September 16, 2007

An Observation on Web Writing

Posted in Books, Reading, Writing at 9:08 pm by mj

I’m currently reading three books that, unexpectedly, illustrate the difference between writing for the web and writing for physical books, and helps explain why I often feel so unfulfilled after catching up on my feeds. Two of these books are essentially blog posts edited for print, while one is a popular science book.

The first is Managing Humans by Michael Lopp. I’ve been reading randsinrepose.com for a while. I find his style (on the web) informative and hilarious. In print, however, I feel like I’m reading a For Dummies book. Maybe it’s the yellow cover. But the big, bold Easy Reader-esque headlines every third paragraph certainly aren’t helping. Is it still funny? Yes. Is it still informatiive? Yes. But it’s obviously self reflective, and doesn’t contain much beyond Lopp’s personal experiences.

The second is Smart and Gets Things Done by Joel Spolsky. Just like 98% of every other programmer, I’ve been reading joelonsoftware.com for what seems like forever. He also has a great blog “voice,” and his posts feel natural while also instructional. The print edition of his columns, on the other hand, is tiny (the only books in my collection that are smaller are some O’Reilly pocket reference editions) and the print is larger than normal. Reading this, I don’t feel like I’m getting much out of it. Maybe that’s because I’ve gotten so much out of his faux blog over the years.

Now let’s compare these–as I’ve serreptitiously done–with a popular science book. A book without any numbers or graphs, and a large number of “Just So” stories and fictional recountings of everyday life.

I’m talking about Sperm Wars by Robin Baker. Baker doesn’t spend time with scientific details, and, as I said, many of his explanations are plausible “Just So” stories (I mean that in the positive sense). Whatever scientific evidence lies behind them, he leaves as an exercise for the reader to discover elsewhere. It’s highly entertaining, if a bit embarrassing to read on BART (after a few, um, “close calls” with reading nearly-pornographic sections with an attractive woman sitting next to me, I decided to finish it at home lest anybody get the wrong idea).

And yet, for all the scientific evidence it leaves out, it’s a normal-sized book with normal-sized print and normal-sized chapters. It’s a book. Both the fictional “scenes” and the explanations are entertaining and flow well. This is a book that’s meant to be read and grokked, not skimmed and (maybe) shared.

Both Michael Lopp and Joel Spolsky do well when they abide by the Web Writing Commandments handed down by the Great Spider In the Sky lo those many years ago. I doubt if I would read either if they didn’t–and neither would many others. I don’t abide by those commandments, but that’s the least of my problems with this blog.

But here’s the thing: does making it easy to scan your posts and, therefore, discover and subscribe to your blog mean that your readers are connecting with you the way they would a traditional print author? I read a lot of great blogs. I learn a lot every time I have time to catch up on my feeds (about once a week). I’ve spent time organizing my Google Reader folders/tags so I can easily skim the media type blog headlines, I’ve segregated out partial feeds to the point I almost never bother “reading” them, and more… all with the goal of saving more time to get more out of the other, more valuable blogs I read.

And still, there’s nothing like a good–or even decent–book. I just don’t feel the same satisfaction.

Am I alone?

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