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On the statistical downsides of blogging

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The stats on the 200+ posts I’ve written since I started blogging make it pretty clear that:

  1. Much of what I write does not get much attention – i.e. it is not of interest to most readers.
  2. An interesting post – a rare occurrence in itself  – is invariably followed by a series of uninteresting ones.

In this post, I ignore the very real possibility that my work is inherently uninteresting and discuss how the above observations can be explained via concepts of probability.

Base rate of uninteresting ideas

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece entitled, Trumped by Conditionality, in which I used conditional probability to show that majority of the posts on this blog will be uninteresting despite my best efforts.  My argument was based on the following observations:

  1. There are many more uninteresting ideas than interesting ones.  In statistical terminology one would say that the base rate of uninteresting ideas is high.   This implies that if I write posts without filtering out bad ideas, I will write uninteresting posts far more frequently than interesting ones.
  2. The base rate as described above is inapplicable in real life because I do attempt to filter out the bad ideas. However, and this is the key:  my ability to distinguish between interesting and uninteresting topics is imperfect. In other words, although I can generally identify an interesting idea correctly , there is a small (but significant) chance that I will incorrectly identify an uninteresting topic as being interesting.

Now,  since uninteresting ideas vastly outnumber interesting ones and my ability to filter out uninteresting ideas is imperfect, it follows that  the majority of the topics I choose to write about will be uninteresting.   This is essentially the first point I made in the introduction.

Regression to the mean

The observation that good (i.e. interesting) posts are generally followed by a series of not so good ones is a consequence of a statistical phenomenon known as regression to the mean.  In everyday language this refers to the common observation that an extreme event is generally followed by a less extreme one.   This is simply a consequence of the fact that for many commonly encountered phenomena extreme events are much less likely to occur than events that are close to the average.

In the case at hand we are concerned with the quality of writing. Although writers might improve through practice, it is pretty clear that they cannot write brilliant posts every time they put fingers to keyboard. This is particularly true of bloggers and syndicated columnists who have to produce pieces according to a timetable – regardless of practice or talent, it is impossible to produce high quality pieces on a regular basis.

It is worth noting that people often incorrectly ascribe causal explanations to phenomena that can be explained by regression to the mean.  Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky describe the following example in their classic paper on decision-related cognitive biases:

…In a discussion of flight training, experienced instructors noted that praise for an exceptionally smooth landing is typically followed by a poorer landing on the next try, while harsh criticism after a rough landing is usually followed by an improvement on the next try. The instructors concluded that verbal rewards are detrimental to learning, while verbal punishments are beneficial, contrary to accepted psychological doctrine. This conclusion is unwarranted because of the presence of regression toward the mean. As in other cases of repeated examination, an improvement will usually follow a poor performance and a deterioration will usually follow an outstanding performance, even if the instructor does not respond to the trainee’s achievement on the first attempt

So, although I cannot avoid the disappointment that follows the high of writing a well-received post, I can take (perhaps, false) comfort in the possibility that I’m a victim of statistics.

In closing

Finally, l would be remiss if I did not consider an explanation which, though unpleasant, may well be true: there is the distinct possibility that everything I write about is uninteresting. Needless to say, I reckon the explanations (rationalisations?) offered above are far more likely to be correct 🙂

Written by K

June 1, 2012 at 6:12 am

Posted in Probability, Statistics, Writing

Tagged with

Solvitur ambulando

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I do most of my writing when I’m not writing.

Having said something so clearly contradictory, I think I owe you an explanation. The mechanical act of writing – what I’m doing as I tap out these lines – is obviously done whilst I’m at my computer. However, by the time I begin the keyboard finger-shuffle, I’ve already figured out what I’m going to write. Not just the topic, but much more.  I know what I’m going to write about, the introduction and (broadly) how I’m going to develop the piece.  The hard part – generating ideas and developing them –  has already been done. What’s left is the easy bit; the actual writing down of things I’ve already thought through.

Where do ideas come from? Answering this would take me into the realm of speculation, well beyond my knowledge and experience. So I admit complete ignorance and leave it there. In any case, I’m more interested in finding ways to get new ideas, rather than figuring out where they come from.

So here’s a more relevant question:  are there certain activities that assist in generating  new ideas? For me the answer is a resounding affirmative:  it is while I’m on my early morning walks that I get them.  A writer told me that walking was valuable  not so much for the exercise, but for the ideas. I didn’t believe her until I found the same worked for me. The ideas appear to come from nowhere (I refrain from using terms like subconscious, that I’m not sure I understand).  I could be thinking about something and then, out of the blue, I get this notion which is completely unrelated to the prior thought. It could be just a phrase or a sentence, the mere inkling of a piece, but I can usually tell whether it’s worth pursuing or not.

Once the nascent idea has my attention, I start thinking about how I might develop it.   I find it best to do this right after I get the idea, else there’s a good chance  that I’ll lose the context in which I conjured it up. Consequently, I end up doing a lot of my idea development while still on my pre-dawn perambulation. The development phase also acts as a filter – if the idea is hard to develop, it probably isn’t very good. As a rule of thumb, if I haven’t found a promising development in five to ten minutes, the idea is probably not worth pursuing. However, just to be sure,  I jot it down in a phrase or two (on my mobile, which always accompanies me) and come back to it a few hours or days or even weeks later. Often the second look confirms that the idea is good only for the garbage bin. Very occasionally, I go on to develop these further. My mobile memo pad is full of ideas that never took off.

I’ve stopped trying to analyse where the ideas come from – I’m just grateful that they do.  My AM ambles are a double benefit: exercise and ideas. So, if you’re suffering from bloggers block you could try some strategies for overcoming writer’s block. On the other hand, you could try a  morning walk instead. Solvitur ambulando – it is solved by walking.  

Written by K

March 22, 2008 at 11:37 pm

Posted in Communication, Writing

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