Are You Writing for Today or Forever?
2 January, 2013
Here’s Chapter 27 of The Blogger Abides. When you write blog posts for a living, it’s crucial that you know whether you’re writing material that is intended to be consumed as the flavor of the day, or a classic piece of work for the long term — while this distinction may seem obvious, it’s actually very difficult for some writers to spend their time and attention on the right kinds of material. Read on…
Chapter 27 – Stock and Flow
In the web trade, there’s a notion of “stock” and “flow” as applied to articles you post on a blog. If you haven’t read Robin Sloan’s Snarkmarket blog post on this, do that now – Sloan adapted these terms from Economics to the practice of online writing, and deserves a lot of credit for doing so. Briefly, stock is the stuff you write that’s just as good two years from now as it is today, and flow is interesting largely because it’s fresh and new but it likely has no shelf life because it’s just pointing to some new neat thing. You write stock content so that people will find it via Google or links from other sites, and so you can add it to your awesome roster of well-written material. You write flow so there’s something new on the site.
When you work for a big blog, you see writers assigned to creating both kinds of content. Flow is all that daily stuff, often the sort of “link blogging” that points to other blogs – this is usually what we think of when we talk about reblogging and the currently-hip “curation” (see the chapter “Noticing Good Content (“Curation”)” for more on this). Flow is typically paid as a beat (you get a defined amount of money for writing flow every day), and you might find part of your flow-writing job involving posting links to social media throughout the day. Stock is generally the pay-per-article material that’s more like a magazine – it’s stuff with a specific angle that, while perhaps timely (like a post about the Super Bowl) is likely still interesting later, even if it’s just every time the Super Bowl rolls around.
It’s important to know which kind of thing you’re writing, and it’s important that you find a way to write some of both (see the chapter “Bite-Sized or Book-Length?”). If you spend your life in flow (which is tempting for many bloggers, especially those who like to live inside social media worlds like Twitter), you develop the skills of curation, but you neglect the skills of in-depth writing – those latter skills are what you’ll need when you trade up and find yourself needing to write long articles or books.
I have been very lucky to be assigned, for the most part, an undefined blogging job. “Just go do good stuff,” my editor says, and for me that’s mostly flow, with the occasional stock thrown in. In this sense I’m sort of like an editor-at-large, and I do stock assignments in addition to my regular work.
Why Stock Matters (to Your Boss)
Search engines and social media discovery sites (today this means StumbleUpon and Reddit; in prior years it was Digg) will point readers to your site. The more well-written stock you have, the more readers you have over time. Hell, I wrote a post about wacky variants on the Garfield cartoon that continues to get stunning traffic, because somebody (or some algorithm) decided that it was great stuff. That post, and some other perennial favorites-of-the-social-media-machine often outperform my new stories in any given week. From the site owner’s perspective, this stock content was relatively cheap to produce (a one-time fee paid to me), but continues to produce ad views and bring in new readers. Perhaps the best example of this that I’ve written is “He Took a Polaroid Every Day, Until the Day He Died,” which has brought in millions of readers over the years. That post is worth some real money to my publisher, and it repeatedly flares up in popularity as new people discover it. It is the job of an editor to try to create this kind of content (as well as taking care of flow and dealing with new stuff), so the site grows its base of stock posts over time. That stock means ongoing revenue for the publisher.
Why Stock Matters (to You)
You mainly care about writing stock because it makes you a better writer, which is something you’ll need as you head into magazine writing and other such markets that are “bigger” than blogging. It’s also pretty great to see a post you write get a nice (and ongoing) reception from readers – that can be a fun ego trip, and it’s often expressed through comments. Finally, stock posts are a great place to put little tags like “Follow me on Twitter” at the end, so that those thousands of people who come back to read it every week might actually sign up to read more stuff you write. You might be surprised at the number of people who read a post and never comment on it; that Garfield thing I mentioned is only visible as a big-deal post if you look at traffic numbers (which many bloggers can’t access) – almost no one comments on it. But I do get people following me on Twitter based on various stock posts, so that’s something.
When Flow Becomes Stock
If you get really good at writing flow, you can experiment with turning it into stock on the fly. For example, to me the post “The Easter Island ‘Heads’ Have Bodies” was flow – I was posting something I saw on Twitter, and being quick about it. But that post became stock immediately, and to date has been viewed half a million times. It continues to be news to readers in a way that “Here’s a new video by the Auto-Tune the News guys” cannot be. So that’s one trait of flow-as-stock: a story about something that’s old (and thus seemingly more timeless) is more likely to become stock. Another example is when I’ve done posts about Sesame Street. I did a series of posts about musicians appearing on Sesame Street that were big hits with readers. The posts were quick to write but became big reader favorites. Similar to those posts, I did a fairly quick-to-write piece (that I knew to be stock at the time, albeit quickly-created stock) about Jim Henson’s Memorial Services (he had two), which was a gut-wrenching series of videos of Muppeteers sobbing and eulogizing Henson. Nostalgia is a powerful force (see the chapter “Mining Nostalgia for Fun and Profit”), and now I can point to that post every time I write about Henson, as well as every year when Henson’s birthday or any Henson-related anniversary rolls around.
The Long Tail
Chris Anderson applied a similar concept (originally from the world of Statistics) in a Wired article called The Long Tail (later a book). The core idea is that you can create niche content (like one or two good stories – or songs, books, you name it) and that stuff will find its audience due to online distribution. Even if it’s not a pop hit, there’s probably somebody out there who’s interested in your topic. The availability of search engines and stable online publishing platforms (so your blog post sticks around for years or even decades) makes this feasible. I wrote blog posts in 2007 that still get comments in 2013. Not many, and not at a scale that’s meaningful to my publisher. But in aggregate, the tiny streams of traffic to a whole bunch of posts is actually pretty good, and the publisher can base a business on it. At the very least, the cost of retaining a post from long ago is next to nothing, but there is some possibility that it’ll bring in revenue when someone reads it and is served a few ads.
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More About “The Blogger Abides”
The Blogger Abides is an ebook for freelance writers, written by longtime freelancer Chris Higgins. If you want to get paid to write, this is the book for you. But let’s be clear: this is not about getting rich, or even getting paid particularly well; it’s about how to find and manage your first gig, how to incrementally improve your work and your paycheck, and how to manage both the business and creative aspects of a writing career.