Most of the “rules for blogging” I have come across—like Alan Jacobs’s “Rules for Deportment for Online Discourse”—focus on very basic things like avoiding ad hominem attacks and not arguing in bad faith. These rules seem to me to boil down to a general prohibition against being an idiot, which is essentially futile, because rhetorical precepts cannot cure idiocy. They can only make it less obtrusive. I am not interested in making the opinions of idiots palatable, since the opinions themselves will be worthless either way; if anything, palatability makes them harder to ignore. I am however interested in keeping smart, honest bloggers from tripping over their own bad writing habits and making their valuable insights difficult to digest. These rules, then, are intended to address the writings tics that even good bloggers fall into.
1. Never begin a blog entry with “So-and-so has written a post about X.” This is like starting a news article “So-and-so held a press conference today.” Even now, I can hear my old journalism teacher shouting, “That’s not news! If they’d planned a press conference and then not shown up, that would be news. Otherwise, your first sentence should be about what they said. Specifically, what was interesting about it!” Your opening sentence doesn’t have to grab the reader by the jugular, but it shouldn’t put them to sleep either.
2. Eliminate the phrase “one of the most” from your vocabulary. “One of the most” is one of the most overused phrases on the Internet. People who have data to back their assertions use phrases with real meaning like “the most” or “the third-highest” or “the second-least.” People whose assertions are based on vague impressions say “one of the most.” It’s a sure sign that you don’t know what you’re talking about, and smart readers know it. (Example: “In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, some of the most effective networks of aid came from the remnants of Occupy Wall Street.” That . . . might be true?)
In my experience, the phrase usually pops up when an author wants to write about a topic just because he finds it interesting, but feels like readers won’t care about the topic unless he can convince them it’s somehow important. Listen, if you want to write about Mumford and Sons, write about Mumford and Sons. Don’t feel like you have to introduce them as “Mumford and Sons, one of the most popular bands in America today.” You might think it will convince a casual reader to invest their time in your article if you can persuade them that M & S are a mandatory part of contemporary cultural literacy, but really, the most relevant question in a reader’s mind is not whether the topic is important but whether it is entertaining or enlightening, and whether you have anything entertaining or enlightening to say about it.
3. You don’t have to eliminate weasel words from your vocabulary, but for heaven’s sake think twice before you use them. I am inclined to be concerned about the overuse of equivocatory words and phrases, a practice that, at least in my opinion, is deeply misguided and worth rethinking. What I mean to say is, knock it off. When a blogger obviously has a strong opinion, these hedging phrases come across as condescending. When he doesn’t seem to have a strong opinion, these phrases come across as an attempt to create the appearance of an opinion where none exists. More importantly, promiscuous use of these weasel words corrupts the English language. “Skeptical” is a lovely word with rich connotations. Sometimes it implies that you’re worried your opponent is trying to put something over on you, trying to pull some kind of intellectual con. Sometimes it implies that you half suspect your opponent, while appearing to be a reasonable person, is actually a fanatic, a crank, or a moron. It does not mean “I disagree with you but I’m too chicken to come out and say it,” or “I probably would disagree with you if I knew what you were talking about.” “Misguided” implies that you and your opponent are basically on the same side—and not in the sense that radical liberals and radical conservatives are basically on the same side because they both want to make the world a better place in their own ways. It is not a more tepid synonym for “wrong.”
4. Disregard the haters who denigrate blogging as a medium. Blogging is an amateur’s medium, but there is a lot to be said for amateurs. Bloggers sometimes write about things they know nothing about. Professional journalists often write about things they know nothing about. Academics write about things they know so much about that they no longer have any passion for the subject or any sense of its intrinsic interest, since, for understandable reasons, it is all now very boring to them. So don’t be intimidated by their credentials or put off by your lack of them.
5. Don’t make excuses for the faults of the writers you cite. The sort of remark I have in mind is the kind where, in a post about an unrelated topic, an author feels the need to bring up some moral accusation against the writer he is discussing and make very clear that he, the blogger, is on the right side of that debate. As in, “Admittedly, William F. Buckley wasn’t always right about everything, segregation for example,” or, “Obviously Aaron Sorkin is a colossal misogynist, but let us set that to one side,” or, “I enjoyed John Derbyshire’s book on the Riemann Hypothesis, despite his despicable views on race.” Upon reading that sort of comment, never have I thought to myself how much I admire the moral rectitude of the blogger and the intellectual honesty he is displaying in making his position clear. I have only ever thought: Buddy, you are just covering your ass.
When I ask myself why these comments bother me so much, several reasons come to mind. First, they are cowardly. Second, by passing moral judgment so ostentatiously, the blogger is putting himself above the man he is condemning, and I think you shouldn’t pass judgment on (say) Kingsley Amis’s curmudgeonly prejudices unless you can plausibly claim to have a tenth of his literary talent. (If your article is actually about a writer’s failings—if the whole point of the piece is to ask how a man could be so perceptive in some ways and yet so moronic in others—then that of course is something else entirely.) But mostly I am saddened by writers who feel the need to preempt the objections of people whose objections are not worth taking seriously in the first place. You know the sort of person I mean—those people more interested in an opportunity to assert their own moral superiority than in what either the blogger or the cited author has to say. If you are worried that, under your post about Churchill, someone is going to post a comment chiding you for failing to mention that he was a monstrous racist, the thing to do is to stop worrying and say to hell with anyone who writes that comment.
Good writers don’t make allowances for intellectual idiocy. It would be absurd if you felt the need to write, “The unexamined life is not worth living, said Socrates. Socrates, of course, was a philosopher in ancient Greece. A philosopher is someone who ponders the big questions that have plagued mankind since the dawn of time. Greece is a country in Europe.” Why should anyone bother catering to moral idiocy? Which is exactly what those snarky comments are.