Headline: Elon Musk will push people through tubes at 300mph.
Me: Whoa cool, what sort of tech is he going to use to pull that off?
Article body: I sit pensively outside of a rustic cafe with my laptop. The early morning dew is still steaming off of the cobblestones.
Me: close tab
Me: "This chicken breast I cooked is too dry."
Google Search: how to cook chicken breast
Article Title: 3 Ways To Cook Your Chicken So It's Not So Dry - Inspired by This New York Chef
Article Content: (4 paragraphs telling the story of how they author couldn't cook chicken well, which culminates with an embedded YouTube video of a 10-minute long video produced by an entirely different cooking website with even more extra content in it)
Search engines don't like simple straight answers - the page, and site must have "enough" text. Adsense pages have a minimum length, while writers have stretched and stretched to make the weakest pages long enough, with synonyms, ideally with intro, ad, distraction, filler, discussion of last week's recipe, the pan set with affiliate link, and a load or two before you see the key point and leave. If they can squeeze in another 40 words they're allowed another ad block.
Trouble is, there seems little sign that the escalation out of control is peaking... Even though adsense is not quite the blight it once was.
I would say they clearly do - but the people providing the answers don't.
Compare the recent move of Google to provide answers with 0 clicks to the source ("How old is Paul Rudd?", "potato cooking time" both provide answers in the topmost result box for me).
They've always discouraged and penalised sites that do that themselves. The search guidelines always talked up what was needed on a page quantity wise, and discouraged brevity. Adsense brought additional, and longer restrictions, and then assorted SEO recommendations and some snake oil to talk around the subject, include synonyms etc.
All that drove a certain style of writing content for the web that has escalated into a very particular - and easily recognisable - style of waffle. That's almost never what's needed for accuracy, readability or quick answers. Long form journalism for the web is a bastard child of traditional long form journalism and SEO inspired waffle, and probably the most annoying of the lot.
There used to be a time when it was easy to search for a topic, and land on some expert blog explaining the whole thing.
Nowadays, search engines present results from big players, where a journalist, that never came close to the real thing, made up a search engine optimized list of crap.
I really enjoyed this piece, which was long and written as a story: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19446237
The opposite message might be a better one. There are always advocates for your products, writing, etc. who want you to succeed. Your goal is to find these advocates and work with them to create something that they love so much that they tell others and help you to increase the number of advocates. If you can build a little cult around your work and then expand it, then maybe there will be people willing to read your shit after all.
But again, it's probably more a function of who this advice is given to. I've seen plenty of people get discouraged after making this realization. The key is to be aware that no one cares and then do it anyways.
Being is this state creates a strong bias against even considering adding another new thing to the pile, so the bar is just very high to get a typical person to care. That’s why it’s better to not seek out typical people in the beginning, but early adopter types who actually like trying all the new things.
You can rephrase your approach to - searching for people who meet my needs, while I am able to meet theirs. No judgements required.
And the point isn't that what you made is shit, it's that hearing/reading about it is shit. I don't think that's a negative mentality if you frame it right: how do you get them to see your creation is valuable to them in the fewest words/least effort? So much good comes from that mindset, including finding your product's key selling point and competitive advantage.
Hmm, I've anecdotally known some people, myself included, who have gone through dramatic ups and downs of in terms of creative output which correlated with swings in mood/depression. Sometimes creative output is even negative; I've burned more poetry than I've saved. I can imagine people's creative output being negatively affected by well-meaning advice.
Here's the context of the quote.
> Here’s the #1 lesson you learn working in advertising (and this has stuck with me, to my advantage, my whole working life):
> Nobody wants to read your shit.
> Let me repeat that. Nobody–not even your dog or your mother–has the slightest interest in your commercial for Rice Krispies or Delco batteries or Preparation H. Nor does anybody care about your one-act play, your Facebook page or your new sesame chicken joint at Canal and Tchopotoulis.
This is the bridge that connects the two: person who doesn't care to read a message - person who wants people to care about a message. That bridge needs to be built for each message. Furthermore, sometimes the message-sender doesn't have the choice to opt not to create X (i.e. it's their job to). So you're safer assuming no one wants to read your shit.
Case in point. My husband is applying for jobs right now. He's not getting any responses other than generic GFY form letters. I looked at his resume and said it was poorly formatted. I would click decline/next if I reviewed it. I know this because I'm a hiring manager who just went through 250 resumes for a position I need to fill.
