Talking shop #2: Two types of success in online writing

Go to Google and run a search with the terms “how to blog”, “blogging guide [fill in current year]” or similar, and you’ll find yourself tripping over ten thousand nearly identical blog posts about how to blog successfully. But what exactly does it mean to be a successful blogger?

If you’re new to the site and don’t know my style, then don’t worry — this post isn’t one of those “guides” that starts out pretending to criticize such courses and ends up trying to sell you on one of its very own, and one that mostly likely upsells you on a far more expensive one. There are so many of these interchangeable online courses available now that if they were put in box form like how they used to sell PC games, they’d likely reach beyond the orbit of fucking Jupiter.

No, this post is just the opposite: yet another opportunity for me to complain, this time about the often soulless approach you’ll find towards online writing (and crossing over into other forms of creative work, poking my nose into areas of art I might have no business talking about. But I’ll do it anyway. And if I ever end up trying to sell you an online course, please unfollow this site and cancel me from the internet forever.)

Also, to make it clear: I like money. Of course I do — I’m a good American capitalist after all. I’d also like to make a lot more money than I make right now, though naturally I have ethical and moral limits to what I’d do to get more, just as most of us do (aside from the ones selling bullshit courses, of course.)

As much as I’d like to afford the good meat, I still wouldn’t do that. Also yeah, I’m using unused anime and game screenshots I had lying around like I usually do in these kinds of posts; this is part of how I economize. (Also, watch Yuru Camp.)

I also recognize that writing, and more broadly speaking any creative/artistic pursuit, very often has a commercial element to it. Criticism of any kind of creation merely on the grounds that it’s “commercial” is meaningless, since almost everything exposed to a public audience has that commercial aspect — the creator and/or publishers trying to find said audience, to market the writing, painting, music, film, or whatever other medium you’re dealing with. And there’s plenty of great art out there that has a strong commercial element, however you’d measure that.

That said, there’s also plenty of creative work that can’t find an audience, maybe because it never gets noticed in the massive sea of similar-looking work, or because it’s too bizarre and obtuse or in too small a niche to have much appeal to most people. It is entirely possible to successfully market bizarre art and make massive amounts of money doing so (as two guys in particular have who I’ll bring up later, and not in the most favorable terms.) But generally speaking, the vast majority of both that and even of more “normal” work never finds much of an audience, beyond maybe the creator’s family and friends, if even that.

How is this connected to blogging? There are tons of experts out there ready to tell you what exactly you need to do to be a success at writing online, but without acknowledging that there are different kinds of success in online writing. You might be able to divide this form of “success” into several categories, but here I’ll stick to just two broad types.

I won’t let my obsessive nature entirely take over this post.

One type of success, and the only one that I believe many of these guides acknowledge, is what I’d call the business-oriented or profit-driven type. Monetize and go for the clicks by writing about only what’s hot and trending and optimize all your posts with search engine optimization tactics (and search engine meaning Google, because that’s the only one people use.) Don’t worry about the longevity of your posts or the fact that almost none of them will be relevant to anyone months or years from now — that’s not your goal anyway. It’s clicks now, money now.

This sort of writing is naturally appropriate for those writing online for marketing/commercial purposes. If you provide goods or services that you want to advertise, or more likely you’re a freelancer writing posts for someone else providing said goods/services, getting eyes on your work is your chief concern. There’s a reason requests for articles written purely with SEO in mind demand a bunch of very specific phrases and terms be used, typically frontloaded for maximum effect — the crawlers1 that scan sites for new information look for such phrases to match with what people are searching for in the present and recent past, and matching your posts with the relevant searches is one of your primary goals.

And of course, if you’re trying to get more eyes on your writing in general, it’s a good idea to use these tools. Mandatory, even, because this is how Google selects what sites and posts to put on page 1 of its search results. It doesn’t give a damn how much work you might have put into a post — arguably, aside from judging effort by word count which is not the only indicator of effort anyway, it can’t even tell how much you put into it. You simply have to learn how to game the system while still writing articles that people will actually want to read and that you actually care about writing. That’s the tightrope you have to walk if you want to make a real impact writing online for yourself without burning out on it.

And remember: there’s no such thing as bad publicity! Except there actually is; don’t let people say otherwise. This is an old cliché that I wish would die.

But there’s the rub: do you actually care about what you’re writing? If you’re writing purely for money, the likely answer is no. When I worked as a freelancer, I wrote for all sorts of small businesses, and most of the work I produced was on subjects I didn’t really give a damn about. Very occasionally I’d get a request for something touching on geography or history somehow, usually in connection with travel, but I never managed to get anywhere near writing about games, anime, or music as I do here. I knew that work was out there, but my path never took me in that direction. Yet as long as I was being paid, I didn’t care.

Now imagine you don’t have a profit motive in writing. Or maybe you do, but you’d like to balance that with your desire to write what you want (which as noted above can be a difficult balance to achieve.) Or maybe you just want to increase your visibility so you can get more people reading your short stories or your novel or playing your indie game or whatever you might have created. In these cases, I think the above monetization advice doesn’t work so well. Aside from the use of SEO tactics, which I’m too lazy to bother with on this site but I know can be very effective, I believe the conventional wisdom about online writing only takes you so far if your primary goal in writing is personal satisfaction.

