10 Tips on Writing the Living Web

by Mark Bernstein

100 Reader Comments

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  1. This article inspired me to renew the weblog I’d abandoned earlier this year; Not only that, but to commit to writing more meaningful prose. Thanks.

    Thank you especially for calling writers on the rampant Unformed Opinion and Blogrolling syndromes!

    However, I have a question about blogrolling. What constitutes vulgar – as you refer to it – blogrolling in your (formed!) opinion? I don’t suck up to big names hoping to get their attention, in fact I have only a few links listed on my blog’s “favorites” menu, and I’ve had conversations with most of the owners.

    I give these sites permanent links because I’m convinced they’re able (and do) produce a consistent stream of good writing. Only a quarter of them link back, and I don’t care. So, does this evince that vulgar blogrolling is more of an idea or state of mind you should avoid than an actual practice? Or, am I a blogroller in denial? What exactly were you trying to suggest to writers in this regard?

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  2. I was provoked into thought by this article. I hadn’t previously considered writing about myself on my website. I thought at first the comments listed above were a little harsh, but I agree the text was rather long. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    It will be a while before my writing style is up to scratch, but I intend to practise every day. I have a lot to write about. (Please visit my website if you are interested in music and electronic arts!)

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  3. Hmm. This article, it seems to me, isn’t just about blogging. There is a lesson for all content producers – all of whom need to establish a rapport with their visitors. Don’t too many sites seem to have been written ’ for someone else’?

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  4. hey, just read a few of the articals. where have i been? why haven’t i seen this site before….sigh.

    now, must make site better………

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  5. I would like to see some “Living” examples of what this article talks about. Does anyone have any links to sites that showcase some of this?

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  6. The article should have at least discussed the potential for today’s outburst to be enshrined forever in others’ citations, Google’s cache, or the WayBack Machine [http://www.archive.org/]. This may be a risk worth taking, but it is a risk. Bernstein’s message: Blog constantly, or as often as possible, and read other people’s blogs, but whatever you do, don’t stop. Maybe I’m cynical, but I wondered to what extent B’s interest in Tinderbox shaped his views. Yes, he does make good points; I especially liked “if you cannot face your mother, perhaps you are not ready to write for the world.” But his advice on style would go down better if he took more of it himself. I sorta wish Zeldman had written this piece, but maybe he already did: [http://www.alistapart.com/stories/zeldman2.html]

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  7. I like the fact that on ALA articles are produces that get into the art of content- writing next to artciles that get into design or technique. This tastes like there are more interesting articles to be published!

    I would have recommended the writer of this piece to use his own guidelines for the article, because after number 6 or 7 I really had to push myself to keep reading. Engaging writing is not easy ;-)

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  8. The Raven said in another reaction:

    “Frankly, based on the number of “Here’s what I ate for breakfast” blogs out there, I wish more people WERE intimidated.”

    I never grow tired of shouting back: “Don’t whine about that, just don’t read it!” Personal publishing is about freedom of speech, and if people want to write about their breakfasts they are entitled to do so. I have the freedom of choice what I want to read.

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  9. Martijn ten Napel:

    “I never grow tired of shouting back: “Don’t whine about that, just don’t read it!” Personal publishing is about freedom of…”

    However, Mark’s article was targeted toward people who wish to grow as writers, not diarists. There’s a great site for diarists, http://www.diarist.net/ .

    The distinction here appears blurred for many because some diarists would really rather be writers and visa versa. If a writer (diarist) behaves narcissistically, he or she will only garner an audience who cares about what he had for breadfast.

    This is a very niche demographic for which there’s no market.

    Of course, everybody’s free, but the freedom argument only circumvents the real question, which is: Do you want to write with professional style that appeals to many, or do you want to write like a diarist that appeals to voyeurs?

    Either is okay, and some may argue that there is at least a small market for the diarists, which is true; You can find published diaries at the bookstore.

    But the what-for-breakfast diarists aren’t getting there. Everybody’s stuck with having to write something interesting if they want to write appealingly.

    If freedom of speech feels like an issue, just remember that when writers like Mark write an article for writers, remember, he’s writing it for people who are free to write interestingly.

