On Blogs and Books

Jeff Atwood has a great blog, called “Coding Horror,” about software development. He’s been blogging continuously and very actively since 2004, which I find impressive; check out his archives.

One of his most recent posts is about the book that he’s just completed, on ASP.NET. I can’t say that I’m interested in the subject of his book, but I was interested in what he had to say about writing blogs versus writing books. Basically, he comes down heavily in favor of writing blogs:

“As I see it, for the kind of technical content we’re talking about, the online world of bits completely trumps the offline world of atoms:

  • it’s forever searchable
  • you, not your publisher, will own it
  • it’s instantly available to anyone, anywhere in the world
  • it can be cut and pasted; it can be downloaded; it can even be interactive
  • it can potentially generate ad revenue for you in perpetuity

And here’s the best part: you can always opt to create a print version of your online content, and instantly get the best of both worlds. But it only makes sense in that order. Writing a book may seem like a worthy goal, but your time will be better spent channeling the massive effort of a book into creating content online.”

He also points out that writing books is a lot harder than writing blogs:

“Writing a book is hard work. For me, writing blog entries feels completely organic, like a natural byproduct of what I already do. It’s not effortless by any means, but it’s enjoyable. I can put a little effort in, and get immediate results out after I publish the entry. The book writing process is far more restrictive. Instead of researching and writing about whatever you find interesting at any given time, you’re artificially limited to a series of chapters that fit the theme of the book. You slave away for your publisher, writing for weeks on end, and you’ll have nothing to show for it until the book appears (optimistically) six months down the road. Writing a book felt a lot like old fashioned hard work– of the indentured servitude kind.”

Charles Petzold, an experienced author of programming texts, chimes in here with more details on the declining economics of technical book-writing. Apparently a lot fewer people are buying programming books nowadays, so the financial situation for the authors of these books is getting worse. So Petzold agrees that it makes a lot more sense to write in blog format, but notes that blogs don’t usually pay very well.

Let me just give a different perspective, from someone who is more interested in academic writing than technical writing. I think that most academics don’t write books in order to make money, and that’s certainly true of the journal articles that are written. So for academics, moving from books to blogs has more of the upside and less of the downside than for other authors.

I know that I personally find writing a blog a lot more appealing than writing a book. As Atwood points out, you can write about whatever happens to appeal to you on the day you’re writing; and you get much faster feedback. Sure it’s some work, but all in all, it’s great!

Petzold has another criticism of blogs:

On the Internet, everything is in tiny pieces. The typical online article or blog entry is 500, 1000, maybe 1500 words long. Sometimes somebody will write an extended “tutorial” on a topic, possibly 3,000 words in length, maybe even 5,000.

It’s easy to convince oneself that these bite-sized chunks of prose represent the optimum level of information granularity. It is part of the utopian vision of the web that this plethora of loosely-linked pages synergistically becomes all the information we need.

This illusion is affecting the way we learn, and I fear that we’re not getting the broader, more comprehensive overview that only a book can provide. A good author will encounter an unwieldy jungle of information and cut a coherent path through it, primarily by imposing a kind of narrative over the material. This is certainly true of works of history, biography, science, mathematics, philosophy, and so forth, and it is true of programming tutorials as well.

Sometimes you see somebody attempting to construct a tutorial narrative by providing a series a successive links to different web pages, but it never really works well because it lacks an author who has spent many months (or a year or more) primarily structuring the material into a narrative form.

For example, suppose you wanted to learn about the American Civil War. You certainly have plenty of online access to Wikipedia articles, blog entries, even scholarly articles. But I suggest that assembling all the pieces into a coherent whole is something best handled by a trained professional, and that’s why reading a book such as James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom will give you a much better grasp of the American Civil War than hundreds of disparate articles.

If I sound elitist, it’s only because the time and difficulty required for wrapping a complex topic into a coherent narrative is often underestimated by those who have never done it. A book is not 150 successive blog entries, just like a novel isn’t 150 character sketches, descriptions, and scraps of dialog.”

As somebody who writes blog posts that typically come in at 500-1500 words, but loves to read books, I want to respond to that.

The web lets us write material in whatever form we want. I’m comfortable with the 500-1500 word post. Other people with popular blogs write 2-sentence posts linking to an article. Paul Graham writes long essays. David MacKay puts drafts of his books online.

The fact is, that you can write about whatever you want, whenever you want, in whatever form you want. The most important point is that you don’t need permission to publish anymore. You don’t need a publisher; you are the publisher.

Which brings me to a related point. I find a lot of the current scientific publication process completely bizarre. Scientists write the articles, type-set the articles, review the articles, edit the articles, and then find that their own articles are not freely available online? And we write articles that are hard to understand because of space limitations? Online there are no space limitations! The entire system is lumbering on mostly as if we still were living in the early 20th century, when only a few specialized groups of people had the capability to publish, and delivering journal articles to people was necessarily expensive.

Most of the current system’s remaining justification, compared to a free system where everybody simply published their work online, and that was the end of it, is for credentialing articles by peer review and credentialing people by the number of peer-reviewed articles they’ve written. Look, I know peer review is important, but given the huge time sink of the current system, and the morale problems that it contributes to, I think that we should take a closer look at the costs and benefits, and maybe be more open to people who simply publish their work online (see, for example, Perelman’s papers proving the Poincare conjecture, which were never published in a peer-reviewed journal).

So if you feel the urge, publish yourself online in whatever format suits you. Just try to make the content worthwhile for somebody else in the world, and don’t worry about the rest. [End of rant.]


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