Doing The Best You Can As A Writer (Thoughts On The ABA Journal’s Blawg 100)
On Monday, the ABA Journal released its 6th annual “Blawg 100,” this time including your’s truly’s little home on the Internet. It is, to use the term I used two-and-a-half years ago to describe the benefits of writing a legal blog, “more pie,” and I’m always happy to receive more pie. If you’ve found my blog useful in your practice in the past, or just an interesting read, I’d be much obliged if you stopped over there and voted for me in the “Trial Practice” category. (As an aside, Pennsylvania lawyers cleaned up in the Trial Practice and Torts categories — four honorees combined, more than any other state.)
I’ve been blogging here for over five years, and this is my 880th post. I consider this blog to be a success: I was able to impress my mom, I’ve been invited to speak on panels, I was asked to write a practice guide for lawyers, and a reader once recognized me by my name tag at a party hosted by a law firm. Hundreds of thousands of strangers have read my work, and a couple dozen of them have taken the time to carefully explain to me how wrong I am about everything.
So, as a self-described “successful” blogger, here are some thoughts on blogging itself.
I agree with the Fred Wilson / Anil Dash School of Blogging: I have a long form blog on a domain I own and that is permanent, and I write with the intent of creating content that lasts. But I have nowhere near Fred or Anil’s ability to generate daily content and non-stop social media activity, and something that Bryan Goldberg wrote on Monday — about why he was glad his publisher didn’t ask him to re-start his blog — rang true:
I picture myself feeling obligated to update it daily, even on days when I have nothing at all to say. Nobody should ever have to read the ramblings of a man who has nothing to say that day. …
I picture myself treating the blog like a diary, because the format lends itself entirely to that concept — but that is not the narrative ecosystem into which I want to dedicate so much of my time and effort. …
Every serious blogger has felt obliged to post when they had nothing to say that day, has experienced a vague sense of duty to keep their blog “fresh” or to discuss a topic they think readers expect them to analyze, and has felt their mind fill with doubt and their fingers fill with lead as they worried that the nameless, faceless crowd of readers were moving on.
When you feel the urge to post when you have nothing to say, squelch it. The greatest strength of a blog, what makes it more than a newspaper column and more than a book, is its versatility. You don’t need to meet a deadline, fit a format, adhere to word limits, or fill space. Each post can be exactly as lengthy, detailed, and timely as it needs to be to address the topic at hand in the appropriate style and manner. I got a laugh out of the ABA Journal’s difficulty in figuring out what category to put my blog in — “It’s a close call, but this blog from Philadelphia plaintiffs-side tort lawyer Max Kennerly is more about civil litigation and being a trial lawyer than tort law per se.” — because I, too, don’t really know what specific area of law my blog is supposed to be about. That’s part of what makes blogging so enjoyable for me; each post begins with a blank page and a vague sense it should be about something I either know or is related to something I know (as all blog posts should be), and then the post comes to be about whatever I want it to be about.
In the past on this site, I’ve suggested lawyers look to writers (there’s a deep connection between lawyers and writers, one I’ll return to in a later post; for now, enjoy the drubbing John Marshall gave Joseph Story for his insufficient appreciation of Jane Austen) when looking for guidance on how to be more productive or how to write a legal blog. Good writing feels like a hobby, not a job, and every blogger should heed Charles Bukowski’s dictum: “if you have to wait for it to roar out of you, then wait patiently. if it never does roar out of you, do something else.”
I certainly agree that you shouldn’t bother if it’s not roaring out of you, and shouldn’t force your readers to read your ramblings when you have nothing to say, but you don’t necessarily have to “wait.” As I mentioned before while discussing David Foster Wallace’s creative problems, there are steps you can take to move the process along, to develop a “flow” in your writing process.
And, while it’s important that the thoughts “come out of your soul like a rocket,” it’s not the only issue. The time and effort you invest matters, too. Mastering a skill, profession, or even hobby takes a lot of practice. I’ve followed author Robert Greene since his first book more than a decade ago, relishing the copious historical examples in his work, and just this month he came out with a new book, Mastery, which “culls years of research and original interviews to blend historical anecdote and psychological insight, distilling the universal ingredients of the world’s masters.” The main ingredients: an inclination towards the subject and a willingness to put in a tremendous amount of work. The book begins with a sly critique of Malcolm Gladwell’s flawed “10,000 hour rule”, noting that mastery — the seamless and disciplined integration of intuition, rational analysis, and accumulated knowledge — doesn’t even begin until 20,000 hours of experience, and true mastery develops thereafter.
I’ve spent countless hours reading, thinking, or writing for this blog. When I write a post, and as my time blogging starts creeping up to 10,000 hours and beyond, I try to have only one question in mind: have my last few posts been as good, or better, than the posts before them? I can only hope that, when all is said and done years from now, like Philip Roth — who quite possibly spent more than 100,000 hours reading, teaching, and writing novels — I can look back at my work and say “I did the best I could with what I had.”
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Some of my favorites of the Blawg 100: Abnormal Use, Circuit Splits, Connecticut Employment Law, D&O Diary, Defending People, Delaware Corporate & Commercial Litigation Blog, Drug and Device Law, The Girl’s Guide to Law School, Koehler Law, Letters Blogatory, The Massachusetts Real Estate Law Blog, Minnesota Litigator, Philly Law Blog, and Tort Talk. And of course you should be well familiar with all the blogs in their Hall of Fame, and frankly several of the stalwarts of the legal blogging world, like Groklaw, Lowering the Bar, Overlawyered and Popehat should be in there, too, rather than in the main list with the rabble like me.