I spent some time this morning happily browsing advice from famous writers on how to write, thanks to Maria Popova’s [twitter:BrainPickings] own writings on those writers writing about writing. Here’s Maria’s latest, which is about Anne Lamont’s Bird By Bird, an excellent (and excellently written!) piece that also contains links to famous writers on said topic.
Some of these pieces were familiar, some not, but all convinced me of one thing: writers should re-label their advice on how to write as “How I Write.” I find myself irked by every one of them into looking for counter-examples, even though I personally agree with much of what they say, and in many instances find their comments remarkably insightful.
Still, I want to push back when, for example, Susan Sontag says:
Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense. Then you can recognize others.
Yet you can’t throw a cat into a room full of writers without hitting someone wildly self-deceptive and unknowing. For example, Sontag’s own writing about writing ranges from breathtakingly perceptive to provocative to transparently self-aggrandizing.
Likewise, Elmore Leonard’s brilliant 10 rules of writing are clearly not rules for how to write, but rules for how to write like Elmore Leonard. (His ten rules are themselves a great example of his own style.) For instance, there’s #4:
Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”
I even find myself pushing back against one of his rules that I greatly admire:
“If it sounds like writing … rewrite it.”
I love that…except that what do we do with Bernini? His Apollo and Daphne statue — the one where Daphne’s fingers sprout translucent leaves — is so realistic and yet so marble that one cannot look at it without thinking, “Holy crap! That’s marble!!!” (By the way, I just violated Leonard’s rule #5: “Keep your exclamation points under control.” He’s right about that.) Likewise, are we sure that no poetry is allowed to sound like writing?
Meanwhile, David Ogilvy — the model for Dan Draper in pitch-mode, and a writer I admire greatly — is stylistically in sync with Elmore Leonard, but disagrees with both Leonard’s and Sontag’s rules. (Note: That was a highly imperfect sentence. Welcome to my blog.) Agreeing with Leonard, Ogilvy demands simplicity and avoiding pretentious, abstract terms. But his second rule says:
Write the way you talk. Naturally.
What do you say to that, Elmore? If you write the way you talk, will it sound like writing? And, David, suppose you don’t talk so good?
And Ogilvy’s eighth rule says:
If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.
I’m not sure that Sontag’s insistence that writing requires something like personal authenticity allows for editing by colleagues. Why can’t “Hire yourself the best goddamn editor you can find” be an important Rule for Writers? And before you assume that such a needy writer must be a pathetic schlub who on her/his own is writing schlock, keep in mind that The New Yorker has a tradition of featuring truly superb writers in part because of the strength of its editors.
Maria Popova’s essays on writers advising writers (which, let me reiterate, I admire and enjoy) includes some pieces of advice that are incontestable, but in the bad sense that they are verge on being tautologies. For example, Lamont says:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.
That’s certainly true if it perfectionism means a paralyzing perfectionism, i.e., the sort of perfectionism that keeps you cramped and insane, and that prevents you from doing a shitty first draft. (You have to love Lamont’s rule-violating use of “shitty.”) But there is also a type of perfectionism that makes an author worry over every broken rhythm and soft imprecision, and that ultimately results in lapidary works. Also, I’d venture that for most authors, the real obstacle to getting to that shitty first draft is not perfectionism but the fact that they’re just too damn tired when they get home from work.
The thing is, I agree with Lamont about perfectionism. It’s one reason I like blogging. I’m in favor of filling in the spaces between writing and speaking, between publishing and drafting. Even so, I find myself so insistently pushing back against advice from writers that it makes me wonder why. Maybe…
…Maybe it’s because I don’t think there’s such a thing as “writing” except in its most literal sense: putting marks on a rectangular surface. Beyond that, there is nothing that holds the concept of writing together.
This still makes it better than “communication,” an abstraction that gets wrong what it is an abstraction from. Still, communication provides a useful analogy. To give advice on how to communicate well, one will have to decide ahead of time what type of communication one is referring to. Wooing? Convincing a jury? Praying? Writing a murder mystery? Asking for change from strangers? Muttering imprecations at the fact of dusk? Yelling “Fie! Her!!” in a crowded theater? Even basic rules like “Speak clearly” assume that one is communicating orally and that one is not Marlon Brando auditioning for a part. And even within anyone one domain or task of communication, the best practices are really about maintaining a form of rhetoric, not about communicating well.
