However, I suspect I am in the minority. When I asked for advice on redesigning this blog, quite a few of my readers and fellow bloggers said they rarely look at sidebars, and from all indications, few of their readers look at the sidebars on their blogs. And my impression from my traffic stats is that visitors almost never look back through the archives or browse a particular category. And never mind the “ads”, which is effectively what the book icons are. My hunch is that people have been trained by internet marketing tactics to automatically ignore anything that looks like an ad.
Given that, is it worth having these sidebars if only a small percentage of visitors use them? It seems like a waste of space for the majority of users. And yet almost all blogs have them, including some very widely-read ones.
I admit, I have a slightly irrational attachment to my sidebars—they represent a gateway to nine years’ worth of writing, and I’d be reluctant to lose that unless readers say it actively harms the site’s usability.
But I still can’t help wondering if that space could be used better. Devoting 35% of the blog to content that 80-90% of users ignore seems inefficient.
…who have contributed to the discussions on this blog on a number of topics, from politics to the craft of writing.
Now, while the blog is stronger than ever, I recognize that there are still improvements to make. And that’s why I’m glad to have input from Pat Prescott, Mark Paxson, and Barb Knowles
…on how to better the site. I am therefore launching an Executive Initiative to improve the readability and layout of the site, some elements of which have already been implemented. It has, in my opinion, certainly gone no worse than any such initiative can be expected to, in that it at least vaguely resembles what the people have asked for.
(laughter, boos from the opposition)
With all this in mind, and most of all, with the insightful attention and comments of readers like you, I will continue to preserve, protect, and to post on this blog, to the best of my ability.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m fairly happy with the way the site looks right now. In general, I think the information is presented pretty well–you’ve got the latest blog posts at the top, then my books and popular/recent posts on the right. If you scroll down, there’s more stuff below the categories. I suspect people don’t see that very often–but that’s deliberate, because it’s more esoteric content that I don’t want to throw in the face of everyone who visits the site.
There are some nagging issues, though. It kind of annoys me how big the header is–I worry that stops people from visiting the homepage much, since you have to scroll down to read the posts. Also, the category list goes on forever–does anyone actually use that, I wonder? Finally, I noticed recently that when you write a comment, the text boxes that let you choose if you want to be notified about replies are invisible. (Black text on black background.)
I could play around with some of the settings, but I’m hesitant to do that because last year, when I did the major overhaul to put the blog in its present form, not only did my pageviews decline dramatically, but it also threw some old posts out of whack. (I think I’ve fixed the ones that get a lot of traffic, but the formatting on posts imported from Blogger — that is, from 2009-11 — is something I’ve never really gone back to check on in detail.)
So I put it to you, loyal readers. You’re the ones who use the site–is there anything you’d like me to change? Any suggestions for features I should add?
My most viewed posts on this blog, not counting one anomaly, are my reviews of movies, books, video games, etc. So I thought I’d talk about how I write them and, more significantly, what I think an effective review should do.
The easiest way to begin is to categorize reviews by usefulness. I based the idea on Paul Graham’s disagreement hierarchy. Reviewing something isn’t exactly the same as arguing, but they are related in the sense that both should be about working to improve something, so there is a fair amount of overlap.
[In the following x = any movie, book, game etc. being reviewed.]
Tier 1 – The Most Useless Review
“This x sucks. I hated it. Why would anyone think it was good? What a terrible piece of work.”
This review is useless to everyone except the reviewer. It does not explain what the flaws with the x were, nor does it even give us an idea of what the reviewer looks for in xes.
Note that a really good writer can dress up a useless review very nicely, so much that you might think it’s a useful review. For example:
“x is a piece of unmitigated tripe, the likes of which I am sorry to have ever had the displeasure of enduring. It is a blot on the [whatever x’s genre or medium is] landscape.”
This sounds kind of funny and clever, but it doesn’t say anything helpful.
Tier 2 – A Mostly Useless Review
“I loved this x! It’s the best one ever. Everything about it was terrific.”
This is close to being as useless as a Tier 1 review. In fact, I was originally going to group it as a Tier 1, but then I realized that there are two important differences. First, while a Tier 2 might be useless to everyone else, if I read a Tier 2 review of something I made, it would at least make me happy.
And secondly, if somebody wrote a Tier 2 review about one of my books, it would be more useful to me than a Tier 1, because if I know someone liked something, I can figure out how to produce more things they’ll like by sticking to that formula. Whereas with a Tier 1, I have no idea how to produce something they will like. It’s completely useless feedback.
That said, while a review like this is mildly helpful to the creator themselves, it’s useless to all other consumers. They have no way of determining what was good about the x in question—all they know is this reviewer liked it for some reason.
Tier 3 – The Diagnostic Review
“I liked the parts of the x with these characteristics. I didn’t like the other parts with these characteristics. The second half was stronger than the first. It reminded me of y at times, but lacked its [some element of y]. Fans of z will like it.”
This is getting somewhere. This review tells us some specific elements about the x that they thought were good or bad, and provides a reference point that we can use to start to form an idea of what x is, and what type of audience it would appeal to.
