Why we like imperfect posts

by Kristin on April 11, 2011

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by .reid.

It seems to happen without fail: Every time I write a blog post that comes together like magic, and I hit “publish” with a “you nailed this one” smile on my face, the response is rather “meh.” And often when I really struggle with a post, feeling insecure and frustrated with it, stopping every few minutes to ask myself “What are you trying to say?” the response far-exceeds my expectations.

What is going on?!?

Maybe people sense my insecurity and are kindly trying to build me up? Or maybe this is God’s clever way of keeping me extra humble?

At any rate, it seems we’re not very good at predicting what will resonate with others. And as writers, it’s quite possible that the more sure we are of ourselves, the less human we sound, even if the ideas are spot-on. It’s possible for something to be so good it’s bad.

You experience this, too!

I quickly discovered I’m not alone in this phenomenon. A few days ago I sent out this simple tweet, thinking maybe a couple of people would respond:

bloggers: do you ever feel like the posts you like the most get a so-so reception, while the ones you feel unsure of are loved? why is that?

I was amazed by the number of people who had something to say on the subject—not just bloggers, but also pastors who regularly prepare and present sermons to their congregations. Here’s a handful of the responses:

@Meredithgould All the time.

@mrsmetaphor I totally get this. I have NO clue why…perspective maybe??

@rev_heather I find that with sermons, too. Odd.

@ShoutLaughLove all the time. it can be hard to gauge what will resonate.

@RelUnrelated It’s tough to get a handle on. Who is reading? Who is commenting? How did they get there? I wish I knew. :)

@Jen_rose yes! It’s so strange… my half-edited ramblings seem to get more response than things I planned and actually put work into.

@hopefulleigh Yes! I’m constantly surprised by the things that resonate with people.

@McMer314 ALL THE TIME! I feel like the posts I work so hard on and rewrite over and over get met with silence

@10MinuteWriter Get that ALL the time. Makes me wonder if I know what I’m doing.

@WritingJoy Sometimes. I work really hard on some that seem to be ignored (maybe people just have nothing to say).
(2) Some I was really passionate about but didn’t wait long enough before posting.
(3) …so they didn’t communicate well. Or I overwork them and totally lose sight of the original intent.

@BigMama247 Sometimes. I’ve had a few that I liked that were well-received, but some I like the idea a lot, but my execution = not great.
(2) And I think that sometimes my “meh” posts tend to be more honest which resonates on that intangible level.

@jamiearamini Always! I think we feel unsure of our raw/honest writing, when that openness is what people want and respond to the most.

Theories and lessons

I think there’s a lot of truth in all of these thoughts. When it gets down to it, I’m sure it’s a combination of many things—some of them impossible to pin down and articulate, and others having to do with completely random things like “Thursdays are bad days to publish blog posts.” (I’m not sure if this is true, although I bet several of you know.)

But even if our theories aren’t accurate, I think there are valuable things to learn about human nature, writing, community and how we relate to one another. The one I’m left pondering most comes from my husband Jason (and was also touched on above by @BigMama247 and @jamiearamini): Maybe the posts we “nail” don’t leave much room for comments beyond the “right on” type, while the posts we’re struggling with invite others to struggle along with us—to participate and problem solve together.

So…what are your theories? And what do the theories above say to us about writing and/or human nature—what can we learn?

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  • http://katieleigh.wordpress.com Katie

    True story. Just in the past week, I’ve posted twice about things I’m struggling with (and struggled in writing those posts). As you noted, those posts have gotten way more comments and feedback than the more polished posts, which tend to showcase the more polished parts of my life.

    I think you’re on to something here – the posts that expose our struggles invite people to share, to support, to struggle with us, and build community where we need it.

  • http://www.joyeggerichs.com Joy Eggerichs

    Similar to what you said at the end of your post, I wonder if certain language solicits different responses. “I believe” or “I think” can often be part of a blog where a writer has come to a conclusion. If its a well thought out post and not super controversial there may not not be much room to discuss.

    The danger in this if writers are gauging their success by comments, is that they may always write in a questioning and unsure form (even if they have a strong opinion – which would be false humility perhaps) or writing controversially simply for the sake of being controversial and they aren’t even sure what they think, they just want comments.