There are plenty of tips about how to write the thing one wants to write. These tips can be very helpful. For example, I have a friend who swears by Write Or Die to help her get her shitty first draft down on paper. (No, my friend, your first drafts really aren’t shitty. I was using a technique I recommend that everyone use because I use it: the callback.) That tip works for her, but not for me. Still, I’m in favor of tips! But tips are “How I write” or “How I’ve heard some other people write,” not “How to write.”
How to write? I dunno. Lots of ways, I guess.
Tagged with: blogging
Date: November 24th, 2013 dw
Brian Solis has responded to Jeremy Owyang’s provocative post declaring the end of the golden age of blogging. Here’s the comment I posted on Brian’s site:
I think in a sense it’s true that the golden age of blogging is over, but that’s a good thing. And not because of anything bad about blogging. On the contrary…
Blogging began when your choices were (roughly) to dive into the never-ending, transient conversational streams of the Internet, or create a page with such great effort that you didn’t want to go back and change it, and few could bother to create a different page in order to comment on yours. Blogs let us post whenever we had something to say, and came with commenting built in. The Net was already conversational; blogs let us make static posts — articles, home pages — conversational.
Thanks to that, we now take for granted that posts will be conversational. The golden age ended because when a rare metal is everywhere, it’s no longer rare. And in this case, that’s a great thing.
Yes, that metaphor sucks. An ecosystem is a better one. Since the Web began, we’ve been filling in the environmental niches. We now have many more ways to talk with one another. Blogs continue to be an incredibly important player in this ecosystem; thank of how rapidly knowledge and ideas have become part of our new public thanks to blogs. But the point of an ecosystem metaphor is that the goodness comes from the complexity and diversity of participants and their relations. I therefore do not mourn the passing of the golden age of any particular modality of conversation, so long as that means other modalities have joined in the happy fray.
Blogging isn’t golden! Long live blogging! :)
, social media
Tagged with: blogging
Date: December 28th, 2011 dw
Carl Zimmer at The Loom points to Rosie Redfield’s blogging of her lab work investigating a claim of arsenic-based life forms. It’s a good example of networked science : science that is based on the network model, rather than on a publishing model.
I find open notebook science overall to be fascinating and promising.
It’s hard to muster any enthusiasm for Iran’s sentencing Hossein Derakhshan â€” “Hoder” â€” to “only” 19.5 years in jail instead of executing him, as they had threatened.
Maybe the Canadian government can do something for Hoder since he holds dual Iranian-Canadian citizenship. I don’t want to have to wait until I’m almost 80 to hear that he’s free.
Tagged with: blogging
Date: September 28th, 2010 dw
Seth Finkelstein has challenged yesterday’s post on Blogging and public thinking about whether being a blogger has caused us (some of us? most of us? a few of us?) to refashion our experiences in terms of posts we might make. He points to a post by Mark Dery that focuses on what I think is a misguided critique of Jeff Jarvis’ blogging of the “indecent” details of his medical treatment. [Disclosure: Jeff is a friend.] But, Seth’s point has less to do with the particularities of Mark’s critique than with some broader points Mark makes.
I suggest you read Seth’s comments (which are in the comments section of yesterday’s post), but I’m here going to post part of my reply, because it makes a follow-on point to what I was trying to say yesterday, so please pardon the self-quotage:
The idea that public media alter our inner narratives is hardly new. (Stephen Goldblatt’s book on Renaissance self-fashioning is a great work on this topic.) It seems to me to be a coherent history (resorting to coherence in the absence of evidence) to say we are moving from a time in which media structurally gave rise to celebrity (because the media were mass and one-way) to a new medium that gives rise to some Hegelian synthesis of celebrity and actual sociality. That is, in the age of broadcast, we fashioned experience so that we were stars of an imaginary broadcast; in the age of the Web, we fashion experience so that we are bloggers with a non-massive, semi-social, potentially interactive readership. Under this fact-free analysis, the Web’s fashioning of our experience should be understand in _contrast_ to the celebrity-based stories we made of our lives during the Age of Broadcast.
