A Life of Its Own: An Essay About an Article That Was Never Published

Last year I worked on a news article that showcased certain technologies at my work. The news article was an assignment, the kickoff of a series of articles. I worked especially hard on it, as it was the first one to introduce the series. I came up with a sensible structure, gathered interesting facts and information, and then meticulously crafted the content. I structured the information in a logical way, making sure each paragraph contained a well-developed point that supported the flow of the whole.

I refined and refined the language. I made sure each fact was accurately paraphrased and referenced. The article occupied so much of my attention, I worked on it over the weekend, and once late at night. After several days of focusing on practically nothing other than the article, I submitted it to the appropriate person for review.

After reading through the article, the reviewer noted that it was good, but it wasn’t entirely what she had it mind. Whereas I focused on information in the present, she wanted more stories from the past. More stories and anecdotes that show the larger point she wanted to make about the technology.

I returned to my desk, thinking about a new approach. She was right. Somehow, in writing the article, I had neglected story. Story was a key missing element.

The next day, I traveled to the main library for my organization, in downtown Salt Lake, to look for stories from the past. I immersed myself in old books, theses, articles, almanacs, and journals — looking for stories or interesting anecdotes that might illustrate the larger point we wanted to make. You have to read to find stories, or talk to people, I realized. Stories don’t just arrive at your desk while you’re hacking away at the language. You have to look for them as you might look for lost money.

While searching for stories, I realized a thing or two. Story is the form that speaks most clearly to our psyche, but life does not naturally play out in stories. For example, the events of my day are mostly mundane. Today I woke up, worked on some wordpress projects, drove to work, worked on some writing projects, played basketball at lunch, came home, ate lasagna, played in the backyard with my kids,  talked with a client on the phone, watched some TV, and here I am typing this blog post. Not a particularly memorable day. Next week I will remember almost nothing of what happened. It will become a blur in my past, just an average day of life.

If this were the substance of journals, histories, biographies, and other records, no one would read them. They would slip into non-use. It’s our nature to craft the mundane events of our lives into stories. We demand that a person’s life is no mere series of humdrum events. Life is a battle against conflict. It’s an attempt to reach a difficult goal. It’s a struggle to move in a particular direction that resists us. As such, we select the events that matter for that purpose. We heighten the detail that poses the antagonizing force. As we tell the story, we focus on the information that can be bent and shaped into a plot. And then we move towards a defining moment, which if we capture at exactly the right time, changes everything. We do all this even if it does not match history in a matter-of-fact way, because we thirst for story.

While researching and brainstorming stories, I began to see a different story develop than I had originally intended. Leveraging as many details as I could, I made a revision. I found all the ingredients I needed to rewrite the article in an interesting way. And with the help of a colleague, who supplied a fascinating quote, I landed a perfect ten in the conclusion, or so I thought.

The next week I submitted the revision for review. She read it and gave me a brief compliment before noting the purpose she had in mind followed another direction contrary to the position in my article. I still hadn’t really grasped what she wanted. I decided to scrap the entire approach and begin once more anew. Again, I crafted a new article. I painstakingly brainstormed a new approach, researched out the various points, and narrated it in a seamlessly smooth way.

But just as before, it didn’t meet the reviewer’s approval. Finally, I put the article on hold for a week. A couple of weeks later, the entire project was canceled.

At first I was stunned. I’d put at least two weeks worth of time into this article, and I thought at least some version of it was good enough, or salvageable, to avoid a fate in a content scrapyard.

Why had the entire project been canceled? This initial article was supposed to kick off a series of articles that would run throughout the year.

The effort was not worth the payoff, I was told. The hits we would receive from the article’s publication didn’t seem worth the time to write, review, and approve the content, especially with all the directors and leaders involved.

Although shocked, I also felt a sense of relief. I no longer had to do the project. There were a lot of other projects I could focus on instead. I could put this impossible article — and all those that would surely follow — completely out of my mind. Except I couldn’t entirely do that, for some reason.

For nearly a month I focused on other matters, but every now and then I brooded on the failed article. It seemed misguided in a fundamental way, but how? What did I do wrong? I had confidence in the quality of my writing. The essay read well. The problem, perhaps, was the initial assumption. We assumed that an article that takes a week to write should get a significant amount of visibility for the cost involved. If that visibility can’t be ensured, the article isn’t worth writing. Was that assumption correct?

