March 26, 2006

The blogginess of blogs.

Isn't a blog just writing? Is there some style of writing needed to make a blog good? A propos of the Clooney-HuffPo affair, NYT writer Tom Zeller Jr. has a go at the hot issue of blogginess:
The best blogs ... aren't supposed to feel processed and packaged, or appear worried-over, even by the egos from which they spring. Reasoned, syntactic arguments and short, stately essays are for newspaper op-ed pages. Wry, bleary-eyed, observational ramblings make for the most dynamic — and believable — celebrity blogs....

[Alec] Baldwin ... in his latest "blog entry" at, blows a mighty, stately and imploring wind — one that would be at home on any opinion page in the mainstream media. Nothing wrong with that, but then, what makes it a blog? "Help end these horrible and corrupt times in this country," Mr. Baldwin writes. "Give your contributions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee."

Yeesh. Might as well be an ad for the World Wildlife Fund. Even Rosie O'Donnell's inscrutable, stream-of-consciousness postings at capture the spirit of impromptu electronic nakedness that makes "blogging" something new and rangy and interesting.
Wouldn't Baldwin's essay be a crappy op-ed piece too? Zeller insults op-eds a lot more than he needs to as he tries to get to his point, which he does in an "impromptu," "rangy" way, even though he's writing in a newspaper.

Is there a key to blog writing? I think there is a lot of room for all sorts of writing on blogs. It's a form that we are inventing right now. Free-swinging stream-of-consciousness may characterize the early stages of this writing form, but there will be other developments, and some things that were cute will become tiresome.


ShadyCharacter said...

I wouldn't describe Powerline or Volokh as "stream of consciousness" type affairs. In fact, posts on both are often better written and more intellectually coherent than what often appears on op-ed pages.

He describes Blogs as one who has heard of the concept but not spent much time actually exploring the blogosphere.

Steve Donohue said...

I think the key to why blogs can be so much fun to read is that the author has no superior to impress. Law professors right for law review editors; columnists write for their editors- and while I realize I'm oversimplifying that a bit, it's true that someone else has an effect on the outcome of your writing, which tends to homogenize the prose.

Bloggers have no such restrictions. This means that most blogs are garbage, but many are quite delightful.

The key difference, I suppose, is tone of voice. I'm sure, professor, that your voice on "Althouse" is different than your NYT op-ed voice. The institutions are different, your readership is different, your purpose is different, and the language reflects that.

Marghlar said...

I think this is just part of a trend of more informal, more conversational writing in general. It can be good or bad, depending on the substance of the author's writing and how distracting the voice is.

I think what frustrates journalists about blogs is that they are hard to pigeonhole into an analogy with previous forms. Some blogs operate more like standup comedy than typical writing (Fresh Pepper, e.g.). Others read like a conversation between specialists; still others have all the formality of a trade magazine column.

Journalists confuse blogs as a class (just a self-publishing software) with the content of blogs, which could be anything you could put into print, with some extra content that is only possible online.

Peter Hoh said...

Every so often, I stumble upon a blog that is, to me, completely incomprehensible. A good blog is different than a diary, and different than a note scribbled to a friend. A good blog may have some characteristics reminiscent of a diary or a dishy note, but it should be written with readers in mind.

It's no surprise that most of my favorite blogs are written by people who have done a significant amount of writing before taking up blogging. For them, blogging is a medium in which they are freed from some of the constraints of more traditional media.

There's the immediacy of blogging. The back and forth with readers. The opportunity to be more more quirky than an editor would allow. The chance to comment outside of one's assigned sphere.

All that is great stuff -- in the hands of someone who practiced the craft of writing under more restrictive conditions.

I'm not sure that it's going to be all that fun to read blogs by bloggers who grew up blogging.

CB said...

I don't think that the writing style is necessarily the key to a good blog. It's usually something about the blog as a whole: the writer, the topics, the political perspective (or lack thereof), the commenters. Also, what makes one blog good is different from what makes another blog good. Political Animal and Powerline are good because their straightforward partisan advocacy, Volokh is good because of its in-depth legal analysis, Andrew Sullivan and Michelle Malkin are good because of their distinctive voices, etc. Althouse is good because of the variety of topics, having just the right amount of input from Professor Althouse, who sometimes advocates a position and sometimes not, and--if I do say so myself--a very decent group of commenters.

Gaius Arbo said...

Why do so many people (aside from paid bloggers) blog? Primarily for themselves, I think. Sometimes for others. I blog more to communicate with my oldest boy than for any other single reason. But still, it is mainly for me.

If there is a key, I have not seen it out there. There are so many people taking a whack at this genre.

Jim Kenefick said...

Well, I was putting a comment together, but it went WAY long, so it became a post. I hope it's OK to link it here, if not feel free to delete this comment!

TBMD said...

Good writing is good writing. The blog format does not favor good writing per se.

The market for blog readership does favor good writing.

As the proprietor of a minimially read blog (Thanks Mom!)I can rationalize my lack of readership on lack of promotional ability (no instalanches).

Better promotion would help, but the cold hard truth is I need to improve my writing.


Blogging cannot be reduced to a single format. It's either interesting, informative, or entertaining, or it's not.

Anonymous said...

Good writing is essential. One of the reasons DailyKos sucks, other than the fact that Kos is an idiot, is that he's a poor writer. Josh Marshall is not an idiot, nor is he a poor writer, but he's bland. On the other hand, Jane Hamsher, though nuts, writes with verve (If you have any interest in Hollywood, check out her very funny book, Killer Instinct). Wonkette writes with verve too. Also, Wonkette is hot. Being hot helps.

Althouse is, of course, the best blog.

