October 31, 2014

The World That I See: State of the Blog Edition

Wong Kar Wai's 2046

During the past month, I’ve slowed down the posting frequency for this blog and spent a lot of time pondering its existence. Like most creative endeavors, the site has morphed into something much different than where it began. It’s been thrilling to discover great films and connect with so many intelligent people in the online film community. I had little understanding of what the site would become and didn’t expect to enjoy blogging so much. I started posting four to five times a week, and keeping up with that pace was a constant goal. Somewhere along the line, the site reached a tipping point and started feeling like a job. I want to continue this project but must change to make it worthwhile again.

Although I’ve never considered the blog as a stepping stone to being a professional critic, it’s hard not to look for validation. There have been three times this year where I hoped to expand my online presence. The first example was applying for the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), which seemed like a no brainer. It was a long process to get a juried response, and the reasons for the rejection were all over the map. I also inquired about participating in the Criticwire Survey, which gives online critics a chance to respond to a timely question about the movie world. This seemed like a long shot, but the lack of any answer was disconcerting. Finally, I hoped to cover the upcoming St. Louis International Film Festival by reviewing screeners prior to the festival. I located the right contact through a Twitter acquaintance and sent an inquiry. This request also was met with no reply, and that dismissal surprised me.

I mention these examples not to gain sympathy but to offer context for my thinking. That outreach was part of plans to strive for something more. Instead of bringing new opportunities, the results raised questions about the entire effort. My writing has improved, but there are thousands of similar sites. When you add in a full-time job, friends and family, and just trying to enjoy life, more time in front of a screen was less exciting. Beyond the external audience, was watching movies and writing about them still satisfying? That is the most important question in this endeavor. I don’t have an easy answer, and I’m definitely not ready to quit. Instead, I’ve decided to enact this solution:

Stop trying to be a film critic.

This choice may sound like I’m retreating, but it’s actually the exact opposite. I’ve often felt pressure for not seeing the movies that I “should” see. There are hundreds of worthy films released each year, and catching even a portion of them is difficult. When you add in trying to review them, it becomes impossible. This environment has led me to put together short reviews that have solid writing, but say very little. If I’m going to continue this blog, I must recognize that it’s okay to bypass obvious trends.

Once Upon a Time in the West

What’s strange about writing a personal blog is setting up deadlines that seem essential, but are really just markers. Instead of exploring a movie, I’m writing to meet an arbitrary date. Creating a schedule is important to keep the site flowing, but it can constrict the posts. By choosing to follow the rule above, I’m hoping to focus more on content. Why not take the time to do a more detailed post instead of a quick review? I’ve already moved in that direction by not having ratings and avoiding plot summaries, but there still are boundaries keeping the pieces in a certain format. This leads me to my second solution:

Slow down the writing process.

It’s important to get my thoughts down quickly after watching a movie. However, that doesn’t mean that publishing should happen soon afterwards. There’s a term called Slow Blogging that refers to a choice to ride against the stream of constant information. It’s hardly a new idea; the New York Times wrote a story back in 2008. Even so, the approach seems just right in my current stage of life. I have two young girls and want to spend as much time with them as possible. I’ve also been working to get healthier, and cramming in a quick blog post around other activities rarely works. It diminishes the quality of my writing and leads to stress and disappointment. It’s time to create a better balance.

Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes

When I think back to my favorite posts on this site, most of them are detailed essays that I spent weeks putting together. The short reviews barely register; it’s the more thoughtful pieces that stick in my mind. Doing a standard review of Skyfall was okay, but digging into it for several thousand words was much better. I’m not an expert on form, so it takes some time for visual themes and devices to make sense. Letting my mind ponder a movie can only help the blog. The number of posts may be smaller, but the results won’t feel like I’m checking a box. This leads to my final solution:

Diversify the content.

This evolution started earlier this year with a weekly look at Deadwood and several posts about Stargate Universe. I’ll keep doing marathons, but they’ll employ a looser format. The topics also may stray further into TV, books, and themed entertainment. The goal is to avoid falling into predictable patterns. I’m also trying to keep the subjects engaging for me. If I’m not excited to watch a movie or TV series, it’s going to carry over into the writing. It’s been so refreshing to blog about Survivor for Rob Cesternino’s site during the past two seasons. The community supporting RHAP loves the show, and connecting with them has been great. I’m engaged with the show, and writing never feels like work.

