what they like. And you know what? Professional writers, you know, real pros, they know that if they're writing for X, they're gonna do it this way, and if they're writing for Y, they're doing it this way. Even potentially for the same website or magazine or whatever, you might say, oh, well, this person likes this kind of article and this person likes this kind of article. And that's just part of being a writer, is knowing who your audience is. And audience number one is the person who assigned you that story. So you need to do that. So ideally, number one, you need to think it's a collaborative process. They're there to help. They wanna get what they want, but you can learn something from that. And ideally, number two is that they're thinking, I am helping you be a better writer. I'm helping you by using my experience as an editor about what we like and what we don't like to let you know now, because a lot of writers don't know. They just don't know. I mean, how are you to know before you try about we like to do it this way, or there's a kind of thing you could do, or oh, you should call the company for a comment here. Oh, well, I didn't think about that. I could do that, right? So ideally, editors also view themselves as developing not just stories, but developing writers. I will tell you, there is nothing more precious to an editor than a reliable, good writer. They are going to want to find those people. They want to cultivate those people. Because eventually, then it's just like, hey, can you do the story? Sure, and they give you the story, and you're like, all right, publish the story with very little work. And that's really great. And slogging through changes, maybe in the days of huge staffs and big budgets, this was different, where it was sort of like everything had to be a Vanity Fair article. But these days, let me tell you, with small staffs, and very little copy editing and things like that, editors really do want to work with you to to make what you give them better, because that makes their jobs easier and it makes you have a good connection and a market for your work that you understand and you know how to provide what they're asking for. So I would say it's easy to take it personally. There may be disagreements. It may not be, what they want might not be something you are willing to give or are prepared to give and that's fine. You don't have to view it as you failed necessarily, although I mean that happens. Sometimes people are not good writers and I don't want to pretend that that's not the the case. But there are also lots of times where the issue is not that. The issue is what you do is not what they want. And that's not about, you know, there's a judgment there, but the judgment isn't you suck. The judgment is, you know, we need this. And if you can't give it to us, then we shouldn't work together. And that's okay too. But I do think that it is a yeah, and it is collaboration. And the best editors are trying to collaborate and communicate and that doesn't always come across. Sometimes you have to glean it yourself as a writer, you have to look at what they did to your article and say, "Why did they do that?" And maybe even ask, "So why the changes? I want to learn here." That will help. Editors are happy in most cases to explain why they made the changes they made if you ask, because again, it's showing a sign that a writer wants to learn and improve. And yeah, this isn't, especially if you're doing things like tech writing, it's not art. There's an art to it, but it is also something that on your own site, you can do whatever you want, but on their site, they know what they want, and they're going to give you money for the product that they're asking for. And if I ordered a table, and the table I got from the table maker was like it had too many legs, and the wood was different, and the chairs didn't look anything like we agreed on, I would not pay them for that table. I would refuse that table. I'm paying for the table that I ... I may have consulted with them, we may have had a good conversation, we all agreed on what we wanted, but in the end, I'm paying for the product that I desire. And so, yeah. And, you know, if it's fiction, things like that, then that relationship is very different because, you know, but even then I would encourage writers to think of editors as collaborators and that the writing process is, you know, is improved by collaboration. You may not always agree and that's fine, but they are trying, the goal is generally to make what you're writing better. And so that should be teamwork. The writer's not out there by themselves. Ideally, you're part of a team and the editor is in your corner. Or they want you to be in their corner if you're writing for them and they want a certain thing because that's how their website does it. Then they want you to get what it is like to write for them so that the next time you do it, you don't have to have that conversation. It's just, oh yeah, you got it. You know what writing a review for Macworld is like and then that's it. And then that's the beginning of a