if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to like it, does it go viral?

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Coleridge was a drug addict. Poe was an alcoholic. Marlowe was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. Pope took money to keep a woman’s name out of a satire, then wrote a piece so that she could still be recognized, anyhow. Chatterton killed himself. Byron was accused of incest. Do you still want to a writer -and if so, why?

—Bennett Cerf, Shake Well Before Using

I’m deeply grateful that Matthew Butterick, the subject of one of my posts on Boing Boing, not only noticed my affectionate critique but also took the time to clarify some points in an email to me (reprinted with his permission):

Mr. Moldawer

Please, Mr. Butterick: my friends call me “Dear Sir or Madam.”

He went on:

I already generate plenty of revenue from the project (via font sales).

People buy fonts? For money?!

mr. furley surprised

Thus the question is not “how do I make money?” but rather “can I do anything with the rest of the traffic?” Or is it just effluent?

The reason this question matters is because there’s no shortage of pundits and consultants who counsel authors to generate attention/traffic by any means necessary: with an email list, blog, Twitter presence, etc. Talk about old wine in new bottles.

Old wine in new bottles, yes, except wine typically gets better with age. Point: Butterick.

Continue reading “if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to like it, does it go viral?”

i take it back–new media isn’t a cargo cult. click here to find out why!

This article appeared in modified form on Boing Boing.

“Like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.”—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

You may have read my previous article, on escaping the New Media cargo cult. Well, I take it back. To find out why, keep reading

If you have knowledge and experience to share, your heart’s desire is simply to find a decent audience and make a modest living at talking to it; meanwhile some schmuck who drinks Soylent 2.0 racks up a MASSIVE LIST HELL YEAH with slickly baited copy and bulleted tips he found on the first page of Google results.

One obvious response to this conundrum is to learn how to bait better.

Way down on the other end of this particular spectrum, you’ve got Matthew Butterick.

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what editors do and why they’re more useful than ever

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Today, if you aren’t writing fiction, every single word you put down has to do something for you, or have the potential to do something.

We write our diary entries in public on Facebook. We send letters to our friends on Medium. Our culture tells us that it’s somehow silly or wasteful to put words down in any form without the possibility, however slim, of achieving something grand with them. There has to be an agenda, right? “You never know.”

Because stuff can happen. You write a blog post and get a book deal. You make a joke on Twitter and someone hires you to write on a sitcom. You take a stand on LinkedIn about “values” and a big corporation appoints you their Chief Humanity Officer.

One day soon, Ken in Minnesota will demonstrate such wit and curatorial savvy on his Facebook-enabled grocery list app that Whole Foods will appoint him their “aisle ambassador.”

Every time one of us sits down to write words, anywhere, even in the description field on Instagram, deep down we’re profoundly aware of the potential and the danger of those words, even if only subconsciously. With the “right” words, a VIP in our industry might reach out and forge a career-altering connection with us. The “wrong” words, and we might become an object of national ridicule. Or a leading Republican Presidential candidate. Or both.

Why is this important? Because it’s destroying our writing.

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you should publish a book

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You dream of writing a book.

In fact, even if you’ve previously written books, you dream of writing another one.

Two things are going through your mind right now:

  1. He’s reading my mind. That means magic is real. I can fly. I can fly! crash…thump
  2. What’s wrong with me? (Yes, indeed, what is wrong with you? Who writes a book nowadays?)

Let’s be even more specific: you dream of writing a “traditionally published” book, the entire process from soup to nuts, including a literary agent.

And not just any agent. You want to get yourself The Agent, the brusque, Chanel-clad power agent who just hired a stunning-if-it-weren’t-for-those-glasses number 2 assistant recently arrived from Kalamazoo to pursue her dreams of literary stardom and sure, maybe she’s a klutz and spills coffee on a famous author’s manuscript that one time (“That was Stephen King’s original draft of Cujo 2: Off the Leash!, Jennifer—it’s irreplaceable!”), but her new gay friend’s gonna give her a rocking makeover, plus there’s this really cute guy she meets when they’re both reading Ulysses on the subway coincidentally (he just wants to be friends—doesn’t he?) and she’s going to be important enough to use a New York City car service (“Mom, I’m calling you from a car, and the driver is wearing a suit!”) someday soon because she spotted a bestseller on the slush pile that’s going to be made into a movie starring Shailene Woodley as the number 2 assistant of a Chanel-clad power agent recently arrived from Kalamazoo…

You know, traditional publishing.

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escaping the new media cargo cult: or, how I learned to stop worrying and ignore the metrics

This article appeared in modified form on Boing Boing.

What appealed to me about the Web from the start was that what seemed too niche for the “mainstream” could flourish because you had a mechanism (search, links) for reaching all the oddballs on your frequency. To paraphrase (and reverse) William Gibson, your readers are already here, they’re just evenly distributed. The Web brings your true fans together. I call it gerrynerdering.

Except something’s changed. Whether you blame Facebook, Buzzfeed, HuffPo, or “algorithms,” the new media landscape has grown a big fat mainstream of its own. Not at one particular site, but in the sense of a particular mechanic of creative expression: tailored for clicks, pasteurized, grabby. The long tail of odd and authentic content is bigger than ever, but if you find your content the way most people do, through the algorithmically warped suggestions in your social media feeds, the stuff you stumble onto feels less like writing and more like wordage, a sort of tips-and-tragedies lorem ipsum.

What happened? And what does this mean for writers who want to reach an appreciative audience without putting their ideas through a wood-chipper? I’m an editor so this shift is of profound importance to me: boring writing sucks even more for those of us who have to work closely with it.

I found one possible answer, appropriately enough, in a highly technical interview about a programming language from the 1970s.

Alan Kay was a key player at Xerox PARC, the storied research team that developed the laser printer, the mouse, Ethernet, and the graphical user interface. (Michael Hiltzik’s Dealers of Lightning tells the whole, fascinating story of PARC.) Among other things, Kay conceived of the Dynabook—a device superficially resembling the iPad although potentially much more transformative—back in 1972 while at PARC.

You can’t throw a brick at Kay’s work without hitting something prescient (although, being prescient, it will have ducked).

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on tools for thinking and irritating your readers

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"In the future, everyone will be world famous for 18 minutes."
It used to be 15 minutes, but then TED came along.

As an editor, I judge the strength of a piece of writing by the weight of its emphasis on a single viewpoint. If you read something written (well) by a person with a substantially different way of seeing the world than your own, it should hurt.

In reading, you take the author’s side long enough to weigh their argument. You’re forced to try the ideas on for size simply to make sense of them. Reading isn’t a dogfight; you have to get in the author’s cockpit whether you like it or not. This can be delightful, if what you’re reading affirms your own beliefs and values. If it doesn’t…


Which can be agony. I edited some books for Penguin’s conservative Sentinel imprint, so I’m all too familiar with this sensation. (If you’re conservative, you just experienced it, too. Sorry, Mom and Dad.)

The degree of pain your writing arouses in someone who disagrees with you is proportional to the pleasure your true audience will feel when they discover your work.

Consciously or not, we sense this power when we write. Fear bubbles up. So we stop writing, or we temper our words until they’re safe and dull and of no use to anyone.

I don’t want to pasteurize my thinking and neither should you, if you’re looking to build an audience. Say something and, when you revise, say it harder.

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