    Diarists are free to check out http://www.diarist.net/ .

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  10. I got this tidbit from drop.org :
    How Do You Establish Credibility For Your Web Site?
    http://www.webcredibility.org/guidelines/index.html

    Stanford have compiled 10 guidelines for building the credibility of a web site. These guidelines are based on three years of research that included over 4,500 people. (contributed by David Sim at ecademy.com August 19, 2002)

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  11. It all made sense.

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  12. It took me seconds to hit the click to go to the ‘Tips’ page but at least 5 different trys to get through the entire piece. While the idea of writing better blogs was evocative, the practice as described here was a bit dry.
    For subjects such as this, I prefer writers who write short.

    Thanks for the effort though. Hope it inspires me to do the same.

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  13. “Your mother, who never uses a computer, may read your intimate weblog one day in the library. To be honest with the world, you may need to be honest with your mother; if you cannot face your mother, perhaps you are not ready to write for the world.”

    I like the article and the advice it gives.

    I think I understand the above quote and offer this commentary:

    The author may be assuming someone is reading your blog and/or website simply because it exists. From my experience (not a blog) this isn’t the case—promotion of a website through links, friends, and search engines make a site known. This is one of the primary false Web Myths—If you build the site, the visitors will come.

    So it isn’t automatic that everyone, let alone your mother is reading your site, regardless of the quality of the content.

    Some people have cool and mature relationships with their mother and some have quite less than that or maybe no mother. When the question of personal expression factors your mother that seems good IF you don’t mind communicating with her. If you want to complain about your mother you should be able to do that too. I don’t think one should worry about what mother thinks! The metaphor may cause more self-censorhip than interesting content.

    My point is that maybe facing the Self is most important when writing, drawing, or whatever medium you are using. Do you have a vested interest in what you are writing? (that’s one of my highschool english teachers lines)

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  14. What in the world is the blue picture behind the title of this article? I have been starting at it for 10 minutes and can’t figure it out.

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  15. I wasn’t going to say anything, but…

    nods understandably

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  16. Nothing says “I don’t care about my readers” better than a top ten list. Perhaps there should be a #11, Use Your Imagination. We’ve seen the Top Ten list in David Letterman’s show. Even there it was not funny, interesting, whatever. Lose it.

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  17. You can pay attention to any or all of these options or you can be yourself and write whatever you want. What is so wrong with writing as if NO ONE is reading (a la “dance like no one is watching”)? There are no guidelines for “weblogging” (what a horrible term). And anyone who thinks there are guidelines for this pseudo-phenomenon really needs to lighten up before it’s killed. What’s with the control trip? I’ve had my journal up for over a year, I’ve written by the seat of my pants. That’s how I’ve always written. Trust me, articles like this are only the first step to the Blog Police and might alienate new bloggers because they don’t feel like they can follow the “rules” and be true to themselves. People who think we need rules for blogging/journalling are absolute control freaks, not writers. Don’t be fooled! The last thing we need in the realm of FREE EXPRESSION are rules. Am I the only one who knows this? I hope not.

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  18. Mark, many comments have been made, most of which I find valid. However, to write consistently and with the passion you set as the prerequisite for writing that lives, I would suggest nit-pickers first master the myriad elements covered here. It’s a lifelong craft, a journey of continually learning and re-learning to better articulate the honest and the obvious so that we are more easily able to find that which we hide from ourselves. The ten points you cover here encompass myriad smaller, but no less important insights, offering a comprehensive but distilled template for writing one’s self into being.

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  19. I was alerted to this article by someone who shares my loathing for the abuse of the English language. He specifically refered me to Point 10 where, to paraphrase, you suggest that correct spelling, punctuation etc are not all that important. As I replied on another site, if your advice revolved around dating tips directed to a young man, the offensive section might have read:

    “Don’t worry too much about personal hygiene. Find a woman and pursue her. Most dates will overlook, and nearly all will forgive, horrendous breath and body odor. Leave shampoo and deodorant on the shelf unless they’re old friends. Bathe quickly and dress thoughtlessly for if you are to score often, you must not waste time on presentation or consideration of others.”

