One of the clearest indicators that blogs are here to stay is the fact that so many famous authors, writers with published works to their names, and journalists from the old-school paper and print era have all taken up blogging to some degree. In the words of Tom Ferrick, a veteran reporter, what he loves about blogging is, “the chance to report and comment in real time and the ability to link to the good work of others.”
Such writers have, in many cases, years of experience at the craft to inform the process. How can bloggers still on the uphill side of the learning curve learn from these more experienced polished writers?
Well, I recently was fortunate enough to attend a writing workshop led by a working journalist. It was delightfully different from the poisonous atmosphere and internecine nonsense that is so wittily skewered in the contemporary stage play about such events, titled Seminar. It was, instead, uplifting and affirming and, due to the generosity of a major university, free to a small group of community members. Such a luxury is not, of course, available to most of us, for reasons of geography, logistics, time, and a myriad of other factors. Can we not, however, find ways to benefit from the wisdom of veterans without the inconvenience or expense of attending a pricey workshop somewhere?
There is some wonderful writing about writing out there. If you want some fast and inexpensive inspiration for your blog writing, the list at the bottom includes wonderful resources. Check out your library to avoid the purchase cost. The best known may be Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. He is self -deprecating and very generous with his advice. Some of it boils down to just doing it. He points out that, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” How crucial this is to anyone committed to a regular posting or under deadline! Try some of the exercises recommended by journalist Janet Falon to loosen up your brain and get mobilized.
King also hints rather strongly that, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” This applies equally to bloggers. King also notes, “You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.” He has little patience with those who ignore this imperative. Consider this observation from his many book tours: “I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they don’t have time to read. This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.” What more powerful impetus to read widely and become familiar with the greats of all genres could one imagine?
Read in the field that you hope to blog in, and in other fields as well. If you can possibly manage it, you should be reading something in your own subject area at all times, and have at least one of the books out there about writing on hand to keep you jazzed up about your craft. It can be so lonely, and unless you have affirmation, even from the author of a book you are reading, it can be tough to keep going as a blogger (or any kind of writer, for that matter).
King also urges us to write plainly and straightforwardly. The master of horror says, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” In this, Mr. King is echoing the advice of an earlier writer, George Orwell. He famously counselled writers to avoid hackneyed phrases, foreign words, jargon, or scientific words. Instead, Orwell advised, use short words, cut anything extraneous, avoid passive voice, and break these rules rather than sound “barbarous”.
This set of guidelines can be tough to follow when you are dealing with a specialty such as health care, where correct use of scientific terminology is key to your credibility and to the usefulness of your writing to your readers. Consider this bit from the exceedingly popular and well-regarded Motley Fool blog:
I like to be fully invested because I’m greedy, and I like to have a pile of cash because it’s so darned handy when great opportunity comes up. I squared that circle by selling some stock, buying in the money calls, and leaving the cash I raised sitting there. The calls control the upside on somewhat more stock than I sold, so in one sense I’m now long with leverage. In another sense my portfolio has a 1/3 cash allocation. Perhaps this is the worst of both worlds, I dunno.
Personally, even having taken a fair amount of Finance, this writer can barely understand most of these terms. However, I can nonetheless get a sense of the meaning because the blogger has used plain English where possible. The guys who run Motley Fool had really stringent expository writing instruction in high school, and it shows.
Here is another example from John McTigue’s blog on marketing. He has been specializing in the use of online resources for increasing sales since well before Facebook. He makes his living this way (pretty slick for a fellow who started out studying Forestry).
“Marketing works with Sales to establish key criteria for lead segmentation and scoring. Hopefully, you have already created a comprehensive list of buyer personas and a detailed buyer journey for each persona.”
Here again, this could be nearly impenetrable gobbledygook. However, John makes sure that he uses only those jargon terms that allow him to get more ideas across in less space. He is using shorthand, just as did the writer for the Motley Fool. He is not deliberately trying to confuse or show off. He had the same high school exposition teachers as the Motley Fool’s writers, the Gardner brothers, by the way.
