For lawyers, law students and the legal profession on reading too much, blogging not enough and nurturing your creativity in the social media age.
“Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.” – Albert Einstein.
Before I started blogging in the legal sphere almost 5 years ago, I read an interesting blog outlining the key attributes of every really creative person and indeed tips for nurturing your creativity (something along the lines of this). I read the list and agreed with all points instantly, except for the point ‘you must be a voracious reader’, which seems to conflict with Albert Einstein’s thoughts on the matter (as per the quote above, essentially that reading too much forces you into lazy habits of thinking). What’s the right answer? Can you really be a voracious reader of blogs, online articles and social media posts and still advance your legal blogging (‘blawging’) contributions to where you want them to be?
I haven’t published as many extensive blogs (such as this) as I’d have liked in recent years, perhaps actually because of the subject of this post itself, so I thought I’d set out my thoughts on the subject together with helpful tips from me and others shared throughout. Please do add your own opinions on the subjects discussed in the comments below or on other social channels.
- Do the top legal bloggers read many other blogs?
- What are the benefits of reading other blogs?
- What are the cons of too much blog-reading?
- Is there a balance to be struck between reading and writing? How to become a more efficient reader
- Why would you want to expand your legal blogging efforts in the first place?
- How can you improve your own legal blogging and creative processes
- Lurkers and legal blogging communities
- What about law students, graduates and young lawyers?
1. Do the top legal bloggers read many other blogs?
I imagine a lot of people, like Dustin Wax who wrote about a similar topic over at Lifehacker, have experienced the overwhelm from reading too many blogs. He points out the theory from Abdylas Tynyshov (‘Ades’ of AdesBlog.com – view the post here [updated following tweet from @Ades at 28 March 2014]) that top bloggers read few or no blogs.
On one survey of some of the top bloggers, Ades found that most read few or no blogs at all. Bearing in mind the survey was from 2008, a considerably different blogging landscape, I think there is some truth that, even today, a lot of the top legal bloggers don’t spend a lot or most of their time outside work just reading other blogs.
Granted, many will subscribe to and read other legal blogs to some extent (and see the tips below for ensuring you’re subscribing to the right ones!), but they will most likely do so for the purpose of continuing the discussion, either within their own new blog posts, or as comments on others’ blog posts whether within those blogs or via satellite social media channels. I can’t think of any top legal blogger who would produce ongoing great blog posts who spends most of his or her time just reading other blogs without taking any other action, certainly not those who are immersed in private legal practice. (We all have our favourite top legal bloggers and for those reading this, you know who you are! For some useful lists of the top legal blogs check out Blawg100, BlogMetrics and note also the different types of legal bloggers/blawgers as explained by Brian Inkster. Indeed perhaps reading and writing habits will vary greatly depending on the type of blogger/blawger you are.)
It would be great to hear further thoughts on this point, but for the purpose of this blog post (and appreciating that this is a sweeping generalisation without statistical or survey evidence yet) it is submitted that most of those who produce excellent legal blog contributions on a regular basis probably spend more of their blogging time writing rather than reading.
2. What are the benefits of reading other blogs?
Dustin (mentioned above) goes on to list the pros and cons of reading other blogs. Here are the pros listed:-
- Keeping up with current events/news
- The pulse of the times
- Things I wouldn’t think to ask
For lawyers, current awareness (points 2 and 3 above) is certainly one of the main reasons for blog-reading. And indeed listening to the views of other lawyers and legal professionals and commentators on blogs and social media channels is to be embraced; if not we and many other legal blogs would be unlikely to have many subscribers or followers or impetus to keep contributing – and you may not even be reading this post.
These benefits of your reading of blogs will, nevertheless, vary depending on whether you skim-read posts or read them in full – If you’re still reading this post without having tweeted it, shared elsewhere, started your comment or indeed left without doing anything, I’m impressed! (Note the tendency is for the vast majority of readers of blogs not to make it to the end of posts with an ever shortening of online attention span (think about the $3 billion Facebook offered for Snapchat for an example of this trend); this post on Slate is excellent if you’re wondering how and why that happens).
3. What are the cons of too much blog-reading?
Here are some of the main cons from reading too many blogs.
- The echo-chamber effect(s) (that you’ll end up reading the same or similar material too much and most of it will be what you want to read rather than broadening your horizons)
- Time consumption (and see my blog about avoiding blogging / social media fatigue)
- A sense of urgency
- Headlines that don’t pay off
- Lots of bloggers are better headline writers than they are post writers
- Lots of other bloggers are better post writers than headline writers
These points at #4 about headlines that don’t pay off warrant a much fuller, separate discussion. How many blogs have you clicked through to recently because of what seemed like a brilliant title, only to be disappointed by its substance? (A rampant trend; see the blogs here, here, here and here, all slightly tongue-in-cheek analyses of the modern link bait headline; also appreciating the irony that in a post about cutting down on reading, I’m referring you to even more posts!). And how many brilliant posts do you think you’ve missed because the blogger didn’t manage (whether intentionally or not) to write a great headline? (If anyone’s not sure about how to create a great headline see here, here and here; just make sure if you use such headlines that you’ve written a great post).
