Engagement Publishing

Image representing Paul Graham as depicted in ...

Paul Graham

“Engagement Publishing” in its basic form is an extremely simple idea. In fact, it’s just a feedback loop- it’s the idea that a blogger should seek feedback as quickly as possible, and use it to regularly publish improved versions of his or her piece for as long as s/he wishes to do so.

Why would the writer do such a thing? And don’t plenty of bloggers kinda-sorta do this, by seeking feedback from friends before publishing, or making various small corrections after they’ve hit “publish”?

Well, I’ve never seen anybody take Engagement Publishing as far as it can go. If writers *did* take EP all the way, these awesome things would become possible:

  • You’ll be less overwhelmed and confused
  • What you publish on your blog will become of a far higher quality
  • You’ll get lots of spontaneous help from others
  • You won’t have to be good at everything
  • More readers. You’ll get more organic word-of-mouth for your work
  • Happier readers
  • You’ll get fewer nasty comments
  • You will be less reliant on your friends and family for feedback
  • You’ll have more freedom to experiment
  • You can create something of lasting value; thorough understandings of a topic, developing great new ideas, etc.
  • New ideas will come easily

… and you’ll have more fun commenting on other blogs which use EP, and you’ll be happier for it.

I want to acknowledge that the core idea of EP is something I borrowed from the world of software startups. It comes from something written by Paul Graham of Y Combinator (Graham is an extremely successful investor, programmer, essayist, and painter).

Graham’s explanation for how software startups should operate, which is now widely accepted and extremely successful, was that software startups should “release software quickly and make rapid improvements to it by seeking and applying user feedback”. Applied to writing, this becomes “quickly publish the beta of your piece and rapidly improve it by engaging with readers”.

Engagement Publishing can be applied in any way you choose to apply it.

Here is my best idea of general best-practices for EP:

Step 1: Publish quickly, to engage flow and avoid overwhelm.

(This step is completely optional and can be skipped if you wish to do so).

The basic premise is that you want to get your idea out in the public eye as quickly as possible, to get feedback from your audience before you’ve sunk a ton of time and energy into it.

In my experience, there’s this stimulating and alive thing that happens once other people get involved in a creative project. When it’s just me by myself, I can procrastinate forever, but once somebody else is involved, I don’t want to let them down, there’s a dialogue happening, and everything just “feels more real”. And, I love to be the person helping other people with their creative projects, too, when there’s an opportunity for it.

Quick publishing also has the power to preempt what I think is the #1 problem of writers: overwhelm. Most writers, being normal human beings, get overwhelmed at the thought of spending hours on a project, without having any clue about whether their readers will be interested or not, like it or not, understand it or not, etc.

To get even a little bit of feedback along the way can be enormously helpful in directing and validating the work; or it can reveal that something else would be a better project to invest in.

So, version 0.1 is the beta version (if I publish a beta version), and version 1.0 will be the first “official” version. I will periodically make updates to the piece and re-publish it, as version number 1.1, 1.2, 2.0, etc. This way I will be giving new readers and interested old readers high-quality content, without having to write up a whole new post.

Sidenote- begging your friends for feedback only helps a little bit, because: 1. Friends often lie to avoid hurting feelings, or conversely they see things through overly rose-colored lenses. 2. How often are your friends the real core audience for your piece? How valuable is their honest feedback, compared to the people who really WILL be more interested in your work than anything else in the world? 3. After you’ve gotten feedback from your friends, you now owe your friends a favor, in addition to all that tension you both experienced along the way.

Not fun. Generally, it’s better to get 1. Honest feedback from 2. Your real audience which 3. They volunteered spontaneously.

Step 2: Ask for help, accept contributions, observe dialogue, make stuff better.

Thankfully, EP frees a writer up from having to be good at everything. (I’ve discovered this is impossible to achieve- at least in a reasonable amount of time.)

As examples, these are some likely areas where I will seek help, or eagerly accept contributions:

  • Simply asking people for their comments and suggestions, and then taking the great ones and adding them, or using them to replace what was there before.
  • Photos (I’d rather a photographer suggested a relevant photo he has, and I could promote his work, rather than just steal something off of Flickr like everyone else).
  • Asking people for their related life experiences
  • Asking if anyone knows of a relevant scientific study (pro or con), so I can make my work more trustworthy.
  • Sometimes I will be trying to develop a useful *understanding* of reality. Like the blind men and the elephant, I will need others to share their experience of the elephant, too.
  • Some of my policy ideas involve legal issues, so I’ll ask for help with that.
  • Some of my volunteered entrepreneurial ideas will require programming or business expertise, and I’ll ask about for suggestions so whoever acts on the idea will have a head start.
  • Of course I will want people to tell me when something isn’t clear to them.
  • Sometimes an idea will have a fatal weakness- I’ll probably find out sooner and waste less time, with a version available, than not.

