Friday, March 14, 2008
Blogging vs. Writing
The music magazine to which I contribute classical music and opera articles and reviews every month recently launched its newly revised Web site. It’s now possible to go online and read every story in our March 2008 issue. Archived stories from back issues will begin to appear over time, but at least it’s an opportunity—from this point forward—for people to get their Denver-area music fix without needing to pick up a physical copy from a local retail establishment.
Writing for a print publication is far different than composing material for online consumption. Bandwidth issues aside, an author can run on ad nauseum in cyberspace with no negative cost consequences—other than perhaps driving away one’s readers. In the world of paper and ink, however, space is a closely guarded resource. Editors constantly seek to balance out publishing enough interesting material to keep readers engaged, and selling enough ad space to pay for the size of the magazine that’s being printed. Standards are declared and then fought over as if the conflict was as dire as the Second Battle of the Marne.
From a professional standpoint I’m more of an editor than a writer. [Some of my more recalcitrant readers might be tempted to chime in, “Umm, not much of either, actually,” but that’s OK.] Over the years I’ve found that shorter is quite often better, and I’m constantly striving to trim rather than expand and still get across whatever point I’m hoping to raise. The difference between a 400-word blog post and one that’s 600 words in length is hardly noticeable to a screen-scroller, but the difference in print can drastically affect page design.
Our music magazine sets strict word-count standards based upon the type of article being submitted. Feature stories must not exceed 500 words, while CD reviews top out at 175. Concert reviews should run no more than 250 words, but they’re permitted to grow to 400 if it’s the only article in the genre that month. I usually find myself writing half again as much as the guidelines mandate before snipping out words, sentences, and even entire concepts to match the proper length. It’s a terrific exercise in self-restraint, and a humbling one. It’s not my place to show the reader how much I know about a particular subject, but rather engage their interest enough to want to learn more about that performer—which might involve attending a future concert or perhaps purchasing their music. Oftentimes I’ll write my article shortly after attending the event or conducting the interview. A day or two later I’ll pick it up again, reading it as I imagine a casual reader of our publication might discover it. Invariably I find myself chopping out pedantic phrases and unnecessary references. I’m not attempting to “dumb it down” but rather tighten the prose to better adhere to a newspaper-like tone. Once I’ve gone through the piece half a dozen times, I’m usually close to or even slightly below the target word count. This gives my editor the room to adjust a phrase here or there without exceeding my allotted space, even though a 503-word feature story isn’t tragically overstepping the boundary.
Of course, none of these elements are of much concern in the blogosphere. I’m able to free-associate pretty much anything within the framework of any particular essay—so long as it appears to relate to the topic under discussion—and I’m practically compelled to do that considering the way my creaky old mind works. Sometimes the best way to make an essay more entertaining or to get a point across about a particular opera production is to dredge up a “Simpsons” reference, or mention something my cat did (or coughed up, depending upon the efficacy of said production). I suppose that’s one of the reasons I always enjoyed watching the TV series, “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Having obscure pop references thrown at you a mile a minute was a great way to keep your mind sharp while laughing at some piece-of-dreck feature film, although I can’t imagine anyone sitting through one of those shows without the “pause” and “rewind” buttons constantly in use.
But I digress…as usual. BTW, there are 719 words in this posting according to the MSWord tool Word Count—one of the best of Bill Gates’s inventions.