The craft of writing and our community

This post is written collaboratively by Jane Flanagan and Hila Shachar about something that is close to our hearts: Writing for independent magazines and blogs. The post developed out of conversations we’ve been having privately. It got to a point where it felt hypocritical to talk about these things ‘behind the scenes’, rather than publicly on our blogs. We think this topic is ultimately bigger than the both of us.

Established and successful media brands receive their fair share of criticism, much of it well-deserved. However, blogs and indie magazines (supported and created by bloggers) feel like a ‘no go’ zone for even the most constructive criticism. The (erroneous) underlying premise seems to be that we must not criticise our own community. We’ve seen the blog-world unite to defend artists against alleged Anthropologie rip-offs, for example, but nary a bad word said about something created within our community. It’s a laudable sense of loyalty, but it is also misplaced.

As writers, we both know the value of constructive criticism and critical feedback. Quite simply, the publishing world doesn’t exist without it, and it’s a marker of content quality. We both believe that output from the blog community (both online and in print) is deteriorating in part because there isn’t much constructive criticism. Much feedback is a fast reaction to the visual impact, rather than a slower, more studied reaction to the complete offering; the combination of words, images and presentation.

Because there’s no real way to voice constructive criticism without it sounding like a betrayal from within, these conversations are driven behind closed doors (real or virtual). And we both worry that this will have a long-term damaging effect on the community. If we can’t kindly and constructively voice our criticism, we’ll become jaded and ultimately abandon things that we believe could be worked on and improved if feedback could be voiced and incorporated. And that’s a sad option.

We’ve noticed two responses to those who attempt to constructively criticize:

(1) If you don’t like it, don’t buy it (or ‘unfollow’)

Well, yes: if you consistently don’t like something, you should unfollow or not support it. But, when we disagree with real-life friends, we don’t walk away from them. The idea that support is an all-or-nothing proposition is troubling and immature, promoting the most fanatical kind of support. This recent post on A Cup of Jo and the responses on both sides show how polarised criticism can become, even when it’s a justified qualm about editorial content and integrity.

We should be able to register criticism and argument without being deemed unsupportive. One of us, for example, has purchased every issue of Kinfolk magazine to date. And we both admire the aesthetic, the premise and the hard work that goes into such a magazine. But we also have serious problems with the quality of the writing, and the way the publication deals with professional writers. Ironically, we’ve both found bigger magazines more receptive to pitches and commissioning professional writers than indie magazines. Saying all this is not a betrayal of indie magazines or the people who work behind them. The fact that we want to raise this issue shows that we believe and care about the endeavour of independent blogs and publications.

(2) It’s small and independent, you should support it!

This is misguided, if admirable, thinking. The rules for conduct and professionalism shouldn’t differ because a business is small, or a magazine is independent. If you would criticise businesses such as Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, Condé Nast, et al, for some practice or execution, you should hold yourself accountable to the same standards. This applies to advertising, sourcing contributors, promotion and - particularly in the case of this post - editorial quality and integrity.

The main problem we both see with certain blogs and independent publications is precisely a lack of knowledge and professionalism. There have long been editorial standards followed by journalists and publications (and it’s on the basis of a breach of those standards that they are often critiqued). But independent publications make up their own rules of submission, publication, and advertising guidelines. This can be liberating in many ways, helping a publication innovate and ‘stand apart’, but its flip side is often unprofessionalism. We find this particularly true with regard to sourcing quality content, allowing diversity and handling submission processes.

We get the sense that some indie magazines are run like blogging cliques, which undermines their creativity, hard work and loftier ideals. Editing a magazine properly is neither a hobby nor an exercise in nepotism – you either invest a certain level of professionalism into it, or not. It’s also not about running a high school clique of the ‘cool kids’. If indie magazines really want to provide serious counter publications to the mainstream, they must be willing to cultivate a professional attitude towards content acquisition and quality.

Blogs got going, in no small part, as a result of dissatisfaction with mainstream, traditional media. But now blog and indie publication content often has significantly less editorial integrity, with content often sourced from a limited pool of popular contributors, many of whom have little interest in writing as a profession or an art. Fair enough, some people’s talent lies in photography, illustration, design and style. And both of us admire (and frequently gasp over) their obvious talent. But the writing does count for something too, and it’s disappointing that equal energy is not devoted to it in such publications and that serious writers are turned away and discouraged.

If photographers don’t like their work being devalued and uncredited online, writers don’t like constantly playing second fiddle to visual content. Turning away writers who publish and successfully practice their art in favour of bloggers who confess to not even like writing is insulting. And it makes us feel jaded about the role we can play in both the creation and consumption of this content, much as we might admire and support the underlying philosophy.

Ultimately, we’re raising this topic because we both care passionately about independent creative work and outlets. We’re both struggling because this community we once felt part of feels increasingly like a place with little respect for the craft of writing, and that’s an alienating feeling. And if we’re feeling it, we imagine others are too, both as writers and readers. We want indie magazines and blogs to be taken seriously, and to be the best, because we have faith in them. We care as both writers and readers/consumers. And we hope you care enough to read this post with an open mind.
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