Whether for good or for ill, as a writer, I feel born to blog. For the sake of my career and my finances, it behooves me to start spending more energy on having my ideas peer reviewed and published with academic stamps of approval for the sake of prestige and added credibility. And for the sake of reach, it is important that I branch out into freelance writing or try to publish a book with a major mainstream publisher that can give me institutional support and visibility. And it is tough to practically give away one’s writing by producing so much work for so little pay.
But despite all of that, I love blogging and I strongly believe in the blog as both a powerful medium for exchange of ideas and as an extraordinary tool for honing one’s thoughts and one’s craft as a writer. Below are ten quick points about why blogging is so great.
1. The liberation to not have to make everything perfect.
Regular observers of my work online know me as a prolific writer who regularly churns out thousands upon thousands of words of ambitious writing in a single week. But before starting the blog, I languished in graduate school for many years, laboriously trying to make my dissertation perfect before submitting it. I rewrote or replaced sentence after sentence in the dissertation countless times. While it certainly came out more polished, I am not sure it was all that much better. Blogging takes away my perfectionist self-criticism. Being able to say, “it’s just a blog post” and to post imperfect work means that the perfect never becomes the enemy of the good. I’ve wound up posting hundreds of essays I think are very good and which have steadily improved my thinking through the process of freely writing them, rather than spending forever on a precious few essays covering a precious few ideas that are still never actually perfected.
2. The instant gratification of publishing and being read immediately after finishing.
It is a rush to not have to wait to get an audience for your writing. The daily grind of writing becomes so much easier when it is coupled with the daily satisfaction of being read and the reinforcement and motivation to write again that that brings with it.
3. The latitude in being able to write whatever you want, however you want.
When I’m blogging I don’t need to worry about whether what I am writing is new, only whether it’s true. I don’t need to worry about whether it satisfies some one else’s marketing goals or fears about controversies or prejudices about what kinds of topics or writing styles people will or will not be interested in. I write what I want, however I want and my work is judged by readers for themselves. And if I want to write something that matters only to me and a few others, then I can do that and the few of us who care about what I had to say can all have that experience. If I want to write polemics or personal memoir or technical philosophical work or offer my particular slant missing from other discussions of a news story, I can do any of that. I can follow my passions as a writer, rather than constrain myself only to scholarly minutiae not already exhausted by others or, at the other extreme, to what will sell.
4. The social rewards of getting instant gratitude.
Blogging makes writing social and potentially socially rewarding in a radical way. The distance between the blogger and the reader is tiny. I have not labored uncertain of whether anyone reads or appreciate what I do. I can follow the traffic, the rates of shares, and receive a steady trickle of grateful public comments and private messages from people thoughtful enough to encourage me in return for work they benefitted from.
5. The intellectual stimulation of getting others’ ideas on your thoughts right away.
Blogging also means immediately getting vital critical feedback from readers. I am so grateful that when I write long, intricate posts exploring most of the nuances of my thought on a subject, I will have any number of people who not only read the whole post but treated seriously every twist I put into it and find a way to raise new issues or objections which I did not cover. Even when I think people are wrong, they open up my eyes consistently to what needs to be explained, what other way to be skeptical or critical of my ideas I hadn’t picked up on yet. I am also amazed by how quickly factual errors or entire areas of my own ignorance can be caught by my readers. They serve as an indispensable way to crowd source your ideas and facts, and to correct them. People worry about blogs proliferating mistakes since there is no editorial control. But at least when bloggers are conscientious and care about the truth, we can improve our work so much by the vetting our readers give it, right out in the public where our other readers can see. This is a provisional medium. What we say isn’t set in stone but constantly improving. And a huge part of that is the perpetual instant feedback from a diverse readership with a truly impressive collective knowledge base.
And so many new blog posts grow immediately out of the intellectual pushback from previous ones. This is a truly dialectical process. All the vices of thinking alone and stewing in the unchecked prejudices of your own perspective are gone when every day you subject your thoughts to public scrutiny. It’s worth the few extra intellectual or factual face-plants that are inevitably going to happen in this medium (Andrew Sullivan put it best: “A blogger who is not prepared to make a total fool out of himself is not a real blogger”) to have your thinking critically examined and, if you’re scrupulous, improved daily thereby.
6. Blogging connects you to other writers and, in some cases, to whole movements, and has extraordinary potential to allow academics to prove the value of our specialized knowledge.
Blogging usually means interacting a great deal with other bloggers and thinking as part of a community. This is why I think it would be amazingly good for philosophers to move away from the journal model for scholarship that unnecessarily tries to present philosophy in a style more suited reports on empirical scientific findings than to a vigorous, constantly hashed out dialectic of daily ideas and daily, widespread public peer review that would be possible with something like a professional philosophy blogging network. There’s no reason we cannot think together more directly and get immediate feedback from one another digitally, without having to wait for conferences or interminable peer review processes. There’s no reason we should fear the increase in provisional, imperfect sketches of ideas advanced, scrutinized, and improved through a rigorous public process. This is philosophy, the idea that any of it is not provisional but a matter of settled scholarship is an illusion hardly anyone would accept anyway.