I'm trying to teach him to have empathy for the reader: recruiters/HMs have hundreds of candidates to review and they're strapped for time. Make it easy for them to click "yes" by using the fewest words and best formatting to say "I have the experience to do this job, and I will do it well."
To your second point: he could find advocates by networking and going to job fairs to meet recruiters in person. You generally have more than 10 seconds to impress in that situation. But that's a second facet to messaging strategy that's independent of the "no one wants to read your shit" aspect. Doing both is necessary to have your message heard.
Besides, if you go into this world expecting that there will always be someone who wants you to succeed (besides your mom), you are in for some harsh disappointment. But with the opposite mindset each additional reader/user is an unexpected delight.
People might not care, but so what? It’s more compelling long-term to work on something you truly love than trying to figure out what people may like. It feels even better when someone ultimately ends up liking your uncompromised personal vision anyway.
"Nobody cares about X" is not the message. The message is, to paraphrase, nobody wants to spent time reading all the shit you have to say about X that isn't important to them. So if your ad (or blog post, whatever) doesn't cut out all the non-essential crap, they will move on.
A great read on that point: http://www.paulgraham.com/cities.html
Keep this in mind, especially if you live in a place where nothing good ever happens. Good post!
That's an added benefit. We have too much X already.
If someone is so easily dissuaded, then them backing out and reducing total X is for the better. Let's just those who absolutely can't do without creating X, create X.
The client is the customer but the client's customers are the real customers that matter.
Sometimes you need to write your own s4it and then test it out. You might find that it is just a matter of not using their language. We classify products in numerous ways - or the client does - but the customer just thinks of widgets. They haven't a clue for what a 'contemporary widget' is or the difference between a 'vintage' and an 'antique' widget is. They just want a widget.
Whittling down your copy might be the wrong way to go, sometimes the copy is needed but the language needs to speak to the customer. If it is in their language then you stand half a chance.
There is also an aspect to this that concerns 'dumbing down'. As you mention there could be fans who want to know it all, you have to write for them too.
One thing is that on the web we are not restricted to physical space like how a newspaper is. So specifications can be tucked away or the story can be tucked away. If you are reading a recipe you might want to hide the list of ingredients or the method if the bit people want to know about is the eating.
Too often a visual design process for the web strips content out rather than think through how to tuck information away in such a way that it is engaging content.
Reminds me of this: https://seths.blog/2019/03/the-minimum-viable-audience-2/
It's always interesting asking them to take a step back, or to get someone else that's never seen the product in the room and asking "look at this website - what does this company do?" It's _really_ easy to assume that everyone else understands your product just because you look at it every day and it's clear to you.
I would follow it up with something equally important: You don't have to write for any freaking body else besides yourself -- and many times life requires you do to exactly that.
When I started blogging, I did a lot of thrashing around. I still do. As a freelance writer with a bit of a similar background to this guy's, I was quite perplexed. Wasn't I sweating blood enough? Am I so scatter-brained? I used to write copy that sung.
What the hell is going on?
What was going on was that my brain was working through some complex problems. The only way it could do that was to dump it all out there, edit like hell, then see what the fuck I was trying to say.
Sometimes I was wrong. That sucked. For a long time, on many subjects I refused to take a stance one way or another. That also sucked -- for me.
Creatively writing, then editing your work like you hate everything you could possibly say? It has a beauty and magic of clarifying thought that nothing else I've seen in my life does. It's the most magical thing I've come across.
So yes. If you know what you want to say and you're just looking for a good transaction, buckle the hell down and write like a copywriter. But be aware that you're missing all of the good stuff. If you're only putting out what was already in your head without the re-organization, cross-pollinization, and sythesis part of intelligence, you're not being creative. You may sell a crap-load of stuff, but all you're doing is re-organizing somebody else's ideas into stuff people want to consume.
Nope, just our perception of the world. Everyone is editing. Especially the stuff we really care about.
I used to have a mandatory three-edit rule. I am changing that to five -- at least for essays.
The world needs more editing, my friend. Everybody's got an opinion, nobody seems to be able to organize their thoughts.
The flip side is that it's not the kind of book that would win awards.
_Gates of Fire_ is very good.
"The entire behavior of an individual is at all times motivated by the urge to minimize effort" -Zipf
As I'm typing this, Apple are an hour and forty minutes into their "special event". Thousands of viewers from around the world are watching a movie-length sales presentation. Apple will at some point promote the same products through 30-second commercials, but those long presentations play a vital role in building the culture that surrounds Apple.
