Random Notes

The public notebook of writer and essayist Scott Nesbitt

Unlike some writers I know and read, I don't obsess about every little detail. I don't obsess about every word. I don't lose sleep over every term. I doubt that makes me unique among writers, but I really don't sweat the small stuff.

But there is one word I'm struggling with, and have been for a while now. That word? Content. I'm definitely not a fan of that term. I admit, though, that I'm as guilty of referring to what I find on the web as content as much as the next person.

That has to stop.


Content has the connotation of something that's quickly and cheaply made. Of something that's mass produced, generic, homogeneous.

Content implies something without a distinct voice. Something that's not well crafted. Something that tries to draw eyeballs instead of helping and informing. Something written for algorithms and not people.

Content implies something, to paraphrase the late Harlan Ellison, that bursts into flame and turns to ash shortly after it's published.

Content is something that you read or view and then throw away. Something to be forgotten as quickly as it was read.

When I started to seriously put words to paper in the 1980s, I never thought about writing content. I wrote articles. I wrote essays. I wrote reviews. I even took stabs at writing short stories. I knew that most of what I wrote (and would write in the future) wasn't for the ages. But that work had more than just immediate import or impact. To be honest, I still get positive feedback on some of the articles and essays I wrote in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

I don't think I'd still be getting a good response to what I've written if I'd focused on churning out as much content as I could.

From this date forward, I'm banishing the term content from my writing (unless it's in the pejorative). And you can slap me if you find that term in what I write from now on.

That's a question I'm sure many of us have asked ourselves over the years. What if I made a different choice. What if I took another path or the other fork in the road. What if I made another decision.

Looking back, there would be two, maybe three things I'd do differently if I could. But I also know that asking What if is useless. You made your choice. You can't change it. Thinking about a different scenario doesn't make your current situation any better.

You can either accept and embrace where you are and what you do, or you can make a change. The only way the past can help you is to remind you about what making a different choice is like.

Some interesting posts I've discovered in these parts over the last while:

We all have that urge. To come up with something out of nothing. To build. To form something that's outside of us.

It doesn't have to be art. It doesn't need to be permanent. It doesn't need to useful or made with exacting skill. What we create is an expression of something inside us. It needs to come out, whether as words or images or music or something you can hold in your hand.

Sometimes, you need to give in to the urge. You'll be a better person for it if you do.

We all know someone who does that. We've all run into someone who does that.

Someone who zeroes in on the smallest, most imperceptible flaw. Someone who belabors the most minuscule and obscure point. Someone who makes something of negligible importance the crux of their argument.

People like that don't understand that the trivial isn't important. That's why it's called trivial.

Picking nits, trying to punch holes in something by making a big deal out of an insignificant point doesn't demonstrate highly-developed reasoning. It doesn't demonstrate a keen intellect. It doesn't illustrate your attention to detail.

It makes you look like a petty, insecure little person who's desperate to get others to listen to you in any way you can.

While I consider myself a fairly modest person, I seem to have garnered something of a reputation for being excessively modest. Editors, clients, friends, and others have noted that on ... well, I've lost count of how many occasions.

Over the years I wondered why I got that reputation. Then it struck me.

I'm too honest.

Too honest about my abilities. Too honest about my experience. Too honest about what I can and can't do. That's been a blessing and a curse, but as a freelancer/contractor I believe that honesty really is the best policy in the long run.

Everyone Puffs Themselves Up

That's true. I'm guilty of having done that once or twice. We all are. But it's the amount by which they puff themselves up which can be the problem.

Whether as a full-time employee or as a contractor, I've seen too many people represent themselves in ways that aren't true. Many outright lied about their skills and experience. And they were caught out, either sooner or later.

When that happens, your reputation gets dented. It might be a small dent or it might be a major one. But that dent is there and might never come out. It's going to dog you.