… often my biggest weaknesses are the ones which exist because I’m unaware of them, and I will absolutely count on people to help me with the stuff I don’t even think about.

Naturally, the help other writers ask for and receive will be different, and it will be different on every post. Every writer has different strengths and weaknesses, different interests, and a different readership.

But, you don’t absolutely have to ask for help. I think the best thing about good comments-sections are the discussions among readers… I think that’s where the magic happens and the topic gets taken to amazing new places.

Important sidenote: no matter how amazing a post’s comments are, the vast majority of readers don’t read comments, period. (Part of this is because most comments sections on the Internet are awful, so readers avoid them). In order to give your readers the full value of your site, you need to put the best bits from the discussion in the post itself.

Once a reader has given me something to work with, in some cases I will paste it in whole, but in most cases I will paraphrase the reader’s contribution, so it fits into the piece smoothly- and has the authorial voice Wikipedia and other open source projects generally lack.

Details:

  • If the update is in direct response to something someone said, or if the update has any chance of making a prior commenter look foolish after the fact (since they will appear to be referring to something which no longer exists), I will acknowledge the update in the comments section.
  • I will also note big updates of my own conceiving.
  • I *won’t* note minor changes like spelling, grammar, wording, fine-tuning, changes in the flow of the content, etc.

In this way, a reader who wants to keep up with the evolution of the piece won’t need to reread the whole piece – they just need to read the comments.

Also, this approach makes EP a timesaver. Instead of getting lots of comments which say basically the same thing- “Fact X is wrong” “You should also mention X” “X is the real question”, etc., and writing a reply to each one, I will reply to the first comment by adapting my piece, and then paste my change as a reply. Et voila, the first comment and every other one has been preemptively resolved.

Step 3 (! Important !): Give credit where it’s due.

(This step is also optional).

Giving credit to the people who contribute is really powerful.

My personal idea for giving credit is this- I will have a “Coauthors/Acknowledgments” section at the bottom of each piece, and I’m going to keep adding names to it, as people help me out.

Each of their names will be a link to the website they want to be associated with (within reason). I might also link to where they made their contribution(s), too, if I can do that.

I think the wisdom of this is pretty obvious. Aside from simple fairness, and helping readers to find other people worth being acquainted with, it will be a big boost to reader engagement, the credibility of each piece, and the organic promotion of the work.

Which is more likely to make *you* avidly support something- you liked it, OR you helped to *build* it into something better, and now you love it? I’m convinced readers will not only make contributions- because most people have an urge to contribute in the ways they can (I know I do)- but then once they feel pride of ownership, they will be eager to share their pride with their friends.

Also, a lot of readers are looking for trustworthiness in what they read. A coauthors section, which shows that lots of people have vetted the idea, provides instant credibility.

Bonus: my theory is that nasty comments (and a general lack of engagement) primarily exist due to a lack of opportunity to make constructive contributions which will be recognized. Nastiness comes from a feeling inside the commenter that he isn’t being listened to and valued (sadly, this feeling is accurate, most of the time, in the non-EP world).

EP can eliminate a lot of these types of negative motivations. And, once a community is predominantly in the mode of being positive and mutually-helpful, most nasty personalities will either run away or edit their impulses, rather than fight with the whole community.

*******************

That’s it! Three steps, which could be summarized as “make it available quickly, adapt to contributions and feedback, then give credit”. And repeat, until you feel done with the project and want to work on something else. Maybe in the future you will want to return to it again. Or not :).

Once you see EP in action (I’ve already tried it out with great success in informal settings), you will see that it’s a very streamlined process which can often save you a lot of work, relative to normal blogging.

Now, what do *you* think of this? Of course, as I get feedback from you and from my own experience, I will update this post and make it a more useful guide for the readers of the future :).

[Note! If anyone decides they want to try Engagement Publishing for themselves, I would love it if you would let me know. I will eagerly try to give you feedback and help out with this process, and we'll both learn more about how best to use EP. I'm sure it works better for some things than others, and has to be applied differently in different contexts.]

Version #45.

Coauthors & Acknowledgments: Jennifer Gargotto (key constructive criticism), Holland Franklin (emphasis & proofreading)

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