Complete 2012 Roundup

by Venkat on December 19, 2012

Time for another annual roundup and post-game analysis session. Here are the roundups from 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008 and 2007 for new readers who want to go dumpster diving in the archives. I don’t recommend it since there is now a set of curated lists of the best posts on the “for new users” page (which are also gathered into convenient PDF/ePub compilations).

2012 has been a special year in multiple ways. Among other things, I celebrated my five-year anniversary, crossed 5000 RSS subscribers, and hit a record $3900 in sponsorships, nearly twice last year’s total (thank you, sponsors).  But perhaps the most important development was that I finally got the sense that I know what I am doing here. Every post performed pretty much exactly as I wanted it to, and the few surprises were pleasant ones. I was able to match intent to output, and predict responses pretty well. While putting together this roundup, I did some analysis of my blogging history that I think will interest other long form bloggers, as well as anyone growing any sort of business.

But first, the roundup of posts, in chronological order.

The List

Not counting administrative and announcement posts, I  managed a total of 30 original posts this year, and successfully solicited four excellent guest posts.

  1. Seeking Density in the Gonzo Theater
  2. The World is Small and Life is Long
  3. Peak Attention and the Colonization of Subcultures
  4. How to Name Things
  5. The Greater Ribbonfarm Cultural Region
  6. Glimpses of a Cryptic God
  7. Just Add Water
  8. Hall’s Law: The Nineteenth Century Prequel to Moore’s Law
  9. Can Hydras Eat Unknown-Unknowns for Lunch?
  10. Lawyer Mind, Judge Mind
  11. How Do You Run Away from Home?
  12. Hacking the Non-Disposable Planet
  13. Rediscovering Literacy
  14. Welcome to the Future Nauseous
  15. Discussion Note: Sartre’s Nausea vs. Future Nausea (guest post)
  16. Five Years of Blogging
  17. The Generalized Hawthorne Effect
  18. Happily Almost Ever After: Towards a Romantic Account of Détente
  19. The Interesting Times Triangle
  20. Realtechnik, Nausea and Technological Longing
  21. Waste, Creativity and Godwin’s Corollary for Technology
  22. The Varieties of Scientific Experience
  23. Romanticism and Classicism (Assembly Required)
  24. Money as Pain Relief
  25. Cloud Mouse, Metro Mouse
  26. The Abundances of Ages
  27. Economies of Scale, Economies of Scope
  28. Navigating the Holey Plane (guest post)
  29. Anthropology of Mid-Sized Startups (guest post)
  30. At Home, in a Car
  31. Notes on Spatial Metaphors for Social Systems
  32. Patterns of Refactored Agency (guest post)
  33. From Incomprehensible to Arbitrary
  34. The Ultimate Lifestyle Planning Guide and Map

The big hit of the year was undoubtedly Welcome to the Future Nauseous (#14), which has been opening all sorts of strange doors for me through the year. My personal favorite was probably Economies of Scale, Economies of Scope (#27).

Now for the post-game analysis.

Scaling in Long-form Blogging

This year was my fifth anniversary year as a blogger. In past years, I’ve been somewhat dismayed to see my total article count go down year after year. The pattern repeated itself this year: 30 is my lowest ever total. The totals for 2007-11 were: 50 (for a half year), 93, 59, 47 and 35.  On the other hand, word count per post has been creeping up, from a typical 1000-1500 word range in 2007 to a peak of around 8000 words in 2011 (A Brief History of the Corporation). At one point, I was half-seriously speculating that I’d be down to a single 50,000 word post by the year 2020.

It might sound silly, but I was actually concerned that something like this was actually happening. But then, when I reviewed my selections for the curated lists of “best posts”, which I posted over the summer, I noticed something: my selections were disproportionately drawn from more recent years.

To verify my conjecture, I counted the number of posts that made my list from each year, and computed a yield percentage. To my pleasant surprise, I was right. Only 3 posts from 2007 made the list, and 4 from 2008. Much of the output from those first two years now seems downright embarrassing.  I found my product-market-fit moment in 2009 with the Gervais Principle, and 18 posts made the curated lists from that year. Output steadied during 2010, 2011 and 2012: those years sent 16, 16 and 17 posts respectively, to the curated lists.

But the real story was in the yield percentages. Once I hit my stride, my yield rate began to go up. It shot up from 18% in 2009 (the first “good harvest” year) to 57% in 2012. A majority of my posts in 2012 made the lists. The signal has been strengthening. It’s the noise that’s been going down.

