Sunday, January 17, 2010

Unsolicited Advice: Writing

The inner workings of the laptop whir gently. The internet connection crawls to a start. My sticky eyes wait anxiously for the page to load, my fingers tap the keys gently as if to rehearse the letters they'll type. I close my eyes and breathe in possibility.

There are so many reasons to write. Today's Unsolicited Advice is about just that, writing. Not publishing--a subject of which I know nothing, but just plain ol' writing. Perhaps you've thought about starting a blog. Maybe you have flirted with telling your story. Maybe you don't really know what that would look like. Maybe you have a blog but you're stuck all the time and you don't know what to do with it. This be your post, Matey.

ETA: Please don't take any of this as aimed at you, though. Other than when I call out Sarah for using y'all (see below) I don't have any particular blogger. This is the same stuff I teach my students every single day. I don't achieve all of these goals with my own writing, but I keep them in mind. As with any UA post, this is just my thoughts on the subject. Oh, and it's pretty long. As Gilly would say, "Sharry." :)

My credentials on blogging are a little thin: I've had a blog for a year and about two weeks, but other than that I know nothing. Well, I'm an English teacher but that's a whole other deal. This blog is mildly popular, but it doesn't boast any of the kind of success some of the biggies have. There are lots of posts on how to bring more traffic in to your site--easily Googled--but a lot of that stuff just isn't me. I write what I like and when I don't feel like writing, I don't. You pick and choose which rules you follow, and you'll be just fine. Trust me. I just do what works for me, and this is what works for me:

1) Have a plan: Organization is key in writing. I believe that my ability to take concepts and put them into a structured format has helped me to BS my way through many a situation in life. That's not just bragging, though, I believe there's a little merit there. People don't like to be confused. Organizing your thoughts (even in a blog post) shows your reader some courtesy. You're saying "I like you enough that I'm going to respect your eyeballs and your sense of order." To me this means a few basic things. First, I try to make my posts have some kind of introduction, body, and conclusion. I try to focus posts around one topic. Of course this doesn't happen all the time and there are days where I just need to rant, but I find that it's much easier for people to focus on one thing at a time. Even if I'm loosely stringing together a bunch of random things that happened to me that day, I try to do it under the umbrella of a controlling thought. Not always, but again--it's a goal.

A few other organizational things I keep in mind--long paragraphs are tough to read and hard on the eyes. It doesn't matter how scintillating your details are if they're in the middle of one long, thick paragraph--I call it the "Super Paragraph" with my students--people will skip to the end. It's easier on the eyes to break things up a bit. Obviously (says my English teacher mind) trying to keep the subject of each paragraph to one or two things is key. You can't go all willy-nilly writing whatever you want whenever you want it. Well, you can. But this is about me.

I was never a pre-writer or a planner in school until my 11th grade AP US History teacher forced it. I was a decent writer, but I couldn't be bothered to slow down and plan. I found that once I did I was a much better writer. The same is true today. I can't sit down and just write without one--I know myself and I'd write the same post every day. The more I write though, the less time I spend planning--mostly now it's an outline in my head of what I want to say--but a lot of times I jot a list of sub-topics at the bottom of my document as I write, a checklist and a reminder of the things I wanted to cover. If you know where you want to end up, you're going to take your reader on a much more interesting journey to get there. It's one of the tricks of the subconscious. Writing with the end in mind is just different than rambling.

2) Know some of the basic conventions of writing. I will admit it. I'm not perfect when it comes to grammar or spelling. There's so much I just didn't learn in school and even more I didn't bother to learn on my own. There are plenty of words that I don't know how to spell. I repeat the same sentence configurations over and over. The difference between me and a lot of people is that I'm not afraid to use the resources available to try to make my writing better. I know a lot of people get scared to write because they think their writing isn't good enough. I disagree. Anybody can write. Grammar doesn't trump what you have to say at all. If you do keep writing though, your writing is bound to get better if you show it a little care. Hopefully this gives you some ideas of common areas that people need work. Even working on your writing a little yields great results. I think you can tell your story, but if you treat your words with respect, it elevates them to another level--and much of basic writing conventions is easily correctable using modern technology.

My secrets: When I write (anything) I have the Thesaurus of MS Word open, as well as a window to Much of my vocabulary comes from searching for a different way to say the same word I've already said four times in a paragraph. A thesaurus is a beautiful thing, and the more times I use a new word the closer I am to owning it. I practice using words when I like them so that they get to feel comfortable. I also use spell-check like a Mofo. I won't publish anything without spell-checking. When all else fails, E tends to find errors in my grammar and spelling. I let him fix things online when he finds them. He has a much better mind for detail than I do. The point is: know your failings and where you need help. Use what you can. Nobody knows (or cares) that I need to look up words all the time or that my husband is a better editor than me. Trust me.

