Thursday, April 16, 2009

15 rules of blogging for myself

As I've been blogging this past year, I've slowly been creating a set of private, unwritten rules for myself. With this post, the rules become written and public.

These may or may not be useful to any other bloggers. If they're useful, then great. If they're not, I still like having them down in black and white.

1. Err on the side of putting things in list form.

2. Never describe things as "interesting" or "funny"; just be interesting or funny. Using the word "interesting" is a sure-fire way to make anything boring.

3. Ask: does this really matter? Will people still be interested in reading about it weeks, months, or even years from now? Or do I just feel like blogging it because it seems to be the thing to blog about? There are issues, memes, and YouTube clips popping up every day that have the aura of "This is what everyone is blogging / talking about / linking to right now." Those can be the most attractive things to blog, but they're often the most pointless.

4. Ask: do I have something to add to the discussion of this issue? Or am I just piling on one more link? That doesn't just mean contributing a completely original thought — if you set the bar that high, you probably wouldn't blog very often. But it at least means a way of sharpening the focus on a point that's too often blurry and dull. Or highlighting an intersection of two issues that wouldn't normally seem to have much to do with each other. Penelope Trunk compares this to her brief dabblings with visual art:

[O]ne really cool thing someone taught me is that the color I choose is most interesting where it intersects with another color. Just knowing the right color to use is not the clever, interesting thing. Rather, interesting is when I am unsure what the two colors will do when they interact.

The same is true for writing. The interesting part of writing is not the part of the piece where you know exactly where it's going. The interesting part is when you get to an unplanned moment in a paragraph and you surprise yourself by what you write next. It's the moment of uncertainty, when you have to look inside yourself to keep going, and pull out something you didn't know you had before.
5. Have self-confidence, but with enough modesty and disclaimers that you don't veer into arrogance. Freely admit you don't know much about a certain topic or aren't sure of your position on an issue.

On the other hand, don't let modesty turn into excessive timidity. Some bloggers seem to think that blogging is such a limited form that the most you can sensibly do is to draw attention to someone else's line of thinking and make some bland comment about how it's a "potentially useful line of further inquiry." Boring! If that's all you have to say, why even blog at all?

Blogging is not inherently limited or terse. Anything that can be expressed in an article, lecture, or book can (in theory) be said in a blog post or series of posts. While those other media certainly have some advantages over blogging, every medium has people making rash or bold or outrageous pronouncements without really knowing what they're talking about. Better to have a cacophony of voices making statements that might be shocking or overstated — even ill-informed or poorly thought-out — than to have a murmur of uncertain voices afraid to reach firm conclusions. The former at least invites others to join in and chip away at the clunky misstatements, which makes it more likely that we'll approach the truth.

6. Put a little extra attention into a post to give it a real beginning, middle, and end. For instance, a post should start out by orienting the reader. Too many blog posts, especially if I haven't read the blog before, keep me wondering, "What's this basically about?"

7. It's good to spruce up a post with a photo or video clip. All other things being equal, more people will tend to read your post if it includes visuals, but only use them if they're high-quality and relevant (and, of course, respect the creators' rights).

8. While you should fearlessly state the principles you believe in, try not to hold yourself out as a paragon of these principles. If you have something to say about what it is to live a good life or achieve self-actualization, then by all means write it down — but don't claim that you yourself are living a good life or have achieved self-actualization. First of all, you're probably not the best judge of your own success at these endeavors. But even if you have been successful as you think, that's just not very important for your readers to know about.

9. There are no official rules for blogging — you can do whatever you want. You need to compensate for this underlying anarchy by imposing standards on yourself. Good writing still matters. Write in complete sentences. (Aside from the occasional rhetorical flourish.) Deploy your vocabulary with aplomb. Avoid the passive voice. Write concisely (see Strunk & White) and elegantly (see Joseph W. Williams's Style). Sarcasm and vague allusions are fine in moderation, but don't encrust your writing with so much irony and engima that the astute reader is likely not to understand what you mean.

10. But it's not just about conventionally good writing — there are also writing tricks that are specific to blogging.

For instance, people will pay more attention to your point if it's in a one-sentence paragraph unto itself.

You don't want every paragraph to be just one sentence. That would be too choppy. But err on the side of shorter paragraphs.

Long paragraphs just don't work very well online. I often have to add paragraph breaks when I'm quoting someone because they made their paragraph too long. I don't think I've ever felt the need to remove paragraph breaks in something I was quoting because the paragraphs were too short.

Putting something in bold or italics can be useful to make sure a key point doesn't get lost. But I used to do this too much. You don't want the reader to feel like you don't trust them to figure out what's important. And too much of it just looks messy.

11. There's another blog-writing trick, one I picked up specifically from reading Josh Marshall's posts on Talking Points Memo. He doesn't always use the short-paragraph technique. But he does something similar. His sentences are shorter than most people's. It's not so much that he's better at being concise. It's something more mundane. He's very quick to end a sentence. And then he'll start a new one, often beginning with "and" or "but." When you use a lot of short, declarative sentences in a row, you convey a sense of authority. It says I know what I'm talking about. And it says I'm getting straight to the point. I'm giving it to you straight. Long sentences contain so much text that you can feel like the truth is being hidden amid the verbiage. A short sentence feels more stark and revealing. You can easily overdo this. But it can be effective when used in moderation. And I never get tired of it.

12. Don't link to another blog for the sheer purpose of promoting it. If there's a new blog I like enough to want to promote, then surely it has at least one specific post I can blog about. Not only will this make for a better post on my blog, but it will be better promotion for the other blog.

13. Assume that anything you write will be seen by your family or your employer or your prospective employer or anyone. And once you publish it, it will never go away. (Even if you delete a post or your whole blog someday, search engines can retain caches of the deleted content.)

14. Don't worry about giving your blog a "focus." Write about whatever you want. Let the themes emerge organically, unconsciously, haphazardly.

On the other hand, be aware of how a given post fits in within the whole "web" — not the world-wide web, but the web that is your blog. I like to think that eventually, all the posts here will reveal themselves to be interconnected — to the theoretical reader who takes the trouble to sort out all the connections. Is that realistic? Of course not, but I'm driven by imagining that the blog will get closer and closer to that ideal.

15. If possible, end a post with something that invites the reader to think more about the topic, beyond the surface of what you've written.

What are your personal rules for blogging? Let us know in the comments!


MadisonMan said...

I enjoy that the longest entry, #5, deals with modesty. Irony makes my day.

LemmusLemmus said...

1. If you stumbled upon this post at someone else's place, would you find it interesting?

2. Don't be too critical with yourself. An interesting point expressed decently is better than the point not expressed at all. It's just a fucking blog.

3. Sequential posts should not be too similar (e.g., no two movie reviews in a row).

4. All of the above are guidelines, not rules.

John Althouse Cohen said...

LemmusLemmus: Your #3 is a good point I hadn't really thought of. I'd add: "unless you're deliberately posting a continuous series."

#1 - Definitely. I suppose that's the most basic rule of all. If you don't like your post, you can't expect other people to like your post. The best you can do is blog what you would want to read and hope there are other people out there who feel the same way.

Penelope Trunk said...

Hi, John. I really like this post -- number two is so true. I break this rule in my post today, and you made me think about why I keep breaking it.

Also, I'm happy to see you linking to the stuff I wrote about the intersection of color. The idea means so much to me, and I talk about it all the time, but sometimes I feel like people don't care. I like that you care :)