The Algorithm of Popularity

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a superintendent of a local school out in the Southwest. As she told me her story, she was practically in tears. She felt helpless in the face of a crisis that was looming in her future. I asked her and others who were deeply involved in this issue if they had talked to someone from a national press about this issue. They said no.

So, I have been hammering away at this topic for weeks now. As a freelance writer, I can make a decent living, if I go from pitch to submited article in two weeks. There’s a formula to these pieces. Start with a compelling story. Explain how it involves X number of people or involves X number of dollars. Interview an academic expert, a think tank type person, refer to some studies, and then return back to the compelling story. 1,200 words and you’re good to go.

But I didn’t do that. I kept talking to people. And writing up their comments until I reached 2,500 words. Any self-respecting editor will cut that in half and slap it up on a website. This will certainly happen. But I kept going, because I think I have more than one article here. I think I have a book topic.

But before I get that far, I need to see if that one article will take off. I need to see if there are enough people interested in the topic, which will justify another few weeks of uncompensated time pulling together a book proposal. I’ve done them before and gotten nowhere, so I want to test the waters before I keep digging and writing.

Getting an article to go viral, meaning lots of regular people read the article and link to it on their Facebook page, is a very complicated matter.

Of course, a lot has to do with matters that are beyond the scope of a writer. An editor has to love the topic, write an excellent headline that either makes people curious or confirms a pre-existing belief or bias. An editor can effectively kill your article by publishing it on a Friday, rather than a Monday, or by not publicizing enough on the website’s social media.

I can’t emphasize how important those gatekeepers are to exposure to ideas. If they don’t like the topic (or the person) at the heart of a story, you can’t get past square one.

Another factor that determines popularity is the audience. If the audience is well organized, woke, and is organized by outside groups, then your article will do well.

For example, I write a lot about special education and autism issues. It’s always better to write my articles with the word autism in the title, rather than special education. Parents of autistic children are super well organized on their own with tons of groups on Facebook. A link by Autism Speaks on Facebook is automatic gold, since they have over a million followers. Special ed is too broad of a term and doesn’t have an organized constituency.

Popularity requires both grassroots and elite interest. An article that is retweeted dozens of times by education geeks on Twitter may not necessarily capture the interest of ordinary parents on Facebook. And links from Facebook brings in more readers than RTs on Twitter. But you also want the endorsement of your peers on Twitter, because that’s another kind of win.

Of course, having a compelling story that impacts a lot of people and is well written is an important element of popularity, but there are millions of story like that every day. There is so much great journalism out there that doesn’t get enough attention. To be read widely requires more than producing a quality piece. It requires strategy.

As a writer, popularity is important because it means that you can command higher salaries and editors return your emails. A good topic can lead to book deals, which leads to speaking engagements, which is where the real money is.

All of those selfish reasons for desiring popularity are important. This is a job, after all. But sometimes you want popularity because you feel very strongly that an issue deserves more attention. Sometimes as a writer, you just love your topic and want to champion the people who are being ignored. Sometimes, it’s a mission.

Chill Out

On this lovely Saturday afternoon, I sent Steve off by his lonesome to watch Ian bang on his bass drum at the football game. I need to put in a couple of hours on a big article that I’ve been working on since the end of August. I’m about ten hours of work away from submitting the piece to the editor. Maybe twenty hours. Who the hell knows?

And then I’m going to chill out for a couple of weeks. I’m going to exercise every morning and sell some books on the Internet for the fun. (Somebody just bought $75 for an old set of encyclopedias that were heading for the dumpster. Who knew?)

I need the time to regroup and reassess plans. I’ve been freelancing education articles, on and off, for seven years now. A seven-year anniversary seems like a good time to look at my ROI. I’ve paid a lot of dues (writing for free). Is all that effort paying off?

I basically like what I do and would be content to keep doing it forever, but at some point, one should question that plan when one could make more money working part time shelving books at Barnes and Noble.

