You think you write under pressure? Try writing eight or nine stories each day.
Dan Steinberg writes those eight or nine stories each day for one of the most popular blogs on the Washington Post website, called The Sports Bog (no, that's not a typo). That keeps him busy. But he also writes four 600-word stories a week for the second page of the Post's print sports section. That keeps him really busy.
I wanted to talk to Steinberg because I was interested in the difference between a professional blogger like Steinberg (that is, one who blogs for a news organization) and someone who writes strictly for print. Bloggers like Steinberg who write for a news organization have writing processes that never stop: even though they are not composing all the time, they spend a lot of time in the invention stage, looking for topics and researching them. At first blush, you might think they have it easy, since they have don't have deadlines like print writers do. On the other hand, the reason why they don't have deadlines is because all they do is write: you can't have a deadline when your writing never stops.
I also wanted to discuss readers' expectations for blog posts. Does the fact that it's a blog post--and thus often written quickly--mean we should excuse lackluster quality with the qualifier that "it's just a blog post"? (I should point out that Steinberg does not suffer from lackluster quality.) Steinberg told me that, on the blog, there aren't many posts that he would be proud to send to his college English professor. But if that's true, I would add that it's a reflection of the relentless blogosphere environment in which they are written, not of their quality.
So read my interview with Dan Steinberg. You'll learn about his thoughts on the pyramid structure, what happened when he covered the Super Bowl, and what would happen if Barack Obama read his blog.
How do you come up with topics? Do you seek out topics each morning or do they find you?
I have a long list of potential items that I carry around with me, but that stuff is usually secondary items that I can do if I get bored or if I run out of things. I get tips from people on email all the time, I am on Twitter all the time looking for stuff, I watch TV, and I interview people myself. I used to rely a lot more on talking to people myself because I thought that was a function of my job, but I felt like I was wasting my time. I was spending too much time traveling and waiting for people to finish practice. I realized it was more valuable for me to sit in front of my computer or my television.
That's a good lead in to my next question. Talk about the physical act of your writing process. Bloggers don't have the luxury of time when they compose, so your process is a lot different than, say, someone who writes only for print. Do you outline, or just start writing?
There is no craft at all to it. It's just like an assembly line. I am trying to pump out stuff as fast as I can, like eight or nine items a day. So there is no time to outline or even think about things before you start writing. I write directly into the blogging software. I'll read it quickly, skim over it, then send it.
I have space on page two of the sports section four days a week, about a 600 word space. To the extent that it's possible, I consider it a lot more important to worry about the writing for those things, because people understand that when they are reading a blog, what they are getting is not necessarily high quality writing. There's an expectation, though, that when you pick up the print version, the quality is going to be better. The thing I always tell people is that theoretically Barack Obama could land on page two, and he doesn't care that I published nine items the day before or how quickly I had to work. I try to make what I write for the paper a little cleaner, a little better.
But do people really still have that expectation about blogging, given that so many people have blogs?
I think that will change, but the people who read my blog still have that expectation. I do get comments in emails or in the online comment section of the blog, where people don't know it's a blog and will say, "What kind of article is this? It doesn't seem like you spent a lot of time on it," or "This is not very well thought out." And they are right. It's not something I would turn in as a newspaper article, but it's a different medium. If a random reader to our website gets to my blog from somewhere else, I don't know that they always understand the difference between something that ran in print and something that was web only.
Are you conscious of the difference in structure between print and online pieces when you write?
It's a huge difference. When you are writing something for print, there an expectation that someone is going to read the whole thing. It's one piece of writing, so you can keep the kicker until the end. You can do stuff with the end that you can't do on a blog post, where you basically know that people are going to click around the internet constantly if their attention isn't satisfied. You have to put all your best stuff at the top. You can't waste any time with silly intros, and you certainly can't expect that people are going to wait until the end for the payoff quote. When we talk about the pyramid structure, where the most important stuff is at the top, I think newspaper writers gradually got away from that. Now it's almost like a 600 word essay. But with blogs, it's all about the pyramid structure.
Do you ever get anxious writing on a deadline?
Before I was blogging, I was a beat writer. The deadline pressures there are crazy. For blogs, they say the deadline is always now, but realistically if you wait ten minutes to read it over that's not going to make much of a difference. But I covered the Super Bowl for the Post once, when the Giants and Patriots played, and that deadline was literally like two minutes after the game ended. Whenever the game ended, the deadline was two minutes later. I had two entire stories written--one about how the Patriots had finished this incredible 19-0 season, and the other about how the Giants had pulled off this incredible upset. Both stories were complete stories, but I was constantly updating each one and tweaking the ending as the game went on. That was crazy pressure.
Well, you may not be reporting news items, but do you still feel like you have to get something out before the other bloggers at the same press conference get it out?
