Is blogging the new MFA program?

Before I was in high tech, I was in publishing.

At Scholastic, I worked in the creative marketing department, not directly with authors, but with their work; trying to make their work appeal to the largest audience as possible.

My claim to fame is that I wrote responses to fan letters for R.L. Stine and K.A. Applegate. So if you came of age in the late 90s, we were probably pen pals.

I also was a part of the exciting marketing campaign surrounding the release in the U.S. of the first Harry Potter book.

Good times.

After I left Scholastic, I spent a few years in other publishing jobs: in the promotions department at Parade Magazine and as an assistant editor for a Jewish newspaper.

I soon became expert in making other people’s work better.

Of course, through this experience, my work became better, too.  In addition to assigning and editing stories to freelance writers at the Jewish newspaper, I would report on local happenings and sometimes interview C-level Jewish celebrities for features.

Every time my boss, the Editor, would hand me back my first draft, I would grimace at the red marks in the margins.

But the marks, when implemented, always made my stories better.

In time, I became a confident writer of short form non-fiction. Your work becomes better the more you write and the more heavily you are edited.

I imagine the process is similar for any form of writing; especially in fiction and poetry, two genres in which I am experimenting and want to improve.

This is why so many emerging writers and published novelists come out of MFA programs.

They’ve dedicated themselves to writing, yes — but they’ve also committed to being publicly criticized for two years in the hopes of improving. In the hopes of one day being so good they will be noticed. Noticed like a misused metaphor, like a dangling participle.

This element of the writing program — the communal critical eye — is missing from the fantastic writing community that is the blog-o-sphere.

I never — or hardly ever — publicly criticize a blogger’s work. If I add a comment to a blog, 99% of the time it’s a positive comment. If it’s a negative comment, it’s finely worded so as to not offend the author.

I’m not talking about political blogs, where trolls feel completely uninhibited to offer their frank opinions about how the author is a stupid, naive right-wing psychopath. I’m talking about the community of essayists that have sprung up through the popularity and ease of the blogging platform.

Mommy bloggers.

Aspiring novelists.

Flash fiction writers.

People who feel the need to chronicle the every movement of their cats.

Everyone can be a published writer now.

A published author even — thanks to Amazon.com and a host of self-publishing software.

And, yes, this is awesome.

Really awesome.

And … not so awesome.

I like to read good writing.

I like to pay for good writing.

I’m annoyed when I read bad writing, especially when I’ve paid for it.

I want the books I read to have been written by people who cared enough to become better writers. I want those books to have been through at least one, if not five, careful revisions by an editor.

I say this not just as a writer, but as a consumer of the written word.

Maybe I hold myself up to too high a standard. (That sounds obnoxious, I know. )

Maybe if I didn’t, I would already be a published author myself now. (I’m not counting The Fantastic Adventures of Me & My Friends or the two other activity books I wrote for Scholastic. That also sounds a bit obnoxious, doesn’t it?)

Maybe I’m worrying for nothing.

Maybe the world is a happier place because more people are writing and finding their own audiences.

But I think there is room for criticism in the blogging world. Perhaps we would do more to support each other by not just commenting when we think a post is good, but when we think a post is almost good — when something could be just a little bit better if only it was rewritten once or twice.

It irritates me when I write a post that I think is really good and a commenter writes something simple like,

“Lovely.”

This happens a lot. Which should be a good thing.

But I want to follow up on that “lovely.” I want to know, “Why?”

“Why do you think this is lovely?”

Did it strike a chord?

Was it my careful phrasing?

Was it how elegantly I described the herd of goats by the side of the road?

And how could it be better? How could I rewrite it into something you’d be happy you paid for? Satisfied you spent your time on?

This is what is missing from the blogosphere. And why, at least now, blogging in community will never be as serious as a writing program.

Most of our comments are just blatant attempts at trying to attract new followers.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Are you a blogging writer who seeks comments like this? Who wants more than just a

“Great post!”

If so, let me know — perhaps we can build a more critical commenting community together.