This current article was paying well enough, until I kept digging and realized that I had a bigger article than I anticipated. I’ve put in so many hours into it, that at this point, I’m working for free. I suppose it’s my own fault. I’ve gone way beyond the original plan for the article. But I just couldn’t stop myself.

Between stressing myself out over this article and doing too much at home, my insomnia flared up again. It’s really hard to function on three hours of sleep.

So, chilling out is happening. We’re not over scheduling our weekends with socializing. I’m not signing on to write anything except for essays or editorials for a little while. I’m reading long blog posts from Martha Stewart; I find her very soothing.

And inspired by Martha, we’re getting caught up with home chores. We have some driveway work happening this weekend. Steve’s laying down a PVC pipe underneath the driveway with tubes that will operate a future sprinkler system. We have a mason repairing the front stairs. And then the driveway guys will come back next week and pore out the asphalt.

Enjoy the weekend, folks!

The Burden of Beautiful

Last Saturday, I couldn’t take it anymore. My manicure was three weeks old. My nails were cracked, and the old nail polish was chipped down to a small semi circles on each nail. On a super busy weekend, I ran to the nail place for a mani-pedi.

Getting a regular manicure is a new thing for me. I never had the time or the money for lots of self-maintenance in the past. And I kinda hate it. Sitting under the nail blower for fifteen minutes waiting for the polish to dry is torture. I’m way too ADD to just chill out and enjoy the whole process. Half the time, I bolt out of the place with tacky nails that inevitably gets dinged, when I get to the car and fish around for a seatbelt.

But now I’m hooked. I’ve gotten used to having nicely filed nails. When I let them go, I feel positively itchy. Likewise with other maintenance chores that have now become part of my routine. I have to get my eyebrows threaded and shaped every two weeks. Every two months, Lauren the hairdresser spends 2-1/2 hours making my red hair a uniform color and then cutting and blow drying straight. At the moment, my natural color is auburn on the side and back, white at the temples, and blond on top; red hair ages oddly.

I have never spent so much time or money on my personal appearance before. And I’m uncomfortable with the whole business. Every hour in the salon is time that I could be doing something more productive.

And I do a whole lot less on my appearance than other professional women. Whenever a group of young women journalists and other professional commentators appears on CNN talking super important stuff about impeachment or corruption in the government, I’m forever distracted by checking out the perfection of their hair and makeup.

They must spend hours in a chair getting beautiful before sitting in front of the camera. There’s not a hair out of place. No natural curls there. They have glued on fake eyelashes and an inch of make up. And before that, there were probably tons of visits to dermatologists and spas to keep that chin from sagging and to close up that dent between the eyebrows.

Looking beautiful means less time reading, researching, reading, interviewing, and just getting smarter. It gives the dudes who just need a haircut and a suit such a huge edge. And I feel like the standards keep getting higher and higher.

Looking pretty is fine. Like I said, I like that my nails are trimmed and my hair is tamed, but there’s a point when it interferes with work. And life! I would like a bit of a return of old school 70s feminism that understood that trade-off.

Work Decor: Plans For the Office

We live in a pretty standard suburban home. It’s a tri-level — a close cousin of the bi-level, the ranch, the raised ranch, and other forgettable late 50s-70s designed homes. I read somewhere that a tri-level was designed, based on the 50s notion of the family — kids were upstairs, wife was in the middle with the kitchen and the living room, and the husband had the lower level and the garage. I guess nobody wanted to hangout together in the 1950s.

Most people don’t like their square footage divided up that way anymore, so houses like ours fetch a lower price than other designed home. If we had more of a choice when we were shopping for home, we probably wouldn’t have picked this house. But we were buying a slice of the community, and not the house, when we went house hunting.

We’ve had to put some money into the home over the years, because it was built in 1959 and the previous owners stopped renovating it back in the 1980s. We’ve gotten a new roof, new boiler, new kitchen. There’s a new driveway going in right now. At this point, I’m not that interesting in dumping money into the house, when there are college payments to make, but basic maintenance has to happen.

One of the mandatory, but boring expenses on our horizon, is new siding. The previous siding is original to the house. It’s old. There are bees boring into the cedar shingles. It’s not energy efficient. It’s time for a change.

