This post was going to come out on Monday, which is the day I’ve reserved for being “off topic.” That couldn’t happen because I needed to edit this post some more. I’ve been sitting on this post, in fact, for a full week. Which brings me to my off topic subject matter: good writing is essential for good blogging. This might seem obvious, given that a blog is written. It is, however, so obvious that it often goes overlooked, mainly because a lot of writers have difficulty with editing their own text. A very small percentage of the blogging population might even feel arrogant enough to believe their writing doesn’t need any editing. These are the authors who type something quickly and press the “publish” button without blinking an eye. These are also the most impossible blogs to interact with (not surprising!).
Ummmm…. yes, I can tell if your blog is a quickly concocted mass of posts that were produced without much thought or reflection. If it isn’t evident straight away, it will become so when I interact with your post in the comments section and have no clue what I am talking about because you changed the content of your post after I read it and reacted to your ideas that are no longer there. It’s hard to accept, but if you don’t like a comment, or you think a comment is strange, it might be because your idea in your head wasn’t the idea you actually wrote out in your blog post. Alternatively, the thought in your brain isn’t accurately reflected in your writing. You might notice this too late, meaning you realize the problem after you press the publish button. Hilarity, or confusion, will inevitably play itself out in your comment stream. In the end, reacting to your post as an unpleasant experience for the reader will never be forgotten and that person will never interact with you again.
Writing gaffs like this have always been around, quite possibly since the invention of writing. Sadly, I know all about the disconnect between the thought in the brain and the idea actually represented in printed words. I’ve been teaching writing for over 20 years, so I’ve seen it all in my classes, including the students who clickity-clack something and, without even bothering to give their text a once-over, press print and hand it in. I recall receiving papers that were still warm from being freshly printed. Many a student has gone to my office hours, utterly confused, because I read their idea one way and they didn’t think this notion they mistakenly led me to believe in their paper: they were trying to say something else! Of course, sitting down with the student and showing them why they communicated something different from what they were thinking is helpful to him or her. Usually, discovering that our audience can’t read our minds is a sort of epiphany in developing good writing skills. You’d think it would be an obvious truth. It is, which is why it so easily escapes us when we submerge ourselves into the murky waters of writing.
It isn’t really shocking to me to see similar problems (or ineffective writing) in the blogging world. However, I think with blogs an author’s hiccups are magnified because there’s the added feature of interaction. You can write a post asking a question and people can answer your question in the comments section. People can react voluntarily to what you’ve written even if you didn’t ask a question. Certainly, you can control which comments become publicly viewable, but what we often forget is that we can also control the kinds of responses we get to our posts by writing effectively. I’ve been observing now for quite some time that blog authors often get unwanted comments mainly because they failed to communicate their main point clearly. An effective blog post needs this essential element: a main point, clearly communicated, which orients the reader and allows him or her to respond appropriately.
As a matter of fact, something that almost always appears in textbooks on effective writing is the concept of audience. Writing on paper or in print media, where instant reactions are not possible, often makes us forget that we have an audience, simply because the readers are not readily available to react to our ideas. So, when we learn to write, we are often instructed on the concept of writing as communication. Since we are not available to explain to our readers exactly what we meant if they do not understand what we have written, our texts need to be easy to understand without us being personally present to clarify misunderstandings. If we want to communicate a particular idea in our writing, that idea, and no other, is the one we want the audience to receive in the process of communication.
Blogs have the added advantage, or hindrance, of being editable after publishing. Just imagine what it would be like if novelists could change their stories live! Well, that is actually possible now with digital writing. However, let’s say you bought a book at a shop. As you’re lounging around at home reading this work of fiction, the author is constantly making changes to the story and the printed text is constantly being updated. One day you pick up the book and read pages 1 to 20 about a protagonist called Sam. Another day you continue reading on page 21 to discover the author changed the protagonist’s name to Martha. A book about Sam is now a book about Martha. That would not feel right, would it? It might be frustrating. Just imagine following a story about Sam one day and the next that character’s name, biographical details, and everything about him or her is completely different because the author did some live editing on the novel you’re reading. Live editing a blog post can have the same impact on your audience if your edits are too significant. It’s one thing to change spelling, correct the style and grammar, etc. It’s quite another to change the substance of what you’re writing about. I am not kidding, I have seen blog posts about a film suddenly be transformed into blog posts about the book the film was based on! That’s not good, especially when people can react to the blog in real time.