beautiful friendship. (laughing) - Well, certainly I'm sorry. So, okay, excellent. Well, the last question I wanna wrap up on is about advice. And this is the sort of, I'll tell you what I think, but I'm far more interested and I'm sure listen to be far more interested in what do you think? And that is, I was asked recently in real life about what advice I would give them regarding getting into "blogging" and I'm like, "Well, it's really easy actually. You just turn up and write." But I think if I had to give any one piece of advice about anyone that wanted to actually get their writing published professionally, I'm the wrong guy to ask because my work hasn't really been published professionally. And, you know, I'm sort of working towards that at some point, but, you know, I have a, you know, a career as an engineer and I don't have to do that if I don't want to. But the point is that there's a lot of people out there that do want to have their work published. And I guess my advice, based on my perspective at this point, is, first of all, to care about what you're writing and to acknowledge the fact that you need to improve. And there's always room for improvement. But that's probably of less interest to what you would suggest. If there's a single piece of advice that you could give anyone that was interested in taking the step from blogging, whatever they felt like, to actually writing professionally and actually writing for a site like Macworld, what advice would you give them? Your scenario has actually touched on some of my advice, which is one of the great things about the web today is that you can write without anybody's permission. That's a good start, because if you show interest in what you're writing and you've got examples of the things that you've written, and you can put those up on your own, start your own, if you wanna write about tech, start your own tech blog and write some stories and show that you care about it and that you wanna do a good job doing that. Because as an editor, I'll look at that. If somebody says, oh yeah, I would like to write for you, and I say, what have you written about tech? And they say nothing, that's a lot harder conversation than if they say, well, I've got a blog where I posted a bunch of stuff of different kinds, here it is, check it out, and that's good, 'cause then I have writing samples from you, and I have seen that you actually care about this, and you cared enough to set up a little blog about your pet subject, whatever it is, and that all goes into it, 'cause like I said, editors really like to find good writers. It's, there aren't, especially in something like technology where you have to understand the technology and be a good writer, boy, it's hard to find good tech writers, and it's great when you find somebody like that. So that's, I think step one is having your stuff be out there. I used to say things like, contact Adam Angst and say you want to write something for Tidbits, which was yes. I was just turning people over to Adam and saying, "Good luck. Talk to Adam." But Tidbits was an example of a non-paying market where they were really good at working with unpublished writers and you wouldn't make a living at it or even necessarily get paid, but you would get your name in print or at least on their website and in their newsletter if you worked with them, and that was a good sign. And then Macworld would say, "Hey, you've been published in Tidbits. That's great." That was a good sign from something else. So some of it is finding somewhere else. If you want to go work at X, maybe you start with writing something for Y or Z, and eventually you make your way up to X, that can happen. But I think number one is demonstrating your interest in having what we used to call in and print days, clips, having writing samples online. And if you can't do that for somebody else's blog where you're a contributor because you don't know anybody, then I would say start with your own. And even if nobody ever goes to your blog, you will have, and maybe you just wanna start your own blog and not work for anybody else. That's fine, just do that. And even if it's just a means to an end of you being noticed by other people, having something to point to and say, I did that, I'd love to do this sort of thing for you, that goes a long way. So I think that's number one. When I've hired people for jobs, I'm just throwing this in here, when I've hired people for jobs, again, demonstrating your enthusiasm is always going to go far. If it's a Macworld job and you are demonstrably into Apple stuff, that helps. Because if it's a Macworld job and you are not into Apple stuff and don't really care, boy, that's a bad fit. But then I would say just as important is demonstrably into media, into writing, into publishing things on the internet, into living on the internet. I would have job interview applicants for entry level jobs at Macworld and I would say, "What have you written?" And they'd say, "Well, I was an English major." And I'd say, "Did you write for your school newspaper?" "No." "Did you do a school