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Writing for Fun and Zero Profit

Posted 26th December 2017

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Gather round the campfire, fellow pop culture writers. Uncle John has something to say. You can sit on my lap if you like. Of course I don’t insist you sit on my lap, Henry. Calm down.

What’s that, Betty? You don’t stick things on the internet for other people to enjoy for free? Go off and read some of my other stuff, then. This piece isn’t for you.

The rest of you: listen up. Recently, I’ve heard a lot of you complain how difficult it is to get your stuff noticed online these days. No, no, this isn’t about you, specifically. I’ve heard a lot of people say it. Hell, I put myself in that category. Take a look at this Tumblr post I made back in 2013.

I’m not going to patronise you and tell you I can make everything better. You might get something from this, or you might not. But the below is how I deal with writing online, when there’s just so much stuff out there it’s difficult to get any kind of attention at all. You might think I’m just talking load of old shit. But I’ve found it helpful, and I thought it was worth getting it all down in case anyone else found it helpful too. Especially seeing as it’s the the end of December, and we’re all busy figuring out our plans for next year.

(I’m also going to leave out any talk about money – from Patreon or otherwise. Whether the below is helpful or not, I definitely can’t make anyone rich.)

The writing is its own reward.
Look, I’m getting this one out of the way now. I wouldn’t dream of writing this article and having this be the only answer at the end of it. Yes, yes, feel free to pass the sick bucket round, Lucy. You may all use it. I’ll wait.

Projectile-vomiting is a bit much, Tony. If you’re not careful, I may take offence at that.

The thing is… for me, it’s actually true. Writing really is its own reward. Oh, I don’t really mean the act of writing itself. Sometimes I find it enjoyable, and sometimes I suspect I’d rather find myself involved in a major car crash than actually start typing. But the sheer pleasure of having created something… not only has that not worn off, I’ve actually found it becoming more and more satisfying over the years. That doesn’t require a single other person to have to have actually read what I’ve written.

Which leads us to…

The pleasure in building up an archive.
Some people collect coins. Some people collect stamps. Some people collect used toilet tissues from celebrities. Yes, Peter, I’m looking at you. It’s fucking revolting, mate.

Me? I gain a great deal of satisfaction from building up an archive of work. OK, I admit, it’s a little like having a neat DVD collection. For me, gazing at my archives is a little like gazing at a perfectly-organised wall of films. It’s a little silly, really. But there are less productive collections to have in the world, after all.

Keeping that archive online has another advantage:

People can discover things you’ve written years later.
I can’t stress this enough: publishing things online is not a one-shot chance. If a piece doesn’t do that well originally? Hey, never mind, it might next month. Or next year. Or hell, in five years.

My favourite example of this with Dirty Feed is with my piece 11 Things Wrong With Fawlty Towers. To be fair, it did pretty well when I first posted it. But a few months later, it was the show’s 40th anniversary… so I linked to it on Twitter again. And it did even better that second time around. It’s now one of the most-read things I’ve ever published.

There’s plenty of things I’ve written on Dirty Feed which I’m proud of, but never really did that much in the wider world. But I get pleasure out of knowing that they’re sitting there, ready to be discovered. Some of them may forever be undiscovered gems. Some of them may actually just be utter shite. (There’s probably more of the latter than the former.) But some will be found, eventually.

You can smugly link to something you’ve written instead of actually having a proper discussion with someone.
Come on, we all enjoy doing that, don’t we? Especially when you know that the argument is going to be long and unpleasant. Just chuck an article at someone and go and have a cup of tea instead. You’ve probably thought about things in a more in-depth way than their ramblings, so you’ve already won.

Sometimes, a few people reading something you’ve written is enough.
I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating. To feel good about something I’ve written, I don’t need thousands of hits. 200 people reading something I’ve written and really liking it is worth far more than thousands half-reading it and then calling me a cunt. Hell, touching one person deeply is worth thousands of people reading it who don’t give a buggery.

Anything you write can be rewritten, repurposed, and republished.
Nothing you ever write is a one-shot deal. Think of your work as singles which are initially released and do nothing… and then are eventually re-released and get to Number 1. Hey, your original article doesn’t do much? Never mind, the version you revise and republish in a couple of years might be. Or that version you end up rewriting for another site might. Or how about that book of essays you always wanted to put together?

The very next thing you write could be the thing which takes off.
This one requires a little caution. You can’t just write in the hope that “next time will definitely be the one”. That could drive you absolutely crackers. Cliched as it is, taking pleasure in the act of creating is infinitely healthier than just relying on the feedback of others for your ego. You can control the former; the latter you very much can’t.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with keeping the idea at the back of your mind that some things will just take off, without it being easy to predict exactly what. My favourite example from my own writing is this piece I wrote on the 2005 Quatermass, which got a lot of attention compared to most of my writing. (Even making it onto Metafilter.)

If you’re writing article after article and nobody really pays much attention… it’s not a sign that nobody will ever pay much attention. You never know when you might hit just the right subject matter at just the right time. Though there’s one thing which could improve our chances:

We could all do more to help each other.
This is one thing I need to do more of especially. If I see a good article out there, I should let people know about it. If we all did a little more of that, it’d be nice.

Yeah, I know. The dangers of becoming a circle-jerk are great. I distinctly remember an article written by a famous comedy writer a few years back which I thought was utter dreck.1 The thing is, practically every single other comedy writer on Twitter linked to the piece, and said how great it was. Hey, maybe they all really thought it was, regardless of whether the piece made me want to piss blood or not. But I suspect there was a little bit of: “Oh, so and so’s done an important, meaningful piece. Best link to it and support him.”

No, I’m not suggesting we all pimp each other’s stuff regardless. That way lies madness. You think something’s shit: don’t fucking link to it. You think something’s boring: don’t fucking link to it. You think something’s just OK: it’s probably not worth fucking linking to that, either.

But there are too many times when I’ve read something great, and forgotten to retweet it or link to it. Or maybe I’ve hit the retweet button, but the piece really spoke to me… and I didn’t drop the author a quick message to tell them so. You can’t rely on others to make you happy when it comes to this stuff, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to receive a little positive feedback.

So there you have it. That’s how I get pleasure out of writing. A mix of being happy with writing in and of itself; of being happy with any positive feedback I might get… and the knowledge that anything I write – new or old – could get unexpected interest in the right circumstances. A combination of hope… but also, acceptance. This world’s full of people writing for free. Getting attention is hard, and none of us deserve to have other people give up their time to read our shit. But none of that means that what we’re working on is pointless.

Right, that’s your lot. Off to bed, everyone. Except you, Joel. Now, there wasn’t a smouldering human skull in the campfire when we started, was there? Do you want to tell me about that?

  1. If you’re reading this… not you, obviously. 

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Zoe on 28 December 2017 @ 9pm

I enjoyed this article.

Curious British Telly on 1 January 2018 @ 2pm

Some good points raised here.

One of the benefits of keeping an archive of work online is that – for me at least – I can see how my writing has improved over the years. I’d say that the first three years of my blog is badly written now and I’ve even had to rewrite some of the more popular articles as I was so embarrassed of them. However, I don’t have time to rewrite all 120 of them, so they can stay there as proof that all this writing has had some payoff.

And you’re absolutely right about articles being discovered some time later. I wrote an article on Break in the Sun a couple of years ago and it racked up a few hundred views in the first six months. However, that then doubled in one evening when a BBC4 documentary featured a short segment on Break in the Sun and viewers obviously headed straight to Google to find out more.