And outside of academic community, I have found that blogging as a member of an intellectual, cultural, and ethical movement like the atheist movement has been extraordinarily stimulating to me as a philosopher. The daily grind of ongoing public debates and intricately new news stories is a constant provocation to do a very classical kind of writing with a rich tradition known as “occasional” writing. The kind of writing and thinking that comes not from retreating to purely theoretical realms but by engaging with tangible circumstances on the ground that require intellectual clarity both strengthens practical movements’ abilities to fruitfully, rigorously, and conscientiously process what they are experiencing, discovering, and experimenting with in real time and it pushes one’s theoretical understanding into places it may never have even realized were important were it not for real life pressures.
Philosophers are sidelining ourselves needlessly and making ourselves appear far less valuable and relevant than we should by not doing everything we can to contribute our creativity and analytical precision more often publicly to the salient philosophical issues constantly being raised by current events, new scientific findings, and public square discussions throughout old media and blogs alike. Philosophical concerns are constantly becoming relevant to the public in practical ways that make them care about and receptive to the sorts of distinctions that philosophers are distinctly trained to help with. It is far easier to get their attention and make an impact when a real life circumstance has impressed its importance to them vividly than by writing only our necessary technical essays whose application points to life are usually obscure to those without a primary interest in philosophy.
7. The daily discipline of getting words down.
As the old expression goes, “writers write.” Being a writer means regularly writing. While not the writing medium that usually produces the most polished prose and poetry, blogging is an ideal medium for building up immense endurance and discipline as a writer. We are the long distance runners of writing, putting in hours of training every day.
8. The accumulated rhythm and habituation to writing that blogging provides.
Once blogging regularly has disciplined you into writing regularly, then each new piece becomes much easier to write than when you’re out of practice and trying to start from a cold standstill. It’s all about inertia. If I’m in a writing rhythm, I tend towards continuing to write. If I’m out of a writing rhythm I tend towards continuing not to write.
9. The effect of refining your ideas ever more precisely by having to constantly re-articulate them.
Blogging about ideas usually involves repeating yourself a lot as you do a lot of occasional writing which forces you to re-articulate and re-tailor the same basic ideas to a seemingly endless array of new situations and slight variations on counter-arguments. Blogging means constantly engaging with someone with a slightly different nuance you have never directly addressed before and finding the ways to get your ideas across precisely enough to hit that slightly different target or to address the specifics of a brand new circumstance with its unique contours. Whereas many find this tedious and burn out, I think it’s an indispensable aid to my own clarity of thought and expression because with each pass I take at expressing the same idea or applying it to a new variant of counter-argument my aim gets refined through the practice. Ideas which I slowly had to struggle to make sense of over the course of thousands of words the first time I tried to articulate them start finding streamlined, clearer expression in just hundreds of words the next time, and eventually start finding succinct paragraph or sentence long formulations. Sometimes I am lucky enough to start hitting on key “magic formulas” that boil down concepts that were hard won by months’ or years’ worth of thinking into easily digestible bytes of information that others can grasp and assimilate from a handful of honed words and phrases and boiled down argumentative moves.
That kind of practice at saying something a hundred times until it’s perfect would be a tedious and difficult process writing alone, rarely getting feedback from those who disagree that shows you how you’re missing the mark and rarely getting the satisfaction of being published and read the whole time that you labor on one single formulation of the concept you intend to have set in stone as “published in a book or a journal”. Bah! Give me the public gymnasium of the blog to do my practicing and even the countless imperfect drafts of the ideas can be of great benefit to others as we hammer out our ideas in collaboration. And watch me get faster and more concise and more persuasive each time I approach the same issues. Watch as I have at the ready a number of fine tuned and readily digestible arguments that I can convey accessibly and string together to make new larger points, with each succinct point linking back to other posts where I fleshed out each concept in greater detail. The benefits of this writing to both reader and writer, to have available the range of expressions of related ideas as suits their needs are simply terrific.
10. The ability to find your own distinctive audience.
According to Google Analytics, the average time spent on each of Camels With Hammers’ more than 812,000+ page views over the last 365 days has been 6 minutes and 24 seconds. That average takes into account the huge number of inevitable page views that last for less than 10 seconds which all websites are going to receive. Long posts that get thousands of hits will manage to average more than 10 minutes of time spent on the page before readers click away. What does all this mean? Well, for comparison the average time on all of Patheos per user according to Alexa over the last 3 months was 3 minutes and 42 seconds. At Freethought Blogs users spend over 5 minutes on the whole site. At Camels With Hammers my long form is found by readers who stick with it and my longer essays relative to most of my colleagues at Patheos and former colleagues at FTB yield more time per page than they do their entire sites. That’s not at all to imply that this means my work is better or more appreciated by my readers than other people’s work is read and appreciated by theirs. It’s just to say that the relative lengths of our writings look like they correlate with the time people spend on our pages. When I write twice as much per page, people spend that much more time per page, rather than leaving due to hopelessly short attention spans. I don’t have to shorten my in-depth writing style to be read.
And, in terms of substance, I have found my niche of readers, hardcore atheists and open minded theists who appreciate philosophical sensitivity, whether they are themselves professional philosophers or relatively new to philosophy or anywhere in between.
Hopefully I’ve sold at least a few of you on the idea of finally throwing your hat in the ring and blogging. If you want my nuts and bolts advice on how to succeed in this endeavor, check out my top 10 tips for bloggers and/or listen to the interview I gave to the Unemployed Philosophers’ Podcast about how I built my blog and my independent online philosophy practice.