On Stock and Flow

I recently came across a 2010 blog post written by Robin Sloan called Stock and Flow that really resonated with me. As it turns out, I'd apparently been living under a rock until now because this piece has influenced some of my favorite writers on the web.

The idea is simple:

“Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.

Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.”

This, in a nutshell, is how I've tried to run Unretrofied: writing longer, column-like articles now and again, and keeping up the momentum with link-posts in between. Shawn Blanc explains this practice perfectly:

“[...] there’s just no way I could write the sort of original content I do often enough to keep the site updated on a near-daily basis. I spend a lot of time reading and researching, and I love to pass along links to the things I find of value.

If I were to shift the time I spend posting links to be time spent on original articles instead, it’s not like there would be a new article every day. Because I would still be spending time reading and researching and working behind the scenes. And I’d still be discovering the same stuff I am now — I just wouldn’t be linking to it.”

While the idea is simple on the surface, finding the balance between stock and flow can be difficult at times. Making both types of content great is even more so.

Most writers will be familiar with the difficulties of writing stock often and well. With any article of lasting value, there is always a certain amount of research to be done, data to be gathered, thoughts to be articulated, phrases to be turned. This is where the majority of our energy is devoted, and rightfully so.

Flow is another matter altogether. It can still be well-written of course, but it feels less like capital "W" Writing and more like a conversation with friends. It's only natural for us to share awesome stuff with like-minded people in our lives, and that's kind of how I view link-posts.

But here is where the difficulty lies: you wouldn't purposely share crappy stuff with the people you care about. You want to point them only to the good stuff, and there is a lot of it out there to sift through. You also don't want to overload them with this stuff, because if they're your friend, they're likely more interested in your story than all the cool stuff you happen to find.

And trust me, it's all too easy to get caught up in linking to cool stuff when you should be writing more stock.

So again, it's all about finding a balance. People read your blog because they want to see the things you write about, and maybe some occasional tidbits of things that are on your mind (but not too much). This is why the term flow is so perfect. It's about telling a story.

I realize that I'm about to link to Shawn's site for the third time in this piece, but one bit that came up during his interview with John Gruber several years ago is too fitting to pass up:

“As for what I link to and what I don’t, it’s very much like Justice Stewart’s definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” There’s a certain pace and rhythm to what I’m going for, a mix of the technical, the artful, the thoughtful, and the absurd. In the same way that I strive to achieve a certain voice in my prose, as a writer, I strive for a certain voice with regard to what I link to. No single item I post to the Linked List is all that important. It’s the mix, the gestalt of an entire day’s worth taken together, that matters to me.”

So you see, there's definitely an art to all of this, one that I'm continually trying to improve on for myself. There is no formula, no perfect ratio, no right or wrong answer. But it is good to create some guidelines for yourself as a writer, in order to create a better balance.