    Hopefully we write with a balance of bringing our passionate ideas to the page, while always doing it with true humility.

    Does that make sense? What are your thoughts? I’m unsure. (-;

  • http://www.alise-write.com Alise

    Mostly I’m just glad that Joy is more long-winded than I am. ;-)

    But I’m also thankful that I EVER have the opportunity to reach people through my writing. When I’m sitting around in my jammies with my unbrushed hair banging out a post, it seems bizarre that someone I’ve never met might be actually touched by those words. And what’s even more amazing to me is how their words back connect with me and help me to grow.

    No matter how or why it happens, it’s pretty awesome.

  • http://www.somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com suzannah {so much shouting, so much laughter}

    i think there is a lot to be said for imperfect and open ended. more polished posts may be off-putting, especially if they come across “expert-y” and readers don’t agree (or feel invited to engage?)

    i also try not to judge a piece by its comments. i read once that only 10% of readers will leave a comments–so a quiet screen doesn’t necessarily mean the post landed with a thud.

    interesting to consider…and glad it’s not just me:)

  • http://pmerrill.com/ Paul Merrill

    I’ve heard all over the place that simple “I totally agree, you nailed it!” comments aren’t good comments. And I agree, to a certain extent. We all want quality thoughtful interactions on our posts… people willing to disagree nicely and/or push all of us forward into new areas we hadn’t considered.

    Ironically, my first thought when I read this post was: “Kristin, I totally agree, you nailed it!”

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    This definitely resonates. It seems like the posts I WANT to resonate with others don’t ever appear to (at least judging by the lack of comments). But sometimes I wonder if the best, most profound writing either intimidates or just leaves nothing left to be said.

    I don’t know. If you come up with an answer, let me know!

  • http://divinest-sense.blogspot.com Jen

    Suzannah makes a good point… most people who read won’t comment, but it sure is nice to get that feedback and effort to engage! :)

    This is why the blogging “experts” bother me sometimes. Any time I go looking for advice on how to craft a better blog, I see things like pick one topic and stay with it, don’t write long posts, and don’t write a personal blog (nobody cares). So I stress and try to do those things, and it sucks the joy out of writing. But then when I start thinking about the blogs I love, I realize most of them are personal, and I do care. The best interactions either on Twitter or through blogs always seem to come from that unpolished, real-life writing.

    While I love and value posts with point I can learn from, honesty and community is what keeps bringing me back to a blog. That’s what I keep hoping to do with mine… write, try, fail, and maybe, just maybe resonate and start a conversation. It’s all a work in progress!

    Whew! Off my soapbox. I am second-guessing this half-edited comment but submitting it anyway. ;) I think you’re all onto something here!

  • http://www.joyinthisjourney.com Joy

    Bwahahahahah at Alise! And I think she nailed it — posts that say “I’m in process” invite more discussion than posts that say “I got it figured out.”

  • http://www.10minutewriter.com Katharine

    Thumbs up, Kristin! I just wanted to say how relieved I am that I’m not the only one who feels this way!

  • http://www.jordantwatson.com Jordan

    Kristen,

    I think you are correct in saying that people’s lives are more complicated than simple “this is how it is” posts. Those can be encouraging for people if they are done well. If you are looking for engagement it is important to bring people “your struggle” and invite them to make it “our struggle” with any issue. Enjoyed your post.

  • http://hopefulleigh.blogspot.com/ HopefulLeigh

    Thanks for the Twitter shout-out! I’ve heard the same statistic as Suzannah, though it doesn’t always seem to apply. Most of my real-life friends and family read my posts but don’t comment. They might email me about it or mention it 2 months later, by which time I’ve surely forgotten all about that particular post. I love comments but I try to be OK with what I’ve written regardless. Do I still think this is a good piece even if no one responds? I love engaging with my readers but I’ve found some prefer to comment, some email, and some say nothing at all but continue to come back. I agree that when I’m unsure and open about how I’m searching for answers, I get more of a response. But then the next day I might share a funny story without any expectation, and that gets more comments than anything. All I can do is be true to myself and continue to build the community on my blog.

