Everybody writes … but should they?

August 13th, 2014 by Bob Bly

My colleague Michael Stelzner recently did a podcast with a woman, AH, who wrote a forthcoming book called “Everyone Writes.”

AH is right: everyone writes. But I have always wondered whether everyone should write. And I have come to believe that they should not.

Reason: In the good old days, just because you wrote something didn’t mean it would be published. In fact, likely, it would not.

To get published, you had to convince a publishing house to buy your book – or a newspaper or magazine editor to print your article or your letter-to-the-editor … and most people were not able to do this easily. So what got published was vetted by professionals – and the quality reflected that editorial guidance.

But today, in the digital era, anything that anyone writes can be and often is instantly published to the Internet where theoretically millions of people can read it – and at least a few people, if only just your Facebook friends, almost certainly will.

Some people see this “everyone writes (and publishes)” phenomenon as a wonderfully liberating new age in human communication.

To me, it is the end of western civilization as we know it – and the death of literacy – and the heralding of an unceasing age of what I call endless “content pollution.”

Content pollution is everyone publishing every thought they have, and almost everything that happens to them, without the benefit of an editor or publisher to filter what goes out into the ether.

The job of the editor is quality control for written communication. Without editors, which the Internet has largely removed from the equation, the quality of published writing has fallen to a new low – not an easy accomplishment.

Example: Facebook posts featuring a picture of what the person has just eaten for breakfast. The amazing thing is that some readers actually seem interested!

The ease of publishing blogs, online newsletters, online articles, posts, and the like has caused amateur writing to flourish. And that’s bad news for professionals: it’s difficult to command a living wage for something thousands or even millions of people are happy to do for free, even if you are ostensibly better at it.

People ask me why I take the old-school stance of preferring traditional book publishing with NYC publishers to self-publishing on Amazon with Kindle.

The main reason is this: with traditional book publishing, you know that at least one person – the editor at the publishing house – thought highly enough of the work to pay for it. That’s a quality control self-publishing is sadly lacking.

Normally at this point in my essay I suggest solutions or give tips for profiting from the situation.

But I don’t really have a solution to content pollution. People feel compelled to express their thoughts, and thanks to the Internet, can do so at any time and are assured of at least some readers taking note.

There is nothing I can do to change the human compulsion to write and publish. I just wish more people who feel this compulsion would produce content at a higher level – that is, writing actually worth reading — and filter what they put on the web.

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26 responses about “Everybody writes … but should they?”

  1. Josh Kilen said:

    As old institutions die, new ones will take their place. People will need curation in the face of so much ‘content’ being produced. One way to profit from the deluge of content is to curate for readers based on their preferences. If you can create a platform that knows a reader’s likes and dislikes, personality, and inclinations, that would be a powerful tool for getting quality, targeting information in front of people.

  2. Bob Bly said:

    Josh, is curation a legitimate content marketing strategy or just rehashing old stuff someone else already wrote? If you are not the author, how does it position YOU as the expert?

  3. Jim Logan said:

    I agree with the concept of content pollution — especially as it relates to social media. I’ve abandoned more than one “friend” because I can’t stand another update on their breakfast menu or trip to town.

    That said… Professionally, I don’t mind everyone publishing and attempting to be a writer. Most don’t do it well. And while I continue to learn and develop a style of thought and writing… the more lousy stuff out there to compete against, the better :)

  4. Jim Logan said:

    Curation can take two tracks: 1) reposting content and 2) reposting content with insight and commentary. The former is mostly useless. The latter can position you as an expert.

    Part of being an expert is knowing what’s relevant and expanding on other’s ideas. In that vein, curation can create valuable new content and support thought leadership.

  5. Bob Bly said:

    Jim, I do #2 (or hope I do). But I could argue that #1 also has value. In the preInternet days, there were newsletters that did nothing BUT #1. They were called “digests.” Boardroom Report and Bottom Line Personal do it today and BLP has like a million paid subscribers.

  6. Kristi Holl said:

    Thanks! I’m just glad to know that I’m not the only one who feels this way!

  7. Bob Bly said:

    KH,the Internet has encouraged millions who should not to write and publish.

  8. Jim Logan said:

    Bob, both good examples countering my fist point. Makes me think… thanks!

  9. Susanna Hutcheson said:

    What you say is true. Unfortunately, however, even the NYC publishers are publishing books not worthy of being published and not at all edited well.

    My point is, writing in general is not the writing I was taught and hopefully have practiced since my first published article in 1967.

    Every day I read articles by supposedly professional writers that sound like tripe written by an 8th grade dropout.

    Perhaps people are less literate today and don’t mind reading this drivel. Facebook and Twitter have created a bunch of dummies. People text meaningless crap instead of getting together for a meaningful visit or at least chatting on the phone. They talk in less than a sound bite.

    So, we can’t expect much. All we can do to deal with it is write like people think. Duh, ya know what I mean bud?

  10. Collette Keith said:

    Bob,
    Even as someone who has a personal blog, I have to agree with you.

    Turning the tables to the side of the reader, it is equally frustrating to sift through a million opinions in search of truth. Something as simple as “health and fitness” can have endless internet publications where authors declare themselves experts and their opinions truth.

    Part finding good information now consists of 1) our not being so dense that we believe every publication we read and 2) willingness to sift through a lot of, well, crap.

    Happy sifting ;)

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  13. Brian Edmondson said:

    “The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.” Thanks to the internet we now know that isn’t true.

  14. Paul Ramirez said:

    The surplus of substandard writing on the Internet is only a phase. In 50-100 years the quality will improve. The Web is still in its infancy. What you are witnessing is the end-product of one and a half centuries of progressive, substandard education that has turned out multitudes of semi-literate, poorly educated writers. That will change as time goes on. The Web will enable education to be dramatically improved. That is now starting to happen: Khan Academy, Ron Paul Curriculum. Harvard, MIT, colleges and universities, etc. all going online. Public education as we know it will end. It will be a different world, academically. So the writing will improve. Just be patient!

  15. Bob Bly said:

    Paul, I cannot be patient as you advise because I am not going to live that long.

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  18. Bob Bly said:

    #17 — you purloined my piece without crediting me with a byline even thought it is written in the first person. You know this is not cricket, right?

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  20. Lisa Gentry said:

    So Bob do you support online programs that teach people to write copy? These same programs claim to teach people how to write their own book. I took one course because I have always wanted to write. In that program the writer stated that in order to capture your audience attention you should write to people on an elementary level.

    There are a lot of promotions going out to the average person, making writing appear to be a glamorous job. Whoops, did I say job?

    I enjoy your comments and purchased some of your products. Keep em coming

  21. Bob Bly said:

    Lisa: unlike many who promote writing as a glamour job,I do not. Read my Secrets of a Freelance Writer. I say writing has many pros as a career and just as many cons, and give a complete list of both.

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  25. My Internet Marketing Corner said:

    yea, every Tom, Dick and Harry can write today! But I tell you BOB, it’s a nightmare out there on the net!

    Some of the articles today are just plain garbage! Some people I reckon didn’t do anything in school and now they “Can” write!

    That’s not good!

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