If you're selling dish soap, then sure, nobody really cares and nobody is going to read your shit. If you're selling a video game or an industrial machine or a piece of fine furniture, a substantial proportion of the people who might actually buy your shit will enthusiastically read your shit.
That doesn't give you license to be sloppy or lazy or needlessly verbose, but it does give you the freedom to use as many words as you need to communicate the merits of your product.
He's not wrong, but if you take his article at face value you'll miss something very important.
Over the past few decades, I've had several hundred articles published in print, blogged extensively, and run a reasonably popular podcast.
By far my most successful content has been when I have opened up and shared honestly about my experiences and explained in detail how certain events and decisions affected my life.
People are happy to read your shit if you are sharing something honest. Honest, personal communication is so rare these days, people will actively seek it out. What causes readers to tune out is authors who try to fake this kind of sincerity, or who try to engage the reader emotionally while they themselves hide behind the fiction of being an objective observer.
That's a bold claim. I'd argue part of the reason that no one likes advertising is that the writers, by and large, don't have empathy with my feelings, they are trying to force the issue.
Clickbait headlines, for example, attract me...and if the article behind it does not fulfill the headline (which it so often does not), I'm ticked off. I don't feel empathized with, I feel used, cheated, thwarted. I can easily rattle off other, similar examples, but the end result is the same: Empathy would be great, but empathy is not necessarily what the "student writer" learns. And if your writing is trying to get around my feelings rather than fulfilling them, you are left with an unhappy user.
But you can also use that to negative effect, as click-bait authors, con-artists and interrogators demonstrate.
It'd be great if it did, but that's hardly a given.
Certainly there are other paths to writing that would not lead to the same insight.
Here is a summary/review for his earlier book: War of Art.
Finally, Draft No.4 was a really good read.
You don't have to exercise empathy in any warm way. The marketer can successfully model people as data points that respond to stimuli. That's a kind of empathy too, a kind of perspective work, it's just not what people want when they say empathy.
Use a static site for static content!
Far easier said than done.
Is there a "user-servicable" static site generator? I'm not aware of one, if it exists.
Wordpress may be a pile of junk but as a CMS you can hand it off to almost anyone and they'll be able to use it.
Yes, there is: https://getpublii.com/
My first real job was in advertising. I worked as a copywriter for an agency called Benton & Bowles in New York City. An artist or entrepreneur’s first job inevitably bends the twig. It shapes who you’ll become. If your freshman outing is in journalism, your brain gets tattooed (in a good way) with who-what-where-when-why, fact-check-everything, never-bury-the-lead. If you start out as a photographer’s assistant, you learn other stuff. If you plunge into business on your own, the education is about self-discipline, self-motivation, self-validation.
Advertising teaches its own lessons. For starters, everyone hates advertising. Advertising lies. Advertising misleads. It’s evil, phony, it’s trying to sell us crap we don’t need. I can’t argue with any of that, except to observe that for a rookie wordsmith, such obstacles can be a supreme positive. Why? Because you have to sweat blood to overcome them–and in that grueling process, you learn your craft.
Here it is. Here’s the #1 lesson you learn working in advertising (and this has stuck with me, to my advantage, my whole working life):
Nobody wants to read your shit.
Let me repeat that. Nobody–not even your dog or your mother–has the slightest interest in your commercial for Rice Krispies or Delco batteries or Preparation H. Nor does anybody care about your one-act play, your Facebook page or your new sesame chicken joint at Canal and Tchopotoulis.
It isn’t that people are mean or cruel. They’re just busy.
There’s a phenomenon in advertising called Client’s Disease. Every client is in love with his own product. The mistake he makes is believing that, because he loves it, everyone else will too.
They won’t. The market doesn’t know what you’re selling and doesn’t care. Your potential customers are so busy dealing with the rest of their lives, they haven’t got a spare second to give to your product/work of art/business, no matter how worthy or how much you love it.
What’s your answer to that?
1) Reduce your message to its simplest, clearest, easiest-to-understand form.
2) Make it fun. Or sexy or interesting or informative.
3) Apply that to all forms of writing or art or commerce.
When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer, must give him something worthy of his gift to you.
