Sometimes people think blogging is a waste of time, and that maybe I’m just a sad little history/literature geek at a laptop blogging things which nobody will read. But I received a bit of encouragement today in the form of an article from over 300 years ago.
My undergraduate dissertation examined two 18th-century periodicals called The Tatler and The Spectator. They were written by two men, Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele (two of my other favourite 18th-century authors alongside Henry Fielding). I have a late 18th-century bound set of their periodicals and usually read one of their articles each morning.
In this issue Addison muses upon communicating your thoughts to the world via short, concise mediums such as periodicals. Periodicals were the social media of their day, designed to be read in coffeehouses and to provide debating points for coffeehouse patrons. These periodicals contributed to the birth of the public sphere, or what we would now call “public opinion”.Addison begins his treatise by saying:
“A great book is a great evil […] A man who publishes his works in a volume, has an infinite advantage over one who communicates his writings to the world in loose tracts and single pieces.”
“Loose tracts and single pieces” – much like blogging! The author of such ephemeral things as short single pieces must interest the reader straight away, for readers do not give them any allowance to be boring, in contrast to the reader of a heavy volume who expects that a book might be dull in one or two places. In fact, the author of these short pieces must:
“Fall immediately into [their] subject, and treat every part of it in a lively manner.”
Indeed, engagement is key. If you can’t interest your audience straight away and keep them engaged for around 2,000 words, then you’ve lost them. Drawing a contrast to the livelier writers of periodicals and the duller writers of books, Addison jokes that:
“Were the books of our best authors thus to be retailed to the public [as periodicals], and every page submitted to the taste of forty or fifty thousand readers, I am afraid we should complain of many flat expressions, trivial observations, beaten topics and common thoughts.”
So when writing an article (or a blog), Addison says that whatever you’re writing about must be NEW/ORIGINAL and that:
“Every sheet should be a kind of treatise, and make out in thought what it wants in bulk: that a point of humour should be worked up in all its parts; and a subject touched upon in its most essential articles, without the repetitions, tautologies and enlargements that are indulged to longer labours…An essay writer must practice in the chymical method, and give the virtue of a full draught in a few drops.”
And my favourite line from his whole piece, and one which I think is very true:
“Were all books reduced thus to their quintessence, many a bulky author would make his appearance in a penny paper: there would be no such thing as a folio: the works of an age would be reduced to a few shelves; not to mention millions of volumes, that would be utterly annihilated.”
Even Addison, as astounding as it is to me to believe, had his detractors, and so he turns his attention at the end of the article to the modern-day equivalent of trolls, or “moles” as he calls them. When people disparage the work that you’re doing, Addison gives more encouragement:
“I am not at all mortified, when sometimes I see my works thrown aside by men of no taste or learning. There is a kind of heaviness and ignorance that hangs upon the minds of ordinary men, which is too think for knowledge to break through. Their souls are not enlightened. – Nox atra cava circumvolat umbra [Virg. Aen. 2. v. 360] (Dark night surrounds them with her hollow shade).”
It is impossible for these people, says Addison, to be constructive in their criticism, they only deride and scorn. And he says to remember that it isn’t for your detractors that you write.
Addison never actually wrote a lengthy multi-volume work like many of his contemporaries did, but Thomas Macauley once quipped that:
“We have no doubt that if Addison had written a novel on any extensive plan, it would have been far superior to any we possess.”
Image Credit: 1798 Lloyd’s Coffee House, cartoon by George Woodward, at Calke Abbey. © NTPL/John Hammond