When your commonplace book is a public database
I’ve been a blogger for a little more than 20 years and in that time I’ve written a little more than 20 books: novels for adults; novels for teens; short story collections; essay collections; graphic novels for adults, highschoolers and middle-schoolers; a picture-book for small children, and book-length nonfiction on various subjects. I’ve written and delivered some hundreds of speeches as well, for several kinds of technical and non-technical audience, as well as for young kids and teens.
Over that same period, I’ve published many millions of words of work in the form of blog-posts. Far from competing with my “serious” writing time, blogging has enabled me to write an objectively large quantity of well-regarded, commercially and critically successful prose that has made many readers happy enough that they were moved to tell me about it — and to inspire some readers to rethink their careers and lives based on how my work made them feel.
There’s a version of the “why writers should blog” story that is tawdry and mercenary: “Blog,” the story goes, “and you will build a brand and a platform that you can use to promote your work.”
Virtually every sentence that contains the word “brand” is bullshit, and that one is no exception.
A commonplace book
Writers have kept notebooks since time immemorial. The auctorial equivalent to the artist’s sketchbook is the “commonplace book,” which can contain everything from newspaper clippings to grocery lists to attempts to capture those inspirational bolts out of the blue.
I’m sure that somewhere out there, there is a writer who is far more disciplined than I am, whose commonplace books are legible, carefully indexed, and comprehensive. My private notebooks are unreadable, disorganized messes, written with such appalling penmanship that it’s sometimes hard to be sure that they’re even written in English.
Thankfully, nearly my entire writing life has been digital. My computer scientist father introduced me to my first Apple ][+ in 1979, when I was eight years old, and I’ve been using digital systems to write, refine, and reference my writing ever since.
I have endless running text-files from the 1980s and 1990s in which I jotted down notes to myself. These are better than my actual notebooks in that they are searchable and I don’t have to decipher my handwriting, but I can’t really say that they generate much value for me as a writer. I couldn’t tell you the last time I referred to them. They are inert, more like logfiles than project-notes.
Peter “peterme” Merholz coined the term “blog” as a playful contraction of “web-log” — like a ship’s log in which hardy adventurers upon the chaotic virtual seas could record their journeys. Though “blogs” have always been a broad church, there’s a kind of platonic ideal of a blog that’s right there in the term’s etymology: the blog as an annotated browser-history, like the traveler’s diaries my family kept on vacations, recording which hotels we stayed in and what they were like, where we dined and what we ate, which local attractions we visited and how we felt about them.
Like those family trip-logs, a web-log serves as more than an aide-memoire, a record that can be consulted at a later date. The very act of recording your actions and impressions is itself powerfully mnemonic, fixing the moment more durably in your memory so that it’s easier to recall in future, even if you never consult your notes.
The genius of the blog was not in the note-taking, it was in the publishing. The act of making your log-file public requires a rigor that keeping personal notes does not. Writing for a notional audience — particularly an audience of strangers — demands a comprehensive account that I rarely muster when I’m taking notes for myself. I am much better at kidding myself my ability to interpret my notes at a later date than I am at convincing myself that anyone else will be able to make heads or tails of them.
Writing for an audience keeps me honest.
Nucleation in a supersaturated solution
If you’re a writer or an activist or anyone else engaged in critical synthesis, then the news-stories, ideas, sights and sounds you encounter are liable to tug at your attention: this is a piece of something bigger, and maybe something important.
Every day, I load my giant folder of tabs; zip through my giant collection of RSS feeds; and answer my social telephones — primarily emails and Twitter mentions — and I open each promising fragment in its own tab to read and think about.
If the fragment seems significant, I’ll blog it: I’ll set out the context for why I think this seems important and then describe what it adds to the picture.
These repeated acts of public description adds each idea to a supersaturated, subconscious solution of fragmentary elements that have the potential to become something bigger. Every now and again, a few of these fragments will stick to each other and nucleate, crystallizing a substantial, synthetic analysis out of all of those bits and pieces I’ve salted into that solution of potential sources of inspiration.
That’s how blogging is complimentary to other forms of more serious work: when you’ve done enough of it, you can get entire essays, speeches, stories, novels, spontaneously appearing in a state of near-completeness, ready to be written.
Be the first person to not do what no person has not done before
Clay Shirky has described the process of reading blogs as the inverse of reading traditional sources of news and opinion. In the traditional world, an editor selects (from among pitches from writers for things that might interest a readership), and then publishes (the selected pieces).
But for blog readers, the process is inverted: bloggers publish (everything that seems significant to them) and then readers select (which of those publications are worthy of their interests). There are advantages and disadvantages to both select-then-publish and publish-then-select, and while the latter may require more of the unrewarding work of deciding to ignore uninteresting writing, it also has more of the rewarding delight of discovering something that’s both totally unexpected and utterly wonderful.
