The most helpful thing you can write might be nothing.
I wonder if the best way to help my information-overloaded audience is to write less.
“Be helpful” has always been the guiding principle of my writing.
My aim is contribution. To put something positive into the world while respecting my readers’ time. I want to send people away with information that improves their lives, even in small ways. Sometimes that means sharing a practical tip, or explaining a process, or exploring a thought. Other times the most helpful thing I can do is to highlight someone else’s good work.
I’ve been a writer all my life, and a professional writer for 18 years. My first book, about how to build a website, came out in 1996.
I started blogging 10 years ago as a way to unravel my experiences as a new parent. At that time, the relatively small number of parenting blogs led to a tight, generous community of writers and readers. Through my blog I’ve met hundreds of people and communicated with thousands more. Some of my dearest friendships began as comments on a blog post.
The avalanche of words
We’re all media producers now. You may not think of yourself as a writer or your Facebook update as “media,” but you’re contributing to the stream of words and pictures rushing by at ever-increasing speed.
I say this with no scorn. Had it been this easy to connect and converse online when I became a parent, I may never have started a blog. The Internet has made my life better, and it has fueled my writing career.
But “socializing media” has also created an avalanche of information. Even if I were able to pick out the top 5% of the most useful, insightful writing every day, I could never read all of it, let alone process it.
The paradox for writers in the era of information overload
I struggle to manage the stream of information coming at me from every device, and I know my readers do, too. The “solution” is to narrow the stream. To intentionally restrict the flow of information by placing mindful limits on what, when and how I “consume.”
Easier said than done, yes. Ironically, I’m seeing more and more articles about the importance of “information diets.”
This creates a paradox for writers whose intention is to help readers improve their lives.
If reducing information overload is the goal, and reading less is the prescription, does this mean I should write less?
Less content, more connection
It’s never been easier to produce more content more quickly. New channels seem to pop up every month. It’s exciting and somewhat addicting to feed these channels and get responses.
But perhaps it’s time to consider if I better serve my readers by enriching and refining — and reducing — my output.
Many grumble about the “listifying” of the Web, with “X Tips For Better Y” dominating the posts making the rounds in social media. I click those headlines as much as the next person, and I’ve frequently been disappointed by the results — a quickly written post containing obvious or oversimplified advice manufactured for clicks.
When a post (or any other piece of content) delivers on its promise, I’m pleased. When it goes a step further and gives me a moment of insight or connection, I’m thrilled.
These sorts of pieces usually take time to research and write. But if a writer consistently delivers that quality and connection, I’ll happily wait.
I realize it’s not fair (and possibly not accurate) to project my preferences onto my readers. But it’s not such a stretch to think that what’s most helpful at times is a pause. A moment — permission, even — to step out of the stream for a quiet rest along the bank.
Good for business?
If you’re a working writer, I’m not saying this is the greatest moneymaking strategy. I also know that writing assignments come and go, and you don’t always get to pick your favorites.
But scarcity and perceived value often go hand in hand. The less of something there is (assuming it’s good), the more it’s worth, if not in dollars, than in attention.
For a writer, attention is the most valuable thing there is. Not the flash of visibility that comes from a catchy headline, but the ongoing attention earned by consistently producing good work that helps people.
I want to get paid for my work. Of course I do. But, more than that, I want my writing to matter.
I’m not sure how this will play out in my own work habits, but it’s got me thinking.
Perhaps the best way I can cut through the noise is to stop adding so much of my own.