Category Archives: Blogger’s Secret

Blogging is easy.

Blogging is easy. All you have to do is write twice a day without any direction and stay on target until you find out what the target was.

Everyone who writes a blog struggles with the tension between staying on focus and writing whatever you damn well please. Without an editor to nix your worst impulses, you can easily go far, far astray from whatever initial impulse brought you to writing and whatever attractive topic led you to have readers.

A useful mechanism of self-guidance for me is to ensure that every post fits into at least one existing category. It doesn’t help that I have to date created two hundred and thirty eight categories into which something might fit. That at least is honest; this weblog doesn’t have one narrow focus, and it’s been running for ten years, so some divergence of interests is not just anticipated but expected.

For an illustration of the simplicity of this approach, see Dan Cooney’s painting “The Simplicity of the Semantic Web”. (All rights reserved, used with permission.)

Dan-cooney-simplicity-of-the-semantic-web

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How to Write Amazing Posts EVERY TIME (and why you shouldn’t)

Mack Collier has an amazing post about how to write amazing posts. (Here, go read it.) I’m here to tell you why to listen to his advice but not to write like he does.

Collier calls for an amped-up style of blog writing, one that is full of lists and awesome photographs and cheerleading enthusiasm. That’s a good style to recognize, and you’ll see it in some of the most popular parts of the web – the Buzzfeed or Upworthy style, with headlines like “New Dads Learned One Weird Tip To Make Their Blogs POP!” These are interesting and amazing the way a slow-motion televised car chase is amazing. They are not, however, how I write my weblog – and not a style for you, unless you are in a weird job where counting pageviews drives your wages.

The net has enough of the hyperkinetic blog fodder to go around. What it doesn’t have, and needs, is bloggers who take an old-school approach to blog writing and who are careful and respectful of their audiences.

Blogging is about writing to pick up an audience, one that would read everything you had to say and comment on it. That means not only writing about what people might click on because their eye got caught by a headline, but also writing the day-in, day-out thematic and topical materials that someone who cares more than a little bit will follow along for detail.

Blogging is figuring out what sorts of regular obscure parts of the world that you cover and being a go-to resource for that issue when it comes up in the world. To illustrate, I bring you Dave Petley’s Landslide Blog. You won’t find awesome stock photography, but you will find a whole series of carefully selected photos that illustrate the stories he writes about landslides and their origin and effect. Or see the Backyard Arthropod Project, which is a lovingly illustrated guide to the bugs of Atlantic Mine, MI with great macrophotography of bugs, beetles, insects, spiders, slugs, and more. There are dozens more like this, people who toil away in relative obscurity writing carefully about their craft, and I love them. It’s a style that lends itself to slowly but surely being a recognized expert in your field.

I love weblogs that take a narrow view on some interesting part of the world and are thorough in how they document it. They don’t need weird tricks or compelling lists or catchy copy to make their mark on the world. Rather, they illustrate and tell a whole series of stories that might never have been told before, told by someone who is expert in their corner of the world. Even though they might only get a few followers compared to Buzzfeed, they add a lot more to our understanding of the world.

(This is the topic of the 8 December 2013 #blogchat chat, at 9pm Eastern time).

How many publishable words can you write in a day?

Here’s a thought experiment. Sit down in the morning with a cup of coffee and a list of topics. Work through them, one at a time, coming up with and writing down 500 words or so on each topic. How many topics do you get to over the course of the day, and how long does it take you to write 500 words that make sense? Assume for the sake of argument that there’s a typical number of distracting email, Twitter, and Facebook posts that you have to deal with. Each of the pieces that you are writing will need to contemplate a part of the net that might lead to its own distractions.

I am always impressed by people who have the ability to sit down and crank out clean copy that is ready for publication. It’s not by any means easy to do this, and certainly every written work can be improved by judicious editing. I’m thinking more of the remarkable skill where you can type as fast as you can for a short burst and have the resulting words make sense, flow nicely, and be worth posting to the world.

The practice I get doing this has a lot to do with blogging, where I want to capture the moment and some momentarily interesting topic and put my mark on it. This is not writing a novel, and not writing a little piece of a 20-page or 400-page non-fiction work; rather, it’s somewhere between journalism and blogging. The work you are composing is temporarily interesting to a number of people in part because it has a good headline for Twitter and a body full of words that search engines like. You’ve written news, but it’s within the context of a blog, and because of that it’s perfectly acceptable to leave questions unanswered and stories unresolved. It’s what musician Michelle Shocked called the “incomplete image”, and perhaps you are waiting for someone with a longer deadline to write up the full story.