That’s not the only inversion that blogging entails. When it comes to a (my) blogging method for writing longer, more synthetic work, the traditional relationship between research and writing is reversed. Traditionally, a writer identifies a subject of interest and researches it, then writes about it. In the (my) blogging method, the writer blogs about everything that seems interesting, until a subject gels out of all of those disparate, short pieces.
Blogging isn’t just a way to organize your research — it’s a way to do research for a book or essay or story or speech you don’t even know you want to write yet. It’s a way to discover what your future books and essays and stories and speeches will be about.
In 1945's “As We May Think,” we encounter Vannevar Bush’s thought experiment of a “memory expander,” a machine that serves to organize its user’s thoughts and semi-automatically bring related ideas together to help the user synthesize disparate insights and facts into new, larger works.
The Memex has inspired bloggers since the earliest days of the form. Dori Smith called her pioneering blog her “backup brain”; the Observer’s tech longstanding columnist John Naughton has kept a blog for 19 years that he calls “Memex 1.1.” I called my blog my “outboard brain” back in 2002.
Though Bush’s inspired vision for digital augmentation of human thought was missing a crucial part ( publication of the notes, as a spur to note-taking rigor), it nevertheless hit on a vital aspect of digital note-taking: fulltext search and tag-based indexing.
Though I started blogging for Boing Boing on Pyra Labs’s Blogger tool, the format has always enjoyed a high degree of portability, making it easy to migrate to 6 Apart’s Movable Type and then to Automattic’s WordPress. When I left Boing Boing in early 2020, it was easy to export my tens of thousands of posts, spanning 19 years of writing, and import them into my own private WordPress site, which I called, simply, “Memex.”
Memex, combined with Pluralistic — the solo blog I started after I left Boing Boing — is a vast storehouse of nearly everything I found to be significant since 2001. When one of those nucleation events occurs, the full-text search and tag-based retrieval tools built into WordPress allow me to bring up everything I’ve ever written on the subject, both to refresh my memory as to the salient details and to provide webby links to expansions of related ideas.
Yesterday morning, I wrote a 1,500-word essay on web-blocking, free expression, copyright, and automated filtering, in the space of about an hour, between coffee and breakfast. The essay includes more than 20 references to articles from the past decade, some of which I wrote and some of which were written by others. It’s by no means the last word I’ll have to say on the subject (I’ve campaigned on this for more than a decade), but neither it is a mere repetition of what I’ve said before.
Rather, it represents the synthesis of recent events with a long run of earlier events, interventions, scandals and actions. Further, it represents the evolution of my ability to convey these complex and thorny ideas, based on the reception earlier pieces on the same subject received.
Change your priors
The availability of a deep, digital, searchable, published and public archive of my thoughts turns habits that would otherwise be time-wasters — or even harmful — into something valuable.
For example, it’s hard to write long and prolifically without cringing at the memory of some of your own work. After all, if the point of writing is to clarify your thinking and improve your understanding, then, by definition, your older work will be more muddled.
Cringing at your own memories does no one any good. On the other hand, systematically reviewing your older work to find the patterns in where you got it wrong (and right!) is hugely beneficial — it’s a useful process of introspection that makes it easier to spot and avoid your own pitfalls.
For more than a decade, I’ve revisited “this day in history” from my own blogging archive, looking back one year, five years, ten years (and then, eventually, 15 years and 20 years). Every day, I roll back my blog archives to this day in years gone past, pull out the most interesting headlines and publish a quick blog post linking back to them.
This structured, daily work of looking back on where I’ve been is more valuable to helping me think about where I’m going than I can say.
A daily habit and a community
There’s another way that blogging makes my writing better: writing every day makes it easier to write every day. When I was a baby writer, I thought the injunction to “write every day” was purely aspirational, like “do an hour’s aerobic exercise” or “eat five helpings of vegetables.” I deeply regret the years in which I waited for inspiration to strike before writing (as I regret the years when I didn’t get adequate exercise or nutrition) because of all the practice I missed and the habits I waited too long to develop.
And while I never set out to blog in the hopes of “building a platform” (or, worse still, a brand), the act of publishing my own interests helped people with similar interests to mine to find me — and vice versa. Some of those people buy my books (and vice versa), but far more importantly, they are a community.
This is the final inversion of blogging: not just publishing before selecting, nor researching before knowing your subject — but producing to attract, rather than serve, an audience. Traditional editors identify an audience who will pay for their publication (or whom an advertiser will pay to reach) and then find a writer who can speak to that audience. As a blogger, I’ve enjoyed the delirious freedom to write exactly the publication I’d want to read, which then attracts other people who feel the same way.
Two decades in, I can safely say that this community of peers, mentors, sounding boards, protégés, friends, combatants and interlocutors is more useful to me as a writer and a person than the even the prodigious instrumental benefits that blogging brings to my composition process.