When one redoes the exterior of a house, it’s the perfect time to make other changes. We might swap out the original bay window in the living room with a modern casement window, put in a new front door, and enlarge the windows over the garage; they look like squinty eyes. We’re also thinking about fixing the office.

My office/guest room is a bonus room off the ground floor family room. It’s very brown and dark. We haven’t touched it, since we moved in about eight years ago. But this red-headed stepchild of a room is where I spend most of time. I need a change. (Including a new standing desk, but more later on that.)

If we’re putting in new windows elsewhere, maybe we’ll do it here, too. It needs more than a good coat of paint. It needs help.

Here are some pictures of Office Pit.

I have to get a contractor over here to find out how much it will cost to gut the room and start over. It would be nice to put in some French doors to the side yard and get more natural light in the room. We need some overhead lights and a coat of paint on everything brown, at the very least.

When I’m in the thick of a writing project, my body and brain aren’t really here. For example, my brain in a school in Arizona at the moment. But my back is demanding better treatment. I have to be more present in my surroundings, while I’m working. So, a better room to work is moving from the wish-list expense column to a mandatory expense column.

Writing Life, Week 2 of August 2019

Random People In Wash Square Park.

I never expected to get much work done in August, but I hoped for slightly more productivity than has actually happened. Wisdom teeth took their toll. Also, Jonah’s comings and goings have wrecked my rhythms. Ah well, family first.

I’ve been reading best seller type books lately to counteract my tendency to overthink my writing and get too esoteric. Nobody wants to read anything from a college professor. So, I’ve been reading Nora Roberts books for the past week. I like her stuff, because she’s so prolific, and I haven’t read her stuff before before, which means lots of backlist. I could go through a trilogy a week and still have more to go. I read Year One yesterday, which was sort of like The Stand and The Road, but with witches.

In response to the recent romance novel plagiarism scandal, she wrote a Facebook post about her writing process, which is super interesting. I always like to learn about how people write. (The best book on the subject is Stephen King’s On Writing).

I admit that I found that Facebook post, because I googled Nora Roberts and ghost writers. How does anybody really write four books per year without a ghost-writer? Well, Roberts explains in her Facebook post.

Roberts may not get help with her books, but other best selling writers do. One of the moms in town told me that her brother is a ghost writer for one of those big named authors. She said her brother has a big house in Connecticut with horses and writes for five hours a day. Would you do that?

Ian’s doesn’t have any camp this week. I’ve got some tutors and playdates scheduled for the next couple of days, when I’ll squeeze out some words, do some virtual meetings, and start some research. But then I’ll walk again from it and probably take him into the city to visit some museums later in the week. We still have several more weeks before schools start around here; until then, there is no routine.

I have to go over to the other blog, the one I only use for professional purposes. People have been leaving me both nice and awful comments over there. I suppose I should handle it. Sigh.

There are some people who read an article that they hate all the way through. Then they find the author and compose a note to the author just to tell them how much they hate what they wrote. Who does that? I should just ignore it, but I felt like someone walked into my house and pooped on my carpet. I can’t ignore it.

I’ll be back later with some links.

On Going Viral, Writing Week, First Week of August 2019

This week, two articles were published. I’m completely exhausted.

I always put a lot of time into publicizing my articles when they come out. I post info on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and two websites. Then I monitor who’s saying what about me and retweet/link/thank when necessary. Those chores are par for the course with any article that I do. It usually takes a full morning to do take care of that business.

On top of those usual publicity chores, this Monday, I had an article go viral. On 9am on Monday, HuffPost published a personal essay about traveling with my kid and dealing with some intolerance about his autism. They put it on their front page under “What’s Hot” for half the day. And they simultaneously sold it to Yahoo News.

It was shared far and wide. It may have been the most shared article that I’ve ever written. (Note to self: personal essays work you.)

I dipped into the long comment threads on both websites and was a little horrified. Yes, most people loved it, but there was some people who thought that I was evil or made up the story. A few people recommended violence to my child. One guy said that I should beat him, another said he should be drowned in a bathtub. Several said that he should have been aborted.

