Solving a First-World Blogging Problem

Margaret Mead (1901-1978)
Anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) talking to journalists. The person in background appears to be chemist Linus Pauling (1901-1994).

For some time now, WU has been struggling with a challenge. It’s a good problem to have, and a symptom of the success Therese and Kathleen have worked hard to earn, but wearisome nonetheless. Quite simply, WU receives far more applications for guest-blog posts than it can possibly accommodate.

This is where I come in.

Kathleen and Therese know I possess both a scientific background and familial access to engineers. (Father, father-in-law, uncle, uncle-in-law, husband, brother, brother-in-law, and lest you think that’s not enough data to constitute a pattern, a possible future son-in-law.) So back in the fall, they approached me with an idea: Could we develop a screening mechanism to separate ideal applicants from the less suitable, thus reducing inbox clutter, blog-mama time investment, and inevitable author disappointment?

All these months later, with my family’s help and behind-the-scenes beta testing, I think we’re there.

So today, peeps, without further ado, let me introduce you to WU’s submission criteria, which we’ve automated for your convenience. Simply input your data in the form below, push the “calculate” button, and wait for your result to spit out. Should your result exceed 80%, please contact us with your pitch.

[contact-form-7 404 "Not Found"]

Well, that was fun, wasn’t it? Before we dive into the point of my tricksterism — for nothing in the above is true, with the exception of my doggedly-technical relatives — I’d like to point out my self-sacrifice. In the name of experiential learning, I was willing to have you throw tomatoes at me.

Indeed, this post is a disguised third in the Stop Feeling Like an Author-Wishbone series, in which we’re looking at established medical principles to see how, and if, they apply to writing. If they do, can they help us feel more serene in a world of competing and conflicting expert opinion. (Parts I and II.) Had I been able to title the post without spoiling the prank, its subtitle would be Oh, Those Sexy Numbers.

Here’s what I hope you noticed:

1. Like all labels, numbers can shut down critical thinking.

They loan an aura of scientific credibility to what might be otherwise exposed as flim-flammery. But because it takes effort and knowledge to debunk an evaluatory method, we’re prone to taking statistics at face value. Then we repeat them to others in a sort of numeric gossip, and before we know it, give birth to another industry myth.

2. Numbers invite reductive thinking.

We get overwhelmed when trying to improve complex systems. Therefore, we tend to focus on numeric avatars, which may or may not reflect the larger world and our holistic goals.

3. What we track, we will wish to change.

This is so pervasive and subliminal, I bet there’s an evolutionary basis for this predilection.

We can use this to our advantage, of course. In a study of people who’ve lost large amounts of weight and kept it off long-term, one common characteristic is that they tracked their weight on a daily basis.

Similarly, if you want to increase your word count, the common advice by those who would know is to begin by simply tracking it. Become an observer of your process; almost before willing it, you’ll consider tiny improvements.

4. Precisely because of point #3, we can be vulnerable to others’ agendas, especially concerning matters of rank.

We get lots of unsolicited metrics in writing, don’t we? Think of them as advice from another person. “You should care about this. This is important to monitor.”

Well do you? SHOULD you? Who’s the dog in this scenario and who’s the tail?

To wit, did you arrive here today with the explicit desire to become a guest blogger? (I’m guessing not.) Despite that, even momentarily, did you find yourself pondering a submission, wondering how you’d score? Or did you get annoyed, thinking WU had become another place of unsolicited evaluation?

When given an opportunity to know our rank, few people remain completely detached. We are either interested, or working hard at being disinterested, but in almost all cases, we expend time and energy on a conversation begun by another party.

(I’d like to suggest this is why Twitter and Facebook — indeed, most social media — take great pains to track and display follower counts. How different would your Twitter experience be if you could only judge newcomers by their bio and your interactions? If you weren’t confronted by your follower count each time you signed in?)

So numbers confound and distract, but they also orient and are ubiquitous in the life of an online modern writer. Fortunately, two medical principles can help clarify which ones we might want to follow:

  1. If the results won’t change your treatment plan, don’t do the test in the first place.
  2. Treat the patient, not the number. (Or in this case, treat the writer, not the number.)

