At first, I used Paper.li simply as an aggregator of links from all the people I followed. Of course, to an outsider, the group of people I follow looks random. No wonder I am the only regular reader of my first paper. To experiment further, I made another paper about content strategy. I thought that it would be neat and orderly at last. However, the people in the list are… well, people. So of course, they share things that aren’t related to their work. At first, this bothered me and I tried to edit things out manually but I soon gave up and then came to like it. Disorder and variety are a great vehicle of personality.
Sharpness in publications is overrated
Recently, Seth Godin threw out one of his short brain poking posts. He compared the merits of sharp and well-rounded individuals. As my brain still tries to reconcile its liberal arts education with all the unsolicited advice about sharpness floating around, it got me thinking.
I have a lot of varied interests, this is also why my first paper doesn’t make much sense to anyone but me. When people tell me to be focused, sharp or pointy, I like to remind myself: “I am no sword. I am no laser. I am a man“. Personal branding experts and their followers stay “on message”. Repeat their “value proposition” incessantly until they become so dull and uninteresting, they have to stage conflicts where none exists, churn out top sevens on their blogs, etc. Many publications I used to adore began resorting to these techniques. They publish things like “Kurt Vonnegut’s ten best tips on writing” and “What five things Hunter S. Thompson can teach you about writing”.
These blogs seem to publish for search engines and forget they address people. They cover keyword after keyword to lure us onto the business sites. This strategy is short-sighted because it doesn’t show their personalities and the full breadth of their expertise.
As Mandy Brown explained in her essay in Contents magazine, editing and publishing is about people and communities. You can’t be too sharp with people, they’re made out of flesh. Publications and editing need to take this into account.
Diversity is necessary
Editing any publication requires more than focus and sharpness. We need context and diversity. In content creation as in curation, coming to the subject matter from a variety of angles will provide both.
On the one hand, it will prevent readers from getting bored by creating rhythm. As Stephanie Booth explains in “Variety is the spice of life”:
By publishing only one type of “top post”, one turns it into the “average post”. Add a sprinkle of intermittent reward to the mix, and you’ll probably positively influence the way readers perceive your content.
Gradual discovery is a delight
On the other, gradual discovery and engagement works wonders to encourage readers to come again. Providing information little by little rewards subscribers and followers. It creates familiarity over time. In turn, familiarity provides the necessary context for you to go farther into details like in a good television series when you discover the characters little by little.
BoingBoing, Kottke and Brain Pickings, for instance, are the ultimate examples. They are difficult to grasp at first. Even after many visits, it might still be difficult to reduce their editorial line to one sentence or even a paragraph. Does that prevent people from getting it right away? Sure. Yet, after stumbling upon interesting articles of theirs over and over, curiosity is tickled. Readers start trusting them to come up with rich and fulfilling content. A relationship develops, in short. Each author has their own numerous areas of expertise and interests. Through their long history, they develop themes that subscribers can pick up on and follow.
The point is not to forget about planning all together. To convey the breadth and depth of your or your organisation’s personality requires a strategy. We made progress in our methodologies but relationships with humans can’t be mechanized. We shouldn’t forget Tara Hunt’s advice to embrace the chaos. In all forms of publishing, you are always dealing with humans. You don’t get to choose if things are messy, they will always be. You can only choose how much of a mess you want and if the mess is rich in meaning or not.
Image credit: “Table saw blade” by Santeri Viinamäki, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
I wrote “Let Readers Discover Your Publication’s Personality” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on January 9, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.