And no, this is not just subjective opinion. Though I haven’t checked the traffic stats, the posts that made my list were generally also the ones that turned out to be hits of varying magnitude, with good comments discussions. So here’s the story in a single plot.

There is a surprising story here.

We don’t normally think of a single-person act like blogging as a business that needs to find product-market fit and then figure out how to scale and improve efficiency through a learning process, but that is exactly the story these numbers tell. It took me two years to figure out what the hell I was doing, and then another three years to get my writing process to a high-yield level.  The blue line is essentially an experience curve for long-form blogging. While low quality posts do still help establish reader expectations of a regular schedule, ultimately, it is only the quality posts that ultimately matter.

A hit rate of 57% actually understates my sense of finally hitting cruise conditions, because I don’t shoot for a 100% hit rate. Only about half my posts are even intended to be relatively polished bets placed in the traffic-futures market. The rest are experimental efforts, posts that are deliberately written primarily for long-time readers, occasional pieces of whimsy, early-release betas, test material for book projects, and so forth.

Blogging as an Arms Race

It is easy to deliver routine “hits” by using well-practiced formulas, but it is typically the somewhat rough experimental efforts that have a shot at becoming unexpected super hits. In long-form blogging at least, trying to control quality with lean six sigma levels of manic attention is a formula for letting good become the enemy of great.

The reason is easy to understand. By the time you get a blog post pattern down to a well-oiled formula, the element of surprise is lost. Chances are, other bloggers have discovered similar formulas, and readers have formed attention defenses and rituals to thin-slice your post into the “mark read” pile.

Yes, blogging is an arms race against readers’ attention management defenses. You need a sufficiently high pattern mutation rate to stay one step ahead.

As a reader, you may not realize you are doing this, but you are constantly learning to spot emerging patterns in the blogosphere, and using pattern recognition to pre-judge and filter out a great deal of content. How many of you move on instantly when you see a blog post with an N Things X Can Teach You About Y title for instance?

Your only chance for a surprise hit is a mutant experimental pattern that breaks through the defenses. Sticking to proven formulas is actually a recipe for attracting and retaining precisely the dumbest readers who haven’t yet learned to detect and filter out formulaic patterns, or worse, readers who have developed an addiction to a particular variety of mind-candy (this can, however, be quite a lucrative thing to do if you are cynical enough).

But anyway, in terms of outcomes meeting at least personal expectations, 2012 was the year when I was batting close to a 1000.  Yeah, Moneyball is a good metaphor for bloggers too (apologies to non-American readers).

The story has been even more dramatic with guest posts.

Between 2007-11 I had exactly one guest post (out of perhaps half a dozen hosted) that I would count as a success, in that it provoked a good discussion in the comments section, did well traffic-wise and was generally rewarding for the guest. This was Paula Hay’s Cognitive Archaeology of the West. The rest got torn to pieces by dissatisfied readers. You guys can be pretty mean when you choose to be. I was starting to despair of ever figuring out the guest blogging game (and therefore taking real breaks). I found myself warning potential guest bloggers that a bad post might actually hurt rather than help their own blogs.

But in 2012, I had four guest posts, all of which I count as great successes. One of them, Kevin Simler’s Anthropology of Mid-Sized Startups, (#29 above) did far better than most of my own posts this year. It was picked up by The Browser, Inc. magazine,  and several other outlets. Mike Travers’ Patterns of Refactored Agency (#32) attracted the comment from a long-time reader that it was the “second most useful thing I’ve read on ribbonfarm after the Gervais Principle.”  So clearly I am starting to do something right as a blog host.

That even got me thinking for a moment about shifting to an Iron Chef format, with one challenger every month. I’ll try that out just as soon as I figure out a way to give myself an unfair advantage of some sort.

I am now pretty gung-ho about soliciting more guest posts in 2013. I think I know what to look for now, and how to wear the editor hat successfully. But there’s a lot more to figure out about playing that game well at scale. You can expect to see more activity and experimentation on that front.

Basically, I think I can allow myself a modest moment of celebration: after five gritty years, I finally feel like I am hitting economies of scale, scope and variety (post #27). If I’d known how long it would take upfront, or noticed how long it was taking along the way, I probably wouldn’t have done it.

Writing as a Calling: Take Two

I now understand the difference between writing as a calling and writing as a hobby. Most educated and reasonably smart people can pull off an occasional piece of good writing, just as every home cook can pull off a great meal once in a while. The challenge for someone making a living off writing is to do so consistently, week after week, through good moods and bad, through inspiration peaks and troughs. It is exactly the challenge faced by an executive chef.