magazine?" "No." "Did you have a website?" "No." "So what are your writing samples?" some papers that I wrote and I took a journalism class. Like you did no extracurricular anything, no. It's like, you know what? I'm probably not gonna hire that person because they are not showing a passion for being a writer. And that's a bad, that's just a really bad sign. That's somebody who is theoretically like casting about trying to find a job that they want and they were an English major, so maybe writing is for them. But if they really wanted to do it, they would not be able to keep it in. They would have found an outlet for it. And I'm not interested in somebody who is just sort of like mildly interested in possibly being a writer as a career path. I want somebody who is demonstrably into it. And so, again, having that website you can point to and say, "I did that," or, "When I was in school, "I did this whole thing." Those help a lot if you're an editor who's looking for prospective writers. 'Cause you get a lot of people who'll be like, "Yeah, I could write some stuff." And you have no way to gauge their level of interest and commitment. Are they gonna flake out on you? And do they really care about this stuff? If you can say, "I'm super into Apple stuff "and I wrote reviews of 30 different apps on my blog "about apps that I have over here "and I wanna write app reviews for you." I'm gonna say, "Wow, okay, we should give this guy a shot." And then maybe the reviews are terrible and we don't use you or maybe they're good and we have some notes and you get better and maybe they're great and we, again, beginning of a beautiful friendship. But demonstrating that you care and having examples of what you wanna do is the best start. - Okay, cool. I'm really glad you brought up passion because I did an episode of the show, episode 10 called "Passion Over Academic Proof" that was in engineering, it's the same kind of thing. I wanna hire people to work for me that, maybe they don't go home and program a PLC or their SCADA system at home to control their house or something. Maybe they don't do that. Although I actually had one guy work for me that did do that, which is kind of crazy to me, it still. I want the people that are keen, that love what they're doing, and I'll weight that more heavily than the marks they got when they went through university. So, I'm really glad you brought that up, passion is a big thing. You can detect when somebody doesn't have passion. You can tell. Passion, you don't have to have it, but boy, it makes a huge difference if somebody's got a passion for, know, again, in this business, a passion for technology, a passion for writing and or making videos or whatever it is, that is what separates the good from the great, I would say certainly and a lot of times the mediocre from the good. - Yeah, no, fair comment. So I think we should probably wrap it up there. We've gone a bit longer than I normally like to, but that's okay. It's been, we've been on a roll, so that's okay. So if you would like to talk more about this, you can reach me on Twitter @johnchijji and check out my writing at techdistortion.com since we've been talking about writing. If you'd like to send any feedback, please use the feedback form on the website and that's where you'll also find the show notes for this episode under podcasts pragmatic. You can follow Pragmatic Show on Twitter to see show announcements and other related materials. I'd also really like to thank my guest host today, Jason Snell. And Jason, what's the best way for people to get in touch with you? This way is probably Twitter, Jsnell on Twitter, J-S-N-E-L-L. And you can also find me at mackerel.com and all of my mini-podcasts at theincomparable.com. Fantastic. I'd also like to personally thank LIFX for sponsoring the show. If you're looking for a great LED bulb that's energy efficient, remotely controllable, colorful, and just plain fun to use, remember specifically visit this URL, LIFX, that's spelled L-I-F-X and use the coupon code pragmatic for 15% off the total price of your order. Thank you everybody for listening and thank you Jason. Thanks everybody. Thanks. 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Jason Snell

Jason Snell

Jason appears on the The Incomparable Podcast each week and for a long time was the Editorial Director of Macworld, PCWorld and TechHive but now runs his own site Six Colors and also podcasts on Relay.FM.

John Chidgey

John Chidgey

John is an Electrical, Instrumentation and Control Systems Engineer, software developer, podcaster, vocal actor and runs TechDistortion and the Engineered Network. John is a Chartered Professional Engineer in both Electrical Engineering and Information, Telecommunications and Electronics Engineering (ITEE) and a semi-regular conference speaker.

John has produced and appeared on many podcasts including Pragmatic and Causality and is available for hire for Vocal Acting or advertising. He has experience and interest in HMI Design, Alarm Management, Cyber-security and Root Cause Analysis.

You can find him on the Fediverse and on Twitter.