I’ve been writing for the Internet for a loooonnnnggg time, so I’m used to people telling that I’m an asshole. It’s yet another lovely part of doing business these days and doesn’t bother me in the least. But I’ve never had anybody discuss hurting my kid in such graphic language.

I thought I was going to puke.

But I’m not going to stop writing. F@ck ’em. (It does help that my kid has a different last name than me.)

My other article was about students who are completely confused about the college process and don’t get enough help. I really like those kids. We need to do better for them.

It’s a short day for me, because I have to go see Ian’s final computing showcase mid-afternoon; he made the Pong Game, using C++. I have time to do some work on the newsletter. A fellow special ed mom in town is a marketing guru, and she’s going to make a logo for me. When I’m done, I need to use another part of my brain. I’m going to hit some estate sales and look for treasures.

Have a great weekend, y’all!

Work Week, 4th week of July 2019

These guys come to the park every Saturday to take their model boats out on the pond.

Last month, a reporter from the New York Times called. He’s doing a book on college affordability and wanted to pick my brain about one of my articles. It was a great chat and at the end of it, he asked to be put on my newsletter distribution list.

Newsletter? I have a blog and an active presence on four social media platforms. Now, I need to produce a newsletter, too? Sigh. How does anybody find the time to get any paid work accomplished, if we spend all our time creating free content to promote our paid work?

Well, it’s the way of the world. I’ve been thinking about how to do it, so it doesn’t cripple me and helps promote my f@cking brand.

I’m too old for this brand stuff. You can’t be an influencer if your neck sags below your chin. That thought set me into a tailspin last night. But let’s not talk about that. Let’s just say that whiskey was involved.

There was some buzz last week about Graydon Carter‘s new newsletter. Since I don’t have a staff of 30, I’m not going to do anything like that. Do you subscribe to any newsletters? Anything I should check out?

One of the things that I want to do on this blog and on the newsletter is give a little more info about my work week. Well, 90 percent of my work week is boring as hell — read tweet, answer tweet, write a paragraph, find a snack, question my life choices, write another paragraph, read a tweet from a person who causes me to feel deep envy and resentment, eat chocolate, send the six hundredth email to the secretary of a superintendent of a large school district to set up an interview, and so on. You don’t want to hear about that.

But 10 percent of my work week is super interesting. I talk to smart, energetic people who really care about kids and want to make the world a better place. They’re charismatic and charming. It’s truly amazing that I get paid to talk to these individuals. I try to convey all this awesomeness in my articles, but I never can do it justice in part because of space limitations. Maybe I will give more of the backstory of my articles in the newsletter.

Even though I’m not working on reporting gigs this summer, I am doing some prep work for articles in September. This week, I talked with a professor, who specializes in trauma experienced by immigrant children, and a president of a community college, who is setting up a new jobs program for students who are falling through the cracks.

Another fun task that I do from time to time is help out fellow writers. This week, I read a draft of a book and gave input. It was a good read, and led to a whiskey-fueled debate with Steve last night.

As I mentioned, I’m taking a break from reported pieces for the summer and writing personal and opinion pieces about parenting and education. I wrote a personal essay about a terrible experience that we had on the flight home from Europe earlier this month. I slowly edited and tightened the piece throughout the week and sent it to editors on Thursday.

Huffington Post bought it in seven minutes, which is a personal record. The editor and I took care of business — contract, bio, picture, edits, title, essay image — in record time. It’s coming out on Monday at 9am.

Things don’t usually happen this quickly. Two finished articles of mine are on deck for publication I hope sometime this summer . I do enjoy speed. Sometimes when there’s been too long of a gap between reporting and publication, I forget what I was talking about and lose the passion for the topic.

But it’s a Saturday and I really shouldn’t be sitting at the computer. When Steve gets back from the barber shop with Ian, I think I’m going to take the boys for a hike. I need to sweat out last night’s toxins.

Enjoy your weekend!