Posted on Fri 19 September 2014

What we call our writing

When you write something, what name do you give it? A blog post? An article, and essay?

Paul Graham is well-known for publishing essays on his site, and he's even written one about what essays are.

An essay is supposed to be a search for truth.

Graham says essays start with questions and try to answer them. I guess you could say that's what I'm doing here. I'm asking what we should call our writing, and using this "essay" to find an answer.

An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.

And yet, if I don't find an answer, that's okay:

An essay has to come up with answers. They don’t always, of course. Sometimes you start with a promising question and get nowhere. But those you don’t publish.

Of course, many of us associate the word essay with something you do in school. I've written many an essay with double-spaced lines and bibliographies at the end. But that's school. That's not a "real" essay, according to Graham.

In a real essay you're writing for yourself. You're thinking out loud.

What I like about Graham's explanation of an essay is that it takes the pressure off writing. I can sit here at 6am before the sun has come up and write to explore; write to understand; write to figure out, and see what happens.

Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That's why I write them.

But what if you've already got something figured out, and you're writing to share it with the world? What about those times when you're sharing your working process or a new tool you've found useful, or some knowledge you've gained? If you don't start with questions, according to Graham, that's not an essay. So what is it?

Perhaps it's an article. My dictionary defines an article like this:

a piece of writing included with others in a newspaper, magazine, or other publication

That makes sense; I'd call a piece of writing an article if I read it in a magazine or newspaper. But what about when you write for the web? Sometimes you write for an online magazine or newspaper, but sometimes you write for a website.

So maybe you'd just call that a blog post. Except my dictionary has a pretty old-school view of what a blog is for:

a personal website or web page on which an individual records opinions, links to other sites, etc. on a regular basis.

We've come a long way since blogs were purely for personal opinions and linking to other people's sites. Many of the blogs I read and write for now are collections of in-depth, practical information, useful tips and explorations into science, language, and society. So the old conception of what a blog is doesn't really fit with what we're writing these days.

However, the terms "blog" and "blog post" have carried over some of their meaning, so that when we call serious writing a blog post now, it gives it a tinge of frivolousness. Not because of the writing, but because we haven't fully left behind the concept of a blog being a personal space to share opinions.

What are some other words that might suit us better? Feature is another newspaper and magazine-related term that's never fully made the leap to the web. Column is yet another. The trouble with terms specifically created for newspaper or magazine writing is that on the web our writing lives in a different way. It's not necessarily in an issue or edition of several other pieces. And often, with syndication and repurposing, our work lives in many places, sometimes the same piece in different forms. This is the beauty of the web, and yet we have no terms to refer to our work that fit it perfectly.

Sometimes the word story can be a good fit. But other times there's no "story" to what we write, and to call it a story wouldn't make sense. My thesaurus suggests "think piece" as another option. But what about when I've put in days of work researching a topic? Think piece doesn't really do it justice. For more formal work, there's treatise. But in my case, I tend to deal with serious topics in an informal way. As many of us who write for the web do.

There's also monograph, which is "a detailed written study of a single specialised subject or an aspect of it." This could sometimes apply to my research-laden work, but for the most part I stay away from specialised topics.

Of course, there are the more general terms like item, or piece. I use piece quite often, when I'm not sure which term suits what I'm writing. When I talk about what I've read, I often go so general as to say, "I read a thing the other day."

More recently we've seen the word content be used on the web a lot. The benefit of this term is that it can refer to any type of content—writing, images, slide decks, you name it. On the other hand, it also comes with its own connotations. In particular, content has quickly become something of a buzzword that (for me) insinuates an emphasis on marketing (not necessarily a bad thing, but what about when I want to refer to words I've written just for me?) and thus, a potential lack of depth. Imagine if someone told you they'd written a piece of content, and someone else said they'd written an essay, or an article. Which do you think would be of the highest quality? It doesn't matter which would be, my point is that different terms carry different connotations. For different people, too.

I spent half an hour browsing the thesaurus today, trying to find a word that could apply to all—or most—online writing. Something to help us frame our work, regardless of whether it's asking and answering questions like an essay, or it's a story, or it's a research-backed piece. The best I came up with was "text". I've used the word text when I studied media, but outside of university it seems to be rarely used. Perhaps we can use this term to describe any written work we've created for the web. After all, when our words finally hit a website, they really do become "text".

I'm open to ideas, though. If you have anything better, send me an email or find me on Twitter at @BelleBCooper.

In fact, it might be that we're destined to use a different term depending on the format of our work. After all, if you write a book, you don't try to call it an essay just because you're known for writing essays. You just call it a book. Maybe we're all just writers, and we all write words, and each time we do, we call it the name that fits best.


P.S. I make some stuff you might like: Exist, a personal analytics app to help you understand your life, and Larder, a bookmarking app for developers.

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