Category Archives: Writing

The slow drip of progress

Every once in a while, I come up with a really good idea. More often than not, I don’t.

I’m content to work on systems that accommodate the work that leads to a steady sense of slow progress. The weblog piles one post upon another; every so often, the middle of the pile is most interesting, and you dust it off and bring it out again as if it were new. The wiki appreciates it when you fix a very small typo, change an “an” to an “a”, tidy up a caption or resize a photo.

Progress is more often than not measured very slowly, if at all. Just try not to go backwards.

Analysis paralysis


I have a bunch of tools that tell me what people have looked at on the net, including Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Tools, Clicky, and some Twitter tools. It’s fascinating to see people’s attention move around and occasionally reanimate something that I wrote months or years ago.

What these tools don’t easily do is tell me what to write about next. Yes, sometimes they suggest missing things that should be expanded on, and looking at Twitter stats is endlessly fascinating. But that’s a large part of the problem – the endless fascination gets in the way of applying fingers to the keyboard and creating something brand new.

It’s easy to get distracted by the sorts of things that are meant to help you out. It’s hard to be analytical and dispassionate about your past work while at the same time you’re trying to create new work. Not everything worth writing has to rank highly on a search engine or get lots of referral traffic; sometimes, you just need to create something even if it’s only for you to stretch your fingers.

The first draft of this essay was 140 characters or less

From time to time I sit in front of a computer wanting to write, and nothing comes of the urge. Writing in a browser can be very hard work since every other open browser tab wants you to read, not write. You could easily spend hours clicking and not ever utter anything more complex than “like” or “favorite”.

The one place where writer’s block never seems to be a problem is within Twitter, which for better or worse has been the home of 21,158 of my most pithy observations. Because the Twitter writing environment is so spare, it’s relatively easy to produce something or react to something in a way that doesn’t require a fully formed idea or any of the other agonies that accompany longer format writing.

Here is a recipe for writing more in this blog. Don’t worry about how much you tweet, because you are treating those tweets as the short form of your work. When the muse is silent, go back to your own tweets and see which ones of them deserve to be longer. Even the stereotypical “eating a sandwich” tweet can be stretched into 200 words if you want, by turning that throwaway observation into a recipe. Almost anything worth visiting in 140 characters is worth revisiting in longer form; take advantage of the short form as a stockpile of ideas to pull from when it’s time to write longer.

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.)

small wins and writing productivity

I’m intrigued of late by the notion of “small wins”. This is prompted by reading Wayne Baker’s book on social networks in which he quotes Karl Weick. Rather than try to solve big problems all at once, you attack them by making progress on a series of smaller more attainable goals. This keeps morale up and shows you that you’re really getting somewhere, even if on the grand scale it doesn’t register yet.

A small win is a concrete, complete outcome of moderate importance. By itself, one small win may seem unimportant. A series of small wins at small but significant tasks, however, reveals a pattern that may attract allies, deter opponents, and lower resistance to subsequent proposals. A series of small wins is also more structurally sound than a large win because small wins are stable building blocks. Small wins are controllable opportunities that produce visible results. Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win. When a solution is put into place, the next solvable problem often becomes more visible. Additional resources flow toward winners, which means that slightly larger wins can be attempted.

Thus, rather than think about how hard it would be to produce a book of 80,000 words all in one sitting, it gets a lot easier to think how easy it would be to produce 400 words per day (on a topic of your choice naturally) for 200 days over the course of a year. I can bat out 100 words without thinking about it to answer an email message a dozen times a day. So capturing 80,000 words is simply a matter of doing that in some sensible order and not getting sidetracked by the need for everything to make 100% sense at the very beginning.

(originally published Monday, August 07, 2000)

Former Ann Arbor Public Schools principal accused of plagiarism

I’ll start with a confession: I don’t think that plagiarism is as big a deal as some people do, especially when you are recycling your own words. (“Self-plagiarism is style.”) The best writers have a set of phrases that they love to use, and it’s not unusual for them to pull something they’ve done before and rework it a bit to suit the new occasion. This is especially true when you’re writing formulaic work that’s short. How many different very short birthday greetings can you send?

That said, educators are usually held to higher standards of writing than their students, and writing is expected to be something that they are good enough at that they don’t need to crib from someone else’s words.

With that as a preface, here’s someone else’s words about someone else using someone else’s words, in this case a former AAPS principal (Sulura Jackson) who is now in Chapel Hill, NC. The reporting is from Indy Week.

What they found is startling: Multiple documents obtained by the INDY that show Jackson—before and after her arrival at Chapel Hill High—lifted entire passages and letters from books, online articles and teaching resource guides. She used those passages without citation in staff memos, letters to students and even recommendation letters for colleagues, frequently passing them off as her words.

Of course, the world of education is full of web sites that are full of reusable forms and letters for communicating with students and teachers, like this Education World page

Communicate with parents by snail mail or e-mail with these editable and/or printable forms and letters.

Or the business world in general, with this set of 662 business letters – catchy titles like “Apology to receiver of NSF check” –

When I received your letter of (date) with my check
attached marked “insufficient funds”, I called my bank

The gentleman I spoke with, (name) , discovered
that the bank had failed to credit my account with a
substantial deposit I had made several days prior.

The bank has assured me that they will be sending you a
formal letter of apology for their error. Attached is my
check in the amount of $ to replace the dishonored
one you have returned.

Communications from authorities are often ritualistic, formulaic, and repetitious. Hopefully, though, they are not careless. Jackson was tripped up by this mistake:

Looking back, the alleged plagiarism might have gone unnoticed were it not for one careless sentence the Chapel Hill High School principal wrote in an October condolence letter to a teacher.

“Everyone at Skyline is saddened to learn of the death of your mother,” the letter said.

It seemed Sulura Jackson, who arrived in Chapel Hill this summer with a sparkling, lengthy résumé, had failed to remove the name of her former school, Skyline High, in Ann Arbor, Mich., from the text.

Teachers who spoke to the INDY on the condition that their names not be used for fear of retribution say the incident prompted them to dig deeper.

If you’re going to use a form letter, for goodness sake read the whole form and fill in all the blanks before sending it !

UPDATE: Again from Indy Week: “More evidence of Chapel Hill High plagiarism?”

Members of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education were already scheduled to meet tonight at the Lincoln Center in Chapel Hill. The board’s agenda says members will discuss a personnel matter in closed session starting at 6 p.m. The public portion of the meeting begins at 7 p.m.