As one who was once tormented by statistics, and who occasionally relapses, I’m hoping these two constructs will bring you peace. I’m hoping, for instance, that you’ll:

  • No longer confuse today’s word count with artistic merit, if you’re after the latter.
  • Not mistake Amazon rank with satisfaction in your career direction.
  • Understand that your Klout score says nothing about your ability to pay the bills from writing. (Incidentally, did any writer, ever, wake up and say, “I know what I want to do with my art today. I want to earn me a great Klout score!”)
  • Possess some validation on why last year’s Bookscan numbers don’t necessarily have any validity for this year’s HUGE book idea. So you’ll write your novel. You’ll advocate for it. You’ll dazzle us with your creativity.

Have you given careful thought to the numbers you follow? Which ones are worth your time? Which have you discarded? 

Finally, which of you were armed with ripe produce before you discovered my prank? (I sincerely hope all.) 


About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.


  1. says

    You are clairvoyant. I just blogged about this very subject. My conclusion: the only numbers I care about relate to my writing output. As for the size of my platform, I’ve always been more interested in the quality of my online connections rather than the quantity. Thank you for putting this in perspective in your usual thoughtful way.

  2. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Ha Ha! You got me. So if you actually take the poll and click “Calculate,” do the results go anywhere?
    I guess there’s only one number that should really matter–it has eight digits and comes in the format of xx/xx/xxxx. One day–today. Make the best of it and let the numbers go. Thanks for the reminder that you can’t quantify life/happiness/blogging suitability quotients.

    • says

      “I guess there’s only one number that should really matter–it has eight digits and comes in the format of xx/xx/xxxx. One day–today. Make the best of it and let the numbers go.”

      Beautiful, Jeanne, and by the number of likes you’ve received, I’m not alone in my appreciation.

      No, the quiz didn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t figure out how to have a “surrpise!” image pop up, so I settled for a “gotcha” in the mouseover.

  3. says

    Jan–great article that I think is going to resonate with every writer. We don’t want to reduce what we do for passion to a numerical evaluation. But by the same token, we read articles (even here on WU) all the time about how large our Twitter, Facebook or blog followings need to be before publishers will even consider us. Like measuring our weight on a scale, perhaps it’s an indication of our health, but it’s very easy for it to become a measure of our worth. The monster is created, keeping it from eating us alive is the trick.

    • says

      Thankfully, most of those numbers quoted pertain to non-fiction writers, where it seems logical that platform size and book deals would be more closely linked. I’m hearing editors and agents more consistently say the book and voice are critical for fiction. In my small world, it seems like it’s the writers not hearing the message, maybe because it’s easier to get a Twitter follower than know one has nailed a scene.

  4. says

    Yeah, Jan, you definitely had me thinking, “Hmmm….maybe I should do this and see what my number would be…” I’ve always loved tracking numbers and progress. I typically keep track of the page numbers I edit during any given day, the words I write, and any blog posts. I call this my work log, but it is useful to see how well I’m doing over time. As far as author ranking and that sort of thing, I rarely pay attention to it. I know I would probably be adversely affected by looking at it. I do, occasionally, take a look at my book rankings, however. It’s quite incredible how much those change even day to day. Overall, though, I do not use these to steer my writing. I simply keep them in mind while I work so that I can keep track of progress.

    • says

      Sounds like you’ve crafted a thoughtful and healthy relationship with metrics–and we will all have different ideas about how that looks for us.

      I’m a tracker, too, though my idea of what’s important has evolved considerable.

  5. says

    Jan, you have a gift for putting this in perspective. 40% of my brain thinks I’m too focused on the numbers while 30% is still wondering how many pageviews my last blog post received. The other 30% doesn’t know what day it is, as it’s too busy wondering if Roman soldiers wore socks in winter.

    Sorry, I was off for a bit, googling the Roman-socks thing (the answer is yes, in case you were wondering). Seriously, I’ve been thinking a lot about what really matters to me on this writerly journey. Surprisingly, when I boil it down, in spite of my sometime numerical obsessing, quantity has very little to do with my true desires. It’s a sidenote–just one criterion that has gained far too much significance. You make a great case for how the overemphasis comes to pass. Thanks.

    • says

      Heh. For the sake of brevity–cough, cough, cough–I kept out this quote, which I think you’ll appreciate.

      “99% of all statistics only tell 49% of the story.” ~ Ron DeLegg II

  6. says

    HAHAHA. I’m such a sucker. I totally tried to calculate (despite already being a guest poster!!). Oh those nefarious numbers and their tantalizing promise of validation…

    Thanks for this, Jan. Great fun, and great reminder/reality check.

