Contracts-vs-legal-briefs — Part 2: the implications for blogging

Last time, we were talking about how clear legal briefs are and how confusing contracts are in comparison. This is odd, since legal briefs are written to be read by experts (other lawyers), while (many) contracts are written to be read by regular Joes. At the end of the post, I promised that the answer to that question isn’t just important for legal writing. Instead, it has a real impact on something much closer to home: blogging.

Blogs as briefs, blogs as contracts

A blog can be more like a brief, or it can be more like a contract. That is, a blog can be written with the goal of being understood, or written with the goal of writing something that no one can misconstrue.

(Or it can have both those goals, but my point is that they trade off against each other. The more energy a blogger puts into pursuing one objective, the worse they’ll do on the other. It’s a spectrum, not a binary choice. But there’s still a tradeoff.)

I believe too many blogs are written too much like contracts—even those written by the best of bloggers.

What does it mean for a blog to be written like a contract? After all, no one writes a blog in the unreadable format of a credit-card agreement—at least not a blog that people read for long.FN 1

But there is a blog equivalent to writing an unreadable contract. Remember my theory: contracts are unreadable because they aren’t written just for the readers, they’re also written defensively. They’re written to defend against the attacks of the other lawyers who might come along and aggressively/intentionally misread it.

Bloggers aren’t really worried about being sued (for the most part, anyway). So what does it mean for a blogger to write defensively? Who are they defending against?

Nitpickers.

The blogger-version of writing a contract is writing posts that are (or try to be) nitpicker proof. The most obvious sign of this is when they start writing disclaimers. I’ve noticed this explosion of disclaimers in some of my favorite bloggers. You must have seen the type:

Disclaimer … I am not pretending to be an expert here. I’m just another frustrated player trying to figure out where it all went wrong. The suggestions I make might not sound fun to you. I am not trying to make the One True Game that would appeal to all players.

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[New link disclaimer: I’ve read or skimmed these articles, but not necessarily researched them exhaustively, and can’t 100% vouch for their accuracy. If you notice an issue, point it out to me and I’ll edit it into the post.]

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This column needs a couple of ablative disclaimer paragraphs before I start making my point. I know brevity is the soul of wit, but it’s also a good way to end up misunderstood and dragged into a pointless flamewar.

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I suppose I should do my usual disclaimer: This game isn’t terrible. I actually really enjoyed it. It’s one of the better examples of the genre. The people praising it are no doubt comparing it to the other games in the genre. Which, fine.

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Also, be sure to read my disclaimer on the Escapist before you go and make a mess in the comments.

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Maybe the ur-example is the following bold heading for entire section of a post:

Disclaimers That Should Not Be Necessary, But Are

What drives someone to spend a good chunk of a post adding in “disclaimers that should not be necessary”?

Well, writing defensively. Bloggers are writing with a little bit of the the attitude that a lawyer has when writing a contract. They write to make sure that it’s as hard as possible to criticize their output, which can interfere with writing the sort of clear, engaging prose they would otherwise write.

Their writing shifts a little more towards a contract, and a little away from a brief.

Why?

Why does this happen, even to the best, most engaging bloggers?

Because of their commenters. If you spend much time on blogs as they grow more popular, you’ll notice that people rarely comment to engage with the overall point of a post—they rarely construct an argument that the post got it all wrong (that’s what response posts are for, after all!). No, instead they take one side point, carve it off, and argue with that little piece of the post. How many comments have you seen that start with something like “I mostly agree, but …” and then go on to criticize one specific part of the post?

In short, commenters nitpick.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing this practice. In fact, I think it’s great for commenters to nitpick. It’s one of the more valuable functions of a comment section, and it often starts side conversations that are just as valuable/interesting as the main discussion. Please don’t take this as a request to nitpick less here—go right ahead.

All I’m saying is that this dynamic exists and bloggers should be aware of how it can impact their own writing/mindset.

(And, yes, the above could be viewed as a disclaimer, somewhat ironicFN 2 in the context of a post decrying disclaimers.

As a result of these nitpicks, bloggers have an urge to put in disclaimers. They just know that someone (many people) are going to miss their main point entirely and get sidetracked on some tangent, or are going to aggressively misinterpreted their point with a total lack of clarity. And they think that adding a sentence or two can avoid the worst of that, can keep the discussion on track.

Some amount of this is probably worthwhile, but I think it can go too far for two reasons.

First, many, many more people will read than will comment. So making a choice that lowers the overall clarity/brevity of the post with the goal of avoiding an issue in the comments may not be a good tradeoff. (That is, the benefit to the comment section is very visible, and the harm to the non-commenting readers is hidden. This can make the benefit more salient and result in them getting too much weight.)

Second, there can be a bit of a wack-a-mole feature to these disclaimers: adding in a disclaimer may stop people from nitpicking about that particular point, but it may just push them to nitpick about something else. This could come from a bad motive—some readers may just not like the blogger and want to tell them how wrong/bad they are (fanboys and political opponents might be in this camp).

More often, though, I think this comes from a good motive. Readers who enjoy a blog often feel a strong desire to participate in the conversation. And, sure, you can “participate” by saying “+1” or something else friendly and agreeable. But one of the best ways to participate is to find a small corner-point to disagree with, and to carve out a little ground to talk about it. Sometimes nitpicking is just a way to make friends.

Read in this light, nitpicking is both unavoidable and something bloggers shouldn’t want to avoid.

All that said, I understand why so many do—humans still aren’t used to living in large groups, and being “criticized” by dozens or hundreds of near-strangers is psychologically tough, even if you understand the “friendly” motive behind it. I’m sure the urge to put in clarifications and disclaimers—to do whatever you can to avoid or mitigate the nitpicking and criticism in the comments—is strong indeed.