Noumenon said...

I was hoping commenters would come up with some things that had begun to become tiresome, other than posting quiz results of course. I tend to rankle at "Read the whole thing."

Ann Althouse said...

Noumenon: "I was hoping commenters would come up with some things that had begun to become tiresome,..."

It's not too late to start!

reader_iam said...

Some scattered thoughts:

1) I read many--and more important, many different types, tones and styles of--blogs. It's the very range and variety within the medium that attracts me--the reduced amount of "should be like," if you will. I would hate to see a move toward just one style or a limited number of styles.

2) Our local Sunday paper has started featuring a print HuffPost as part of its Sunday op/ed offerings (along with print-ups of blog comments that the paper has collected). This has been illuminating in a couple of ways.

First--though there are exceptions, of course--the HuffPost stuff really is not that good. In print format, it really does jump out as the sort of thing compiled by low-level, weekend newspaper staffers from press releases or pre-fab wire briefs. These pieces are touted as coming from "personalities," but in print, they come across as even more bland and less lively than the actual blog.

Second, the printed blog comments from our local readers don't as well as letters to the editors and the "interactive," real-time quality is utterly lost. They don't even have the immediacy of "sound off" features (you know, where readers call in and leave messages on an answering machine and some lowly newsroom clerk transcribes them for print).

3) Reasoned, syntactic arguments and short, stately essays are for newspaper op-ed pages.

I just don't agree with that as a blanket statement. See "reduced amount of 'should be like'" above. Then there's that teeny, tiny fact that there's a limit to available column inches, which means somebody gets to decide whose work gets into print. Call me an optimist, but there are more good thinkers and writers out there than there are column inches. Call me cynical, but many of those chosen to write for print are not among the best in the universe, nor are they selected by that standard.

4) Alec Baldwin: a whistling wind against which one wishes to batten the hatches, regardless of which medium he chooses.

5) Tiresome things: If I never again see the epithets "moonbat," "wingnut," "rethuglicans," "dimicrats" and so on and so on and so forth and so forth in this life (or ten reincarnations beyond), I will still have seen them too often.

I have always had an exceptionally high toleration for listening to and/or reading provocative things--even (especially?) when I disagree--but I'm pretty much fed up with easy-way-out, cutesy and not-so-cutesy labels. That lazy, intellectually shallow tendency is one of the true downsides of the blogging medium, in my view.

6) Make me think, make me laugh, take me to your vantage point, transport me into your shoes, lift up the veil of who you are--for even a second--and you've got a good blog. A multitude of writing sins etc. are easily overlooked or forgiven if a blogger can do those things.

The ability to attract "quality" commenters who regularly and actively participate doesn't hurt either. This one of the very hardest things to do, I think--much harder than just writing.

Richard Dolan said...

"Some things that are tiresome."

You can start with personal insults and invective -- "idiot," "moron", etc., are (for me) a tip-off that not much is being said by a blogger or commenter. Perhaps a younger set of bloggers/commenters finds writing in that style interesting if not very informative. It just causes me to skip over whatever comes next.

Ann says: "Free-swinging stream-of-consciousness may characterize the early stages of this writing form, but there will be other developments, and some things that were cute will become tiresome." In focusing on that blogging is in the "early stages of this writing form," she's exactly right. Here's the challenge for blogs: How to integrate the quirky, personal voice that defines blogs with the necessity of well written material worth some one else's time to read? There's nothing special about blogs in meeting that challenge. Like most other forms of written expression, blogs may be written for personal reasons but they're posted to get reactions from others. The "quirkiness" lies in the blogger's freedom to choose subject matter that appeals to him, without the necessity of any logical or thematic connection from one post to the next. (Ann does that all the time, and it makes reading this site a daily adventure particularly with respect to aspects of pop culture that fascinate her but that I would never have paid attention except for her focus and viewpoint.)

Talking about a blogger's "voice" makes sense if the point is to emphasixe the need for the blogger to bring something fresh to whatever his topic is and express it in an interesting way. Of course, those are two of the essential hallmarks of good writing in any medium or form.

Lots of commenters fall back on a "conversation" metaphor to describe blogging. That idea is badly overworked and itself qualifies for Ann's "tiresome" bin. Any form of writing intended to be read by others could just as easily be called a "conversation."

The "interactive" aspect of blogging results in more immediate responses than is the norm for other forms of public writing. But the interaction between blog writers and commenters is not entirely different in kind from the "letter to the editor" columns in such publications as the NY Review of Books or Commentary, for example. THe "letters" sections of opinion journals is often the liveliest stuff one finds in them. If your idea of "conversation" is what Samuel Johnson produced in almost every situation, then by all means let's have more blogs as "conversation." But I think the metaphor here is frequently offered more as an excuse for the huge amount of bad writing and tiresome blather that gets posted daily.

Billiam said...

As for myself, I blog because I enjoy it. It's easier on the hands, as well. Writers cramp and all that. As for writing style? I just type it the way I'd say it if I were talking with a friends. I always proof read it, though. Sometimes I get stupid, so I need to re-arrange it a bit.

Maxine Weiss said...

In writing class we were always taught to prune-the-deadwood, which I thought was a rather insulting instruction.

It would be nice to see some conventions, and put parameters towards some of the more rough and raw ramblings.

Peace, Maxine

JSF said...

Blogs live somewhere between the journal and the news. Some Blogs are pure journals, others are just PR fronts for issues or companies(i.e. for issues. The best Blogs, like this one here, enlighten and bring in new views of issues. Two lessons I learned from years of writing classes: Always teach something new in the writing and (as per Strunk and White), Omit Needless words. The best Blogs can be found between those two rules.