That said, there are some basic things you could stand to sort out ahead of time. I know I get distracted by elementary errors when I read blogs. Two of the really popular blogs I read--I won't name them--have writers that continuously use the word "suppose" to mean "supposed" as in "supposed to" and "your" instead of "you're." There's no excuse for putting something on the internet repeatedly that a second grader could fix. One time, two times, sure. Fourteen times? Somebody should have told you, or you should have listened. And yes, I'm glad that my 10th grade English teacher finally helped me to spell "weird" this year. It took me until I was 30, but I got it. We're all still learning. Let's just try to at least get your/you're and their/there/they're, mmkay? (Stop looking at my overuse of commas. I'm trying. Believe me, I'm a person living in a glass house, throwing stones here. I know it.)

3) Tell the truth. This is above all the most important thing you can do. The whole point of the blog is that it is a window into someone's life. Good blogs give you an accurate picture of the person who writes them. They should feel like a visit with a friend, not a trip to the hospital. I get easily bored with blogs that are sterile or, oddly enough, show sterility in their cheerfulness. Nobody is happy all the time. Come on. How many good novels have you read where nothing bad happens? How many movies where everybody smiles and holds hands for two hours? We need conflict and complication to hold our interest. I'm not saying that a blog should be doom and gloom, but humanity is the most endearing trait a blog can show. Humanity doesn't necessitate soul-baring secrets, either. Just truth, humor, emotion, and variety. It is zee spice of life, you know.

There are lots of "how to write a blog" posts that will tell you that you need to find your niche. Sure, if you're the next Julie Powell. Most of us won't be. I get sad about that sometimes, not having a niche. Know what, though? My niche is that I'm the only PDawg. It's not a lot, but I get by. Apparently at least several people a day want to know what that looks like, so I keep writing. I can't be something that I'm not. I write about my life. Works for me. Your niche should be that you know about your life better than anyone else does. Your niche is you, and don't let anybody make you feel like your blog needs to have more than that.

4) Paint a beautiful picture with words. Words are amazing. They allow us to feel someone else's feelings just by looking at characters on a page. If you want people to walk in your shoes, you have to describe the parts of the sole that are poking your big toe. Jeez, what a horrible metaphor. You get me though, right? Metaphors and similes are god's gift to writers. Remember those guys from school? Here's a refresher:

Metaphor: a comparison of unlike things

Simile: a metaphor that uses "like" or "as"

Now don't go screaming like a banshee and running in the opposite direction. Verbal comparisons don't have to be all flowery or crazy. They are the most effective way of communicating a feeling to another person, though. When E and I went to Retrouvaille last year, 99% of our training in how to effectively communicate our feelings relied on the idea that in order to convey them, we should try using a bunch of comparisons to things that the other person might understand, i.e. similes. Suggested categories: nature, animals, weather, taste, etc. Retrouvaille was teaching simile without calling it simile. Guess what? It worked.

Par example:

They can be oh so simple. You might just say "I feel grumpy," and your spouse would be all "okay, what are you a dwarf from Snow White?" See, mission not accomplished. But if you say "I'm feeling as grumpy as a lonely old man who feels he's lost all his friends in the world," you give a different picture. Or if you say "today I feel sad like an island in the middle of a storm," it gives an entirely different image, than if you said "I feel sad"--you could mean because your TiVo didn't record the latest episode of Jersey Shore. The same applies for blogging, naturally. I feel like all of my explamples are weak here, but you could Google "simile" and find some good info too. The more you can paint a picture for your readers, the more they will respond. People like to feel what you feel, rather than be told what you feel.

Which brings me to the next subject:

5) (Hold on to your hats, because I'm about to get even more English teacher-y on you.) Try to show, not tell. How many times did I let that go in one ear and out the other in high school? It's so relevant, though. Like I said, people don't want to be told what you do or feel every day. It's much more compelling to read it as though they are in your place. People will connect with the emotion you feel if you can describe a moment in time for them using sensory details--the five senses--to give a complete view. Often when I'm stuck wondering how to describe a feeling or a situation, I think about what I touched, what I tasted, what I heard--you get it. Automatically people will connect to your situation if you can make them feel it. If you can do this and make comparisons (word pictures), all the better. It's much more evocative to say "My stomach churned like an eggbeater" than to say "I felt sick." See?