These samples prove, one hopes, that even when you are dealing with a topic with a dense and arcane jargon, you can avoid obfuscating (how’s that for a breach of at least one rule?). Try consciously to write simply and with short, Anglo-Saxon words, in between the technical terms.
King also advises to write concisely. He points out that, “In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.” In counselling thus, he reflects the good counsel of Ernest Hemingway, that giant of spare, direct writing. Hemingway commented, “It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.”
For a blogger, this is extremely important advice. The format of the blog can lead writers to ramble on and on. The blog may be one of the few remaining spots in the writing marketplace where the long-format article is even welcome. Some of the other places, for the moment, include Playboy, The New Yorker, Foreign Affairs, and The Atlantic. Good luck, and Mazel Tov to any who can break into those markets! For the rest of us, the blog is a place of apparently nearly unlimited length horizons. Thank goodness for this! However, this can be very seductive. Writers need to respect their readers’ time. Make sure that if you are writing at great length, you are providing absolutely vital and important content. Justify the length with the quality of the information, humor, commentary, or other deathless material you include. Your rule of thumb should be that you yourself would be willing to plow through to the end of what you have produced, not because you are in love with your own words, but because it compels and challenges and informs. That is a high bar to surpass.
Just because blogging seems so easy, and there is seldom much of an editorial board in place as a barrier against poor work, this does not mean that bloggers are exempt from the need to edit, edit, edit. Many writers have discussed the challenges involved in perfecting what you have (perhaps long since) created. Children’s book author Karin Gustafson describes the difference between new projects and ones that demand revision this way:
Now that I think about it, working on a new piece is remarkably like a new relationship. In the charge of fresh pheromones, we feel somehow certain that we’ll fix any problems, the person too. Later. (Note to self–fat chance.)
Rewriting, in contrast, tends to bog down. The flaws are about all we are conscious of; the flow feels like a house on stilts rather than any kind of river.
Sometimes we want to change the whole thing, start almost from scratch. This may be the best approach, but it’s also important to stop and take a breath. Are we really just trying to do something new, different? Something whose flaws we don’t have to deal with just yet?
I just have a hard time beginning and sticking to the work: because I have no faith that I can/will complete the task, meaning spending any time at all on it is a waste.
because I have no faith that even if I do complete the task, it will be very good, or even if good, will be read, or liked. (Meaning spending any time at all on it is a waste.)
because I hate making decisions and revising is a non-stop decision-making process… Meaning that it’s not all that fun, meaning spending any time on it is a waste.
Here’s where discipline comes in.
Meaning …that if I want to do this, I have to just make myself do it, even when I don’t want to.
Meaning… better get back to it.
Many have recommended a comprehensive and aggressive approach to revision. Hemingway recommended, “If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it.” These days, with the ease of word processing, there is simply no excuse for not revising. This makes Stephen King’s dramatic advice all the more important. He urges, “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” This means that even the most elegant turn of phrase must go – Ctrl X- if it does not propel the article along. Be ruthless with yourself. They are only words, and you have plenty of them if you are a writer. If you are not a writer, then don’t even attempt to blog. It will always be like a dog walking on its hind legs – uncomfortable and ultimately unproductive.
Let the material rest a bit before revising, even if you are under a deadline. Give your mind a chance to cool down, like an internal combustion engine, with its tiny metallic ticks and pops indicating that it has come to rest. Your work will sound different when you have been away from it, if only for a few minutes. Do something else entirely. Hemingway recommends exercise, or love-making – are we surprised? He reports:
I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.
If you know why you are blogging and what you want to say, you are well on your way. With some of the advice from folks who have published and (sometimes) prospered from the craft of writing, you will be better prepared to succeed in the brave new world of the blogosphere. Let me end with a thought from novelist Katherine Towler – although she is referring to all sorts of writing, this could apply to what motivates many of us towards blogging:
writing local feels right for now – a celebration of what I see each day out my windows, a celebration of stepping out my door.