Note that since I don’t have access to the inner thoughts of all bloggers, I don’t have any actual evidence â€” thus the reference to coherence and fact-free analysis.
Tagged with: blogging
Date: June 22nd, 2010 dw
Euan Semple takes a moment to reflect on how blogging has affected how he thinks:
Once you have a blog you notice more, you start to think “I might write about this on my blog” What do I want to say” “What will people’s reaction be”. Over time you get better at noticing and the better at noticing you get the more noticed you get!…
I do find the possibility that I might blog an experience transforms that experience. I begin to compose the post in my head, even if I know I’m not actually going to write about it. I did this to some extent before the seventh day of creation (G-d rested, looked at what He had created, and then we started blogging complaints about i), but I now find myself shaping experience according to how I might present that experience in public: finding the words, deciding what might be interesting in the experience to someone other than me. Blogging has given the public yet more of a grip on the shape of my private experience.
Blogging is not unique in this. I assume we all think about how we might tell others about something that just happened to us, imagining the anecdote told at dinner to one’s family, to one’s co-workers, or to other confidantes. If you kept a traditional diary, you might find that you are drafting your experiences with its blank pages in mind. But, for those of us who write personal blogs, the anticipated reading of your blog by people you don’t know creates drafts of experience â€” which ultimately become the experience â€” that are more written than told, more public than social, more composed than expressed.
Is that good? I dunno. I don’t even know if it’s generally true. I’ve worried before that the little homunculus in my brain that is always scribbling away is a personal mental disorder. (Shut up, homunculus! I don’t care what you say, I’m posting this anyway!)
Tagged with: blogging
Date: June 21st, 2010 dw
Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to eleven years in prison today for speaking out against the Chinese government.
The Guardian article begins this way:
One of China‘s most prominent human rights activists was condemned today to 11 years in prison, prompting a furious backlash from domestic bloggers and international civil society groups.
Picture me on this quiet Christmas morning finishing a cup of coffee, listening to a set of tracks I just downloaded from Amazon, my family doing their early slow bustle, criticizing a country a full diameter away from me, and you’ve got the picture of a snug, smug American blogger. Fury? Not sure where to locate it in that picture.
It’s obviously not the same for the Chinese bloggers supporting Liu Xiaobo. This post costs me nothing, but their posts put them at risk. I cannot even imagine what it’s like to press the Publish button having to worry about anything more than losing some reputation points. “What will my pals think?” is a lot different than “Will this start the gears of imprisonment?” That unimaginable gap is our freedom of speech.
The flip side of my ability to blog free of risk is powerlessness. So, I condemn the Chinese government. Let’s say many bloggers do. And then what happens? The Chinese government quakes in its boots because the blogosphere has given it a good scolding?
On the other hand, powerless compared to what? Fifteen years ago, my condemnation would have gotten as far as the person sitting across from me. Or maybe I would have written an outraged letter to the Chinese government. (Actually, I’m sure I wouldn’t have since I never have.) Now at least there’s a chance â€” but just a chance â€” that the Chinese bloggers will know that many other bloggers are with them. And this is part of the difference: The mighty are deaf to our words, but our allies and friends may not be.
So, why am I posting about Liu Xiaobo? For a jumble of reasons, as is always the case for us humans. To make myself feel like I’m doing something even if I’m not. To align myself with someone I admire, in part so I’ll be perceived as someone who cares. To contribute a couple more hops to the networked spread of news about Liu Xiaobo. So those at risk can feel the slight weight of one more post comforting them â€” and to be comforted myself that perhaps our words can connect us for a moment before they evaporate as words almost always do.
Tagged with: blogging
• free speech
• human rights
• Liu Xiaobo
Date: December 25th, 2009 dw
Scott Rosenberg posts the happy news that Rudolf Ammann has found Dan Gillmor’s missing early bloggage for the San Jose Mercury News.
Scott includes a link to Dan’s first post, in 1999. Here are some snippets:
I’ve been thinking about the new ways of journalism, namely the ways the Internet is imposing on all of us. Internet Time has compressed the lives of all kinds of people in all kinds of businesses, and journalism is no exception. In fact, it may be one of the businesses most affected in the long run, both in the opportunities the Net creates and the threat it represents.
