How Redesigning My Website Made Me Hate the Web

This started off as a post to announce my website “redesign” but about halfway through it broke loose and turned into something worth reading. The reason why is that I’ve not only retooled the website, but I’ve also retooled the way I work and the way I think about the web. And with the web, my thoughts are pretty simple. I’ve come to hate it.

Constructively Dissatisfied

To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, “Every decent person is ashamed of the web they browse.” Sure, the internet is an incredible medium, but most of the bandwidth is devoted to porn, theft and animated gifs of some teenage boy nutshotting himself on a rusty railing to the cruel laugher of camera-wielding hyenas.

Twitter can be used for amazing things. But mostly it’s a running tally of what people had for lunch. Don’t even get me started on Instagram and Facebook.

The web may be infinitely wide and long, but most of the time the goddamned thing feels an inch deep at best. To redesign this site, I reviewed all of the content I had produced since 2005. It was eye-opening. I could literally see myself grow shallow, stupid and weak. Where ever I got caught up in producing “content” to create a “buzz” or for “social media” the quality went to shit. And, as ashamed as I am of that fact, it feels good to come right out and say it.

The medium itself seems to have made people shallow, petty, angry and weak. It doesn’t have to be this way, but if it’s going to change, more people need to stand up to this insipid bully. Here’s how I’m doing it.

1 — Less Content, More Quality.

My new baseline is:

One post a month.

One book a year.

In Japan, a master sword-makers are licensed to produce a certain number of swords in his lifetime. If a bladesmith (and his two assistants) produce a blade that is in any way not up to snuff, they break it and start over. These are serious men. In addition to being master-bladesmiths, they are almost always Shinto priests as well. They don’t care about growing market share. They don’t care about going viral. For them the success is the work. The quantity of blades they will produce is fixed. The only thing in question is the quality.

In a very real way, my quantity is fixed as well. I only have so much time. And when I look at it like that, frittering that time away on clever status updates doesn’t just strike me as a bad idea. It seems something of sin.

Real, substantial work is hard. It takes time. Even when you work hard to produce it quickly. Social media encourages us to be trivial. And, as a reward, it gives us the illusion that we are producing something. I mean, it’s up there. And other people responded to it. I’m platforming, right?

Wrong.

You’re wasting your limited number of hours on cat pictures, pornography and the opinions of an always connected, 24/7 global network of shut-ins with anger issues. We are all of us — even the shut-ins — better than this.

2 — Better Tools

I owe WordPress a tremendous debt. Before I started using it for the Seanachai, I was coding my rss feed by hand.1 For me, this was the digital equivalent of breaking rocks — labor that was cruel, pointless and hard.

But WordPress forces you into a certain kind of site. Begs you to use widgets and plug-ins. And design WordPress themes have a certain aesthetic and ethos. They are focused around images and metadata rather than words.

All the sites that I admire have beautiful design and an elegant focus on just what matters. To get to that with any WordPress theme that I could find seemed to require a lot of undoing. On top of which, WordPress is slow and frequently hacked.

Instead, I went with something called Pico. It’s a stupidly simple and blazing fast, flat file CMS. And for me, it’s perfect.

3 — A Better Workflow.

Next month, I’m going to announce a new novel and present a comprehensive overview of how I used Markdown and Github for the writing process. I used Markdown because Markdown + Code Folding + A Good Text Editor = blinding speed.2 And everyone knows Microsoft Word = Pain.

I used Github because it allowed me to document and track every single step of the way. And with the entire evolution of a book in a git repository, I can create some fascinating ways to look at a book.

But because I use Markdown and am not terribly afraid of HTML/CSS, Pico is a nicer, faster way for me to work. It gives me granular control. Rather than fighting WordPress, it’s now like I’m working in the elegant domain of book design.

And not least of all. Using a real text editor means that I am able to remap my capslock key to delete the word behind the cursor. If that seems like a small thing, then you don’t realize how many times a day I hit the backspace key.

4 — A Timeline

Using a timeline is not a unique design idea by any stretch. But laying my work out on a timeline forces me to focus on my real goal. A consistent body of work. Rather than losing the plot while trying to scroll through the last three “12 Ways To Use One Weird Old Trick To Pick Up Chicks”-type posts.

Also, because I tried to cull my output to 12 posts a year, it really forced me to revisit and re-edit my work. I learned a lot from curating my own content. It’s not just that I’m a better writer than I was in 2005. It’s that now I can better ask myself, “Is this really what I want to be writing? And the way I want to be writing about it?”