Last year, in The Calculus of GritI noted that while number of words written is the key metric for all writers, the difference between experienced and inexperienced writers is not the number of words written, but rewriting capacity. 

Beginners generally find it hard to even see where improvements can be made in a chunk of text, let alone deploy an arsenal of techniques to actually make those improvements.  As you write more and more, somewhere around the 500,000 word mark, you find that both your “first dump” quality and time spent rewriting are steadily going up. Within a few years of consistently sitting down week after week to write for public consumption (though these days I often use a standing desk), you find that your first draft quality usually beats the final draft quality of many beginning writers, and that you are also then able to spend 4x more time improving it, without running out of ideas. As you progress, you find that your quality even under extreme stress, and while drunk, starts to beat many beginner efforts.

All that still holds true, but this year, I think I figured out how to thoughtfully connect inner growth as a writer to external validation. It is not enough for your internal compass to tell you that you are improving. You need to be able to hit the external target you want consistently as well. The inner compass remains primary, but the external hit rate helps you keep it calibrated. What you measure varies depending on your intentions, but you do need to assess whether a piece worked the way you intended it to.

The big danger is being tempted into seeking a 100% hit rate of external success in terms of traffic and reader appreciation. This means you focus on repeating the formulas that you already know how to work well, and give up on all the experimentation. Which is where both the personal growth and surprise hits come from.

So after five years, it is surprising how little there is to be said about “learning to write” and how unsurprising the “formula” is:

  1. Write regularly no matter what the conditions. It is particularly important to practice writing under emotional stress. If your skills don’t hold up under stress, you don’t fully possess them yet.
  2. Develop raw stamina in terms of number of words per week, typing speed and other raw metrics that effectively measure your ability to unleash sustained energy.
  3. Rewrite as much as you can. If your time spent rewriting does not increase to, and stay at, about 80%, you are not learning. You’ve either locked onto a fixed formula, or you’re thrashing about ineffectively.
  4. Try to achieve a 100% hit rate with respect to your private writing intentions. And constantly vary those intentions.
  5. Resist the temptation to shoot for a 100% hit rate with respect to audience success. As Jeff Bezos likes to say, this means you have to be willing to be misunderstood for a long time.
The difference between beginner and experienced writer is just how much you know about this deceptively simple-sounding recipe.
I think I finally consciously appreciate the craft of writing at a level where I’d be comfortable teaching at least the narrow game of “writing long-form to think.”

New Challenges

While the home front here at ribbonfarm was mostly secure in 2012, I cannot say the same of other fronts. It was a challenge to balance all my other writing commitments, paid and unpaid, and the results were not always pretty. I am just getting started on figuring out that game. Hopefully, I’ll have interesting learnings to report on that front, this time next year.

I also expanded the scope of my activities to include an offline annual event, an active discussion group and a good deal more speaking (I am definitely still a newbie at that game, though I earned my “international speaker” badge in 2012).

On the making-money front, now in my sophomore year as an independent consultant, I have to admit I am still finding my feet. Fortunately, I am making enough to stay in the game, and the revenue graph is pointing in the right direction. My experiences with writing are actually proving very helpful in managing my own expectations with respect to the consulting business.  Perhaps by 2016 I’ll have a similar story to report on this front.

Happy Holidays, and see you in 2013!

max December 19, 2012 at 10:43 pm

Oh man, now I want to write a guest post. If only I had something worth saying … :-)

tubelite December 20, 2012 at 2:18 am

The formula to identify a formulaic author: has anybody reduced him to a shell-script? e.g. http://thomasfriedmanopedgenerator.com/

Sam December 25, 2012 at 2:31 am

> That even got me thinking for a moment about shifting to an Iron Chef format, with one challenger every month. I’ll try that out just as soon as I figure out a way to give myself an unfair advantage of some sort.

I’m not sure if I’m correctly reading your mental state, but the thing to do here might be to self-handicap. Give yourself an unfair disadvantage and make sure everyone knows it, so you won’t be judged badly if you lose and people will be very impressed if you win.

Venkat December 28, 2012 at 1:36 pm

I am starting to feel old and tired. I suspect too many guest bloggers would beat me if I didn’t give myself an unfair advantage.

Joel January 2, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Too high a proportion, or just too quickly for you to recover in between? Your writing might improve more in the recovery and due to postmortem analysis than it does in isolation.

As Rilke wrote:

“When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.”

Or maybe I’m just being a hopeful Romantic…

Comments on this entry are closed.