Sunday, November 29, 2009

Posting-It Notes

Congratulations! You have a blog! You have an outlet for all the thoughts in your head and experiences in your life, a way to communicate with the entire world one on-line reader at a time.

Perhaps you use it as a journal for personal reminiscences and ponderings. Perhaps you have chosen a very specific topic, no doubt your own obsession, be it baseball or Star Trek or puppets. (Mine, of course, is language.) Perhaps you see it as your version of Oprah’s O magazine, presenting a variety of material all centered around your world view. Or perhaps you intend it as a way to keep in touch with family and friends, an ongoing version of the e-mailed Christmas letter detailing everyone’s busy doings.

The act of posting material to a blog, no matter its intended purpose, is equivalent to publishing it, i.e., making it public. You may choose to restrict the size of that public, or the quality of your writing may restrict it for you. I can envision several basic scenarios for composing and posting a blog entry. Each will produce a very different caliber of material, which will greatly influence whether others might want to read that blog or return to it. These scenarios apply to blogs that are primarily essays; those that provide a service or database or carry far more images and videos than words have other means to attract followers. However, a visitor is more likely to view an image or video if there are words to lure him in…

Slapdash and Sloppy
You’ve just been out on an exhilarating mountain hike and can’t wait to share the experience. Seconds after walking in the door, your hiking boots are off and you’re at the keyboard, logging into your blog. First you upload and arrange half a dozen photos and caption them minimally (e.g., “Me and Joey at the top”). Then, with the cursor settled into the composing window, you start to write. Your thoughts spill out one after the other as they occur, with no attempt to order or arrange them for a sense of progression or continuity, never mind paragraphs. You’re typing too fast to worry about typos. You aren’t concerned about and might not recognize misplaced commas, sentence fragments, or subject-verb disagreements. Clich├ęs abound because originality takes time and thought. You fall easily into texting and chat room habits, abbreviating all sorts of things into technoglyphs (for example, l8r). When your thoughts have been exhausted or dinner beckons, you hit Post, wait impatiently for confirmation, and log out.

Prognosis: Poor. Only friends and relatives will have any reason to slog through this stream-of-consciousness lack of style, replete with misspellings, random punctuation, grammatical hash, and other aggravations that hinder comprehension and enjoyment. The writer himself isn’t interested in reading it, hasn’t bothered to go back to correct errors or organize. Even if the experience was extraordinary, the attempt to capture it in words was haphazard and lazy at best and a failure at worst. The account serves mainly as a record of events, and the purpose does not encompass either poetry or philosophy. This is the writing equivalent of a crayoned drawing, appropriate for family viewing on the refrigerator door, not good enough for a frame or display in the living room.

It is my impression and my fear that this is the method employed by a great many bloggers. If I am correct in this impression, there is a whole lot of unreadable crap floating around in cyberspace. That’s okay, provided nobody expects me to read any of it. (Unless, of course, we share genes, in which case I will find it charming, just as I would find the artwork on the fridge charming.)

Considered and Careful
You’ve had a great idea for your blog on wallpaper. Before logging in, you spend some time thinking not only about what you want to say but what order you should say it in. Perhaps you even jot down a few notes to refer to as you compose. You take your time while writing, think about structure and flow as you go. As a prose stylist, you reach for metaphor and simile, enjoy alliteration and humor. You choose the best images and arrange them to work with the text, caption them pithily. You then read over what you’ve written, correcting typos and punctuation, consulting a dictionary for suspect spellings, perhaps even reaching for a thesaurus to avoid using the same descriptors again and again. You discover and correct a sentence fragment, a discordant subject and verb, a dangling participle, an unclear antecedent. One more quick read satisfies you that your piece is presentable, and you post it. If you’re the skeptical type or just enamored of your own writing, you go immediately to the blog to view it and perhaps read it one more time. Once it’s been posted, you probably won’t change it and may never read it again.

