Recently in the WordPress Forums, justjosie asked a question: “Is there any easy way to just find something in a normal day that you can make interesting and into a blog? This may be a stupid question but I just can’t figure out what the Good Blog formula is.”
It isn’t a stupid question at all. When I first began writing online, people seemed to enjoy my posts, but I continually was haunted by the thought: “What if I can’t do it again? What if I can’t think of something to say? What if I don’t have the ability to string words together time after time after time in a way that will be satisfying to me and interesting enough to draw in readers?”
As weeks passed, finding a topic became less of a concern. Since coming to WordPress, I’ve posted 26 blogs but during the same time period I’ve placed 43 drafts in my files. A “draft” may be nothing more than a title or a quotation, but it still is a working point, a place to start, a bit of inspiration that can grow into a full entry. I do “write” my blogs – I see them as essays – and I’m not certain I’ll ever be able to turn out a new entry every day. But writing well and communicating is my primary goal.
Even though I’m just beginning and still am feeling my way through the process, I’ve written enough to be able to look back and suggest an approach that may help other bloggers. What works for me may not work for you, but I’m more than happy to share what I’ve found useful in this new venture.
The first step in any new blog entry is that moment when something catches my attention. It may be something in nature, like the two purple snail shells that were the genesis of The Surprise of Tiny Purple Things. It may be something utterly mysterious on the internet, like the name Yoani Sanchez left on the title line of a blog listing page with the entry removed. It may even be a memory that suddenly resurfaces, with power enough to make me look again at my own past, and re-work it in new words.
I’ve noticed my own untied shoelaces, the summer constellations, the ubiquitous presence of Sisyphus in our world and an old photograph of William Faulkner’s home. Each of those was a starting point, just as GPS technology, peanut butter sandwiches, plywood boats, the phrase “no problem” and upside down rainbows will be starting points in the future.
So first of all: look. Open your eyes and your ears. Be receptive to what you see around you, and what you hear people saying. Look for the odd, the unexpected, the commonplace that isn’t even seen any longer because it is so common. There’s enough in the world to keep us all going for lifetimes.
The next step may be research. I say “may” because research isn’t necessary for every blog. A few times, I’ve done no research at all. But when it is needed, research can be as simple as looking up the lyrics to a song or the colors in the eight-count box of Crayolas. It also can be as time-consuming and complex as tracing the vocational path of an early environmentalist. Where research is involved, follow the practices of a good journalist: fact check, and check again. Get multiple sources, if you can. Use primary documents rather than secondary if possible, and cite – accurately and in a consistent style – until you feel yourself living the life of a dedicated student.
Writing and Thinking belong together in a reciprocal relationship. After noticing something interesting and getting the facts straight, the time has come to decide what you think about it and what you want to say. The process is a bit chicken-and-eggish. I often think about my subject long before I put words to paper, but there are times when words or phrases come to mind first, and then I think about them. This is the one point where I will offer what I suspect should be an ironclad rule for good writing:
As I write, I continually edit, and my editing process is concerned with far more than correct spelling and grammar. I edit for clarity of thought, for logical consistency and personal conviction as well. Because I want my words to be a direct expression of who I am – because I want them to be true, in the fullest sense of that word – I’m forced to think to be sure my writing does the job.
You may have realized by now that focusing on one step or another in this process will bring very different results. My first blog about the two tiny janthina shells, The Surprise of Tiny Purple Things, was one kind of entry. Almost all “noticing” and “writing” it could have worked as a travel article. On the other hand, the second blog that grew out of the experience, The Sage of Biscayne Bay, was heavily researched and more educational in nature. A blog that is all thought, without any research at all, will be more personal and reflective. An entry that simply reports, that is all “noticing”, invites others in for their own thought, research and reflection. “Look at this,” the writer says. “What do YOU make of it?”
Of the four steps, noticing comes most easily for me. It’s a bit like breathing – I simply do it. Research takes time, but it isn’t hard. Writing takes much more time, and is a good bit harder but not impossible. It’s the thinking that takes the most effort. I’ve never thought so much in my life.
Once again, what I have in mind for my blog will not be to everyone’s taste, and not everyone will want to approach blogging in this way. But no matter what form a blog takes, or what the content may be, the steps still apply, and all of them represent skills that can be learned, developed and put to use.
When one of my readers recently mentioned the Hotel Coral Essex and the film Revenge of the Nerds in a comment, it was unusual enough that I noticed it. Since I didn’t have a clue about the Coral Essex or the film (I live under a large rock), I peeked at a YouTube clip – that’s research. Now, I’m thinking about it, turning my nugget of information over and over in my mind. Eventually, I may put a title or a phrase in my files, and there it will be: draft number 44.
See? Easy! Now, it’s your turn….