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.

In a typical week, how many times would you comment on a Writer Unboxed post:

Are you a member of the Writer Unboxed Facebook group?

Have you subscribed to our newsletter?

Your publication status:

Have you figured out yet that I'm punking you?

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.