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Issue № 138

How to Write a Better Weblog

by Published in Community, Writing

There’s been a recent retread of the weblogging phenomenon following a few articles at PC Mag, Time, and The Morning News. After posting my own short list of things that ought to be banned from weblogs, I realized that a list of things to be encouraged would be more useful. Some people are new to weblogging. Others want to raise the bar. In the end, everybody wants better sites, and some of these suggestions might help.

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The bulk of this advice focuses on writing, which is generally at the heart of weblogs. All of them are obvious yet often ignored, to the detriment of both the readers and the writers. They’re aimed at people trying to improve the general appeal of their weblogs, but folks writing privately for friends and family might also find them useful. We’ll begin with an example.

Professional vs. Amateur

The professional writer writes:

New York is magnificent in spring.

The amateur writer writes:

I know this is a cliché nowadays, especially after 9/11, but I live in New York, which is much cleaner and safer now because of Giuliani, who really ought to be president after handling the crisis so well, and I know I’ve had some issues in the past with the mayor’s handling of the NYPD in regard to African Americans and his war against art involving sacred religious icons and feces (hello!? freedom of expression!?), but when all is said and done, New York, as maybe the best example of the ‘melting pot’ etc. etc., is a great city, especially when it starts getting warmer and people go outside more, like around March or April.

The amateur reads the professional and cannot bear the understatement. The professional reads the amateur, gives up after the word “nowadays,” and decides that he/she has been video–gamed to idiocy; the amateurs are hopeless; this new wave will be the last.

Not true. Amateurs are writing as they’ve always written. Self-consciousness, self-doubt, awkwardness, and overcompensation are perennial hallmarks of the beginning writer. The reason today’s amateurs seem more profoundly un–profound could be a simple matter of exposure.

There used to be impenetrable gatekeepers. Now, CNN roundtables, documentaries, independent films, MTV, and the web—which has no gatekeepers in most countries—are broadcasting every poorly crafted phrase and half–cooked idea imaginable. Patience, readers. All is not lost.

Great writing can’t be taught, but atrocious writing is entirely preventable.

The Rules

There are, in fact, rules—even online. Rules are not restrictions. Grammar, spelling, punctuation, rhythm, focus, syntax, and structure aren’t especially romantic terms, until you get to know them. Writers want to make sense. They want to move the reader. It ain’t never gonna happen if you got busted paragraphs, mistaken punctuation and, bad rhythm, not to mention kreative spelling: see? Clarity is key. Learn the rules. Break ’em later.

The best rules can’t be stated, but you can learn them by reading excellent writing. Develop an ear. If you know what works, you’ll start to emulate it. Conversely, it’s good to study truly horrendous language, stuff that makes you embarrassed for those responsible. You’ll find yourself mortally afraid of—and automatically avoiding—the same mistakes in your own writing. Hemingway said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built–in shock–proof shit-detector.” (They’re cheap if you haven’t already got one.) This is especially important for web writers, most of whom are publishing without the benefit of editors.

Declarative sentences are good. Web readers demand pith.

Bold statements are dangerous, but they won’t kill you. Timidity will—or at least your traffic. Everyone has a hazy opinion or two. The writer’s goal is clarity. Vague feelings or ideas don’t have to be vaguely written. Imagine two sites with similar descriptions of an indescribable sensation. Which would you remember:

A: “Her physical affections made his world feel somehow different and indescribably alive.”

B: “She kissed him with her tongue until the leaves on the trees, the soles of his shoes, and even his thoughts, felt like happy tongues.”

First–person point of view is not the only point of view. I should be necessary, or else avoided. This is not to condemn first person, but to suggest that it needn’t be the default choice. If first-person perfectly suits your subject matter, use it. But maybe second– or third–person is more effective. Consider your options.

The advice “write only what you know” increases the likelihood that you will know the same things forever.

Offer Something New

And are you attempting to produce quality material, or just killing time? If you’re killing time, O.K., but don’t be startled when your audience is small and no one links to you. Instead of publishing disconnected diversions (by the way, look at this, check it out, here you go, really cool), connect the dots or offer a full opinion.