When you, the student writer, understand that nobody wants to read your shit, you develop empathy. You acquire that skill which is indispensable to all artists and entrepreneurs: the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your imagined reader/gallery-goer/customer. You learn to ask yourself with every sentence and every phrase: Is this interesting? Is this fun or challenging or inventive? Am I giving the reader enough? Is she bored? Is she following where I want to lead her?
When I began to write novels, this mindset proved indispensable. It steered me away from Client’s Disease. It warned me not to fall in love with my own shit just because it was my own shit. Don’t be lazy, Steve. Don’t assume. Look at every word through the eye of the busy, impatient, skeptical (but also generous and curious) reader. Give him something worthy of the time and attention he’s giving you.
The awareness that nobody wants to read/hear/see/buy what we’re writing/singing/filming/selling is the Plymouth Rock upon which all successful artists and entrepreneurs base their public communications. They know that, before all else, they must overcome this natural resistance in their audience. They must find a way to cut through the clutter. As a fledgling cub at B&B, I remember days, weeks, months when our various creative teams did nothing but beat our brains out trying to find some way to make the dull exciting and the unlovely beautiful–and to make the beautiful-but-overlooked gorgeous too.
How, you ask? You’ll know you’re on the right track when beads of blood begin to pop out on your forehead.
In literary writing however, the opposite is true: the person picking up a
novel, or even a short story, wants to read your shit. That's why people read
literature (as opposed to ads or technical manuals). Because they enjoy
reading. And the more of it there is to enjoy, the more the enjoyment lasts.
Like a good meal, good literature makes you want to eat more, More, MORE. And
then have a nice glass of wine and a cigar as you sit in front of your
fireplace on your bearskin rug. Ish.
I mean, have you ever heard anyone say "I'll just pour myself a nice Chianti
and relax with a nice paper on variational autoencoders", or some such? Nah.
People read technical writing because they have to, because they need the
knowledge locked inside. Not because they _like_ it!
This is why technical papers are written so as to minimise the amount of
attention one has to invest in the task of reading them. For instance- a good
technical paper keeps summarising itself. The title is a one-line summary of
the work done. The abstract is a slightly longer summary. The introduction is
a still slightly longer summary, with a short outline of what you are about to
read anyway at the end. The related work section is a short summary of
previous work in the field. The framework section summarises your intuitions
of several years' work, admittedly hiding any excitement you might have felt
about figuring out something new behind a barrage of impenetrable shibboleths
of your field. The implementation section is a short summary of about ten
thousand (wo)man hours of hair pulling. The experiments section is centered on
a visual summary of what was achieved (plots). And the conclusion section
summarises the paper you just read, just in case you missed the point.
It's an awful, ugly, horrible way to write that sucks all the joy out of
writing and reading. It's really a kind of straightjacket. And, to be
perfectly honest, far from the article author's assertion that it somehow
helps "hone your skill", I find that it only achieves what a straightjacket
achieves: restrain you while you go mad.
The sole mission is to bait you into that cost-per-click and cost-per-thousand-impressions profit generator, that’s it.
That's pretty similar to the API design, where you have to switch rapidly from the point of view of implementer to the point of view of user and back again.
I guess this is a road map to making great art such as uhhh [checks notes] The Legend of Bagger Vance and Above the Law.
What enduring work of art fits this description? I think that most great artworks are great because they are complex; because their "message" is something elusive that unfolds over time with deeper engagement.
This entire tough-love-self-help attitude of "nobody wants to read your shit" also seems completely counterproductive. I much prefer the advice making your work to satisfy yourself, emotionally and intellectually without worrying too much about who wants it, and to find a community where you're interested in what they're doing - so they will probably be interested in what you're doing at least in the general outlines - which can serve a place to test and develop your ideas and craft.
This reminds me of a scene from The Inner Circle  where Tom Hulce's character has just told Stalin that the Russian projectors were just cheap copies of the Germans'. The bureaucrat who is responsible is standing right there and realizes that he is now literally begging for his life.
If beforehand he would have been officiously polite to this mere underling he now becomes powerfully concentrated. His every word is chiseled with a singular intent, to convince the projectionist to moderate his view ever so slightly, just enough to spare him his life if not his dignity.
More to the point, I think this writing advice is appropriate (very appropriate) for proposals and cold calls, where you do not have an ongoing relationship with your reader. In that case you are literally begging for your relevance. But in normal communications, clarity and simplicity is the rule. Orwell's advice comes to mind: insincerity is the enemy of clear language.