Absolutely. The weird thing is, if you are at something like a press conference, there is this weird dichotomy between trying to do that and push everything out as fast as possible, and not being an anti-social freak, head buried in their computer, who is not paying attention to the person who is still talking. So what a lot of people have been doing--and this has more to do with internet strategy than writing strategy--is doing live updates on their Twitter feed, so that the during a Mike Shanahan press conference, the Post can program the site so that the Tweets from their three Redskins reporters all show up as a running dialogue on a blog post.
But if you want to talk, like we were before, about people mistaking an article for a blog post: if you click on a link and see a collection of 140 character Tweets, it's really not valuable at all. But as a writer, you are scared that if you are not Tweeting those quotes, someone else is going to be doing it. And if Tweet them, you can get burned because people people at certain sports websites who aren't at that press conference can take a collection of Tweets and quotes from someone else and make a meaningful blog post out of it while we are still stuck in the press conference. That's why it is sometimes better to watch those press conferences on TV. I can watch it and take a few minutes to make a coherent blog post out of it. The people there, on the other hand, have to pack up their recorders and go from the press conference room to the media room and start up their blog software again. There is so much more time wasting when you are actually out there.
How much do you really revise, then?
Honestly, part of it is just making sure the words are spelled right. Still, sometimes when I look at past blog posts, I find an unbelievable amount of typos. It's embarrassing. So I edit for normal copy editing stuff. We don't have copy editors for blog posts. There used to be a minimum of three copy editors who would check a story before it made it to print. Now, it's just me. I almost never will write something for the blog, look at it, then revise in the sense of moving paragraphs or changing the structure. That's what I do for the newspaper stories. They call them "excerpts," but they really aren't. They are rewritten to make them look like a newspaper item. I'll copy and paste something into a Word file to make it a print item, and I'll realize, "Oh, that really shouldn't have gone there," or something like that. I'll move sentences, quotes, paragraphs.
What's the one thing you see in your blog posts that you tend to correct for the print version?
That's a good question. I'll have to pay more attention to those things. I think maybe I get away with too many cliches on the blog that I won't to do in print. I try to make my writing more original, and when I am writing as quickly as I am for the blog, a lot of times I won't even care about that. But when I revise, I'll see cliches that I would never want to see under my name in print.
It's probably safe to say you never get writer's block.
Yeah, that's not a part of my life anymore. Because when you don't care about quality as much . . . I think that's what writer's block is about. It's not that you can't think of the words, but that you can't think of good words. And it's worth saying that a lot of what I write for the blog is based on quotes, whether it's from the TV or the radio. When that's driving you, it provides the meat of what you are writing about anyway.
What is your policy on accurate quoting--that is, when someone uses grammatically incorrect English, do you clean it up?
The Post policy is that we don't clean up quotes. You can put stuff in brackets, but you can't change words or use different words. Honestly, there is a habit among some people to clean up quotes from the people they like. I don't have examples, but if some people are interviewing someone they have a good rapport with, and that person uses the wrong word, the reporters might put the right word there instead. Again, that's a total gut feeling. I have no examples.
How much time do you spend reading other blogs? Do you worry that by reading so much of what others say, you might unconsciously start to mimic what they are saying?
It's not like reading ten novels and getting a whole bunch of ideas or styles of writing. We are all writing about the same topics, so you want to make sure you aren't repeating what other people are saying. It would be impossible to do my job without reading other blogs. I read them constantly.
There's the headline issue as well. We write our own headlines, and that's something writers never used to do. And when I am writing about the same topic as another blogger, it's not that easy to come up with unique headlines. With our headlines, we just want to get to the point; we can't be clever all the time, with plays on words, that headline writers used to be able to do. And there's only so many ways to say that. I do worry about repeating other people's headlines.
What advice can you can give to people who struggle with writing on deadline?
Honestly, you have to be able to type really fast. That something I can do. But advice about blogging, in general: imagine that you are typing an email to your friends, trying to get that conversational tone rather than something more stilted or official sounding. Actually, instead of that, imagine typing an email to your friends that is going to be graded.
When are you ready to call it a night?
That's a good question, and my wife and daughter would probably say that I need to work on that more. This has more to do with web standards than writing, but our traffic declines significantly after 5 or 6pm, when people are leaving work. Our money time is around 9 to 5, so after around 5 or 6 I'll only post something if it is really important and if I thought someone else would post it first if I didn't. Even if I find something at 10pm that I think a lot of people would be interested in, the only way I will post it at 10pm is if I think someone else would do it first. Otherwise, I'd much rather wait until 9:30 the next morning when I know a lot more people will be online. Of course, at night I'll still be reading and watching things, trying to come up with ideas for the next day.