Better yet, take The Nick Hornby Challenge. In High Fidelity, the narrator is described as a professional critic. He’s good at it. Music criticism is what he does. Then he starts an independent label and produces a record made by a couple of talented, shoplifting skate punks in order to, as his girlfriend says, “put something new into the world.”

The web is a tremendous hodgepodge of media. There are sites about books, sites about music, and sites about sites. Plenty of weblogs center on consuming and critiquing other people’s work, and all this recycling and redistribution has its place—a very important place that we’ll make note of later on. But why not make something new? Instead of linking to a few articles every day, write one. Instead of showcasing and discussing the latest designs, design something. You’ve got this absolutely batty opportunity of instant global publishing. Publish! The world is your oyster!

Amuse Your Readers

If you want to share an anecdote or story from your life, pretend the readers weren’t there. Because they weren’t. “You had to be there” never makes a joke funny.

Readers crave your anecdotes and stories. They really do. So give ‘em the whole megillah. Instead of, “The party was a riot!” or “I’m depressed today,” carefully explain why. Elaborate. Parties and depression are perfectly good writing subjects. The Great Gatsby, for instance, has plenty of both.

Anything makes a good subject, as long as you take your time and crystallize the details, tying them together and actually telling a story, rather than offering a simple list of facts. Do readers really want to know how miserable you are? Yes. But they’re going to want details, the precise odor of your room, why you haven’t showered in a week, or how exactly somebody broke your heart. One–liners won’t suffice.

At the same time, you don’t want to over–explain yourself. Understatement can be thunderous, or humorous, or heartbreaking. Or all three.

Have a sense of humor. Everything is funny. Being gay is funny. Being straight is funny. Being American is funny. It’s OK to laugh at things. Making light of serious situations or emotions doesn’t have to be disrespectful or hurtful. And just because something is funny doesn’t mean it has to be light. Example: “When the kidnapper called the blind woman, he told her that she’d never see her son again.” Some of the best humor is heavy.

Being a writer is funny. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Have a thick skin. If your site gets singled out for attack by some malicious web devil, relax. You’ve gone public and you have to expect both rational and irrational criticism. Listen, people rag on Shakespeare all the time. If you’re a genuine talent, there’ll be plenty of people complimenting your efforts. If someone has a bona fide gripe with something you’ve produced, pay attention—it’s worth considering. If someone has a petty gripe or simply gets nasty, let it go. Get back to producing your site. If novelists spent their time responding to negative reviews, we’d be fresh out of novels.

Beyond Wired

One popular complaint about weblogs is that they all link to the same sites, over and over and over. Sometimes that’s true and sometimes it isn’t. But if you do find yourself linking to a Wired article that’s already been noted on ten other sites, you might consider finding something else.

Sharing great discoveries is largely why weblogging got so hot and sultry in the first place. Big, heavily funded sites weren’t acknowledging the grace notes and hidden talents of the web, so it was up to webloggers. For some webloggers, it still is. Wired doesn’t need your help as much as undiscovered sites, which may be offering equally good (or better) material.

Successful Weblogging

Producing a successful weblog, however you define that, is tough. Instead of money, fame, and Jacuzzis full of sexy nude readers, you’ll probably feel like you’re shouting in outer space. And you probably will be. In 1994, you could hook a thousand readers if you wrote about the mold underneath your refrigerator. Now, you’re lucky to get a hundred regulars, even if your work is excellent.

No matter what your audience size, you ought to write as if your readership consisted of paid subscribers whose subscriptions were perpetually about to expire. There’s no need to pander. Compel them to re–subscribe.

As the beginning of this article noted, a big audience isn’t everybody’s goal, and most of these suggestions are intended for people working to expand their readership. As for actually achieving that expansion, it’s back to the hard sell.

The days when simply having a website equated to visibility are over. The average person doesn’t even know to look for weblogs. When someone does, there’s an array of choices so endless that finding your site will largely be a stroke of luck.

Links and word of mouth can go a long way, but don’t expect a big following right off the bat. You might never get a following. More than ever, you’d better be doing this to satisfy yourself, because it could be your only reward. But if your goal is to satisfy readers, satisfying yourself is a good start.

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