Writing Lessons from Three Weeks of Blogging

2022-01-27

My first draft of this post is further below.

Follow a schedule. The schedule overrules your misgivings and moods and flights of perfectionism. It banishes nebulous daydreaming and grounds you in the reality of your own words. Above all, it gives you consistent practice.

Finish the draft. Your writing exists at multiple levels of abstraction: essay, paragraph, sentence, word. Grow your draft until until it's solid enough to sculpt. Don't get distracted by low-level decisions: if you have a point to make, a mediocre essay beats a brilliant word.

Be concise. The reader has chosen you from an ocean of content. Show that you value their precious time. For each word and sentence, ask: does it inform or entertain? If not, cut it.

Be concrete. Ground abstract ideas with concrete language and examples. Even the people who know you best can't always make sense of the abstractions that seem so obvious to you. Build them a bridge.

Be energetic. These letters and symbols are all you have to steal the reader's heart and mind. Energy has different tones: humor, warmth, clarity, beauty, power. Find the right energy for your piece and weave it in.

Follow rules where useful. Here are some I like:

  • Prefer the active voice over the passive voice.
  • Repeat yourself if your pronouns aren't clear.
  • Prefer verbs over abstract nouns.
  • Be concise, specific, and clear. ("I think ..." vs. "It seems that ...")
  • Replace clich├ęs with new metaphors or with clear and literal language.

Make it scannable. Online readers will likely skip from section to section. If you're writing to teach something, then use bold type, italics, lists, blockquotes, examples, headings, and color as needed to make your content clear.

Visualize your audience. If you don't know who you're writing for, pick someone specific. Notice how your voice shifts when you try writing for yourself, a family member, a friend, a stranger, or an employer.

Time yourself. Writing takes longer than you might think. Good writing takes even longer. Get a rough sense of how long it takes you to write a blog post, and budget your time and your topics accordingly.

Read and reread. Keep applying these steps as long as you have the time and interest. Do a final pass for typos and odd turns of phrase. And when it seems good enough, publish.

My first draft of this post

Today I'm going meta and writing about how I wrote this post. I'm writing this mainly for my own sake and to look back on it later, but I think some of the advice here should be useful for others as well.

Stick to a schedule. Writing every day is working for me so far, but I imagine I'll hit a limit eventually and have to dial it back. But the discipline of it is a forcing function. With a schedule, there's little room to procrastinate or kvetch about the environment; something must go out and the schedule helps me maintain some contact with reality.

Get the draft out. Easier said than done, I know. Usually I hardly finish a sentence before I start editing it and tweaking the word choices. But doing so just makes it that much harder to get the overall shape of the piece. The more you can tolerate a crummy and imperfect first draft, the faster you can get something on the page, and the more you can iterate and polish what you have.

Edit for concision. It wasn't until I started this blog that I realized how easily a sentence can stretch on and how much fat there is to trim at nearly every level: paragraph, sentence, and even at the level of individual words. Content dictates form, as the saying goes, and short-form blog posts demand taut, energetic, and lively prose to maintain attention. That's certainly not a good fit for all kinds of writing, but I think it's a good default voice to cultivate.

Be specific. It's too easy to get lost in abstractions that don't connect to anything actionable or relatable to someone who isn't you. Ground the abstract in the concrete.

Edit for energy. These are hardly laws, but: active voice, "I" statements, and verbs over abstract nouns.

Add some color. My default first-draft writing voice is unremarkable and a little boring, as you can see here. So I try to add color by experimenting with tone, word choice, and imagery. The tone depends on how I'm feeling and what I think the piece could use: playful, meandering, austere, If I notice that I'm using a stock phrase that could be doing more work, I edit it out and find a livelier replacement. I'm reminded of a proverb from go (the board game) that good moves serve multiple purposes, and I try to do that with my word choice as well. Words convey not only information but tone, sound, and energy, and I want my writing to carry as much as is needed without feeling dead. I find I'm more proud of that writing and it's more rereadable.