I’ll add a fifth con to reading too much, similar to Albert Einstein said in the quote at the top of this post:
5. You’ll fall into lazy habits of thinking and reduce the amount, originality and quality of your legal blogging contributions.
4. Is there a balance to be struck between reading and writing? How to become a more efficient reader
It wouldn’t be wise to cut down your reading entirely; indeed I wouldn’t have been able to produce as many external references if I was completely diluting my reading. If you really want or need to be able to get through a ton of reading while still maintaining a solid writing schedule (on top of your already significant workload) there are various tips to help out. In an interesting Q&A on Lifehacker, ‘Buried Under Blogs’ asks:-
“I read a lot of blogs. We’re talking 1000+ unread items. It seems like I can never get through everything I want to read, and I just have bookmarks loading up in my toolbar that never get read. How can I actually get through all this stuff?”
Some of the main suggestions (other than stopping completely) are as follows, with my comments that apply to us at the date of writing:-
- First, use RSS feeds more. In 2014 this is an intrinsic notion for many internet users, whether through RSS readers themselves (e.g. Feedly now that Google Reader is gone) or through more organic news stream systems such as Zite or Flipboard which are now merged (note Feedly performs similar functions), through subscriptions to blogs or through the creation of streams within some of the main social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Tumblr etc.
- Second, ‘cut out the cruft’ – and be ruthless; what you’re going to read online is probably not going to be life-changing, particularly for the instant stuff (a Google search around your subject will probably reveal the most useful material from the past few years)
- Third, read the short stuff now, save the long stuff for later.
- Fourth, accept that you’ll never get through everything. Millions of blog posts are published every day so there has never been a greater need to be selective.
- Fifth, read faster (take up speed reading) but always bearing in mind the above. And if you’re in the mindset of trying to rush through all reading and publish your blog posts at the speed of light, it’s perhaps worth bearing in mind this passage quoted by Tim Ferriss (at the end of his book ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’): ‘You better slow down. Don’t dance too fast. Life is not a race. Do take it slower. Hear the music, Before the song is over.’
Dustin, mentioned above, suggests further refinement to your reading process:-
- Daily reads: pick the top authorities/top 10 or so blogs worth reading every day
- Weekly reads: to be saved for the most important blogs that you don’t want to rush through.
- Occasional reads: just for those blogs you like to enjoy when you have free time.
- Probation: For those blogs you’ve just come across, want to subscribe to and give them a chance (hint if you’re reading WardBlawg for the first time!)
5. Why would you want to expand your legal blogging efforts in the first place?
Another subject outwith the scope of this blawg post, the ‘why’ of legal blogging has been discussed so much over the past 10+ years. See my posts here and here if you are still unsure of the great benefits to be gained by harnessing a solid legal blogging strategy.
6. How can you improve your own legal blogging and creative processes?
If you are serious about cutting down the amount of time you dedicate to reading instead of writing, and want to be more efficient at your own legal blogging and improve the quality of your contributions, here are some great posts from others:-
- Twelve Tips for Better Legal Blogs (Practice Blawg)
- The Secret to Writing a Great Blog Post That Gets Lots of Comments (3 Geeks and a Law Blog)
- Tips for Writing a Successful Legal Blog (Cervantes)
- Legal Blogging: How to Craft the Right Strategy (Kevin O’Keefe via Mashable)
One point I will emphasise from the lists above is to try to be creative with your blogging: create new thoughts and put your foot in the icy water. The modern lawyer, at least in the UK, is typically conservative and calculated with everything, particularly anything published online. It’s no wonder we’re seeing posts such as this one by General Counsel Sarah Reed entitled ‘Lawyer, Disrupt Thyself’. In my post sharing my tips on how to write a first class law dissertation (here), I suggest the following which may be worth bearing in mind for your next blog post:-
“A dissertation that is written with balanced conclusions is a boring one. Reasoned opinion is important. Nothing would get done in this world if we said “X is right, but Y is equally right, so let’s just leave things the way they are”. Sitting on the fence may well get you a good upper second class award but there is little chance of it getting you a first. A certain English teacher, Sandra MacCallum, at Kyle Academy once taught that, sometimes, “you’ve got to put your foot into the icy water”.”
To give another illustration, a colleague of mine at the large commercial law firm I used to work at was back at law school to do a part-time LLM while still practising as a lawyer. He had to hand in a 10,000 word dissertation. He said there was nothing ground-breaking or really new in his piece. For me, that would be a B right there. If you want to make first class stuff, you have to add value and spark new thoughts, new ideas for discussion.