Help each other… emerge…from red marks in the margin.

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20 thoughts on “Is blogging the new MFA program?

  1. I think people get swept away with the “like” button, or just commenting to get themselves noticed, like they do w/facebook. I tend to get either a great comment, or none at all….not too many “lovely!”, just go through the motion type ones thankfully (maybe that’s where the like button comes in for me since my posts are long), About using this format for unedited writing? This bugs me, as I write a lot and have many drafts, but won’t publish until I really like and edit something in a big way. I’d like to publish more often, and struggle with this, but then I think about some of the other posts I read that aren’t worth my time, and I won’t do that to my friends and followers because I hope they come back. I see these people with thousands of followers and mediocre writing and wonder how that really works, but hey, I guess each reader is looking for something different? As for being critical in our comments? Not sure I’d necessarily like someone criticizing how I write and giving me writing 101 lessons, but bringing up good, engaged debate on the topic is what I hope to see and what I hope to give back in comments to other bloggers I like and choose to follow (like you!).
    PS…cool about working on Harry Potter, my son and I are now on book 5, we started in August, and we are entranced!

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    • People totally get swept away with the like button, including me! In fact, the other day on Facebook, I wanted to learn more about something but not necessarily LIKE it and was irritated there was no other way to join a fan page than to like it.

      I also am not sure if I want critical comments in all of my blog posts but I do think the nature of blogging doesn’t really encourage deep, thoughtful responses (though YOURS are robin, and I so appreciate them).

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  2. I’m very interested in both your experience and your outlook. Firstly I have just finished a book which is now being edited at the publishers and I wonder how anyone is going to find it among the thousands of books available out there. My knowledge of marketing is sitting comfortably on a pin head, with plenty of room to spare for my knowledge of physics!.

    Secondly, I’ve long hated the rabid ‘Likers’ but I now have come to accept that there are many worse crimes in the scheme of things and to just let it go. As you will know, I almost always comment on posts I read, and you are among my regularly visited Blogs. This is because you are thoughtful and interesting. I’m trying to think of something more critical to say, to give this comment balance but my mind is a blank on that score.

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    • Congrats on your book! That’s very exciting. I’m happy to offer marketing tips. One guy who is great at marketing his books is James Altucher. Check out his blog for great content and tips for getting your books into more hands.

      I follow about 10 – 15 bloggers regularly — you among them! And it started by following through on a simple intention: find a new blogger and commit to commenting thoughtfully on their posts. I think if more of us subscribe to that intention (and if I could do it more often than I do now) even if its only one new blogger a month, we could up the ante on blogging community and help each other out more than just a simple press of the like button.

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  3. I am trying to find the experience and feedback that I would gain from an MFA program from other experience – from getting to know other bloggers, joining a writing group, and studying, editing, and seeking to improve. So far, I think it has been successful.
    I find the blogging community to be a good support group, with a small bit of feedback. Yesterday, I posted some questions requesting advice about Beta Readers and that process, and received some great feedback and information – some of it disagreeing with things I had been considering. For more constructive feedback, I know I can turn to my writers group – who are awesome people.

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    • That’s great that you found a writers group! I live in the country, and it’s a bit more difficult for me to find a formal meetup (in person) with other writers. That said, I’ve been fortunate to meet a few writers who have helped offer me their critical eyes on things I’m working on, and it’s really moved my work forward.

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  4. ok – since you want feedback. I think that while you raise valid points, not everyone wants to do a close reading on a blog post. Sometimes, we’re just moved by words and want to respond with a simple one word analysis – and that should be fine. Blogging is an interactive platform – and while you may be looking for certain kind of interaction, those reading may not want to interact that way… And that should be absolutely fine. And lovely.

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    • Not sure what I’m looking for… Mostly thinking out loud with my blog posts, including this one. The thoughtful feedback in the comments makes me both wonder more about it and reconsider my original thinking. Can’t say for sure I’d want critical feedback from each and every commenter who comes along, but do think there is a missed opportunity in the blogging community where we could be supporting each others work differently. I also do appreciate well-written content in blogs, and wish I could do more than I do to help get those voices noticed by others.