    Imagine my surprise when, having posted this, I follow up and read the entire article and find it to be thoroughly (almost) on the mark in every aspect. I would have even agreed with that one section had you said “Don’t worry OVERLY-much about…” in the sense that an exaggerated concern over precise correctness is likely to prompt a person not to write at all.

    Regarding how too many people tend to write on the net today, whenever I see someone write, for example, “whats there problem? thats what the nets 4.” or some such trash, I immediately judge the person to be someone who obviously has nothing to say that might be of the slightest interest to me. Yes, I’m sure I miss out on a gem or two this way but that’s just the way it is.

    Thanks 98% for a great article!

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  20. A long time ago in a distant university, I wrote some Fortran. I thought it was SO cool: a clever way to do two things at the same time. I was proud of it, until an older and wiser programmer set me straight.

    It was hard to understand. It was not clear. If I read it now, it would confuse me too.

    That day I learned a lesson. Code, like anything else, should make sense even if you’re not inside the author’s head.

    If it gives you insight into the author’s mind, that’s a bonus. If it REQUIRES insight into his mind, it has failed.

    Judging by my Fortran, my mind must have been a scary place. Perhaps it still is. But these days, people often understand what I write.

    And I like that better than being “clever”.

    PD.

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  21. You might wonder what triggered my previous outburst—more likely, you didn’t care. But if you are getting a sinking feeling, it’s fully justified. I AM going to tell you what I was writing about.

    A page or so ago, I read:
    > For someone looking at the code
    > YYMMDD * 100.0001 = MMDDYY
    > was so elegant, obvious what the programmer was doing.

    so I replied. Then I noticed that the conversation had moved on.

    In the immortal words of Matt Groening: “Doh!”

    So now I’ll move even further back—thanks for the orignal article. It made me think. Mostly it made me think I don’t need to write a blog. I have nothing passionate to say, right now. A one-man crusade against grocers’ apostrophes doesn’t quite stir the blood. My ire is not yet kindled. I have not waxed wroth. I am perfectly calm (though my teeth are slightly gritted as I type this).

    Besides, apostrophe.org is taken. The world is safe from my prose for a little longer.

    PD.

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  22. Obviously it’s good to have input (even in the broad manner afforded by sites such as ala) from as many people as possible, but the scope for such articles is considerably degraded by repetition: I felt much of what was said by Mark Bernstein, was also said by Dennis A. Mahoney in issue 138, albeit in a slightly less economic manner. Other than that, I thought it to be a very well written, comprehensive and sensible piece; although not particularly enlightening on a personal level.

    I realise that I am probably as well-placed as the next man to make demands of people; but how about some anaylsis of the struggling levels of compliance amongst the W3Cs flagship members?

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  23. Thanks for the good advice here. I am not sure, this being my first page, of what is good to write. I try to be honest, usually with my writing anywhere i let my voice in my head come out on the web page. I’ve found several good ideas and pages just searching around. I dont think that any of the writing there was too heavy, or incorrect. Take out of it what you need, i am assuming that is why it was there. Thanks to the writers.

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  24. Sorry, but I have to say I disagree with the idea in “2. Write often” :

    “If you cannot write for a time, and the reason for your absence is interesting, write about it. Your honeymoon, your kidney transplant, your sister’s gubernatorial inauguration — all these can be predicted and worked into the fabric of your writing so that the interruption, when it comes, seems natural. But avoid, if you can, sudden cryptic pronouncements: “I’ll be unable to post for a while”? gives us nothing we can use or learn from.”

    From a security point of view, this is really stupid. You write “I’ll be away in Jamaca for 2 weeks on Saturday”, hacker thinks “hmm, 2 weeks to break in and mess up their site”, and burgaler checks your domain whois for your address, breaks in and steals the entire contents of your house. May as well leave the keys under the doormat as well.

    Or maybe I’m paranoid…

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  25. oh, and this forum is weird. Whats with all the “I’ll “I’ll “Iâ€â€œI’l“I’ll ??