It may be true to an extent. But it seemed like an easy approach to visibility, trying to leverage an existing platform that already had a sizeable readership. In today’s publishing, destination doesn’t matter as much anymore. Good content gets retweeted, blogged about, and shared on enough sites that the original URL isn’t all that significant.

But even more problematic is the idea that you can simply get instant visibility. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about blog readership, it’s that it takes time to grow an audience. There’s hardly a way to instantly grow your readership. Sure you may have a home run post that doubles or triples your existing readership, but in my experience, subscribers grow slowly and steadily. I add about 50 readers to my site a month. Each good post brings in about 15 new readers, while several leave as well. It’s slow going, and it takes a lot of time and patience. To think the whole effort isn’t worth it because it simply takes too much time for the payoff is thinking only in the short-term.

But how do you convince someone that the site may not achieve the visibility we want for at least three years, and that during that time, we’ll need to publish several high quality posts a week? Online publishing isn’t an overnight sensation that erupts when you write one or two engaging posts. You have to write solid content over a period of years to build up the readership you want.

Despite my misgivings about the cancellation, the project was never resurrected. I instead fueled my efforts into another site that had a much smaller readership, and I wrote or edited article after article for that site. I no longer ghost-wrote anything. I simply wrote, and managed other writers and their writing. About 8 months passed by like this, writing and publishing at a steady pace of about 2 to 3 articles a week.

I am not sure that corporate business leaders have the patience and stamina to build up a loyal following of readers. It’s a long, slow, calculating process that cannot be won with a single post. That introductory post I labored over for weeks — it was just one nail in the framework for a house. Blogging requires steady content, week after week, persuading one reader at a time, one word at a time, that your site is worth reading, following, and sharing. Is any single article so important that it deserves endless scrutiny and revision before publishing? Perhaps instead what we need is writing and publishing endurance, the ability to keep going week after week, constantly seeking out the right content for the audience, and crafting it so that readers find it appealing.

Failed articles shouldn’t be a sore point. In the history of writing, how many countless articles have been written and never published? As a professional writer, I’ve developed thick enough skin that discarding weeks worth of effort shouldn’t upset me, nor undermine my self-confidence. Still, the way the discarded article keeps creeping into my psyche, returning again and again in unexpected hours, means I left something unresolved.

I still have the essay sitting on my hard-drive — about a dozen versions of it. I can’t put the article to rest in my mind, but rather continue to contemplate and reflect on it, like an unsolved mystery. A cold case that keeps stewing. It doesn’t want to die, I think.

I just re-read that essay I wrote months ago. Was my memory playing tricks on me? Was it really something that should have been discarded? All my literary judgment tells me no. It is as smooth and flawless as the day I wrote it.

Was there some element that needs discarding, some small line or paragraph that is poisoning the whole? Perhaps, but like a paring knife to a spot on a bad apple, I am confident I can carve it out.

It’s developed a life of its own now, and won’t be silenced.

Sooner or later, I am going to publish that darn essay.


photo by mishari, flickr

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • http://www.sdicorp.com/Resources/Blog/tabid/77/articleType/AuthorView/authorID/24/lkunz.aspx Larry Kunz

    Well, Tom, you certainly mastered the art of telling a story. That was a good one! A few observations:

    It sounds like the reviewer, for whatever reason, couldn’t communicate her expectations to you — or that you couldn’t understand them. That’s too bad, because it caused you a lot of extra work. (I almost said unnecessary work, but we don’t know yet whether your work was in vain. The essay might someday reach a wide audience.)

    I agree with you that it can take time for a published piece to have its full impact. It follows that I think your reviewer was being unfair when she pulled the plug. Did she think she would personally have to purchase paper and ink to publish the essay?

    I hope you’ll publish that essay someday, and I hope I’ll get to read it.

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Larry, thanks for your comment. Yes, I will publish the essay soon. It’s not that exciting, to be honest. It will just be another post on our technology blog. And the reviewer probably didn’t know exactly what she wanted. I get that kind of thing a lot, where people have a general but ultimately vague idea of what something should look like. My larger point that I tried to bring out was the sense of incompletion of ideas, essays that begin and then get put down, but keep rearing their heads to see daylight. It’s somewhat of a strange phenomenon with writing, I think.