Also incidentally a recent publication by Simon Penson on Moz entitled ‘The Science of Great Digital Content Ideas’ discusses creativity as a process and improving your ability to have and to write about great ideas. A couple of quotes Simon cites are particularly compelling:-
“I think that it’s always possible to have a great company if you have great ideas.” – Jerry Yang, Yahoo! co-founder
“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” – John Steinbeck
7. Lurkers and Legal Blogging Communities
The 1% rule in Internet culture (along the same lines as the 80/20 Pareto principle) suggests that for any given online community (take, for instance all legal blogging communities as a whole), only 1% of the users of a website will actively create new content; the other 99% will only lurk. (some suggest it’s more like 90% pure lurking without contributing, 9% contribute a little and 1%; see e.g. the Nielsen Norman Group’s post here).
Lurking is inevitable, just as a disproportionate amount of reading for some people is unavoidable. If you own, manage or contribute to a blogging community, how do you overcome an excessive amount of lurking? How do you get the lurkers out of their shells? The Nielsen Norman Group suggests five key ways
- Make it easier to contribute.
- Make participation a side effect.
- Edit, don’t create.
- Reward — but don’t over-reward — participants.
- Promote quality contributors.
See also this post on Listly by Neil Kellet which outlines 7 tips to draw lurkers into crowdsourcing. If more legal bloggers implemented some of these tips on a regular basis, there could be a significant shift in the balance between those who just read posts and those who contribute unique and creative thoughts online.
Nevertheless, with growing numbers of people taking to online communities, while the percentage of lurkers to contributors (as outlined above) might remain the same or similar, we should expect growing participation.
8. What about law students, graduates and young lawyers?
For law students and those who have recently graduated from law school or who have just gone into practice as trainee solicitors or newly qualified lawyers, these messages are equally if not more important for three reasons:-
1. First, energy and enthusiasm. You are at the start of your legal career and will most likely have a great deal of enthusiasm to contribute. It’s certainly worth reading your share of other legal blogs and legal knowledge sources, but don’t think that because you are young and relatively inexperienced in practice that your views and messages don’t count. Using your enthusiasm for legal practice can do wonders for your own legal blogging; just remember to keep it professional.
2. Second, improve your own expression of legal knowledge. I’ve written before about how it’s important for law students and young lawyers to put things into their own words and to publish them online. While a good deal of time will inevitably be going into the legal work itself including the preparation of opinions for clients and courts, there are separate advantages to be gained from publishing online and ultimately, it will make you a better lawyer.
3. Third, improve your online profile and make valuable connections. It’s unbelievable there are still some law schools out there warning law students against legal blogging and professional social networking. See this great open letter to law schools by Carolyn Elefant which raises some of these issues and in particular note Carolyn’s comments about legal blogging:-
“If there is a single skill that I wish law schools would focus on, it should be blogging. I know I’m biased – I’m a blogger myself – but the discipline of writing regularly combined with the urgency of getting timely posts to press – has improved my legal writing immensely. Incorporating blogging into legal education is moronically easy. Professors could assign students to blog about the daily lecture, relevant topics (e.g., students could blog about bankruptcy law). Doesn’t have to be every day; maybe 3-4 posts per class per semester. Blogging would also get students comfortable with blogging software which is another key skill since they could offer to blog for practicing lawyers and help build up content.”
See also Kevin O’Keefe’s blog here which extends this discussion further.
If you aren’t writing and aren’t being encouraged or even actively discouraged from writing, it will be extremely easy for you to fall into the excessive reading trap. I sincerely hope to see more law schools actively encouraging law students to get involved, get published and build their professional relationships online. (I and others have lectured on this recently (see my slides here and Brian Inkster’s slides here).
If any law students or those who have graduated recently already have any legal articles or legal dissertations they’d like to get published and shared to interested audiences online, or if you need guidance on blogging or social media online, I’d be happy to help you – please get in touch via wardblawg.com/contact or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” – Stephen King
The purpose of this post has not been to suggest you eliminate your reading entirely. The top legal bloggers will, to varying extents, still consume a significant amount of online material on a daily basis, whether for the purpose of developing the discussion or indeed for their own practice. And there are many benefits to be gained by reading other blogs online. But falling into the excessive reading trap, akin to becoming more of a lurker than a contributor or writing with originality and creativity, can do more harm than good.
With today’s average online attention span decreasing at a rapid rate, it has never been more important for focus with your online activities. Cutting out the cruft, as mentioned above, and realising that the next thing you’re about to read online is probably not going to change your life should help you put more of your time into sharing great blog contributions.
And these messages are perhaps most important for the younger law students, graduates and lawyers out there. As noted above there are excellent opportunities through legal blogging and use of social media to make valuable new connections and share great legal content, despite what your law school might tell you.
Again, any further thoughts welcomed on this subject in the comments below. Do you struggle to find the time to write and publish blog posts because of an excessive amount of online reading? Looking forward to hearing your original thoughts!
Image: Flickr by Magic Madzik