  7. says

    I’ve used word-count programs and homemade charts to help push me through when working on a draft, and I love them. As for followers and such, I don’t obsess.

    Now about that screening mechanism… When can we get your family on a conference call?

    Great post, Jan, thanks!

  8. Denise Willson says

    Shh…I’m counting…tomatoes, Jan. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  9. says

    Brilliant, Jan. No surprise, of course!

    Your talk of numbers reminds me of my bathroom scale . . . the bathroom scale I threw away about fifteen years ago.

    I have friends who insist they will gain crazy amounts of weight if they lose their scale. I, however, think they will gain crazy amounts of peace if they lose their scale. No sense in agonizing over that one number each day. Sure, pay attention to trends, but obsessive number-checking, well, that would suggest we are a bunch of math majors, rather than writers.

    I love this post, Jan-o-rama!

    • says

      And I’m one who has to weigh herself, Sarah, or I become willfully unconscious, make poor choices, and then hate the scale when I decide to awaken. Isn’t human nature wild?

      Do you have another method of monitoring your weight? Some people use a certain pair of jeans, etc.

      This is where I like the “treat the patient, not the number” principle, because for one person, daily weighing is the gateway to self-abuse. For another, it’s self-care.

  10. says

    Jan, I loved this and shared a link to it on Facebook. (And yes, I laughed halfway through as I read, “Have you figured out yet…?” Completely punked.) Thanks for the great reminder that numbers are things to use if they are interesting to us, but that they are not the goal or measure of worth. I use different milestones to keep me constructive in my work, but it’s important that they be things tied to what really matters to the work we want to accomplish. Great post – thanks for it!

  11. says

    As one tormented by statistics and production, I love your two constructs. I’ve copied, enlarged, and pasted the bullet points in a prominent place in my work area.

    The only numbers I’m keeping this year are hours logged and published works. My CPA loves those numbers.

    Thanks for a great post.My creative self stiffled by the numbers appreciates the boost.

    • says

      Huzzah for CPA-approved numbers.

      If you’d like an approach to following numbers, I quite like Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s ideas here. The spam filter here won’t let me incorporate a link, but look at her blog on Jan. 2, 2013.

      Seems like a balanced and business-like approach.

  12. says

    Jan, you have such a knack for putting the left brain/right brain split in perspective. So much of what I do as a writer feels as if it happens in my subconscious, and paying attention to all the numbers and tracking info out there definitely breaks the spell and gets in the way. For me, at least, there needs to be a bubble around my writing, otherwise the story won’t come. Thanks for the reminder!

  13. says

    I used to obsess about numbers of followers, commenters, etc., but not so much anymore, partly because it makes me so crazy. After just about 2 years of blogging/tweeting, I now have started focusing more on content whether it’s social media or fiction — which is (I remind myself daily) why I’m doing any of this. That said, I did fill in your form AND press the calculate button. Yes, I love forms and numbers that much :)

    • says

      You aren’t the first person to say they relaxed at year two. In truth, though I wrote this post hoping to spare others a struggle, we probably have to earn our way into our sanity.

  14. says

    I read so many blogs its crazy.

    This is no doubt the best post of 2013 outstanding job Jan.

    Very informative and hilarious, it’s infolarious.

    I’ve noticed these extremely complicated guests posts policies from some blogs.

    Its better than the greedy bloggers out there who are charging MONEY to guest post. I’ve seen as low as $5 and as high as $40.

    I guess everybody plays the fool…


  15. says

    Being the uber competitive person I am (and people do not know how competitive I am – they think I’m all sweet and petite and cutesy and discombobulated – but I am a froggin tiger!~ laughing) – I thought, “I’m taking this test and ACING it – I’m gonna out whatever the others; if I don’t do well, then I’m changing something – yeah yeah YEAH!” lawd

    As for your other advice – I do not look at numbers – I stopped sometime after my first novel because I turned into a pile of steaming goo. Up down up down up down, that’s how my numbers went until my brain imploded and drained into my sinus cavities so that I blew out brains onto tissue for weeks. lawd again.

    • says

      I had a paragraph I cut from this one characteristics I guessed would make one more vulnerable. “Competitiveness” was one, and a trait we share. (Except I’m more competitive than you.)

      As for the brains-Kleenex matter, good thing you stopped!