I know from experience that I can put together 500 words in a sitting on one topic without taking a break and without needing to consult an outline. The much more challenging part is making a long, coherent single narrative out of these intermediate pieces parts. The skill of impromptu essay writing is by no means the same as the skill of book writing, and the task of challenging yourself to come up with a story that moves the current understanding a bit forward is a challenge.

To some degree, I’m willing to pad out those words with ample quotations from other sources, a sort of journalistic cut-and-paste that sifts through less well known sources to string together a story. (Of course the excerpts are carefully hyperlinked to avoid any suggestion of use without attribution.) Careful reuse of existing copy is one of the qualities that blogging can take advantage of that isn’t generally OK in journalism circles.

If all you wrote were impromptu essays for the net, you’d quickly find out what was a keeper by the traffic you were able to draw in. On a good day, I’m happy to write three or four blog posts that either satisfy my own interest in preserving a bit of news or that advance some larger story or that answer a question that’s on more than one person’s mind right now. That would translate into 2000 words on a good day, and that doesn’t sound like a lot. I think you’d have to work hard to keep the hopper full of article ideas and to keep up the research that fed a constant stream of ideas to work from, and to work doubly hard to collect the sort of essay-sized chunks that would eventually tell a story that’s longer and more carefully planned.

(Inspired by #writechat on Sunday, 8 December 2013.)

Losing the categorical imperative

For a long time – over 2000 posts – I have been putting blog entries into categories. The categories used to live in a long list on the right sidebar. I’ve taken them out of the sidebar, and now they’re much less visible in the user interface to the point of being invisible unless you happen to search for them.

I have touched enough categories to not be authoritative on any of them. A good, tidy, modern blog that is comprehensive in some narrow sphere would have a tidy list of categories and would post in each of them regularly enough to be helpful. In contrast, a laundry list of one-time enthusiams just makes it pointedly clear when my interests have waxed and waned.

Another problem is that Typepad doesn’t have a straightforward way to “pin” a blog post to the top of a category, the same way that it can mark a post to stay on top of the main page. That makes it trickier to create permanent navigation within a category.

I do hope to put together some better navigation, so that someone coming to the blog for the first time can read some more popular posts or ones that I like. The whole thing has long since gone from a narrow, coherent narrative and turned into an unpolished open notebook, gathering scraps from here and there and not always pieces that have an obvious relation to the work as a whole. If it were a real scrapbook it would have tape-tags sticking out of it at all angles in all colors flagging things that deserve to be seen again; that doesn’t have to be done with categories.

More reading: Do your categories still make sense?, from Blogger’s Secret.

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Re-editing old work

This weblog has more than 2000 posts in it, and from time to time I sift through it looking at old work looking to make it better.

I can see that my writing improves to the extent that I believe that other people will read it. The best written pieces are publishable, at least in the modern web sense of publishable. The ones that need improvement usually need a new lead paragraph, a bunch of formatting cleanup, and some kind of conclusion. 

Rarely does anything here reach the form of art that gets thousands of words to tell a story, at least not all at once. To do that properly you need an editor who not only makes sure that the cleanup gets done on the words but keeps you on track for the long process of telling a story start to finish.

Publish quickly, edit at leisure, make the first version coherent.

Publish quickly. The network rewards the first person to show up on the scene to describe what is going on, and it's important to get a version of that story underway promptly. 

Edit at leisure. The editing process takes time, and it shouldn't be unduly rushed. If necessary, work at it one paragraph at a time, and publish each paragraph after it is finished. Every single piece of work can be improved at any time by an edit.

Make the first version coherent. A first version that stands alone and accurate to itself might just be a concise headline and a lead paragraph. Each subsequent edit can grow the whole thing, but the first thing that hits the wire should be so fully composed that there would be no more reason to keep working on it.

"Shh, trade secrets are secret." – Mark D. Adams.

On emptying your inbox into your blog

This seems to be a plausible strategy – people send you interesting things that you want to remember, so you post them to your blog so that when you search for them you find them.

If the blog seems overful of cut and paste of events sometimes, it's not that I'm necessarily going to be going to all of them – who can do that with two kids at home! – but that it seemed like the best way to deal with an influx of details.