A Question About Form
David Imel asks:
Hey Evan. Something I forgot to ask your thoughts on at your book signing event is how you think about what format a certain type of media should take.
For example, I keep almost writing something just for the written word, but then feel like if I'm not also making a video version of it, it feels like lost potential. But also being a perfectionist such as yourself I end up stressed about whether it's a strong enough idea for a video, and generally don't move forward with anything at all. I suppose it is entirely possible to test it in a written format first and see if it feels strong enough to take to other mediums (video, audio), but I also worry about burdening the audience with a rehash of the same content, just in different formats.
Have you ever considered that the pieces you write here might turn into something on-screen? Or do you silo content to the medium you think best articulates the message?
At the beginning of The Nerdwriter, I threw every idea I had into the show because of your point about lost potential. I wanted to post a lot of stuff, consistently. The editing at that time was minimal, basically the jump-cut style I copied from the Vlogbrothers. Over the first few years, I gradually added more animation and media—but held on to the “vlog” mode where I appeared onscreen for a big portion of the videos. I was able to cut to myself whenever there wasn’t obvious imagery to show.
A couple more years passed and eventually I removed myself from the videos entirely, keeping only the voiceover. I did that to heighten the immersion. I felt that I—Evan, the host—was an obstacle to absorbing the information. The viewer shouldn’t have to spend any time considering me, my appearance, my gestures, etc. I thought that would take them out of the story. (I should add that I have no idea if this is true, so I could be wrong, but it’s what I felt at the time, so I went with it.)
As a result, I lost my editing crutch. I had to find imagery for every second of every video, and this is when my obsession with form really heated up.
It quickly became obvious when I was forcing it. I’d have minute-long gaps in videos and sigh because I had to create little animation flourishes to visualize points that didn’t need to be visualized. Do that enough and you start to spot those dead zones in the script stage—and then you start to spot them in the idea stage.
So I put aside ideas that weren’t inherently visual and pursued ones that would benefit from being expressed in the medium of online video. That’s how I developed the style of The Nerdwriter, but it’s also the origin story of Escape Into Meaning. Those non-visual ideas weren’t intrinsically worse; they just weren’t right for my show. The best of them make up the book, and I think they’d have suffered as Nerdwriter videos. Certain kinds of information are more immersive on the page.
I’m not an expert at discerning the best forms for things, but a decade of iterating my show has strengthened that muscle. I can sort of intuit what will work better as a video and what will work better in prose. So my advice, as always, is to put stuff out there, a lot of stuff, and see how you feel about it. You might find you don’t care all that much about matching content to form, which is totally fine. There are other valid things to prioritize—forging a personal connection with your audience, for example (which I think I sacrificed a bit by removing myself from the videos).
Or maybe you’re focused on growing your channel, a legitimate goal, which will be easier with video than writing. I’m speaking from the privileged position of having an established audience, and when you have one of those, people ask if you’re interested in writing a book, or doing a podcast, or developing a show—and some of your audience will follow you to other mediums. Without the audience, it’s hard to break into those spaces. Always believe in what you’re creating, always add value, but it’s not a bad thing to be practical when you’re trying to make a living. And practically, a YT video has a far better chance of going viral than a Substack post.
As for burdening the audience, well, I have the same anxieties. I’m trying to overcome them with this blog. I hope to use this as a laboratory for ideas, which may or may not find their way into videos or books, and as informal space to confront my fears about releasing imperfect things. It’ll be more formal than my Notes app, of course, but less than The Nerdwriter or EIM. Whether or not it’s public-facing, I suggest you find a laboratory, too. Unexpressed ideas don’t help at all; we grow from what we complete. And the more we grow, the more we can offer to everyone else.
I hope this is a good place to connect with you. Yesterday I went live with a kickstarter for Bombadil Finale (the successor to Finding Tom Bombadil, a 2019 detective documentary about a man on a quest to find his favourite fiction character in the real world) - and a friend of mine (@bobvanluijt) said: "Get in touch with Evan, I think he would love this project."
Would you have a moment for a chat or a phone call?
Bombadil Finale follows a fellowship of nine as they trek to the valley of Thórsmörk on Iceland to perform a rhyme, hoping to draw Tom Bombadil to our planet.
It would be wonderful if more people would know about this project and could support it, or share it with others.
Best wishes from Amsterdam,
Joost van de Loo
+31 6 507 339 04