by Richard Pooley
“Why don’t you stop doing it?” my wife asked last week. She was referring to my publishing of this magazine, Only Connect. Whatever flaccid answer I gave did not satisfy her. I can understand her frustration. She has had to live with an angry man for the past thirty-seven years and can do without a couple of days of extra tension every fortnight. A couple of days? She would say a week.
I’ve learned many things over the past year of publication, some of which I am about to tell you, and the first is that readers don’t read the ‘About’ page. I know because several people – writers as well as readers - have asked me: “What’s it about?” Or, from dwellers in Edinburgh and Islington, “What’s your vision?” So, here is a bit of the first part of the page, dear reader, written in January 2021:
What Do We Aim To Do?
Our aim is to publish articles on current events and important issues which inform and entertain in a way that encourages readers to respond with their views. Ideally these would be articles of a similar length, putting forward different, evidence-based opinions. But it is more likely that they would be much shorter than the original. No matter. As long as all contributors are having a reasoned discussion with each other. And not stating, hectoring and abusing – the norm on social media.
Here is one of the definitions of the verb – to reason – given in the Concise Oxford Dictionary: “Form or try to reach conclusions by connected thought.” Hence the title of this magazine: Only Connect.
Well, as faithful readers will know, if that is what the magazine was about then, it is not what it is about now. We have had articles on current events and important issues but increasingly they are on past events and on issues which, though important, are unlikely to get people bothered enough to write comments, let alone send in an article giving an opposing view. My fault for allowing writers to write what they want? No. I’m not paying them. They have to accept that I edit their articles, sometimes savagely, or even reject them. In return they must be free to write about whatever they want (though I do occasionally make the odd, little suggestion).
Where I was at fault was not realising how Wix, the website builder, makes its money. Let’s call it the Ryanair business model. For example, I discovered too late, ten months in, that my contract with Wix allowed me only ten comments. In total. Which is why so many informative, amusing, pleasant and, yes, unpleasant comments had disappeared. I coughed up £39.73 early last month and lo, many but, sadly, not all comments reappeared. You can make as many comments as you like now (please, please do) and they won’t be lost...until I pay up again in ten months’ time. Such costly add-ons are in fact essential if the magazine is to succeed (and Wix stay in business).
I was also wrong to have stuck with Only Connect as the title. I was told that I was a fool to try and compete with the popular UK game show of the same name. The magazine would never make it to the first page of any search engine. He was right. And I have been plagued by fans of the show who email me with suggested questions. My polite response telling them they have come to Only Connect, the online magazine, has yet to make any of them subscribe. At a cost of £180 my accountant registered ONCONN with Companies House the day before I received this from a candid friend: “A pity Only Connect was taken but OnConn sounds as if the site might be devoted to exposing online con-tricks...”
So, if we are not to be a News Commentary with “articles from an eclectic group of writers with widely different political views” what should we aim to be? A tiny-scale version of the New Yorker or the Financial Times Weekend Life & Arts section (read it; it’s consistently brilliant)? Is there a way of getting back to the original purpose: publishing articles which encourage people to understand others’ points of view, even if not agreeing with them? To walk around in other peoples’ skins as I myself argued in the first article I wrote for the magazine - Why don't we do what Atticus Finch advises? (only-connect.co.uk)? Answers, dear reader, in the Comments section below.
Which brings me to the writing team and my role as editor as well as writer. I thought I knew what ‘good writing’ meant. After all I had written nearly ninety articles for another magazine between 2015 and 2020. I co-authored a book, published in 2013, which has sold pretty well and which my wife edited without fear or favour (we called her Swimbo - She Who Must Be Obeyed – though never to her face). I have even taught British bankers to write English in a way which can be understood by their colleagues and regulators (being understood by their clients was perhaps a bridge too far). But it was only when I started seeking out writers and editing their offerings that I learned what ‘good writing’ really is. I also learned how rare and underappreciated it is. And how much well-educated, native English writers overrate their ability to write well.
This has little to do with grammar or spelling. Spellchecks will deal with the latter, provided one remembers to click on ‘English UK’ (we have readers in as many as forty countries, but we are UK-based). Grammar mistakes and misuse of vocabulary have my splendid but splenetic sometime co-editor, Chris Boothby, in fits of rage. But then he is a professional editor who, for many years, plied his trade in that city of multi-lingual, bureaucratic obfuscation, Brussels. I am quite sure that he will be scanning for grammatical errors in this article. And, with glee, find them. But whilst I often have to correct grammar mistakes, they don’t often stop me from understanding what the writer is saying.