Compromising with the Monster.

The more time I spend online, the more the world seems to be a nervous, fearful, frenetic and disposable place. That’s not the kind of world I want to live in, not the kind of life I want to live and not the kind of work I want to do. I’m after bedrock — a foundation that are solid enough to build for the ages.

But since the Internet presents the most wonderful revolution in publishing and communication since Gutenberg, my compromise is this: I will create the best work of which I am capable. I will seek the best work of others. I will use the fantastic new tools to make this process easier, more productive and faster. And I will work very hard to ignore the insignificant sound and fury of the inch-deep web.


  1. I have never had the kind of love-hate relationship with anything as I had with feedvalidator.com in those early months of 2005. Love, because it saved my ass. Hated, because I always, always, always broke the feed when I updated it. 
  2. I’ve finally settled on Sublime Text 2. But the promise of even more blinding speed has me listening to the siren song of Vim 
  • http://ctmiller.net/ Chris Miller

    Patrick, what you are saying mirrors many of my thoughts after wrestling with my output for the last few years. I am glad to see I am not the only one feeling this way. Thank you for explaining your thinking.

  • Scott Roche

    Speed for what? ( Re footnote #2)

    • PatrickEMcLean

      Writing. Faster typing, faster editing. The more words you add in word, the slower it gets. Somewhere around 40k you can’t even really open a doc anymore. Not if you have more than one thing to do that day.

      • Scott Roche

        I typically use Google Docs/Pages so I don’t run into any of those issues. I’d love one of those twelve blog posts to show us your writing process. How you use GitHub and the other tools you mention.

        • PatrickEMcLean

          50,000+ words in Google Docs? Last time I tried that it broke spectacularly.

          Process post on the docket. Next, in fact, I’m going to use my git repo to make some cool animations of the process and talk about workflow.

  • Lucie Le Blanc

    A clean website. Wow, that’s unbelievably soothing. I think this is what I’m going to aim for with my own project. I don’t know how to code, but maybe it’s time I let the fear of it go and just learn it. The control freak in me likes this idea very much. ;)

    • PatrickEMcLean

      It’s not that hard. And it’s way easier than ripping the crap out of a WP install.

  • Nerdcoresteve

    Go Patrick Go

  • FTL_Zeus

    As much as I love P.E.M., the Devil’s Advocate in me forces me to point out that some of the views above are oft spoken by writers who don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from and who are not barely surviving paycheck to paycheck with a cloud of doom ever-present above them. Is the work the success? Maybe. But cash is also pretty handy when you’re barely making it and the bills are piling up. Getting some recognition and/or some cabbage in return for your efforts is also a legitimate measure of success. Does marketing suck? Sure. It feels dirty and cheesy even when you actually believe in the product (which you may not if you’re still chasing your first big break). But that’s how it works. Electrons and protons do their thing, planets and moons do another thing, and writers who haven’t yet crested have to play the sales and marketing game. Cuz if you don’t, nobody knows your work exists and you make jack squat guaranteed. If you want to bask in the pristine light of creativity and praise the work for the work’s own sake, hey, feel free to put on your crushed-velvet smoking jacket and talk about how bourgeois it is to sell one’s soul just to turn a profit. It’s hip to say “Turn in, tune out, and drop off”. When you’re eating ramen noodles and tuna fish on crackers just to scrape by, however, jumping through the hoops in the hopes you’ll get net a big break payday with a side of limelight for your efforts is just as legitimate a perspective.

    • PatrickEMcLean

      Hmm, I think you misunderstand my point. I am still chasing my big break. I really believe that getting caught up in trivia is a dead end. Nobody cares what kind of graffiti Michelangelo wrote.

      Sure, you’ve got to jump through hoops. My point is that most of the hype and noise encourages writers to jump through ineffectual hoops. A point that’s even more important when you are broke.

      Consider Hugh Howey. It wasn’t a series of brilliant tweets that made Wool a success. It’s that Wool was good.

      And, in a very hard-nosed and real way, the work must be your success. It’s the only thing that is within your control. I picked this up from the Tao De Ching, “Do you work, but set no store by it.” Stephen Pressfield loves to quote this from the Bhagavad Gita, “you are entitled to your labor, but not the fruits of your labor.” It’s really one of the sanest things I know.