If you're looking for a better explanation on Showing vs. Telling, you can find a bunch online. I liked this one and this one. When I talk to my students about their college application essays (much of which is similar to how I approach my blog, and this post) I try to get them to put the reader at a moment in their life and have them show the reader (not tell!) exactly what they felt and did. This means using dialogue, sensory detail, metaphors, etc. You don't have to do all of that, but even a simple "I feel _______ like ____________" or It was _____________ as a ______________" will make your writing come alive.

6) Add a real picture. I'm terrible at this one, but I know it is a good thing to do. It's hard to read blogs that are all text all the time. Pictures allow a blog to become more of a scrapbook and less of a journal. I'm weak on picture inclusion, but I try--I said TRY--to include at least one per post. Some blogs will have multiples on every single one, which is cool, but one is a good goal for me. (I also find that blogs that are only pictures without a story don't hold my interest as well. I like a mix of the two so I can understand why the picture means something to the author... but that's just me.)

7) Your blog should sound like you. There are plenty of purposes for writing in different "voices" in life, but a blog should have your voice. I try to think of mine as the voice I would use if I was having coffee with a friend. I have a different voice for academic writing, an email voice, a Mom voice, a family voice. Everyone does. Choose the one that is comfortable for you and write in that. How interesting is it to think about defining and listening to your own voice? Have you ever done that? Thought about what your voice is? It seems like that would be a cool thing to do if you've never done it.

All that stuff I said about learning the conventions of writing (spelling, grammar, etc) is true, but don't let it interfere with who you are. Authenticity, like honesty is more important than any stylistic rule you might be breaking. I remember when I started to blog I thought that I should follow all of the rules of the English language all the time. Ha. That's not me, and it's not possible. If I continue to be a student of writing, I will continue to publish with errors. If I continue to try to find my own style, sometimes I'll break the rules on purpose. Dude. Check out my fragments. Or. My....Shatner. Esque....Mid. Sentence.....Divisions. You have to do what works and what sounds like you. Maybe your name is Sarah and you live in Texas and you say y'all all the time. It's not proper English, but it's you and it's endearing. It helps people to feel what it's like to have a conversation with you. Leave it in. Be yourself.

ETA: Don't let anyone (me or otherwise) feel like you are not worthy to write. What you have to say is important. Rules are helpful guidelines, not a cage to trap you. You have to find a balance of "correctness" and readability that jives with your sense of who you are.

8) Circularity. I can't always do this, but I believe it's a beautiful thing in storytelling, in essay writing, and in blog post writing to bring your audience back around to something you said in the beginning, but leave them with a new thought. It gives your piece a kind of satisfying closure. It was a favorite topic of one of my master teachers when I started teaching. He loved to stress this with his students and would often draw a circle in the air to stress his point. Circularity goes hand-in-hand with organization, but it takes some forethought. For me it often takes some revision after I've written an entire piece--I have to go back and edit the beginning to make it fit with the end. If you're an impatient person, a write-then-hit-print person who doesn't believe in looking back, then whooo Nelly, this is not for you. But, like good planning, good revising can make a big difference. It shows your reader (again) that you care enough about him or her to make things a little bit more interesting... Matey.

The fan kicks on just as the laptop starts to heat my legs. My eyes scan what I've written, trying to see through a stranger's eyes. It's as optimistic and small as Sandburg, shooting at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable, but it gives me great hope as I hit "PUBLISH" and the fan whirs on.


  1. MAN ALIVE, that was a mouthful! I kind of felt like this post was aimed in my direction, just a little. Or at least that I was kept in mind while you typed it. Anywho, I'm a little more intimidated to start my blog up again now! ;-) I fully admit that I'm not a good writer, but now I have been reminded of the ways to better my writing. I will keep your advice in mind and hopefully, it'll give me the courage to have another go at it! Thanks!

  2. Yup, you were writing to me :) I started a blog when I traveled to Spain last October, but just started again on it yesterday to throw out the idea to everyone that I am friggin' addicted to food (or something like that)... so here I drudge on. Writing was never a favorite subject, but I try... Thanks for the tips!

  3. Sorry, I got the itch to change blog providers right after I posted :) Follow this one!

  4. I think Mr. Hill forced me to avoid procrastination for the extent of that year, and then I went right back to it.

  5. maybe that's why no one reads my blog. i guess i can't write. :-) i'll have to try some of your tips! thanks for the advice.

  6. Are you trying to say that I ramble??? Because I do! LOL....thanks for the advice!!! :-) Love y'all!! ;)