What then makes for a good article? Just expressing opinions is not enough. There need to be facts, clearly shown. The reader has to learn something sufficiently interesting or novel that they exclaim “Really?!” or, even better, turn to somebody and say “Did you know that…?”. It needs to have a message, explicit or implicit, or why bother to read it? It should provoke thought, or a wry smile, ideally both. Anecdotes, especially the writer’s own ones, add colour and are powerful supports to any argument. But above all, the language must flow.
What does ‘flow’ mean in this context? It’s one of the hardest things to explain. But I know it when I read it. So do you. Sometimes flow is dammed by just one inappropriate word or by a word order which makes the reader stop and back-track, searching for meaning. Several readers have been kind enough to praise the quality of the writing in Only Connect. One writer let me see an email from a friend who suggested his writing was so good he should insist I pay him. And if I didn’t, he should offer his articles elsewhere. If only the friend knew how much time I have to spend turning that writer’s adequate text into something which flows. It takes me, on average, two hours to edit each article (and up to two days to research and write my own).
Nearly always there is at least one factual error. It’s quicker for me to find the correct fact via Google than via the writer, who may well be asleep or travelling and not contactable. Another editorial job is to make sure the article makes sense to someone living in a different country from the writer and who may not have English as their mother tongue. Too many of us British writers, for example, forget that British history, institutions, heroes, villains, and customs are not universally known (even inside the UK). We are writing in English but around 30% of our readers, and three in our writing team, don’t speak English as their native language.
Over a hundred articles have been published in Only Connect so far. What I find surprising is that only once that I can recall has a writer noticed and commented on the fact that their article has been edited.
Having probably upset all OC’s writers, it’s time to turn to you, our reader. This is what I put on the ‘About’ page a year ago:
Who Are You?
To start off with you will be friends and family of our writers. So, initially most of you will be British. However, since most of our regular writers live outside the UK and we all have friends from around the world, we hope to make the readership much more international very soon. You have the time and inclination to read articles of as much as 1500 words - a ‘long read’ in the era of Twitter. This probably means you are over fifty and may be retired. Good. That means you have loads of experience and knowledge which should be shared with other readers. Let’s hear from you.
I got most of that right. We currently have 242 subscribers. Most are friends and family of mine and of writers Jehad Al-Omari and Mark Nicholson. This explains why our readers cluster in the UK, France, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and East Africa, and are, I deduce, over sixty years old. You have the time and the inclination to read articles which are never less than a thousand words. Thank you.
The number of visitors to the site from the Wednesday of publication to the following Sunday varies hugely. The peak for this five-day period – 563 visitors - was reached in early May last year. There is a long tail; people visit the site every day over the fortnight between issues. It’s very clear that visits from non-subscribers happen when articles are posted on social media either by writers or readers. We writers don’t post enough. In my case this is because I am only on LinkedIn. Running a literary estate hated by so many has made me avoid Twitter and Facebook. I fear many of our readers also eschew social media. This is a problem I need to solve. But you can help me: if every subscriber recruited one new subscriber, our contacts would double and our readership probably triple.
‘Visitors’ do not automatically equate to ‘readers’. People can land on the home page and, having found that there is no article which interests them, promptly leave. Readers have their favourite writers. Whenever Jehad has an article published, the number of Jordanians and Emiratis who come onto the site soars. But sadly for the rest of us most only read his article. I had hoped that by publishing articles on totally different subjects side-by-side visitors would find new things to interest them. Regular readers do: the average ‘session duration’ for the last issue was half an hour, meaning that several articles were read. Thank you again.
I’m certainly not doing this for the money. I’ve just submitted the first year’s figures to my accountant - income: 0, costs: £560. Should we advertise or charge you a fee? That just feels like a lot of hassle for very little return. Anyway our main goal is to get read, not to get rich.
So, why don’t I obey my wife and stop? Two reasons. First, I have learned a lot of fascinating stuff over the past year from my fellow writers and from doing the research required to write my own articles. Secondly, I love writing. It’s good for my mental health (though possibly not for my wife’s).
What do you think, dear reader? Should we keep going or stop?