Here I want to dump on two artists in particular, two who have made careers out of being flashy and extremely divisive: Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. These two have found great commercial success, selling their work at auction for insane amounts of money. They are both undoubtedly master marketers — if that’s your business, you’d do well to study how they operate.

Their artistic work also has absolutely no emotional effect on me. It’s all a complete dead end as far as I can tell. I don’t want to go so far as to call these guys talentless hacks as some people do, since they absolutely have some kind of talent; otherwise they wouldn’t have the art world by the balls. I just think their artistic work is pretty close to worthless from that emotional angle.2

Maybe they’re simply not going for that effect — both have emphasized the importance of profit in the art industry, and I’d be a hypocrite to argue with that, since as I’ve said I’m interested in making money too. But then, I’m not a professional artist. I’m an attorney, and I get my money by providing clients with legal services. You could say there’s maybe some art in that work, but it’s not the kind of art that anyone outside our niche would give a shit about (and I’m not the type of attorney who goes into court and makes dramatic speeches either, so that’s definitely not true of my work.)

It’s great if you can make massive amounts of money doing what you love, but that’s hard as hell to pull off.

There’s a reason I’m picking on Hirst and Koons in particular: I’ve seen online writers cite them as examples of how we should approach our craft. Granted, I have the luxury of keeping this blog purely as a hobby, so I can really write whatever the fuck I want here (and I can use as many fucks as I like without fear as well.) But unless your goal is to make Hirst or Koons money, which God bless you and good luck if it is, this seems to me like terrible advice. It’s the same sort of advice I see from people who take a completely cynical attitude towards artistic work, who harp on the importance of timely and trendy “content creation”3 above all else without regard to its emotional impact or its longevity, and who are probably also on the goddamn NFT train. It’s all money, all profit, all fucking soulless.

Now again, I have to emphasize that it is absolutely possible to be both commercially and artistically successful (however you’d define the latter — though technical skill is important, I also pin it on that “emotional impact” element that is admittedly going to vary from person to person.) There isn’t a starving artist dead or alive who actually wished to be starving, and I doubt any of those “died penniless and were discovered after their deaths” types like Van Gogh and Lovecraft and so many others wouldn’t have preferred success during their own lives.

I only question this purely profit-driven approach to creative endeavors. I write here because I like expressing my views on art I enjoy and occasionally on art-related legal matters.4 If I were a professional artist, I think I’d be working first to express myself as I wished and only then hoping to get recognition for it. Because of personal circumstances, I don’t have the ability to take that gamble, so to make sure money I became a lawyer. And sure, being a lawyer isn’t the most conducive thing to leading a happy and healthy life. But the alternative as I see it is worse. I’m not sure why I’d want to try to become a writer by only writing what I thought other people wanted to read, following trends without any regard to my own feelings. That sounds like a truly miserable life to me.

Honestly, I’d rather sit on this “power source” than do that — it’s probably more comfortable. Don’t tell me the people who made Ryza didn’t realize what this looked like; I’ll never believe it.

But then, I don’t know why people do a lot of things. I’m not the one to listen to about how to make money online. Go buy one of those bullshit courses if you want to know about that, or far better still, dig up some actually free advice on that. Maybe the good people at Automattic can provide some free advice as well; I think WordPress might provide some free seminars on SEO or whatever, though not having taken them I can’t speak to their quality.

As usual, it’s probably best to ignore my advice, since I’m not exactly the happiest person on Earth anyway. I can only speak for myself. I will probably be writing more utter bullshit about writing at some point, though, so please look forward to that.


1 Am I the only one who thinks of weird robotic spiders or squids feeling around websites when I hear about SEO crawlers? Like something designed by H. R. Giger.

2 I’d say I feel the same about stuff like the famed drip and color field paintings of Pollock and Rothko, but in their cases, I think there’s something there that hits other people emotionally but that just doesn’t hit me. By contrast, I don’t even see that in the work of Hirst and Koons. The fact that people have paid millions for their art says more about the quality of humanity in general than it does about the quality of their work in my opinion.

This isn’t an issue of my disliking “weird art” either, since a few of my favorite artists are early 20th century surrealists like René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, and Max Ernst, and they painted some weird as fuck stuff. Yet I always at least thought their paintings were fascinating, and often emotionally powerful even if they were more on the abstract side. Maybe this really is just another matter of taste that can’t be argued over.

3 The constant use of the term “content” for what we do is also something I have a problem with. It just feels to me like reducing all our work to the creation of something samey and bland. “Content” in this context makes me think of tasteless paste people 300 years in the future might eat out of tubes to sustain themselves, maybe on a colony ship flying to a new star because humanity has somehow managed to nuke the entire Solar System. I won’t push too hard on this, though, because there are plenty of excellent writers and video makers whose work I enjoy who also use the term.

4 And just in case — I know it’s unlikely that anyone reading this site would disagree with me on this point, but yes, games and anime absolutely count as art. I might dump on Hirst and Koons above, but I also don’t like to draw a distinction between “fine art” and “popular art”, or between low and high art or any of that shit. Same with genre fiction like fantasy and sci-fi vs. “literary fiction” — there are good and bad examples of both, and one type is not inherently better than the other.

2 thoughts on “Talking shop #2: Two types of success in online writing

  1. Pingback: March 2022 in Summary: Slap Happy | Extra Life
  2. Pingback: Month in Review – March – Frostilyte Writes

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