A rising tide sinks all boats / by Michael Epstein

While browsing at a bookstore yesterday, I picked up a book that brought back to mind an old argument I've been trying to keep away from. It was this book:

Source:  Austin Kleon

Source: Austin Kleon

My conundrum centers around the question, "Is it better to be prolific or excellent?" Or rather, "Do you want the world to see you falter?" 

I've always erred on the side of quality. To most, you are only as good as your most recent work. If that's true, isn't it tremendously important that each piece of writing do a little to raise that value? On the other hand, that mindset sets up a lot of barriers to overcome: If every piece needs to be the best thing you've ever written, than it's easy to conjure up reasons to kill a project.

Later, I read a Vox article on the same topic that answered my question in a way I'm not sure I agree with.

...it was a world built almost entirely around voice — whether that voice came from a single person or from a carefully crafted editorial identity...

The future belongs to the fleet, to the fast, to the instantly assembled hot take.
— Todd VanDerWerff, "2015 is The Year The Old Internet Finally Died"

As of now, "Content" is more important than craft. One of the chapters in Show Your Work declared: "Show something small every day." The steady stream of content you give away will gather and lead an audience towards your big, important things. It's pretty much the strategy behind all content in 2015. 

After all, it doesn't matter whether your most recent work is any good if know one knows who you are. The content deluge has flooded over the point of no return. We must create constantly or risk drowning. 

So I've been worrying for nothing all this time. As it turns out, the measure of a writer is not the quality of their prose —their rhythm, their judgement, their capacity to convey emotion— but their ability to play fortune teller and guess exactly what's going to pop up in the back of your mind the time you scroll over a Facebook post about...


Did I guess right? Of course not. I was never cursed for running over a drifter's dog. Most writers haven't, I think?

"...making money on this new internet requires scale," VanDerWerff said, "and if you need to always keep scaling up... Thoughtfulness is almost beside the point, in many cases, if you can produce something enough people will want to associate with the curation of their core beings."

On the new internet, writing is no longer a craft; it's arts and crafts. Writers are making little candy charms to put on your bracelet to show your friends. That's fine, in theory. There's a certain vanity to be gained from being able to say that I'm the guy that made you look cool and interesting for a day, an hour. But writing is an inherently selfish act. I'm asking you to read my words; listen to what I have to say. Great writing comes from the writer trying to give the reader something. The most thoughtful gifts don't come off your Amazon wish list. They're a product of effort and thought.

Writing to appease readers' whims, rather than inform, educate or entertain their minds, is like trying to crack a password by guessing all of the combinations. Again, if the goal is to unlock a reader's interest, rather than engage their mind, than there's very little value in producing "great" writing. If writers don't need to develop a voice, than stringing words together is just another skill, to be mastered and slapped at the bottom of a resume alongside such valuable career assets as "PC proficient," "Social Media skills," or "southern accent." 

There are definitely more failures than successes, but it is possible to write with voice and succeed on the internet. VanDerWerff points to the fall of The Dissolve, a longform-heavy film criticism site, to suggest that quantity is the be-all, end-all for sustainable media enterprises. He does so, however, while ignoring the like of sites like The Atavist, which have managed to build a niche following based on a scarce stream of high-quality writing. Vox's sister site The Verge wrote a profile of The Awl, a blog too weird to excel through any metric other than quality. The common denominator between all of these sites, successes and failure, is scale. Good writing takes more time and costs more money than bulk writing. 

"If you were going to assemble a business plan for a web site," the late David Carr said of The Awl, you would look closely at everything The Awl did and then head in precisely the opposite direction."

From now on, instead of than asking whether or not it's better to write well or write a lot, you have to ask: How much are you willing to sacrifice to be proud of what you do? You don't want to be half-remembered as the rambling schmuck-blogger, do you?

Oops, too late.