    Plus, as noted by someone above, the “Post A Message:” at the bottom of EVERY page is misleading, really easy for a newcomer or forgetfull regular to make a post relating to the last post at the bottom of a given page, only to find it 2 or 3 pages away once posted. There you go, two bugs to sort out…

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  26. Um .. what IS that graphic behind the title of the article? Looks like a diagram of the top part of the female reproductive system. Is that a Fallopian tube to the left?

    A “Womb of the Living Web” theme perhaps? :)

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  27. Yes, I just now made that EXACT error regarding the “Post A Message” at the bottom of the first page. Only after my post “failed” to appear did I notice there were more pages of posts … after some frantic skimming, I was much relieved to see that pure luck prevented me from making the newbie error of asking a question that had already been answered.

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  28. Very nice article, it makes me think that this responds to the need of “human-like-interactivity”. I enjoy websites that makes me think that there’s somebody on the other side, alive, of course :)

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  29. mmmm… real nice article! I enjoyed reading it and will start writing more often. I have been thinking about this for a while actually but am really inspired now. Thanks for putting up such a lovely article.

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  30. I think these, like all other rules, are stupid. You’re starting to sound like fukcing Jakob. Sheesh. Of course I agree with much of this, except not in the form of rules, simply preferences. There are many ways, and I mean, come on: “be sexy” and “post often” are just fukcing idiotic. So is the admonition that online writers (esp. webloggers) have some obligation to their readers.

    To quote Karl Hagen: “Our rules and systems are arbitrary, and to claim for them some moral or logical superiority has never withstood the scrutiny of debate.”

    Love, despite,

    Joe Mexico
    http://meltingobject.blogspot.com

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  31. i thought it was a bit inappropriate for the author of article to mention archiving systems, including the one made by the company for which he works (tinderbox) without a disclaimer to that effect. had he disclaimed his relationship with the product, i wouldn’t have thought twice about his relationship to the material, but now i wonder if this was intended to be one big advertisement about starting a great blog or online writing center, and then using the terrific tinderbox product to manage it!

    just my thoughts. who is the ombudsman here, anyway?

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  32. “But what keeps readers coming back is compelling writing that’s continually fresh and new.”

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  33. -/

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  34. There’s some good advice in this article, some bad advice and some decidedly odd advice (“Don’t tell us your opinion: tell us why the question is important” – put forward a question but don’t try and answer it?!? why would that be a good thing?). The article also rambles on a bit, which is kind of ironic I guess…

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  35. maybe it’s irony on a base level, but i like it. reason i’m complaining is i was hoping to test the feature in mozilla that checks pages for updates and automatically opens the page…maybe i’ll try slashdot

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  36. As many has allready mentioned, the stuff explained in this article isn’t new to most people, but it’s those things many people forget to do when running a weblog or another text-content based website.

    On a different note. Something makes the charset mess up in this comment section. when people write “DON’T” it inserts questionmarks and other strange charactors around the ’ . I’ll make a screenshot and post it later. I’m too tired right now.

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  37. This article got me sacked!

    Well, almost. I read it and thought how it could be applied on our site, then I realised my boss would never understand/care/take an interest because he really hasn’t a clue (he’s an accountant) and this made me mad, so I said my job was a joke (on my blog) and got sacked.
    So now I’m jobless because of your well written, well thought out article on ALA – thanks a bunch!

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  38. Good essay, but should be edited down by two-thirds. Time is money.

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  39. “Updating daily (or weekly) content can challenge the most dedicated scribe or site owner (even A List Apart).”

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  40. is u ! ?

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  41. Am I JACOB Neilsen OR NOT!!?
    http://ami.iamcal.com/index.php?site=Jakob+Nielsen

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  42. I loved reading “write for a reason”. I am passionate about what i write, and have always written that way. I just loved everything it had to say, and the great tips it had to offer. this is my first time here, but it wont be the last. Thanks so much to my teacher who MADE us go to this site :o). (dont you just love it).

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  43. YYMMDD * 100.0001 = MMDDYY

    As Ashley said, that is not correct. I get “YYMMDDYY.MMDD”

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  44. I wold like to join

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  45. YYMMDD * 100.0001 = MMDDYY” provided you define your field as 6 digits no decimal.

