A lazy man works twice as hard. My mother told that to me, and now I say it to my kids. If you’re writing an essay, keep it in the lines and in the margins so you don’t have to do it over. – Gary Oldman
If you’ve read the introduction to this blog you’ll know that it’s a place where I practice writing. After 1,026 posts and 752,867 words I still feel like there’s much much more to learn about what good writing looks like. But what have I learned so far, and what will I do in the future as I keep writing?
When you start learning anything there’s a long period when you’re learning specific skills. It takes time before you can do all the things you need to do well together – until you get to the point where the outcome is any good. For example, I know that my kids can tell me a story. If you watch them writing, however, the effort of forming letters interferes with their ability to form the story. It’s easier for them to type a story than hand write it, and it’s even easier to tell the story. Of course, it’s going to take some time before their stories are good, because they need to get to grips with the various stages, from the build-up to the resolution.
It’s the same for us at every age and stage, whenever we’re learning something new. Just because you know the alphabet and can form words into a sentence, it doesn’t mean you can write well. As Larry McEnerney from the University of Chigago says, quite brutally, all the way through our school years teachers read our work and said it was good. But they only read our work in the first place because they were paid to do so. In the real world people have a choice – they can choose to read what you write or find someone else’s work that is better.
So that’s the first thing I’m getting to grips with. In the last four years I’ve just written, let the words come out. But I never really asked myself what the purpose was of my writing? When I think about the kinds of purpose that seem appropriate answers to that question, I think that perhaps it was to learn about something or to teach it. Quite often it’s a little angsty, worrying away at a thought. I’ve started reading a physical paper again recently and I’m starting to see why journalists think of their article as a story – it’s a narrative after all. And then there’s what I’m doing with this post, which is reflecting on what I do as a writer.
Just thinking about your own writing is quite exhausting – so what about a reader? What do you want them to get out of your piece? I started by thinking about it as a reader either learning something – finding something new and useful in your piece or being entertained – enjoying reading your material. But then a lecturer I recently met said something about bearing witness. When someone writes a blog, where there is no payment or obligation, perhaps they do it because then there is a thing in the world that they’ve made, and all they look for is for the world to bear witness – to be there to have a look if they choose to do so.
Now, in my own approach I haven’t really thought about purpose at all. All I’ve done in the last four years is try and exercise my writing muscles. And two things have happened. The first is that I think my voice has become more natural, moving away from the stilted, scripted sound that often accompanies one’s early attempts at writing. You step away from wanting to talk to millions to having a conversation with one person – you, the person reading this. The second is realising that advice that panders to Google or that breaks the rules of writing conventions are a bad idea. Long stuff that’s padded with rubbish is bad. And writing one sentence at a time rather than a paragraph makes it exponentially harder to edit your work later.
Given all that, I wondered if it might be useful to come up with a framework for writing, a template or rubric that might help think through what’s needed. I had a first pass at that in the image that starts this post, thinking about questions you’re trying to answer, the stories you might tell, and the way in which you might help the reader apply any suggestions or insights you might have. Then, I also thought about the purpose point and whether it was worth thinking about what you wanted and what you hoped the reader would get.
Then, I tried using that template to plan this post, and you can see this in the image below.
I have always had difficulty following recipes and you will probably notice that I haven’t really followed the points I made in the template in this post. But, putting that aside, what makes a good blog post? I think it’s perhaps one you’ve enjoyed writing. A bonus is if a reader enjoys reading it. If it’s hard work for the both of you, then why bother.
This is a reflective piece, an attempt to look at my practice and ask questions that might help me improve. If I were to suggest improvements to someone else’s writing – there is a three step process that could be applied. The first thing is that if you want to do anything, you have to start doing it. If you want to write, write. If you want to make YouTube videos, make them. It’s very hard to get better at something if you don’t do it. Then, once you’ve done something take the time to read it again. What do you think? What do you like about it? What would you improve if you got a chance to do it again? And then finally, you start thinking about your reader – do you think they’ve found what you’ve done useful or interesting? Are they learning something or being entertained? You’ve heard that line about people buy from people. That used to be a face-to-face thing but now it’s includes your online presence. You can build a connection with people through your creations that you would never have met otherwise.
So what’s the takeaway here? If you want to write a good blog post do three things – first write a lot, next, read what you’ve written and make it better next time, and three, try and be useful to others.