  16. says

    I have to admit I am one of those who looks at blog stats a little too much. Even though my numbers aren’t phenomenal, they’re a draw for me, as if I can properly gauge how I am being heard. And this merely a big, pretty lie I tell myself. I do this with Twitter followers, too, and it is such a distraction from the good things I already have from Twitter and the blog. Hopefully I can wean myself off of them soon!

    • says

      It’s perfectly understandable to want to know what’s working and learn from it. Please don’t take my post as advice for any course of action other than to figure out what works for you.

      If you know it matters a little too much, and if your experience is like mine, you’ll hit a day when you’re suddenly sick of it and then you’ll change.

  17. says

    Thanks for this. I am sitting here, congratulating myself on knowing I was being punked before I got to that line.

    This is major, because this morning, in an under caffeinated haze, I placed my kid’s sandwich back in the fridge and sent the jar of peanut butter to school in the lunchbox.

    I figured out with my first novel, that watching rankings many times a day is not productive (to put it politely). Will abstain from that self-destructive practice this time around. And I don’t even know what Klout means. Guess I don’t have much.

    • says

      I’d love to be a fly on the wall when they open their lunch kit.

      Klout is a metric some use to measure their social media effectiveness. You’ll see people on Twitter giving one another Klout points, and I’ve seen blog posts giving advice on how to game the system. For a while, some publishing-industry experts were telling writers they needed to have a certain Klout score to be an ideal client. If you can’t tell, I’m not a fan. I think it drove (drives?) the kind of self-focused behaviors that can ruin communities and turn people into commodities.

  18. says

    “Numbers” are the grown-up blogger’s equivalent of being picked for teams in junior high, knowing that you would be picked last, after the spunky kid in the wheel chair, and that most likely, this game of dodgeball would indeed be the last thing you did on earth.

    I’ve actually picked which blogs are going to get cut from my blog roll because they teach me nothing and only feed my envy.
    “I got asked for a full MS and my phone number from a hawt agent!”
    Okay, whatever. Great. I hope your ‘Amish Vampire time travelling steampunk hooker with a heart of gold’ book will go straight to the bottom of the birdcage.

    • says

      I have a love-hate relationship with envy. It’s uncomfortable, but it can point us towards things we desire that we perhaps didn’t know that we wanted.

      That said, I hear you. Numbers loan themselves to comparison.

  19. says

    I swear, there must be something in the water…. I’m kicking around a metrics post, probably for later in the quarter. I’m thinking, there must be a happy medium between being statistics-obsessed, and being completely statistics averse. Will mull more, but thanks for the giggle in the meantime. :)

    • says

      Glad if I made you smile.

      CommenLuv doesn’t like me to leave a link, but have you read Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s post of January 2nd? I appreciate her approach to tracking.

  20. Michelle McCartney says

    Well, you got me, but I wasn’t for throwing any rotten food…………….worse………..I could hear my wee gremlins saying ah! you’re not good enough , Michelle………………yet again.
    Oh! Dear ! it is back to the old self esteem drawing board again. I am hugely relieved that you were only joking and look forward to following your blog in the future as I am new to it. AND the message was a good one.

    • says

      You were not alone in falling for it! Few of us can resist. Perhaps the next time someone comes along, though, and offers you a chance to tell you what they think of you, your response will be a considered one, rather than an automatic yes.

  21. says

    Wonderful article, Jan, and something that’s been on my mind for months now, even before the new year.

    It’s supposed to be for the love of telling a story, isn’t it? That’s why I started writing. There was a drive to do more than verbally convey a story…it needed to be penned for posterity. I wanted to leave a legacy – plus, I spinned a good yarn.

    And that’s what I did for a long time in the online world. Wrote shorts. And read. On this blog and many others. And I was told to do all these things and get all these followers and tweet all these twits…er, tweets, and now…I’m drowning in a sea of blogging, reading, visiting, commenting, chirping, circling, hanging out and doing my darnedest to fit in my writing. All for the sake of meeting people and getting the following that I’m told I need to have.

    It’s okay right now, because my draft is taking a breather. I’ve only been involved in this social media mania for a few months, yet I read on here and everywhere that numbers make the man. A writer needs a following of 5000 or more to even be considered by an agent, publisher, editor. I’ve even read stats in the 150K’s. It’s like I already have to be somebody to become somebody.