Preciscly because I recongnzie that this urge will be strong—and because I’m a big believer in precommitments, I am taking this oprotunity to pubblicly commit: I will try to always prioritize clarity and snapiiness in my blogging, even if that means leaving myself open to nitpicks. Including ones I could have avoided with just the right disclaimer.

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3 thoughts on “Contracts-vs-legal-briefs — Part 2: the implications for blogging”

  1. I think there’s a sense these days that negative commentary on the internet has become more “high risk” and potentially damaging. Setting aside blatantly disgusting name calling and other derogatory comments, it seems like bloggers (and even journalists) have become more hesitant to say anything (without disclaimers) that could get them slapped with an “ism/ist/phobic” label or some other equivalent anti-“SJW” label.

    Someone takes something a blogger said out of context, slaps a label on the blogger and drags their name through the mud in some like-minded corner of the social-media-verse, new people start flooding in to their blog kicking up a fuss and looking for a fight and just all around making it an unpleasant place to visit. In extreme cases, this stuff could, theoretically, lead to physical harm from doxing or even swating.

    How likely is any of this to actually happen? No idea (I suspect that at least some of this is the internet’s equivalent of a moral panic). But there have been enough high profile incidents that it’s probably in the back of a lot of bloggers’ minds.

    On a side note: I skimmed through the list of example disclaimers hoping to find a treasure trove of new blogs. Instead, I realized that Shamus really loves him some disclaimers.

  2. Thank you for the explanation! I was dimly aware that I was doing something like this, on a level of “when I am writing for a friendly audience, I express myself much clearer than when I expect hostile (i.e. internet normal) audience”, but this helped to drive the point home. Writing defensively kills the literary qualities.

    When I am writing for a friend, I am inviting them on a trip; I show them the interesting things around us, and we can walk quickly. When I am writing for an enemy (or for a larger audience that will include a vocal enemy), I am building a fortress around my path, which will inevitably be very short, because it takes a lot of material to build the walls.

    This is related to discussion moderation, and how the rest of the audience perceives the moderation. If my readership is 9 friends and 1 enemy, I could simply remove the enemy’s comment, and write for friends. (Then it depends on how much the experience of dealing with that 1 enemy still unconsciously influenced my style of writing.) However, banning someone for hostile interaction often seems similar to banning someone for mere disagreement or for honestly pointing out the mistakes. At least, you can be sure this is how the banned person will tell the story. So sometimes we keep the enemies, just to keep the imaginary higher moral ground. But then the quality of text suffers.

    Perhaps a solution could be to keep the message and the discussion about the message separate. Like, first write the article you actually wanted to write. And then write a separate article containing all the disclaimers and defenses against nitpicking, and link it from the former. And perhaps allow the discussion only for the latter?

    Though, honestly, if I will start regularly blogging one day, I suspect I will simply remove the comment section completely, or have it in like “the comments need to be approved before they appear on the page”, just to prevent the costs in time and emotions that come with moderating a discussion of nontrivial size. Because when you become popular enough to have about 100 comments for an article (which seems like a desirable goal), you will spend more time moderating the comments than actually writing the articles. And it probably will keep nudging you towards more defensive (i.e. less human) style of writing.

    Or perhaps we could use the way of trivial inconveniences: instead of displaying the comments below the article immediately, only show then when someone clicks a “display comments” button. Even better, the “display comments” button should also display your disclaimers above the discussion. So the default mode is article only, and the discussion mode is article + disclaimers + comments.

    1. Yeah, I think all of those could be good ideas.

      It’s interesting to me that you take for granted that you/the blogger can’t just ignore the “enemy” comment. That’s my goal: to write without disclaimers, knowing that this will open me up to certain extra criticism but hoping to not let that criticism bother me. I don’t know how well this strategy will work (either for me or for others) for three reasons:

      • It might be psychologically unrealistic. Humans didn’t evolve to deal with thousands of strangers, and facing harsh criticism from even a few dozen people could feel very hurtful, even if it’s a small fraction of the total audience. I hope to just not care, but there are other areas in my life where I try not to care about something with only mixed success, so this could be unrealistic.
      • Second, as Fade2Gray points out above, it’s possible for this to escalate to physical violence. I think that’s highly unlikely, but the risk has to be considered.
      • Third, I’m very aware that this strategy is much harder for some in our culture than for others. This is a quote that has really stuck with me over the years:

      My 25-year-old self felt confident that, having been subject to vitriol as serious as death threats, I was fully aware of the costs of the approach I advocated. Like many bloggers, I quickly developed thick skin, especially with regard to trolls. It wasn’t always easy, but it seemed a small price to pay for all the excellent comments I got to read as compared to the prior world of boring letters to the editor.

      Then I guest-blogged for Megan McArdle. At the time, she was employed here at The Atlantic. My stint running her page while she vacationed included the keys to the blog’s inbox. Even as someone who’d previously blogged about immigration in California’s Inland Empire, fielding insults and aggressive invective as vile as any I could imagine, I was shocked by a subset of her blog’s correspondence. To this day, I don’t know if I was experiencing a typical or atypical week. Perhaps in the abstract, there isn’t any threat more extreme than the death threats I’d received and brushed off as unserious. But I read emails and comments addressed at McArdle that expanded my notion of how disturbing online vitriol could be. And it took my actually reading them for my perspective to change.

      I’d never been exposed to anything like it before.

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      The sad fact is that, in our culture, gender, sex, race, ethnic background, disability status and more can significantly impact the amount and tone of criticism one receives. I’m (currently) in a lucky position, blogging pseudonymously: I don’t have a disclosed membership in any of those categories. But I expect that will change.

      I have many more thoughts on this, and should probably expand them into a separate post when I have the time to get them in order. But, in any event, I’m going to try the “don’t let it get to me” strategy for as long as I can.

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