Self-Censorship

I've noticed a trend in my writing, or, rather, the lack thereof. There are generally four venues in which I write, three of which are on the internet, and one of which is for my job. In the three internet venues, my production has started relatively high, and steadily decreased as time went on. (I suppose I should draw a distinction between writing and simple conversation. Email, for example, is not included as that does not represent the type of writing I'm talking about, though I do write a lot of email and email could possibly become a venue in the future.)

My job sometimes entails the writing of technical specifications for web applications, and this, at least, does not suffer from the same problem. It can be challenging at times, especially if I need to tailor them towards both a technical and non-technical audience, but for the most part it is a straightforward affair (it helps that they pay me too). Once I have all the information, resources, and approvals I need, the writing comes easy (well, I'm simplifying for the sake of discussion here, but you get the point).

This is in part because technical writing doesn't need to be compelling, which is where I stumble. It's also because collecting information and resources for this sort of thing is simpler and the information is easier to organize. I'm not especially articulate when it comes to expressing my thoughts and ideas. If I ever do it's only because I've spent an inordinate amount of time polishing the text (and if I don't, I'm in trouble, because I've spent an inordinate amount of time polishing the text). Hell, I tried to be organized and wrote a bit of an outline for this post, but I had trouble doing even that.

And, of course, I notice that I'm not following my outline either. But I digress.

The other three venues are my weblog (natch), Everything2, and various discussion forums.

This weblog has come a long way over the three and a half years since I started it, and at this point, it barely resembles what it used to be. I started out somewhat slowly, just to get an understanding of what this blogging thing was and how to work it (remember, this was almost four years ago and blogs weren't nearly as common as they are now), but I eventually worked up into posting about once a day, on average. At that time, a post consisted mainly of a link and maybe a summary or some short commentary. Then a funny thing happened, I noticed that my blog was identical to any number of other blogs, and thus wasn't very compelling. So I got serious about it, and started really seeking out new and unusual things. I tried to shift focus away from the beaten path and started to make more substantial contributions. I think I did well at this, but it couldn't really last. It was difficult to find the offbeat stuff, even as I poured through massive quantities of blogs, articles and other information (which caused problems of it's own). I slowed down, eventually falling into an extremely irregular posting schedule on the order of once a month, which I have since attempted to correct, with, I hope, some success. I recently noticed that I have been slumping somewhat, though I'm still technically keeping to my schedule.

During the period in which I wasn't posting much on the weblog, I was "noding" (as they call it) over at Everything2, which is a collaborative database project. There too, I started strong and have since petered out. However, similar to what happened in the weblog, the quality improved even as the quantity decreased. This is no coincidence. It takes longer to write a good node, so it makes sense that the quantity would be inversely proportional to the quality.

Of the three internet venues, discussion forums are the simplest as they are informal and require the least amount of vigor (and in that respect, they resemble email, but there is a small difference which we will come to in a bit). Even then, though, in certain forums I have noticed my production fall as well. These are predominantly debating forums where I was making some form of argument. What I found was that, as time went on, I tended to take the debates more seriously and thus I spent more time and effort on making sure my arguments were logically consistent and persuasive. And again, my posting at these forums has slowed considerably.

One other note about these three: it seems that at any given time, I am only significantly contributing to one of these three. When the blog posting slowed, I moved to E2, for example, and when that slowed down, I focused on the forums. Now that I've come back to the blog, the others have suffered. There are all sorts of reasons why writing slows that have nothing to do with the process of writing or choosing what to write, but I do think those things contribute as well.

In effect, this represents a form of self-censorship. I'm constantly evaluating ideas for inclusion in the weblog. Johnathon wrote about this a few weeks ago, and he put it well:
...having a weblog turns information overload into a two-way process: first you suck all this stuff into your head for processing; and then you regurgitate it as weblog posts. And, while this process isn't all that different from the ways in which we manipulate information in our jobs, it's something that we've chosen to do in addition to our jobs, something that detaches us even further from "real life". I suspect that the problem is compounded by the fact that weblog entries are—overwhelmingly—expressions of opinion and, to make it worse, many of the opinions are opinions about opinions on issues concerning which the opinionators have little, if any, firsthand knowledge or experience. Me included.
As time goes on, my evaluation of what is blog-worthy has gotten more and more discriminating (as always, there are exceptions) and the quality has gone up. But, of course, the quantity has gone down.