    Throw full-time caregiving in there and it’s exhausting. So, thinking back to the days before internet, the solution presented itself. Writers wrote.

    I’m a YA fiction writer with no platform, a part-time gig writing for an Alzheimer’s website, about to seek publication for my first book. By no other choice, I tweet when I can, comment when I can, and blog when I can.

    And I write. I have 54 followers to my blog and 150-ish on Twitter.

    • says

      ML, we all write for different reasons, but if you’re going for publication, I’d suggest you read Chuck Sambuchino’s WU post of November. (I think.) He gives ideas about platform size that are much more realistic than some you’ll read in the ether. And read Dan Blank’s last post about the drip approach to gaining platform.

  22. says

    I love this post! My friend’s husband challenged her to go 24 hours without checking her Amazon sales. At hour 20, he broke down and told her “to just go ahead and check…”. I completely get where she (and he) are coming from. It’s hard to step back from them and realize that those numbers aren’t important in the big picture. Sigh…

    Thanks for the amusing reminder.

    • says

      If I understand, he was trying to help her but wanted to know just as badly? (Or couldn’t bear to witness her withdrawl?) Ha. I don’t know anything about what you’re saying. Anything at all. < –sarcasm font ;) What we do to ourselves, right? Crazy world.

  23. says

    Very good post. I used to be addicted to the numbers about my writing, but what I found was that doing so made writing less fun. I was more concerned about my daily and weekly word counts, and the daily and weekly hours, and the daily and weekly number of pages, and the number of submissions, and the number of rejections, and the number of days that’ve passed since submitting…

    And I stopped writing as much, because it became more of a chore than a joy and possible future profession. So what I found is that watching the numbers doesn’t work for me. I think it’s connected that I don’t weigh myself, either–I know I’m gaining weight when I feel my stomach pressing more against my belt. When that happens, I eat less and exercise more, and I can feel the weight loss. Writing is the same with me: when I notice I’m writing less one day, for whatever reason, I try to make it up the next day, or week, or whatever. I can feel the flow return to my writing and to my attitude–and my writing is usually better, too.

    This is just me, of course. If monitoring your numbers works for you–for writing, or for weight loss (or both)–then do what works.

    • says

      Steven, now you have me wondering about learning styles and occupations, and whether people who learn kinesthetically would prefer the methods you describe. Interesting!

      Congrats on finding what works for you. May we all be so fortunate.

  24. says

    This a wonderful post! It must be the renewal of January where we all start thinking about this stuff and the year ahead.

    I have found in my own little world that Klout score does not matter and Amazon rankings go up and down and I am still the same person and writer from yesterday that I will be, invariably, again tomorrow. I do have quite a Twitter following and I would dump those guys, but they are the first to brighten up my day so I guess I’ll stay on that front. This was great! #loveit

    • says

      “I have found in my own little world that Klout score does not matter and Amazon rankings go up and down and I am still the same person and writer from yesterday that I will be, invariably, again tomorrow.”

      Isn’t that the truth. I think we all come to realize that eventually, though some of us take longer than others.

      If you enjoy Twitter, by all means stay! (I think it’s a riot, particularly during elections.) You’re not there for the numbers, though. Those are both incidental to, and probably a consequence of, your enjoyment.

  25. says

    Haha! Darnit. I wanted some external validation!!!

    I do have to be very careful about listening to all those blogging/magazine-writing voices telling me how I will succeed if only I do things their way…Sometimes I forget that their definition of success might look nothing like mine.

  26. says

    The part about wanting to change what you track is so simple and elegant, but I’ve never thought of it that way before.

    I wonder if I start counting my toes every day if I will eventually begin cutting them off. Or adding new ones. Better not do that. I’ll end up in jail.

    • says

      Now there’s a creative mind at work, though I’d urge you to consider nail polish or henna tattoos instead of pruning. Maybe that’s what happened to Van Gogh. Day after day of counting ears, and then one day it was two much. ;) (homophone intentional)

  27. Marilyn Slagel says

    Good grief! You absolutely HAD me! I did it! Now, why would I admit to doing it? Because it is healthy to make fun of oneself and to be vulnerable. (I’m trying to learn that, really, I am…)

    • says

      Congratulations on belonging to the human race, Marilyn. You’re quite normal. I don’t know about you, but my best days are when I don’t take myself too seriously. Probably my family’s, too. ;)