Own your words

I publish articles in exactly two places: here on this blog, and in magazines (both digital and paper). In the latter case, the pieces are paid commissions. Sometimes I’ll republish my own commissioned articles here, and sometimes I accept requests to republish my blog articles elsewhere, but generally speaking a piece is either exclusively here, or exclusively elsewhere.

The distinction affects a number of things. Topic: I naturally choose my own topics here, whereas commissions usually specify the topic. Tone: Here, it’s my own; in magazines, it’s usually to fit the publication’s style and audience. Length: I allow articles to be their natural discursive length here, whereas (at least for print), magazines tend to specify the limit down to the word - and often the character.

There’s a reason I’m telling you this. If you’re reading something with my name on it, there are two things you won’t encounter: Someone else’s unattributed words, here; or my own (non-commissioned) words, elsewhere.

This blog is my own outlet; my collected thoughts, essays and diary entries. It’s uniquely mine, and whatever you read here came directly from me. Hopefully, that seems obvious. It’s a matter of trust.

I get requests to publish “guest posts” here, which is an SEO scamming tactic. The deal is that there’s no explicit indication that the post was written by someone else (except for the generally inferior quality of English), and it includes links which convey rank to whatever sites they target. I get paid to keep the post up for a given period of time. Sometimes the fee is surprisingly high. I’ve never accepted, because it would be an abuse of the reader’s trust, but also (and more importantly), this is my place.

I have no problem with acknowledged sponsorship. It’s the way of the web, and it lets people devote more time to sharing their thoughts. I don’t even find it intrusive, as long as it’s clearly marked. To me, that’s fine. But the unacknowledged stuff - or the stuff that’s so sleazily presented as to discourage noticing it’s an ad, like the awful ‘advertorial’ sections in print magazines only flagged at the top of the page, and prepared in house layout style - is wrong. It’s a breach of trust. I think that most of us would agree on that.

The second thing I said you won’t see - my own personal words published elsewhere - is a more interesting subject. I’m seeing a lot of people posting articles on Medium lately, for example, and I understand why. It’s gorgeous to look at, the per-paragraph comments system is slick (not that you want comments), and there’s nothing to set up. There’s a lot of great content, and more importantly there’s a lot of content that’s trying to be great. Why wouldn’t you publish there?

Well, because it’s a byline. Your words, in someone else’s publication.

The issue for me isn’t legal rights to the content, or revenue generation, or even control over advertising. Those are all legitimate concerns, but they’re also valid for platforms where other people host your own personal blog, and I don’t have a problem with those. Likewise, writing words that others pay for is a choice. No problem there either.

I do have an issue with giving away your words just because it’s easy to do so. By default, your words should be yours, and that means more than being attributed: it also means gathering them together in your own publication, controlled by you, that serves as a place for your own voice to be heard above (and instead of) all others.

I think there’s a lot of value in seeing how a person’s writing has evolved over time, and I also think that people choose authors rather than topics. You’ll read a piece on just about anything as long as it’s by someone whose words you know you’ll enjoy. Posting your own stuff on someone else’s site (without remuneration) is working for free, but it’s also diluting your own presence: it’s fragmenting your own continued voice.

I understand that slotting an article into someplace like Medium may be a quick way to get some readers, but using it as your regular outlet seems like a huge mistake to me. If you have enough to say that you want to publish something of substance for a wide audience, your ultimate goal surely has to be to publish it yourself, in your place.

Article-dump sites take away your editorial control, and reduce you to one voice amongst many. You have no influence over who’s up before or after you, and you have no deeper identity. There’s no sense of inviting the reader in to try what you have to offer, then hoping they’ll stay for more.

Scattering your own words - and there are some very, very personal words on these sites - all across someone else’s web site also subtly changes their character, and the impression given of the author. There’s just a hint of reticence about publishing elsewhere; a note of separation. There’s a certain flavour of mail going to a PO Box instead of your home address. There’s one level of removal from the person; it has a bulletin-board quality.

As a discovery mechanism, there’s probably value there - but not as a permanent solution. Medium et al are at best social kickstarters for long-form personal writing, and at worst they’re pretty article-aggregators. But they aren’t publishing platforms.

I think a lot of people haven’t made that realisation, and that’s a sad thing. Your words, and the stories they tell, deserve more than being the latest morsel on a buffet of tiny, fashionably-circular author photos, to be sampled and then forgotten as the next thing rolls around. Where’s the identity? Where’s the commitment?

If you’re going to write, I believe you should have the honesty and the integrity to really expose yourself. If someone’s paying, then the finger can always be pointed at them: editorial control is a double-edged sword. But if no-one is paying, and you’re instead doing the courageous thing and sharing your raw words with the audience, do it on your own terms - whether that’s a hosted Tumblr or WordPress blog, or something you’ve set up yourself. The tech isn’t important; the personal exclusivity is.

It’s intimate, it’s disarming, it’s poignant, and it’s right at the pulse-point. Welcome to my place, and here are my words. Not as a taster where you have to scroll past the article footer to even see the author’s info, but in your house. In your own living room, or under the harsh light of the kitchen counter, with dirty dishes still piled in the sink.

For me, that’s what owning your words really means. Not the distribution rights, or even attribution. The vulnerability, and the authenticity, and the personal permanence.

If you’re going to say it at all, you should say it as yourself.

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