It is nearly one year since I came up with the idea for my website Divergent Options. It has been one hell of a ride thus far, and I look forward to watching Divergent Options grow and diversify over time. For those who are interested to better understand what goes on behind the scenes of running a website and for my own archival purposes I feel a need to write a “year in review” post on my personal website. Below are a list of my lessons learned. Throughout this article, I will write a paragraph and then note in parens (x) which lesson I am referring to. I hope you find this information to be of value.
- Try to find a niche.
- Focus on ideas.
- Surround yourself with those who are better than you.
- Create some structure, but not too much.
- Be nice.
- Be timely.
- Be firm.
- There will be consequences.
- Meet people virtually and in person as often as you can.
- Summers are the enemy.
- Understand the gravity of your role.
- Bloom where you are planted.
I started Divergent Options as a way to offer succinct national security articles that assess a problem and offer options but do not advocate for a specific option(1). I felt then and still feel now that this is a unique approach to the national security arena. I also wanted to ensure that Divergent Options focused on the ideas that were submitted to us as these ideas are more valuable than the race, gender, nationality, language, or pedigree of the writer(2). I was fortunate to seek the counsel of Steve Leonard aka Doctrine Man who, along with Bob Hein, became my partners(3).
To get Divergent Options started, we developed a call for papers schedule one year in advance. We know our writers are busy so we want to provide them as much notice as possible so they can plan writing into their year. While the call for papers schedule provides some structure to motivate writers to write, we also allow other submissions based on the passion of the writer(4).
When we receive submissions we provide edits, the writers accept or reject our edits and provide justification for the rejections, and then resubmit a clean copy to us. We then upload the clean copy to the website and send the writer a preview PDF for a final check. During this process, our edits primarily focus on clarity. The focus on clarity is key. Editors should remember that writers, especially those who aren’t being paid, are taking time away from important things in their lives to write for you. Writers should be treated kindly and respected. While you can’t please everyone, you can please most. Our goal at Divergent Options is for our writers to walk away happy and thus wanting to write for us again in the future(5). Additionally, we have had writers write great articles and submit them to us without realizing that our articles use a specific format. In these cases, we give the writer the option of rewriting their article or we provide an introduction to another website where their article would better fit. Again, we want people to walk away happy, even if they don’t write for us.
Divergent Options is not my full-time job nor is it the full-time job of Steve Leonard or Bob Hein. Thus while our writers fit writing into their lives we fit editing and posting and managing a Twitter account into ours. However, despite everything going on in our lives, we try to be as timely as possible in our responses to our writers and on social media. When we receive a submission, we reply to the writer within hours thanking them for their submission and notifying them when they will receive edits as submitting articles into a black hole can kill morale(6). Sometimes writers will not follow our format or want to advocate and, while we don’t want to be overbearing, we must be firm to maintain the original vision of Divergent Options(7).
What shocked me the most in the first year was that I lost a few friends. When we started Divergent Options, for whatever reason, our website was seen as a threat to the efforts of others. I didn’t agree with this view nor did I agree with the behavior I observed in others as a response to Divergent Options launching. It really hurt, and I was shocked by how much it really hurt. As such, I don’t communicate anymore with a few people(8). However, I have made many more friends among those who support our efforts, and that has been amazing. In the end, this was a good trade.
In April 2017 we held a social event. It was a great opportunity to meet people face to face, and I think it helped put a face with the website. Additionally, about once every other month I comb our followers list on Twitter and send direct messages inviting people to write for us if their schedule allows(9). If I have missed you in this process, please let me know!
Our original effort at Divergent Options focused on the Options Paper, which sought to mimic a type of paper used to brief senior-level decision makers in Washington D.C. Later, Bob Hein noted that we might be missing out on opportunities by being so rigid. Bob said, “The problem is if you want to write for Divergent Options you have to write for Divergent Options.” Bob meant that our niche was so niche that we don’t have an opportunity to receive papers from writers who write a traditional article and shop it around. To solve this, we developed the Assessment Paper, and I am happy to report that this second way for writers to write for us is working quite well(10).
I believe the last thing people want to do when it is warm outside is be inside writing. So, if you are ever planning to start a national security website, you should plan for your submissions to plummet during the summer. Thus it’s probably best to start a website in the fall, and don’t plan any big website events in the summer(11).
Writers take time from their life, the only life they will have, and give it to Divergent Options in the form of the written word. Let this sink in for a moment. Writers are, in essence, giving a portion of their only life to you. You, as the editor / website owner, are duty obligated to not only publish the majority of submissions but to also archive. Thus I suspect I will have a WordPress bill each year until my demise. I can already imagine my children complaining after my death that they couldn’t figure out what to do with the website(12).
Divergent Options is Divergent Options, and we are happy with that. We will never be (Insert Amazing National Security Website Here), and that is okay. Conversely (Insert Amazing National Security Website Here) will never be us, and that is okay as well. If you are thinking of starting a website, please, I beg you, don’t ever compete with anyone else. Your time is better spent finding writers and publishing content. This national security website thing is about habits, not goals(13). As John Litttle of Blogs of War told me when I started “Keep your website design simple and publish articles. When in doubt, simplify and publish. There is nothing more.”
Continuing on the theme of “surround yourself with those who are better than you” at the urging of Steve Leonard we started a Strategic Advisory Board. We are very pleased to be able to leverage the amazing minds of Janine Davidson, Nathan Freier, Stephen Rosen, Kori Schake, and Tamara Cofman Wittes on occasion to further our efforts at Divergent Options(3). We are forever grateful for their time and counsel.
When you start a website, you never know where it will go. Steve Leonard imparted this wisdom to me as we discussed how he started Doctrine Man and it grew beyond his initial vision. So, while we may want this and that for Divergent Options, the best thing to do is relax, enjoy the ride, and occasionally provide some rudder guidance.