I want to develop a similar feeling about my writing for this site. I don’t have illusions that these choices will lead to more readers. There are so many blogs discussing films, and even having a small audience is inspiring. The current blogging environment is much different than where it was in March 2011 when I started the blog. Sites that were social centerpieces for many have become less influential. It’s just part of the ebb and flow of the Internet age. We’re all still figuring out what we can do, and new forms of content delivery keep changing the game. Professional critics are doing similar soul searching. It’s an exciting time for connecting with people around the globe. The challenge is ensuring that whatever we do is satisfying to each of us. I’m hopeful that these adjustments and others down the road will make this blog something that keeps inspiring me well into the future.

16 comments:

  1. I think every single blogger (that isn't doing this to become a legitimately professional critic) reaches this point. I've seen this post or similar a ton over the last number of years, so don't feel bad about doing this! I think one of the best things I've done is create Your Face with Jason and Nolahn which, while it does give some restrictions, it makes us only post twice a week, and one of those posts can be pretty much anything we want, so there's never that feeling of review burnout. Yet because there's 3 of us, we have daily content for readers. Long story short (too late), I know how you feel, too.

    But you're a really good writer--after all, you did win the anonymous writing competition at the LAMB! So I'm really glad you're sticking around. Even switching things up is a fine idea. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

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    1. Thanks. I've gone through this type of phase before, but it's different this time. Still, I'm not ready to give it up and hope that I can find the right formula for it. It's a work in progress, but I'm more optimistic after thinking it through.

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  2. I see we started about the same time. For the first couple of years I posted just about every day. I was on a sabbatical so it was my creative outlet. I wasn't too worried about doing current films since my blog's overall concept was me recommending movies to others, but I did do Oscar nominated films and big summer movies. I dropped the latter this year because I wasn't too excited about most of them and I figured I wouldn't have the time.

    And about a year or more ago I started posting less frequently as I was working on a genealogy book and starting a new job. Now I post maybe once or twice a week. And that's even though I have completed and published the book. Just a heads up: posting less frequently has cost me regular readers/commenters. While I never got a ton of comments like the far better socially networked bloggers, 10-12 responses was not uncommon. Now I might get 2-4 on a movie post.

    Good luck with whatever you decide to do with your site.

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    1. Chip, I'm not sure it's as simple as fewer posts. That does play a role, and I've seen it at times recently. On the other hand, I think that comments are going down overall; people are spending less time with blogs and more on Twitter and other social media. I've noticed the change even in the past three years, and I don't expect that to change anytime soon. Popular blogs are still doing well, but it's become more challenging to get readers for smaller ones. Thanks!

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  3. Dan, I've been right there with you at all stages of this. I at one point was working toward becoming a "real" film critic, and did a lot of stuff to that end, but it just ended up making it feel like work in a negative way. When I was expecting my daughter, I think it just became pretty clear that I wasn't going to be able to put in the time and effort needed to pursue that and also spend the time with my family that I wanted to. I know some people do it (and who knows, in ten years I might change my mind and try again), but I'm not that person, not right now.

    Pulling back to focusing on the things that interest me, trying to post once or twice a week (but not beating myself up if I miss a week here or there) - it's been good. I'm starting to get a bit more ambitious now, but still focused on things I want to do, not feeling like I have to keep up with the new releases or anything like that. And really, you can do great things like that. There are lots of people reviewing new releases. I almost feel like these days, that's not the way to set yourself apart, unless you actually enjoy doing that and would be doing it anyway.

    Anyway, just my ramblings on going through a lot of similar thoughts. I think the main thing is that pulling back like this isn't giving up - it's refocusing on the things that bring YOU joy and fulfillment. And that's healthy and wonderful.

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    1. Jandy, thanks for the encouragement! When I decided to pull back, it was like a huge weight was lifted. I still really enjoy the writing side of it, but I needed to find a better balance and remind myself of why I was doing it in the first place. It's been a while since I thought there was a chance of actually being a critic, but I still try to do a good job with the blog. The question is how to do that and not go overboard.