Let's be honest: your misrepresentations (hey, I'm trying to be generous here!) will come back to haunt you. I've seen that happen far too often. And, I'm somewhat ashamed to admit, I've taken a bit of pleasure in that. Schadenfreude and all that ...

What Being Honest Means to Me

I don't believe that honest equals modesty. Honesty is being honest.

It's being upfront about what you know and what you can do. And what you don't know and what you can't do. It's presenting your knowledge and skills as they are and not what you want someone to think they are.

Sounds like common sense, but it's always interesting to see how uncommon common sense actually is.

Yes, being honest has cost me assignments and gigs. It may have even damaged one or two professional relationships. In the latter cases, I think the damage was done not by being honest but by the other person's expectations.

On top of that, I refuse to misrepresent myself. Remember what I said earlier about being caught out? I don't need that damage to my reputation, regardless of how prestigious a gig or how much money I'm being paid. The short-term gain isn't worth the long-term pain.

But You can Learn It!

That's probably true. But will I be able to learn a skill or how to write in a certain way or how to do something, and effectively put it into practice, during the length of a contract or gig? Probably not.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not above learning new skills. That said, I have to weigh the time and effort of learning a new skill with:

  • Whether or not I'll use it again, either in the short term or the longer term
  • The time that takes away from the other things I need to tackle

Sometimes, the effort and time is well spent. Sometimes, it isn't.

In the end, though, being honest isn't a sign of weakness. Being honest isn't modesty. Being honest can build trust and can hold you in good stead. Being honest might not cast you in the best light with some people, the ones who expect you to lie, but then again would you want to work with them?

Humans are an impatient lot. It seems that we've become even more impatient over the last 20 or 25 years. We need information and entertainment and general stimulation now. Or sooner.

Worse, we're quick to brand any undertaking that isn't a success right out of the gate a failure. You have to topple the incumbents within 48 hours or what you've created is worthless.

What happened to creating something for the long haul? What happened to allowing something to build an audience, to create a customer base, to gain traction? Crushed under the weight of wants and expectations of having everything and having it now. Or sooner.

Sadly, I don't expect this trend to reverse. I expect to see a lot of promising fruit wither on the vine.

There are those who endlessly talk and plan. Then there are those who get their hands dirty and create.

There are those who continually snipe impotently from the sidelines. Then there are those who actually try to make change.

There are those who do nothing but complain about everything. Then there are those who experience joy in things, and sometimes try put that joy into words.

Ask yourself which side you're on. Then, ask yourself why. Regardless of the side you take, chances are you'll learn something about yourself by answering both questions.

That's a question someone recently asked me. And it's a question that I didn't have an immediate answer for.

Why? Mainly because I hadn't really thought about that question.

As far as I know, the bulk of my audience is people who are either native speakers of English or people who have a better than decent level of proficiency in the language. They shouldn't have any (at least, not too much) trouble reading what I write in this space and elsewhere. For better or for worse, I don't worry about any other readers.

On the other hand, as I often point out I'm more of a poly-not than a polyglot. I've unsuccessfully tried to learn three foreign languages over the years. I understand how frustrating and demoralizing it can be to try to read articles or short stories in a language that's not my own when at a basic or low-intermediate level of proficiency. It's a tough slog.

Going back to the question that's the title of this blog post: Should you simplify your blog's language for non-native readers? You have to make that decision. You can explicitly go out of your way and use controlled language (which limits the vocabulary and grammar you use). Or you can write in a friendlier way.

In my case, my background and education in journalism have given me the ability to write in short, simple sentences. I can convey ideas with fewer words, and often don't use specialized language. Then again, I do use turns of phrase and allusions that non-native speakers of English might not understand.

Simplifying the language you use in your blog posts can take a lot of effort. You should ask yourself whether that effort is worth it. Will it increase the your blog's readership? Will you be able to use those skills elsewhere? Will anyone really notice?

Take the time to think about that and make that choice that's right for you, your audience, and for your blog.

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