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