Prognosis: Fair. Because the writer’s subject is near to her heart and she presumably has some expertise, the blog has a good chance of being interesting. Because she has taken the time and trouble to edit the original composition, it also has a chance of being both readable and comprehensible. A blog that is interesting and comprehensible will attract followers, if only among those who share her obsession. This is the writing equivalent of an artwork created for a gallery show, worthy of being framed for viewing by the people who visit the gallery, some of whom will appreciate it more than others. Forethought and afterthought have both been used to narrow the focus and streamline the progression; editing has been applied to root out distracting errors and points of possible confusion. A few errors will no doubt slip through, but not enough to be annoying.

This, in my opinion, is the minimum level of effort required to turn out a readable blog. Juicy content will only balance bad writing up to a point. Dry content will have even less weight. Regardless of content, better writing will always mean more readers. I would be willing to read a piece written to this standard, depending somewhat on the topic and the style, but the chances that I would go back for more are only 50-50, again dependent on the topic and style.

Prepared and Perfected
It’s time to work up a new piece for your blog about politics, a subject about which your opinions have the weight of knowledge and experience. From a handy list of ten to twenty topics, you pick one and begin turning it over in your head, figuring out not only what you have to say but how to organize your presentation into a coherent whole. You want to create a suck-’em-in beginning, an opinionated, informative, entertaining center, and a satisfying conclusion. You love to find a title that’s clever or punny and will resonate with multiple meanings as the reader moves through the piece. The perfect opening sentence can take several days to construct, but once you have it the rest of the piece falls into place behind it in your head. You then compose your first draft, whether on paper or directly on the computer with Word (or whatever). As you write, you stop constantly to go back and make changes and check how the argument is developing. Once the draft is complete, you edit ruthlessly. Any mistakes missed while composing, including uncertainties of fact as well as spelling, are found and corrected now. Dictionary, thesaurus, and other references are in reach or standing by. You transpose words, sentences, even blocks of text to improve the flow, add things you forgot or thought of later and delete things that are irrelevant or interrupt the argument, no matter how interesting they may be. You agonize over word choice, not just for meaning but for meter and music, and delight in wordplay and truly original use of words. Irony, hyperbole, synecdoche, and all those other curiously named literary tricks are part of your writing toolkit. Finally, after going through the thing ten or twenty or thirty times, you have a piece that is perfect grammatically and polished stylistically. When you go to your blog and hit New Post to open the composition window, instead of typing, you simply paste in a copy of the file created with all the tools available in Word. You then go through it to restore lost formatting and format it further with the blog tools. After one final readthrough to ensure there are no errors, you post the piece and immediately go to view it. You can’t help but read through it one more time because you’re always tickled when you see your work “published.” It’s entirely possible you’ll find one or more small errors despite all the earlier editing and proofreading, and you make the effort to edit and repost the piece. Over the next few weeks you may actually go back and tweak the piece a bit as you think of ways to make it even better.

Prognosis: Excellent. This is the level of effort, talent, and sheer fussiness required to turn out a piece of writing that will delight as well as inform. Even if readers don’t share his obsession, his passion and persuasiveness will capture their interest. That interest will not be diverted by errors or infelicities of language but deepened by appreciation of his wit and his heart. This is the writing equivalent of a masterpiece, evidence of qualification for the rank of master, worthy of display, if not in a museum, then at least in a highly frequented public space. This is his best, created with every tool and skill at his command. There are no errors of composition or of fact (well, maybe a little one now and then; nobody’s perfect). The reader can simply enjoy the story or argument as it unfolds, be edified by reliable information and entertained by cleverness.

A blog written to this standard will attract numerous readers once word gets out, because it can be enjoyed by those who don’t share the writer’s genes or passion for the topic but can appreciate his skillful expression of it. This is the standard I strive for in my own writing. I would dearly love to discover blogs of this caliber on any number of subjects. Suggestions are welcome.

Whether you think my blog isn’t as good as all that or you think I’m meeting my goals splendidly, your comments are also welcome.

This is article 15 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson

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