      I appreciate your regular comments on my posts.

  • http://scottnesbitt.net Scott

    Sooner or later, I am going to publish that darn essay.

    As you should!

    I was in a similar situation … well, quite a few years ago. I wrote a personal essay which, in my opinion, was one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever done. I can’t tell you how many times that essay got rejected. Well, I can but I don’t want open old wounds :-)

    Eventually, it was published twice. Admittedly, both times in smaller publications, but I did get some good, positive feedback. On top of that, a version of the essay was included in an anthology.

    The moral of the story? Don’t give up. Obviously, you believe in that article. And, unlike the 1980s and 1990s (when I started writing), you have more options to get the article published. It might not appear in hard copy print, but maybe there’s an online publication that will want it. Or maybe you could publish it as a Kindle Single. If push comes to shove, you’ve got this space.

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Scott, thanks for cheering me on here. also, I hadn’t heard of Kindle Singles, so thanks for that link. It’s always good to hear about publishing experiences from other writers. Thanks for reading my blog.

  • http://www.bpijournal.com Jim Reardan

    Someday, someone in the organization is going to approach you with, “Remember that article you wrote awhile back…?” You’ll have forgotten about it. They’ll act like they’d planned all along to use it. Then the article will go on to be the highest rated article ever published. After that, you’ll publish a post about persistence, hope, and fate – using the news article as an example. Once that happens, I’ll go to the news article site and write a comment like’ “You should have used this article long ago, when Tom first wrote it!”

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Well, that is wishful thinking for sure. But thank you for the encouragement. When I post the article, I’ll add a link to it here and then you can read it.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/bjsmithwords B.J. Smith

    I’m very curious about the length of your essay and would like to read it (even before publication if you’d like some feedback).

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      It’s only about 800 words, as it was intended for a news publication. I’ll post a link to it here within a week or two, once I publish it.

  • A Andrew

    I really enjoyed reading this post, for many reasons. I appreciated the reminder that readership grows slowly, but all the more reason to make every article count, and I enjoyed the story of it all. You inspired me to pick up my own blogging again – we’ll see. Thanks!

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Amy, thanks for the comment. Writing a blog has helped make my career as a technical writer interesting and somewhat fulfilling. Feel free to add your blog link here and I’ll follow it.

  • Old Nick

    Tanks for a wortwhile distraction at the start of my day. I’d say the fault lay with the reviewer, who obviously hadn’t communicated the requirement to you adequately. And who probably hadn’t thought it through herself at the time.

    It’s like software development – users don’t know what they want until you give something, and then they know they want something different!

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      users don’t know what they want until you give something, and then they know they want something different!

      Thanks for commenting, Nick, I know this must be formulated into some kind of law or axiom. If someone has heard this same sentiment expressed more formally, please let me know. I think it’s extremely true with writing.

  • Marcia Johnston


    I started a new project today. Your post inspired me today to check in with the requestor and get feedback EARLY on my concept and direction to avoid spending too much time developing something that could have been off-target. Thanks, as always, for provoking thought.


    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Glad to hear it was somewhat useful. Getting feedback early on is probably important. I’m usually so full of pride, though, I think I can deliver something better than what the requester even imagines.

  • Marcia Johnston

    For anyone interested in what it takes to research and write a well-crafted nonfiction story–with the many challenges that come with that effort as you describe, Tom–I recommend “Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction” by Jack Hart.


    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Thanks for the tip. Do you have any favorite narrative non-fiction books you like and recommend? I really like Malcolm Gladwell’s books.

  • Sten Esbern

    Well, you can see how this work at the first article, leads you to the second one. Congratulations.

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Thanks Sten. I typically try to avoid writing about writing, because things become so meta, but in this case it seemed to work out.

  • http://lopascribes.wordpress.com Lopa

    It was a delight to read the post. You have definitely learnt the art of story telling because you have woven the article so well. It captivated me till the end as I was anxious to know what happens finally! I could relate to it very well and understand what thoughts must have gone through your mind.

    The post is absolutely inspiring! Thank you for sharing it!

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Lopa, thanks for your feedback. I’m glad to hear that post has enough storytelling elements to make it worthwhile. I want to incorporate more story into my posts, but I sometimes forget this aspect.