This is an informative, workmanlike review, and if I write a review this good, I feel like I’ve done my job. But there is still one higher form to aspire to:
Tier 4 – The Corrective Review
“The central flaw of x is its [some characteristic], which could have been fixed by the following adjustments.”
Or, if it’s a positive review:
“What makes x work so well is its [some characteristic]. This separates it from [other things in x’s genre or medium] to make it truly effective.”
The best type of review not only diagnoses what is good and/or bad about an x, but states why these elements are there, what could be done to fix them if they are bad, and how to replicate them if they are good.
The best review, in other words, not only tells you the negatives and positives of x, but provides sketch blueprints of how to make more and/or better xes. If it’s a bad x, a good review tells you what went wrong and how to fix it. If it’s a good x, it tells you how to replicate its goodness.
Not surprisingly, Tier 1 reviews are the easiest to write and Tier 4 reviews are the hardest.
Also, it’s important to realize that context matters. Sites like Amazon encourage short reviews, and on average a Tier 1 or 2 will be much shorter than a Tier 4. A Tier 4 is an extended argument, in that you have to make a series of statements that follow one another logically.
Realistically, I think a Tier 3 is the most you can ask for from anyone who isn’t a professional writer or trying to become one. Tier 4s take too much time. The most useful Amazon reviews I see are all Tier 3s. My eyes glaze over when I see a really long Amazon review, so even if it’s extremely helpful, it probably isn’t worth posting there.
On blogs or sites dedicated specifically to criticism, it’s a different story. On my blog, I feel like I have license to go on as long as I need to make my point. (You may have realized that already.)
One thing I noticed once I started thinking about this is how many professional reviewers are only capable of writing Tier 1 and 2 reviews, albeit dressed up with five-dollar words and clever turns of phrase. How are they getting away with this? Well, people don’t read professional critics solely to get information, they also read them to be entertained. And nothing is more entertaining than a well-written negative review.¹
This is dangerous. There’s a strong incentive to write negative reviews, because they tend to attract more attention and comment. And if you’re focused on being negative, you’re very likely to lose sight of the thing that makes a Tier 4 review: ways to make the x in question better.
When faced with a choice between being helpful and being entertaining, critics feel a strong pull towards being entertaining. I’m guilty of this myself—writing a scathing but unhelpful review is way more fun and more rewarding (in terms of page views and comments) than writing an extremely useful review.
I’m not saying you can’t be witty and entertaining when you write a review, but that you should be careful not to lose sight of the larger goal. The job of an x critic is to figure out how to make good xes and avoid making bad ones.
Looking back at reviews I’ve written, I’m not sure that I’ve ever achieved a Tier 4. Probably the best one I’ve done so far is this review of Planescape: Torment. I say it’s the best because it’s the only one where I figured out why I liked it so much as I was writing the review. I felt like by writing it I was finally solving a mystery I’d been trying to answer since I first played the game in 2010.
This brings me to a final point about Tier 4 reviews: writing one will probably mean going over the x in question more than once. Maybe I’m just slow on the uptake, but I usually have to read/watch/play something at least twice before I can give a useful review of it. This is another reason Tier 4s are so rare.
“Now if you make a pilgrimage, I hope you find your Grail. Be loyal to the ones you leave with, even if you fail. And be chivalrous to strangers you meet along the road As you take that Holy Ride yourselves to know.”
–Warren Zevon, “Ourselves to Know”
Inspired partly by this post by Phillip McCollum, and partly because it’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, here’s a list of some of the wonderful folks I’ve met on social media over the years.
Andrew Crowther:The Secretary of the W.S. Gilbert society and an expert on all things Gilbert, as well as P.G. Wodehouse and plenty of other writers, Andrew is also quite the quick wit in his own right.
Eurobrat: A modern-day Jonathan Swift, with a real knack for very dark satire. Also a delightfully friendly and funny blogger, when not conjuring bleak and all-too-plausible dystopian scenarios. Her writing talent is undeniable, whether you agree with her politics or not.
Barb Knowles:Barb’s blog is funny, moving and thoughtful. What I admire most is how she can write about very personal subjects in an emotional and yet detached way. The way she can document even normal day-today events and make them funny or interesting is also wonderful.
Patrick Prescott: Sadly, Patrick no longer blogs. He was one of my first readers, back in the days when I was on Blogger, and he taught me a ton about both writing and history. Too many things to list, really, but here are two examples: I’d never heard of the Peterloo massacre till he told me about it. And second, whenever I write one of my rushed, description-light first drafts, I can imagine him telling me “nice skeleton, but there is no meat to this.” Then I go back and add some.
Carrie Rubin: Carrie is awesome. She’s a doctor, a novelist, a first-rate writing and health blogger… and also, she posts some really funny home life anecdotes on Twitter. I am grateful to her for so many things, including kindly and thoughtfully answering my rambling questions for an interview.
Eileen Stephenson: Before reading her book, I could not have told you the first thing about the Byzantines. Now, between her book and her blog, I’ve learned a ton about a whole period of history I previously knew nothing about.