So I’m trying one of those new forms. It’s called a “weblog” — and it’s a combination of styles that could exist only on the Web. Text, pictures, hyperlinks and, soon, audio and video are all part of this new form, and I can’t wait to start experimenting with it.
Why do I like weblogs? Because the best ones are windows into the Web, various topics and people’s minds. Rather than trying to describe the form, let me show you several of the weblogs I look at daily (or even more frequently):
There’s nobody I admire more than Dan, for his integrity and his prescience.
Tagged with: blogging
• digital culture
Date: July 25th, 2009 dw
The Whitehouse.gov blog continues to improve, by which I mean it’s getting less like the glass-topped version of White House press releases. But it’s missing a big opportunity by keeping the blog posts anonymous.
The White House bloggers seem quite aware that a press release isn’t a post and are trying to create a difference between the two. For instance, the blogger begins the post on President Obama’s speech on credit card reform with a friendly paragraph about the citizen who introduced him. It’s not much and it’s still directly tied to the President’s remarks, but that paragraph doesn’t read like a press release or like a speech. And, that post ends with the blogger’s evaluation of the President’s proposal: “Long overdue.” That last phrase, expressing some personal enthusiasm, is uncalled for, and thus is refreshing, for blogging is a medium for the uncalled and the uncalled-for. (Which is why I love it.)
Still, it’s hard to see how the posts can blow past this minimal level of bloggishness…unless and until the bloggers start signing them.
The problem, I believe, is that the bloggers feel (and are made to feel) the awful weight of speaking for the White House. Their posts come straight from the offices behind the long lawn and the pillared portico. In some weird, ineffable way, they represent the building, its inhabitants, and its policies, just as press releases do. Press releases have authority because they’re not an individual expression. They have authority because they are unsigned and thus speak for the institution itself. Blog posts come from the same building, and, if they’re unsigned, maybe they’re supposed to have similar authority, except written in a slangier style. So, we don’t yet know exactly what to make of these unsigned posts. And neither do the bloggers, I think. It’s too new and it’s too weird.
But, if the bloggers signed their posts, it would instantly become clear that bloggers are not speaking for the institution of the White House the way press releases do. We would have something — the bloggers — that stands between the posts and the awesomeness of the White House. That would create just enough room for the bloggers to express something other than the Official View. They would be freed to make the White House blog far more interesting, relevant, human, and central to the Administration’s mission than even the most neatly typed press releases ever could be.
Already most of the bloggiest posts at Whitehouse.gov come from guest bloggers who are named and identified by their position. They feel free-er to speak for themselves and as themselves, in their own voice. Now, I don’t expect the official White House bloggers to speak for themselves exactly. They are partisans and employees; they work for the White House because they love President Obama. But, if they signed their names, they could speak more as themselves.
This might let them do more of what the White House blog needs to do, in my opinion. For example, I’d like to read a White House blogger explaining the President’s decision to try some Guantanamo prisoners using the military tribunals President Bush created. White House communications officials probably consider it bad politics to acknowledge the controversy by issuing a defense. But bloggers write about what’s interesting, and hearing a spirited, partisan justification would be helpful, and encouraging. I personally think that Pres. Obama probably has good reasons for his decision in this matter, but the “good politics” of official communications are too timid. I want to hear a blogger on the topic. And I would love to learn to go to the White House blog first on questions such as this. And isn’t that where the White House would like me first to go?
Bloggers with names are the best way to interrupt the direct circuit from politics to official public expression. That would put people in the middle…which is exactly where we want them.
Posted in slightly improved form at HuffingtonPost and TechPresident.
Tagged with: blogging
Date: May 16th, 2009 dw
According to Stars and Stripes, military service people are being enabled and encouraged to blog. That military blogging is going on is hardly news, but the degree to which it’s being embraced is remarkable.
It’s part of the Great Default Switch we’re living through in everything from privacy to “piracy.” Where the military default was security and secrecy, now the “Why not?” is becoming “Sure, go ahead â€” talk and be social.” Within limits, of course. But the news isn’t the blogging and isn’t the limits. It’s the change in defaults.
Tagged with: blogging
• digital culture
Date: May 7th, 2009 dw
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