How can this issue be dealt with or, better yet, thwarted? Here’s how I try to avoid these problems on my blog. You can choose to imitate me in some of these regards or perhaps you find some of them unrealistic. Maybe you have other strategies you’d like to share in the comments! Please share them, I think your thoughts and methods can only add to this post and make it even more useful. So, here we go:
- I think of my blog posts as I would an article to be published in a magazine. Once I press the “publish” button it’s like sending a hard copy of a manuscript in the mail. That means I won’t be able to make any big changes. This will guarantee that, in the future, all interactions with my post will be “on the same page” so to speak. In other words, everyone will get my main idea in the same way and react to that idea.
- Because I do what I’ve said in “1” – treat my posts like hard copies that are hardly changeable since they’re on paper – I sit on my posts for a while leaving them as drafts, as I’ve done with this one. It’s really hard to edit your own writing! If you write something and try to proof it or edit it just after writing it you will probably miss a lot of mistakes and unclear writing. If you write something, put it away for a day or two, and come back to it, you will have more success at editing your work.
- If I’m in doubt about publishing my post, I let it sit in “drafts” for yet another 24 hours, then I read it again and make decisions about editing. Sometimes, at this stage, my post could lie in “drafts” forever, or be deleted, or I may have changed my mind about the orientation or main idea of my post and I make huge, drastic changes to it.
- When I edit, I try to imagine I’m reading something that someone else wrote. That’s really hard to do. I’ve had a lot of practice with this in writing and evaluating language learner’s speech. The analogy to language assessment might help you: when we test a person’s speaking ability in a foreign language, we evaluate them based on how a native speaker of the language would react. Would a native speaker, who is not a teacher, easily understand the speaker? This runs parallel to writing: is your idea easily understood and received by the reader with little effort on his or her part? It’s challenging, but imagining yourself as “the average reader” will help you polish your post.
- Once the post is published, it takes on a life of its own. No big changes will be made to my post and people will comment on it as they wish. Everyone in the stream will be talking about the same piece of writing for eternity. If you make drastic changes to a post, your comment stream won’t be in sync with your writing and, what’s worse, you could wind up with unwanted comments or get involved in very strange conversations that shall inevitably drive you and your readers stark raving mad. So, that is why it’s so important to contemplate your post before publishing it.
As a blog author, also remember that you really can’t cover your tracks and it’s quite difficult to manipulate a comments section to suit your corrections. I think a lot of authors think that if they strictly moderate comment streams they will ultimately control what happens. This isn’t true because search engines cache deleted or changed web pages. Recently, I watched a particularly clumsy blogger completely change the content of their post because they realized they left out three sentences that were essential for understanding what exactly they were writing about. They then proceeded to moderate the comment stream so that a comment responding positively to the edited post came before a comment that reacted in disagreement with the original post, making it seem as if the post was never edited drastically. It was totally obvious the blog author tried to cover up their mistake because the comment that looked “weird” coincided with the post available in Google’s cache. Yeah, that’s right, you can’t save face by deleting or editing things on your blog. Google has a cache of previous versions of your post. Comment stream moderation has its limits.
It goes without saying that it’s far easier to manage a blog communication-wise that has little writing, like mine. I mostly just photograph my WIPs and FOs and say something quick about them. I don’t need to think much about those! A more involved piece of writing, like this one, needs time to simmer. And I think I’ve slow cooked this one enough! It’s time to press the “Publish” button! Feel free to share whatever ideas you’ve got about writing.