  • http://jenniferluitwieler.com Jennifer

    Sometimes, I wonder if because of the volume of online interaction we engage in now makes our struggles more communal. What I mean is that I often find myself writing posts that closely reflect themes some of my favorite online friends are also writing about. It’s like we spend enough time together, we get in sync about ideas, even though we see them differently. I know this doesn’t exactly relate to this post, but “nailed it,” was taken. ;)

  • http://www.ordinarymer.com Meredith

    I don’t know if I have any answers, but one thing I think might be at work is perception – the way we perceive our own posts and the way others perceive them. The posts that we labor over, the ones we love, might be closer to our hearts precisely because we’ve labored over them and maybe we can’t expect other people to feel the same way.

    Recently, my stepfather made a comment (in person – he’s not an online kind of guy!) about one of my blog posts that he really liked. While I was flattered he takes the time to read my blog, it wasn’t a post I particularly loved myself. But he saw something in it that he really liked. So maybe it really does all come down to the way we approach and perceive our own writing and how others approach/perceive us.

    (I also like Suzannah’s point about only 10% of readers commenting – I tend to “lurk” more than I comment, so I can understand taking away something of value from a blog post without necessarily commenting on it.)

  • Kirstin

    Great post and fascinating comments! I don’t blog, but I do teach college students to write better papers for my literature courses. I find it really interesting how the phenomenon described here tracks with the challenges of college writing. One principle I find myself trying to instill early on: “If you’re finding it hard, you’re doing it right.”

    Students, particularly first and second-year students, get anxious when they struggle with a paper–but often it’s the students who struggle most who improve the most. They think the most seriously about the kinds of fallacies they need to avoid, they wrestle with complicated ideas that are difficult to express, and they risk exploring questions they don’t already know the answers to–and they write themselves into a better understanding of the subject matter. A lot of students, though, seem to come out of high school with the impression that they can gauge their success by how easily the paper comes to them–not realizing (until my feedback sets them straight) that the most obvious and easily expressed ideas aren’t necessarily the best ones.

    Obviously, blogging serves different functiions than college papers, and as the commenters here point out, the blogger who “nails” a post (saying “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expresst”) does a real service to readers, even if those readers only respond by reading appreciatively, not by commenting. But then, too, the correlation between difficult posts and the online conversation that ensues suggests that “if it feels hard you’re doing it right.”

  • http://radref.blogspot.com phil wood

    I know exactly what you mean. I called this post (http://radref.blogspot.com/2011/03/how-many-dead-canaanites-does-it-take.html) a trolley crash of a post. It certainly rambled but I had a great response. Some of my best work sits there without comment. Must be a full moon or something.

  • http://www.becomingjamie.com Jamie Aramini

    Great post, Kristin, and I’m not just sayin’ that because you included my tweet! I have always wondered about this exact thing myself. Personally, I get the most response when I blog about faith (my most viewed post is titled “Why I Am Tired of Church”). Yet, I hate to write about faith because I feel like I am so negative and cynical. Instead, I write about dandelions or something ridiculous that no one cares about just because it is safe. Then I post something that I feel is “edgy” for me, and people respond in droves, my traffic spikes, and i feel horrified about it. Then I go back to the dandelions because I don’t want to stir up trouble (in particular with real people in my life who I’m pretty sure could care less anyway).

    I don’t know . . . Someone should conduct some research on this!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Katie, that’s an interesting connection, between polished posts and the more polished parts of our lives. I’m not sure that’s the case for me, but maybe that’s because no part of my life seems polished! In any case, when we show our rough edges it does seem to help build stronger community.

    Joy, I like the way you describe a balance between passionate ideas and true humility. I certainly think it’s OK to feel strongly about something and even to come to some firm conclusions, as long as your conclusions don’t try to discount other, opposing conclusions. Sometimes I really know what I think, and other times I don’t. Either way, the communication has to be shared in truth.

