The promise of blogging also has its perils

I arrived back to the US and opened my inbox to a surprising number of sympathy emails/tweets over my upbraiding at Freakonomics.

Many thanks to readers for the sympathy, but it’s not completely deserved. It’s pretty simple: I made a mistake. Stephen called me on it. I had a chance to apologize and clarify. And Stephen needed a chance to publicly respond and have his say.

His points are more or less fair. One thing I will say: I think my blogging history points away from a tendency to attack to score points and seek traffic. But there’s little way a newcomer to the blog could know that. Credibility is earned in this world, not given.

Why bring this up? One reason is that owning up to mistakes and giving air to one’s critics is good medicine, even if it tastes bad.

Another is an opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned after four years of blogging, in the event it’s useful to budding writers, scholars and bloggers. Most of these, in fact, make pretty good general life lessons.

Blogging is risky. Blogs are more interesting to read when you write like you talk. Plainly. Off the cuff. In my experience, if you edit and fine tune your post it begins to sound like a tiresome op-ed, and no one reads beyond the first paragraph. If you assiduously research your posts you either slow down or burn out, and the blog dies.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a pro blogger at a magazine or newspaper. My sense is that these people have editors and fact-checkers to fine tune their posts without losing the common touch, or draining all their time. And hence stop them from saying something truly stupid.

Without the same resources, the academic needs to tread a middle ground between off-the-cuff thoughts and responsible writing. This takes discipline, luck, and a willingness to screw up once in a while.

Since I have limited luck, hate screwing up, and don’t want the blog to die of exhaustion after a couple of years, I instead focus on a few disciplines I try my best to follow.

Don’t write in an angry tone. Most irate writing simply sounds mean-spirited. Most of us are not talented enough writers to pull it off. The only thing harder is snarky humor. Attempt with caution.

Arrogance does not win the argument. Even if another’s argument is worth open disdain, don’t hang it, but rather let it hang itself. A humbler pose is more persuasive.

Be careful: Unfamiliarity breeds contempt. It is altogether too easy to denigrate someone distant from you, especially one above you in the media stratosphere. Callous remarks result. I’m not sure why. It may be the assumption (often wrong, I have learned) that they will never see the post. Or (also wrong) that people largest in the public eye don’t have the same sensitivities the rest of us do. The reality, if you ask me, is that the opposite is true: most of us who write or blog for a living are oversensitive egocentric dandies. I am no exception. Handle us carefully.

Use your “I” words. “You are offensive” is different from “I feel offended”. In theory we all learn this in grade four, but it bears repeating and remembering.

Don’t escalate. The more hostile a comment, the more measured you make your response. Escalation leads in a predictable and disastrous direction.

Don’t try to “score points” in subtle ways. Usually they are not as subtle as you think, and you simply sound passive aggressive.

Don’t go too negative. I critique and disagree with others regularly, but I try to do so in as evenhanded a manner as possible, and with a civil tone.

Finally, if you feel must attack, pause. Go through the above list mentally and revise. If you find yourself forgetting these dictums, you can do worse than to channel your inner Yoda: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Most of these lessons I learned the hard way, which means I haven’t manage to live up to my ideals every day. But more often than not I think I succeed.

You can weigh in with your opinion here. Or offer your own blog/writing advice below. Andy Gelman also gets a drubbing, and he gives a spirited, though not mean-sprited, response here.