Maggie Swanson AKA “Thingy”: Along with Patrick, I’ve known her since the Blogger days, when she would provide encouragement by commenting on my poetry, giving me some reassurance that I was, perhaps, not simply a lunatic mumbling nonsense into the void. Her work ranges from poetry to artwork to novellas, and her blog includes delightful commentary on politics, culture, and pretty much anything else you can imagine.
Russ Sype: Another Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and a very funny blogger for many years. But rather than talk him up too much, I’ll just let this video speak for itself. It gets better every day.
Ben Trube:Ben wrote the book I always wanted to write, but never could–a neo-noir, cyberpunk-y thriller set in our own hometown of Columbus, Ohio. He also shares my love of fractals–but he knows a lot more of the hard math stuff behind them.
I’m sure there are others, and so apologies in advance to anyone I’ve left off the list.
First of all, thanks are in order to loyal reader Natalie of boatsofoats.com. She notified me about a problem with the annotations on this page. I’m not even sure if I’ve completely fixed it yet, but I figure if not, I can at least make it up to her by directing some traffic to her excellent blog.
As for the annotations: I know nothing about HTML. But doing the original annotations for that page was not bad–it was just this:
<span text=”Whatever blithering comment I had”>Actual story text</span>
I then highlighted it in red to make it obvious which parts to mouse over.
But the problem was, it wouldn’t work on mobile devices–tablets, phones etc. And this bothered me. I tried to tell myself it was ok. But it was the sort of thing that would nag at me.
There must be a better way, I thought.
Mind you, I said I think. I’m not actually sure if it works on all devices yet. It definitely works on my iPad, which it didn’t originally when I was just using HTML.
That’s where you come in. I am calling on readers to come to my aid and check out the page to see if the annotations work for them. In exchange…
Let’s see,… I will teach you something about weird fiction from the 1890s?
How’s that sound?
Oh, another thing; some of the modifications I did seemed to (temporarily) play merry hell with the comments. (e.g. reducing my all-time comment count to zero, removing comment ‘likes’, stuff like that.) I think it’s fixed now, but if you notice any comment issues, let me know… unless the issue is that you are unable to comment, in which case you can use the form below or tweet at me
I don’t have much time to read these days. For this reason, I find audiobooks really convenient–I can listen to them while I’m doing something else. It’s a real time-saver.
So it occurred to me that I’m probably not the only person who doesn’t have time to read much. And that led me to realize maybe my readers would find it convenient to have audio versions of some of my really long posts.
While recording some of the poetry readings I’ve posted, I also recorded a reading of one of my recent posts on geopolitical and religious history. (The original post is here.)
And so now you can listen to me pontificating about various subjects while you are doing other things. It’s like having a little Ruined Chapel RSS feed running in your mind, as if a dystopian government had placed a propaganda chip in your brain.
Uh… bad analogy. Never mind. Anyway, try it out if you like.
I stole this idea from Barb Knowles who got it from Paul who got the idea from Aaron who stole it from Jess. (Whew! It all reminds me of the Tom Lehrer song “I got it from Agnes”–quite possibly the dirtiest song ever written without using a single off-color word. But I digress.)
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.[…] This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words…
Orwell then explains how, through shrinking the vocabulary of the language, heretical thoughts became unthinkable. He illustrates by quoting the following passage from the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.
Orwell then states that “it would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink.”
Why do I mention this? Well, it is very relevant to our present political situation.
One of the most notable things about Donald Trump is how few words he seems to know. People mock his tiny hands, but to me what’s truly amazing is his absolutely minuscule vocabulary.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in his tweets, where he will often conclude one of his communiques insulting someone or complaining about something with an imperative “Sad!” or “Bad!”
If Trump needs to lengthen some statement, usually all he can do is add the word “very” or, if he is talking about something he does not like, interject “so terrible”.
When Trump wants to add extra emphasis to some point, he often adds that it will be “big league”. (e.g. “We are going to win big league.”) Thanks to Trump’s peculiar accent, many people have misheard this as “bigly”; a child-like non-adjective that seems extremely fitting for the man, with his penchant for gaudy, oversized buildings.
If the problem were merely that our President-elect was a man incapable of eloquence, that would be one thing. But it is far worse than that.
The scary thing is that his style of communicating is very infectious. People–myself included–have picked up his habits of saying “sad!” or “big league”. It’s addictive, I won’t deny it; and there is an alarming pleasure in mimicking him–even for people like me, who find him utterly appalling and oppose him completely.
But that is the frightening thing: once you start to talk like him, you will start to think like him. And once that happens, you could reach a point where “a heretical thought” becomes, as Orwell warned, “literally unthinkable”.
To be clear, I think Trump’s rhetorical style (if you can call it that) is more a symptom than the disease itself. I wrote back in 2010 that “Twitter = Newspeak”, and that was before Trump was even on the political map. I do think that the ascendance of Trump, who communicates through Twitter far more than most candidates, supports my point. It may be that Twitter itself made Trump possible.