    Alise, I think what you meant to say is that you and Joy are very conversational. :) You’re right–the fact that we can connect with one another at all and help each other grow is as pretty amazing thing. I do try to focus on quality over quantity when it comes to comments, but it’s hard to completely ignore those numbers…

    Suzannah, ah yes, those “expert-y” posts! I’ve heard there are plenty of them out there (but I’ve managed to mostly avoid visiting blogs that take that stance). And I absolutely agree about the importance of not just looking at comments as a gauge of a post’s “success.” We can never know who has been touched the most, or by what post. All we can do is write about the things we feel led to write about, and do it with honesty and heart.

    Paul, it’s funny–if everyone just said “you nailed it” it would somehow start to feel less true rather than more true! It would lose significance each time someone said it. But at the same time, I don’t know a blogger who doesn’t like to hear “you nailed it,” and there are times when I feel very compelled to leave a comment that says just that. So, thanks!

    The Modern Gal, but I was hoping YOU would figure it out! :) Anyway, it all makes me wonder how much of our experience is universal and how much is very particular–what’s the ratio?

    Jen, yes! The advice on crafting a better blog definitely sucks the life out of it for me. I decided long ago that if I can’t do it in a way that’s meaningful to me–that I’m excited about–I shouldn’t bother doing it at all. Blogging takes way too much time and mental/emotional energy, and usually pays nothing (at least not in monetary terms). I’m glad you’re doing what you’re doing, and for all the right reasons!

    Joy, absolutely–it’s collaborative rather than prescriptive, exploratory rather than a straight line into a dead end.

    Katharine, I was so relieved I wasn’t alone in this, too! It was definitely becoming one of those “Is it just me?” moments.

  • http://somewiseguy.com ThatGuyKC

    This blogging adventure has been so interesting. I’ve definitely noticed how much effort I put into trying to “work” on a post seems to have an adverse effect on traffic/comments. Stuff I think is gonna be epic flops (e.g. a book giveaway was one of my lowest traffic days ever) and stuff I just crank out on the fly sends stats soaring.

    I think authenticity and a natural writing voice resonates with readers. They want to hear a story or some quick tips with a touch of humor. I guess it depends on the blog topic/theme, but for personal blogging (or dad/man blogging for me) the real life stuff works best.

    Oh and traditionally Wed/Thurs has been my highest traffic day. Just sayin’ :).

  • http://radref.blogspot.com phil wood

    My top post is a piece about Amish in the UK. As there are no Amish in the UK I am at a loss to know why hundreds of people keep coming back to it. It seems to have connected somehow. Maybe it’s the thought of Amish buggies trundling through leafy English lanes. I don’t spend too much time wondering why I get such variable traffic. The internet is a big place and there’s so much room for random connections.

  • http://BlueEyedEnnis Phil Ewing

    Interesting and the serendipity of posting /comments never ceases to amaze me.
    I am loathe to think there are formulas for “success” – just like life there aren’t any.
    One man’s meat is another man’s poison or something like that ?
    Blessings

  • http://drgtjustwondering.blogspot.com Diana Trautwein

    This is an absolutely fascinating discussion! And one I’ve had internally for years – but about sermons, not blog posts. Now that I’m blogging more, I’ll see if the same process happens there as well. I must honestly say that I’m not sure I EVER preached a sermon in which I thought I had nailed it! But…there were some I felt hung together better, covered the text more succinctly, had greater practical application or some such. And there were others literally written all through the night before worship that I was sure were going to thud flatter than a pancake. And I could NEVER tell. So…I just began to trust that the Spirit would move/speak/convict/encourage wherever the Spirit felt it was needed and gave up guessing/evaluating. I remember once a favorite preacher in my young adulthood preached a sermon that was way different than his usual – it concentrated on the technical ways in which our bodies work to keep us well and healthy. I gave it a big ho-hum as did most of the people I talked about it with. But he told me later that there was one saintly woman in the congregation that morning who had just been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and she came up to him, eyes glistening and said, “Oh my goodness, pastor – that sermon was for ME. Exactly what I needed today – thank you so much.” And that was all he needed to hear. And all I needed to know. So keep guessing – but rest in the very strong possibility that you’ll never exactly figure it out. And keep writing these wonderful, thoughtful, articulate pieces – the amount of comments does not a final judgment make.

