Thoughts on Blogging: The Craft of Writing
Sometimes I’ll get a really nice comment or praise from various folks who read this little blog of mine. Like this twitter I got recently:
@robhahn haha, you always have some of the best reads. Will spend the necessary time. Keep up the forward thinking.
In those moments, because I am human and subject to the Seven Deadly Sins, I can almost feel my head swell. And that’s when I have to go read Mark Steyn. Or Bill Simmons. Or Gregg Easterbrook and learn me some humility.
Here’s a passage from Mark Steyn, simply the best writer of the English language of this young century:
If you’re feeling a sudden urge to “invest” in a gallon of tequila and a couple of hookers and wake up with an almighty hangover and no pants in a rusting dumpster on a bit of abandoned scrub round the back of the freight yards, it may be because you’re one of that dwindling band of Americans foolish enough to pursue his living in what we used to call “the private sector.” You were never exactly Giant-Man, more like Average-Sized Man. But you have a vague sense that you’re gonna be a lot closer to Ant-Man by the time all this is through.
I could write for a solid week without rest and never come up with that passage. I’m a fair writer, but not in the same class as these gents.
There is a craft to writing. There is a different craft to blogging, I think, but that there is artistry and skill involved in putting one word next to another is indisputable.
When folks are kind to me, and tell me what a great writer I am, I go and read the really great writers and get back down to earth.
A while back, I read On Writing by Stephen King, who is a truly underappreciated talent by the East Coast Intellectual Illuminati. I maintain that when my grandkids learn about American Literature in High School, they will be studying the works of Stephen King. Anyhow, I found this blog with some excerpts that are worth considering. Check them out. For example:
Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic.
Writing for Blogs
At the same time, I also believe that the craft of blogging is different from the craft of writing. As I am trying to get more people around me to blog, I’ve found myself repeating some things. This is not a “how to blog” type of thing here; more of a, “just some things to think about” type of thing. And do keep in mind that your scribe may actually know nothing about writing, or blogging. You have been warned.
Read, Read, and Read Some More
James Kilpatrick, the longtime columnist who penned The Writer’s Art, once wrote that to learn how to write, one should “read everything. Read matchbox covers, read labels on cans of cleaner; read the graffiti on lavatory walls. Read for information, read for style, read for instruction, read for the sheer love of reading.”
More and more, I believe this to be true. Reading naturally leads to an improvement in writing. We somehow absorb cadence, style, phrasings, imagery, and language itself from others. While it’s best to read as many great writers as possible, it is also instructive to read not-so-great writers. At least you learn what you don’t like, and what to avoid.
I believe any serious blogger should read books, columnists, and other bloggers — in that order.
Read books, because these are the finely honed examples of the writer’s craft. They’ve also gone through the most rigorous editing for content, pace, and style. For what it’s worth, I average about a book a week. (Don’t be impressed — most of them are trashy paperback novels I read on the train.)
Read opinion columnists, because blogs by their very nature lend themselves to editorializing. The best editorial columnists are tight with language, and know how to construct a narrative that drives their point home. That these have been edited for clarity, content, and style also helps to keep the writing tight.
And read other bloggers, especially the stronger writers. I’m a big fan of reading Kris Berg because of her natural voice and general narrative flow. But there are others — particularly not in real estate space — whose writings are always a pleasure to read. Read them, and often. The blogs are usually unedited, but that gives you a sense of how blog writing differs from other types of writing.
Don’t Censor Yourself
The most important lesson for blog writing, I think, is to avoid the temptation to censor oneself. The biggest obstacle I see new bloggers struggle with is how long it takes for them to write something. I have to constantly remind them, “You’re not writing for the Economist; just get it out there.”
The best feature of blog writing is the spontaneous openness of the voice. Mistakes will be made; some sentences won’t be as elegant as possible. Grammar mistakes may abound. But done well, there’s a freshness to the voice and an openness that conveys authenticity. The art is, if you will, to be artless.
Plus, the nature of the medium is that corrections are always possible, and retractions and clarifications are not only possible, but perhaps desirable. If you write something stupid, then hopefully the audience will point that out in the comments. Which lets you respond in the comments, clarifying things, or admitting you got it wrong. Then you can go back and edit the original post, appending the correction right there on the original post.
Again, blogging is part of conversation — not an oratorical holding forth. Don’t censor yourself too much; don’t edit yourself while writing. You’ll find it easier to write, and eventually settle into a routine and a voice you are comfortable with. Just shut up that little editorial voice inside your head.
Write A Story
While there are certainly exceptions in blogging — for example, if your post is simply a compilation of interesting posts you’ve read that week — I do believe that if you are creating original content, you need to be telling a story.
There needs to be a beginning, a middle, and an end. There needs to be a plot of some sort that moves the narrative along. Character exposes are fine, but I think the best blogposts have a narrative flow that is naturalistic and effective at exposing the ideas and the voice of the blogger.
Advice blogs (like this one) usually suck because they lack that flow of narrative and often read like a bullet list of rules. Since realtors are writing a lot of advice blogs — “How to stage a home!” or “What to look for in a REO sale” or some such — I think it’s particularly important to realestistas that they give a thought to the narrative they are presenting.
Link, Link, and Link
The advantage of the Interwebs is in its reference-ability. If I say “unemployment is X”, you don’t have to take my word for it — you can go check the source yourself. But only if I provide the link.
This is, in a sense, the counter-balance to the open and freewheeling nature of the Web and blogs. We don’t have editors and factcheckers; what we have, instead, is the ability for our readers to check the source for themselves.
As a general rule of thumb, if you think it’s something you reader might want to check for himself, then provide a link. Every single time you quote someone else, you should be providing a link. The goal is to provide the context, the framework, around your blogpost’s own narrative.
The final piece of advice, and perhaps the most important, is to actually publish the damn thing. I know I have had dozens of nascent blogposts just sitting in my queue waiting to see the light of day. Some of them never will.
All of the narrating, the writing, the linking, and all of that won’t mean a thing if you don’t actually publish it.
Keeping in mind that all blogposts can be revised, and any mistakes corrected via the comments or by editing the post, go ahead and publish that post no matter how nervous you are about it.
Chances are, you are your worst critic, and your audience will love it. (And when they don’t, they’ll let you know, and that’s how conversations start.)