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  5. Yeah, I think people blog for all different kinds of reasons even if they fall into one or more of the many blogger categories you outline in your post. I am not sure all bloggers are looking for editorial comments or want to be published authors or writers. While sometimes I would like comments to be more descriptive (or even to get more comments to hear what people think), not everyone feels comfortable being so descriptive or giving explanations for why they might think a post is lovely or a piece of crap or whatever. Blogging is social media which means you post, and what you get back is what you get back. It’s the nature of the beast.

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    • What you write is true Dana. In fact, in working with professionals who often ask me “should I start a blog?” I respond with a few questions:
      What do you have to say?
      How much of it do you have to say?
      Are you prepared to be vulnerable?

      I think the best bloggers are the ones who are prepared to be vulnerable…their writing is either raw or daring. They wear their feelings or the opinions on their sleeves. This is very different than most short form published writing, especially non-fiction, which is often careful and precise.

      This is a social media, which means we can takes risks with our writing, but must be prepared for whatever comes back our way.

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  6. I find that a lot of people start a blog because want to share their lives with their friends and family. Then it can becomes something more as they receive positive feedback. On my mom blog my favorite comments have been when it means something to someones’ life–when we can connect around the same crazy occasions–like when my son took my daughters place in my heart–and surviving the heartbreak of letting her go as my “baby.”

    letterstozoe.yolasite.com/blog.php

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  7. You know, Jen, I’ve periodically considered hiring myself out as an editor for bloggers. It bothers me when I see simple grammar, punctuation and syntax errors in an otherwise stellar piece…I’m also fairly confident I give good content advice, but not sure bloggers want that. So much of what they blog is intensely personal, I’m not sure if they’re going for style points. 🙂

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    • You reminded me of something I missed, or at least didn’t touch upon in this post, Aliza. I (and i think many of us) are more forgiving of poor writing on personal blogs than “professional” blogs — blogs that have paid advertising or blogs that are marketing tools for other services. It really irks me when a blogger has covered a story on a company I am representing and the writing is poor, the facts aren’t checked, and someone clearly hasn’t read it before it was published. (By the way, I am a lot more careful on pieces I write for clients or those that are published in my name in professional publications than I am on this blog. So clearly I also fit into this.)

      I love this conversation, and discussion in general on “new journalism” because it just shows how we are still very much in a transitional phase right now and still figuring out where all this is going.

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  8. Now I deeply regret my last brief comment. Sometimes I’m very moved by your posts and feel very reflective and don’t have the urge to comment in depth because you’ve transported me to another place and I want to stay there. It’s hard to explain.

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    • I have had a lot of thoughts about this post since writing it Holly. And I almost regret (but not quite) writing it, because I feel like I may have offended people or turned people off from commenting at all on my blog. Or worse yet, keep someone from sharing something with me that they feel is not necessarily the best piece of writing. 9 times out of 10 when I blog here on my personal blog I am simply thinking out loud, wondering more than stating, contemplating, not yet sure I believe what i am writing…

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  9. Interesting comments on a truly thought-provoking post.
    Looking back on my 970 Archived posts here, I do recall being disappointed, early on, that the reactions I read had so few ‘Clues U can Use’ to them. Reader confessions of confusion as to a character’s motives, complaints that the word-play ‘tail’ seems to be wagging the dog,, even a heads-up about an occasional gaffe; all of these would have been welcome, But,after not seeing such, I made peace with the ephemeral and trivial nature of the Net. That initial sadness, though, revisits me with every new post, and I would willingly put my head into the lion’s mouth of any seasoned editor, just for the priceless thrill of ‘learning how to rite gudr’..
    (I have learned not to conclude a post with an eminently commentable salient aside; a recipe for a hijacked thread and non-attention to the body of the beast.
    There,I feel all better now, ha. I do give you, of course, carte blanch to critique anything you chance to read on my site. ‘So I shouldn’t die stupid,’ as they say in Romanian.

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