  • http://friendswithoutid.org/ Jackie

    Kristin, I cannot stop thinking about this post. OMG! Seriously spot-on!! It definitely provides the affirmation to take those half-formed ideas and run with them. Even as I’m writing it feels like things are frayed or blurry. Then, someone hits on an idea and clarifies it for themselves or makes a connection that supports the kernel that I was attempting to polish and pop into popcorn–tasty and revealed.
    Thanks!!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Jordan, this is well-put: “If you are looking for engagement it is important to bring people ‘your struggle’ and invite them to make it ‘our struggle’ with any issue.” Very true! I find that even when I write about something particular like divorce, for instance, I am always seeking more universal lessons and truths.

    HopefulLeigh, that’s definitely true—people “respond” in many different ways, not just via the comments box. I have a friend who blogs and gets mostly personal emails in response to her posts, perhaps because the topics she writes about tend to be personal. I’ve heard other bloggers say they might as well close their comments on the blog because all of the dialogue happens on their Facebook pages, when they post a link there. It’s certainly not a science!

    Jennifer, oooh, I like this idea: “…the volume of online interaction we engage in now makes our struggles more communal.” In a broad sense, the world does seem to be getting smaller, and people seem more transparent than ever about their struggles (at least from my vantage point). Much to keep chewing on…

    Meredith, you make a great point about perception. Reading blogs can be sort of like going to an art museum and looking at art—there’s the actual art that’s there and most likely doesn’t change, but each viewer brings their own history, current mood, worries, hopes, relationships, etc. to the art they are viewing, and all of that impacts the meaning they walk away with.

    Kirstin, I both nodded in recognition AND cringed when I read this: “If you’re finding it hard, you’re doing it right.” I am sure that’s almost always the case, but it’s not what I want to hear! It’s never what I’ve wanted to hear, ever since I was little. For me, though, I think I’ve had enough practice that when the writing comes easy it *can* mean I’m doing it right, but when the idea comes too easily it’s probably suspect in some way.

    phil, maybe if you *advertised* the post as a “trolley crash,” that ended up attracting readers—you know how people can’t turn away from a crash! :) But it’s more likely that people were drawn to the way you were working through the idea, even if the work left you feeling rather beat up.

    Jamie, you should write a post based on that comment! I love hearing you go back and forth, that inner dialogue that plagues us as we try to find a happy medium we can live with. Maybe you need “dandelion post” reprieves in order to store up the energy for the shockers.

    ThatGuyKC, you make a good point about writing “on the fly.” The posts I don’t much like tend to be either the ones I really struggle with (what am I trying to say?) OR the ones I write really quickly, just because I feel like I have to get something published. And if people respond well to them, that could mean they a) like being a part of the struggle, or b) like a very free, loose writing style that isn’t over-thought (like the five-minute posts I’ve been writing on Fridays).

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Phil, I agree–I don’t think there are formulas for success. I do, however, want to write about things that resonate with others. In other words, I want to write about subjects that are meaningful to many people, and I want to write about them in a way that draws others in. Maybe the issue at hand is how we define and measure “success?”

    Diana, yes, I can imagine a sermon would be a very difficult thing to ever feel sure about! Your decision to let go and trust that the holy spirit will do it’s thing, and your story about the ho-hum teaching that was exactly what one individual needed to hear) are very encouraging, important reminders. I will do my best to care less about numbers (but I probably will never stop being curious about what makes people tick!).

    Jackie, it’s so easy to discount those half-formed ideas, but it can also feel so good (and be so helpful) to get them out! (I love the kernel/popcorn image, btw!)

  • http://radref.blogspot.com/ phil

    Kristin, your replies apprediated. I followed up my rambling post about the land of Canaan with a little piece about blogging which doesn’t always go to plan.: http://radref.blogspot.com/2011/03/shopping-trolley-theology.html. I think you’ll see where the shopping trolley comes in. A few days before I sent that post I remember another conversation with a writer about writing that doesn’t go to plan. She said it better than I did but the flavour of the convesation was ‘embrace the surprises’ and don’t try to domesticate the writing. I finished off my shopping trollley post with a sentence: “It’s better to live the questions than to find the answers”, which sums up what I mean by ‘success’. Blog posts tend to be short pieces of writing but I think the best ones take the reader to surprising, creative places.

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