Attention Bloggers/Writers: Are Substance and Style Mutually Exclusive?

March 11, 2008

A couple days ago Abha Malpani from the Written Road posted about online publishing and how it is affecting the way writers of all stripes compose their pieces, whether they are bloggers or journalists or something in between.  She linked this article from Skelliewag – and while I don’t disagree with everything (people do tend to read web content differently than magazines or books), I do take issue with the idea that just because it is web content, “good” writing isn’t necessary. 

Bad writing is bad writing, whether you are reading it on a screen or on dead trees.

Skellie’s main point is that people reading blogs are looking first and foremost for interesting ideas, and if the bloggers behind these ideas happen to be skilled writers as well, so much the better.  In addition, she does correctly point out that people reading online usually scan articles quickly instead of carefully digesting every word, which is probably true – but people also do this with newspapers, magazines, and books.  Scannable content is not limited to the web. 

In addition, Skellie points out that many of the popular bloggers haven’t studied writing or received any real training – but then again, there are plenty of popular authors who didn’t take the traditional route either (however, they do have the advantage of editors to refine and develop their work, unlike most bloggers). 

In some ways, I think Skellie is indeed correct – news blogs, gadget blogs, and other image/fact heavy bloggers don’t need to be amazing writers, but they do need to be capable of expressing themselves clearly.  After all, spelling errors, grammatical mishaps, and poor word choices can overshadow even the best ideas. 

On the other hand, a skilled writer can be much more engaging and memorable, and therefore attract a bigger audience.  Since there is an incredible number of blogs (at the moment, 112.8 million according to Technorati), why would a blogger or a writer – and the line between the two gets blurrier every day – ever settle for simply good enough?

Another important point was made by many of the commenters on the original article - you never know who is reading your blog, and what opportunities they might offer you in the future.  You definitely don’t want anyone to click away because your blog is riddled with grammatical and spelling errors, so for the love of Strunk and White, hit spellcheck before you post. 

Publishing a sloppy article is similar to showing up with unkempt hair and wrinkled clothes for a first date or job interview – although you might be the most awesome, talented, and caring person in the world, appearances matter a lot, especially when it comes to first impressions. 

That said, plenty of bloggers do break traditional grammar rules and this can be part of a distinctive voice – but you have to know the rules before you can break them effectively.  There is a huge difference between using slang or insider terminology because it works for your audience/concepts and forgetting to edit before you hit post.  And of course, lists and bullet points and short snappy paragraphs are more popular on the web than in books or magazines, and for good reason – they are simple and usually contain scannable nuggets of information.  They are effective.

In the end, however, the goal of writing is communication – and I believe Skellie’s point is that traditional good writing isn’t a requirement for blogging, because it is a different kind of communication.  He is correct in that you don’t have to be Hemingway (who also valued brevity and clear, concise writing) to be a popular blogger with tons of subscribers – but then again, McDonald’s has served billions too, and very few people would call their food amazing or remarkable – more like “easily accessible” or “good enough”. 

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