    YYMMDDYY.MMDD” uses an output field of 8 digits in front of the decimal and 4 after.

    But if you make your output six in front of the decimal, with no rounding, and that is all, then the unwanted parts fall off.

    This is elegant from perspective of easy to read the code.

    It is not elegant from perspective of someone verifying it … if we messed up with placement of ones and zeros, a human being eyeballing the code would see what we doing, but not that we doing it wrong.

    It is not elegant from perspective of how some computers internally operate.

    Since Y2K moved me to CCYYMMDD format (the C for Century), I have found other ways to do date math, and avoid this risk of a typo.

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  46. I like this article. Yes, it was long, but easy to read. Especially first three-four tips were very useful. I disagree with opinion about spelling mistakes and grammar errors. I don’t like them, because from my point of view they decrease readability of material.

    Nepto

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  47. I find the imperative really, really annoying in otherwise-valuable articles like this. My instinctive reaction to sentences like “If you are writing for the Living Web, you must write consistently. You need not write constantly, and you need not write long, but you must write often.” is “bite me”.

    The only rule on the Living Web is “you must write whatever the hell you feel like writing, whenever the hell you feel like writing it.” By giving orders to the contrary, Mark just comes off sounding snooty.

    If they hadn’t been phrased as imperatives liberally salted with “must“s, many of these bits of advice would have been useful. “If you want people to keep coming back to your site, it will help if you write consistently, so it won’t happen very often that they come in expecting something new, and are disappointed.” But it’s not a “must”; if your writing is good enough, people will set page-minders on you, and will eagerly go and read when they get the change notification, even if the time interval isn’t predictable.

    And maybe you don’t care whether or not thousands of people keep coming back. How do I reconcile all these “musts” with “you are, in the end, your most important reader”?

    “Never waffle, whine, or weasel.” What, never? So people who are naturally whiny weasels should just stay the heck off of the Living Web, or should at least never show that side of themselves? They should leave the place to us perfect types who can always avoid doing those things?

    “Understand the storyteller’s art and use the technique of narrative to shape the emerging structure of your living site.” And if you don’t have the time or the inclination to study the storyteller’s art, just shut the heck up?

    “If you are writing in order to discover your mind or to try out a new stance, continue by all means— but file the note in your desk drawer, not on your website.” Utter drivel. I like to read people trying out new stances and discovering their own minds. I dunno why Bernstein doesn’t, but I resent him trying to forbid people from doing it.

    “Disagreement is exciting.” I found this article very exciting. *8)

    DC

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  48. as a computer geek and former english major in university,
    i fiind it ironic that we are attempting to finite the pattern of speech that has the potential to glorify these pages. if we will assume that the internet is the wild,wild west, then let the conversation on these pages
    flow with the same untamed abandoment as john wayne in true grit.

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  49. Very nearly the definition of self-indulgence.

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  50. Wow…maybe I’ve just been out of the loop of writing for a while, but a lot of what was said really hit home for me. The whole time I was thinking, “Damn straight! I’m not a pussy, I can write! I think I will!” Thanks for the wake up call…it was oodles of helpful info!

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  51. EVERY premise in this article was echoed in my creative writing and playwriting classes in college—some of these lessons I still haven’t quite learned, but getting there.

    Moral: Hammer hammer it in. Eventually, it will sink in.

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  52. This may be inferred in the article but I find that keeping a blog brief is crucial to its quality. Many people can write some good stuff that just goes on and on and on. Break it up with some “headlines” or something within the big block of text to show a new thought or new idea. I find many blogs just hard to read.

    Imagine this article without the bold, numbered headers to each new aspect of the content. It would be much more difficult to read, as many blogs are. Remember that you are writing for the WEB and not for print. Jakob Nielsen would smile right now :o)

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  53. A lot of common sense but very useful common sense.
    Thank you for this effort to improve writing on the web, especially in blogs.

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  54. Great tips on writing blogs.