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  4. Most of us bloggers who do this as a hobby reach this point. It eats up huge chunks of time if you let it. I fully understand how you feel as I've posted more this year than any other. Maintaining that pace has been both fun and nerve racking. The question becomes at what point does what I'm getting out of blogging cease to be worth the effort I'm putting in? This post is essentially asking that question and trying to figure out a way to answer it. Very thoughtful and honest of you. Glad to see you're not completely jumping ship and I hope this new approach works for you.

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    1. Thanks Wendell! I went through a stretch over the summer where I posted almost every day, and I think that contributed to where I am now. Even so, it was a good exercise despite some of the challenges. I think the way I'm heading is definitely the right way to go at this point.

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  5. Blogging is one of those hobbies that can definitely become all consuming and you're so keen on hitting that goal, whether it's posts, comments, hits, it does get overwhelming. I know that I think about "what to blog about" on an almost daily basis. It does get tiring! It's weird, and alarming, to think I've been blogging on and off for nearly half my life!

    It's a great idea to stop and reassess where you are and where your blog is. What's more important for me, whether it's my job or blog, you've got to keep pushing yourself. That way, you'll keep your own interest and passion for it. It's so easy to slide into doing the easy things.

    Great to hear you're just taking another approach and ptsnob.com won't be going anywhere :)

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    1. Jaina, I agree that not sliding into habits is a good approach for anything. I do think that part of where I am no is because I pushed myself too much on this blog. Even so, I think the key is just focusing on the right things. Hopefully that's the way I'm heading now.

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  6. Someone who writes as well as you do needs the creative outlet that a blog provides. I see that others are sharing their experiences with writing existentialism, I know self questioning is a normal,thoughtful process. Including us in your self examination is gratifying because readers become invested in the word of those they spend time following. Your goals need to satisfy you. It's got to be disappointing that a couple of attempts to move outside your current zone got thwarted, but opportunities always present themselves. Choose your battles and Fight On.

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    1. Thanks Richard. I definitely think the blog can be very good as a creative outlet. I'm trying to stay encouraged and keep moving forward with it.

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  7. As others have said already, this kind of post and feeling is pretty common. In fact, I read another post very similar to this earlier today even! When I think back to the few months on my site where I was posting daily I think I must have been crazy. I also got turned down for the OFCS this year though it has pushed me to try and improve my writing on my film reviews. You've got the right idea here: write about the things that you love to write about as long as you love writing about it. One benefit that you have with a site name like yours is that you can easily shift your content to what you're interested in currently, and I'm sure your readers will stick around. I often wonder what will happen if I get completely tired of the superhero and comic book films I watch a few years down the line, but that's a topic for another time.

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    1. It's funny that you mention the name as a positive. I've wondered if it was the best move since it doesn't really connect to the content on the site. I also wonder how it was possible to post nearly every day for a while. I think that you get in a groove and just make it a habit. It isn't always great for having a good balance with other things, though. It does depend on the person; I'm just not there right now.

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  8. Hey Dan, I feel like I'm in the same boat right now. I also got turned down by the OFCS this year, and that kind of triggered some thinking about what I'm trying to accomplish with my blog after all. In a lot of ways, it has felt like a chore lately. I haven't felt terribly inspired, and there are so many other things going on right now that it's hard to put the time into it that I normally want to. I think you've got the right approach here, and one of the things I've always liked about PTS is the variety. Having that freedom to just cover what you want to and not feel obligated to do otherwise is critical to avoiding burnout, I think. I know one of the things that slowed me down was trying to keep up with all of the recent releases... now I don't feel so bad if it takes me weeks to see the big new hit in theaters.

    Anyway, I'm glad you are going to keep writing! You mentioned Deadwood in your post -- any plans to keep that going? I'm still working my way through season two. Some interesting new faces have popped up!

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    1. Eric, I feel like this type of soul-searching about doing a blog has been common with a lot of sites recently. It's hard to keep pushing ahead, especially if you're trying to keep up with new releases. I've felt pressure to do that even beyond the blog, but it just isn't possible with everything else in life. That's okay, though. I've become a lot more comfortable with it lately.

      I'd like to get back to Deadwood and watch season two. It's on the list of things for sure, though I may decide to write fewer posts next time to make things a little easier. I may combine 2-3 episodes in each post, but it will happen eventually.

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