Why? Why do I keep doing this? It is tempting to write it off as laziness, and that is no doubt part of it. It's not like it takes me a week to write a post or a node. At most, it takes a combined few hours.

Part of the problem is finding a few uninterrupted hours with which to compose something. In all of my writing endeavors, I've set the bar high enough that it requires too much time to do at once. When I didn't expect much out of myself on the blog or on E2, I could produce a lot more because the time required to do so was small enough that I could do so quickly and effectively. Back in the day, I could blog during my lunch break. I haven't been able to do that lately (as in, the past few years).

The natural solution to that is to split up writing sessions, and that is what I often do, but there are difficulties with that. First, it breaks concentration. Each writing session needs to start with several minutes of re-familiarizing with the subject. So even the sessions need to be reasonably large chunks of time. In addition, if these chunks are spread out too far, you run the risk of losing interest and motivation (and it takes longer to re-familiarize yourself too).

Motivation can be difficult to sustain, especially over long periods of time, which might also be the reason why I seem to rotate between the three internet venues.

There is an engineering proverb that says Fast, Good, Cheap - Pick two. The idea is that when you're tackling a project, you can't have all three. If you favor making a quality product in a short period of time, it is going to cost you. Similarly, if you need to do it on the cheap and also in a short period of time, you're not going to end up with a quality product. I think there might be some sort of corollary at work here, Quality, Quantity, Time - Pick Two. Meaning that if I want to write a high quality post in a relatively short period of time, the quantity will suffer. If I want a high quantity of posts that are also of a high quality, then it will take up a lot of my time. And so on...

This post was prompted by something Dave Rogers wrote a while back:
I find I have less to say about things these days. Often I feel the familiar urge to say something, but now I'm as likely to keep quiet as I am to speak up. This bothers me a little, because I've always felt it was important to speak up when you felt strongly about something. Now I'm not so sure about that.

Sometimes the urge to speak up is the result of habituated thinking, a conditioned response. Someone writes something that triggers an emotional response, certain automatic behaviors kick in, and before I know it I'm writing some kind of negative response. I can't think of a case where it did any particular good. I get to feel a bit of an adrenaline rush from the experience, and maybe a couple of people agree with me and I get a little validation; but most of the time, the target of my ire and indignation is unaffected. There is no change of opinion, no reevaluation of position. It's all energy expended to no good end, other than perhaps to stimulate the already persuaded and generate a little titillation for the folks who like to watch. I also can't recall a case when, finding myself on the receiving end, I've altered my point of view; especially if it was something I cared enough about to have an opinion that was likely to provoke that kind of response.

I suppose this is a kind of self-censorship, but I think it's a good thing. One person's self-censorship is another person's self-discipline perhaps. Just as I've learned to pay attention to what's going on inside my own mind when I'm behind the wheel, becoming a calmer and safer driver in the process, I'm learning to pay attention not just to what I write, but why I want to write it.
Despite all that I've said so far, I actually have been writing here for quite some time. Sure, I swap venues or slow down sometimes, but I have kept a relatively steady pace among them in the past few years. Dave's post made me wonder about why I want to write and what kept me writing. There are plenty of reasons, but one of the most important is that I am usually writing about things I don't know very well... and I learn from the experience. Blogging originally taught me to seek out and find things off the beaten path, Everything2 gave me an excuse to research various subjects and write about them (most of what I write there are called "factuals" - sort of like writing an encyclopedia entry), and the forums forced me to form an opinion and let it stand up to critical testing. I'm not exactly sure what it is I'm learning right now, but I'm enjoying myself.