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  55. 11. Find a good ears

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  56. Hi david.. i one hundred percent agree with you… web is a medium of free expression.. there’s ‘NO’ musts..

    long live free internet..

    rk//

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  57. you all sound like god damn smart asses to me?! this was created for your use you dont HAVE to use it you dont HAVE to critisise it?! Somebody probably worked hard on it!

    Jeri Fallaize
    ———x———

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  58. Wow! There’s a lot to think about!!
    And it will be hard to use all these hints in a good way!
    But it’s great to have some “guidelines” to make a good publication.
    I started my own weblog (http://hotopblog.antville.org) in december last year. Now (hopefully) I will improve my efforts… Thanks a lot!!

    Matthias

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  59. 11. Identify plugs in the body of your text, not in an end note.

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  60. I believe that this article goes well beyond pure common sense. I’m a newbie at weblogging and will most certainly spread the word to friends to read this. Sometimes we forget don’t understand the simplest things in writing that matter, and through this article I discovered some of my flaws in writing and learned new things about friends and writing with a sense of ‘why should the reader care? I hope I can one day contribute to this truly amazine site I discovered through A LINK IN ANOTHER SITE.

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  61. nice article. i started mine some 3 months ago.: [http://www.duelcom.com/malani/]

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  62. I was certainly inspired and educated by this article. I actually found it by following a link on a Blog I read regularly…one the writer has not found obviously.The link was for www.realworldstyle.com and they linked here…anyway I digress.
    I am surprised at all the criticism, but it is interesting to read. I do try to use a spellchecker on my blog, as it distracts me to see spelling errors when I read anything.
    This site is definately going into my favorites list and may even find a link on my website.
    Thanks for the effort and the inspiration.

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  63. I enjoyed the article. It was a good refresher for me on writing. I would like to hear your thoughts on writers block expanded more and how to find inspiration. That would be an interesting discussion/conversation.

    Ron
    Power Tools for Webmasters
    Get you site featured at
    http://webmastertoolbox.net

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  64. This article is awesome. It is what inspired me to improve my writing, and it (and its follow-up) continue to be my refreshers everytime I feel I’m losing the plot as far as writing goes. Thank you very much, ALA, for the articles.

    After reading some of these comments, however, I’m slightly confused. Perhaps I’m interpretting the article wrong, but I took tip 10 (RE not worrying about correctness) to mean that your first priority is getting the message across instead of getting led astray by strict details of i’s before e’s and semicolons? Maybe the author could clarify if he is not too busy?

    I do feel that improvements could have been made to both this article and its follow-up (particularly in the follow-up), where more examples of elegant writing could be given, more examples of “right” and “wrong” and “what sells” and “what smells”. But I guess those must be things we are to figure out on our own…?

    Thanks again, ALA, for your inspiration and guidance.
    Xiu.
    http://www.sanlive.com
    —fruit of the mind.

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  65. fdhdfhdfghdfgh

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  66. The author has clarity in his words. Although there are a little too many words, I can still see his points very well. A great and helpful (to me) job.

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  67. Thanks for keeping your archives available (as you suggest in the article). I’m obviously a lagger, but I appreciate the article. Very nice.

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  68. I’m working up to a bit of weaving, now I have leisure.

    This article is clear and helpful, and I shall be guided by it.

    The “Living Web” is like a guilt-free version of those Christmas letters we all hate. Guilt-free because we don’t send it to anyone, but anyone can read it; and if we make it interesting, maybe someone will.

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  69. The best tips on web writing, and general writing for that matter, that I have ever seen. Mr. Bernstein, the next time you are in Philadelphia, I would love to feed you and introduce you to interesting people.

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  70. wow.. at first everything aformentioned seemed very obvious, but after a thorough read, there are deeper meanings buried within it. I’ve had my personal website since 1999. What started out as a journal of my adventurous dating life turned into a daily chore. So i stopped completely, and needless to say, to many of my reader’s disappointment. Through the years i have tried to start it up again. but always running into the same wall. Lately I decided to try yet again. And decided to write about deeper things in life, i mean, after all, i AM getting older.

    THis article has cemented my desire to make my efforts last. I will surely re-read it when the next time i hit the wall.

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