Syd’s Guide to Blogging Part 2: Getting Started

Syd’s Guide to Blogging Part 2: Getting Started

As I tell my students, Dame Inspiration is a fickle mistress. One of the hardest challenges any writer faces is knowing what to write about and then having the gumption to go through with it. Let me tell you, I face my own struggle with writer’s block every day. Sure, it doesn’t hurt me much in the blogging department, but in my professional life? My own anxiety about the quality of my writing keeps me from publishing as many articles as I’d like. As such, I’m writing this blog entry to coax both my readers and myself into happy, healthy writing habits.

My theory on creativity is that almost all writers or would be writers have a mountain of content locked somewhere in the furthest corner of their brain, just waiting to be set free. I know I’ve spent countless hours over the last year explaining to people (and myself) the entire plot of a vampire series I intend to write. . . someday. I’ve developed it enough in my mind to have first and last names for all the characters, an opening paragraph that I’ve now memorized, a good number of chapter titles, and a plan for every major scene in books one and two. I even dream about the heroine on a surprising number of occasions. Did I mention that the actual writing on this project comes to a sum of two pages? Why is that, do you think? I have absolutely nothing to lose by writing my thoughts down, right? Well, that’s not entirely true.

The Lure of the Possible

Four years ago, at the beginning of writing my dissertation, I took a seminar on how to begin. Yes, I’m the type of person who takes a class every time I need to know how to do something–I can’t help it, I suffer from academophilia. In that particular class, I learned something startling. Most cases of writer’s block are not caused by a lack of material or a lack of interest on the part of the writer. They are the result of fear and anxiety. One would think that a writer would feel better the moment that words finally hit the page–but it’s just the opposite. You see, any time I’ve actually written something down, I have to deal with my actual, real blog entry or short story, not the ideal one that I might have written under the most favorable of conditions. The truth is that the ideal is always better–it is a dream, a thing of cobwebs and shadow, to which the real cannot possibly compare. The major insight of this seminar was that writers actually feel more unhappy, not less, once their work has been started. How does one overcome the anxiety? I’ll tell you what I tell myself, and what I tell my students. It must have worked to some degree, because I actually did finish my dissertation on schedule. Recognize that first drafts are always bad. That is their purpose in life–to be utter, total crap that you can then toy with, rearrange, dismember and, if necessary, discard as you revise. I am sure there are some writers who publish their first drafts, but it takes a great deal of experience and expertise (and probably a mountain of past failed drafts) to get to that point.

For those writers who would like to get from the possible to the actual, the following strategies can help you come to see writing as a process, mostly mechanical, that has a lot more to do with hard work than inspiration.

Control Your Environment

The second thing that prevents many writers from producing as much as they like has to do with the environment they work in–and by this, I mean both mental and the physical space. Ideally, we’d all like to write in a perfectly beautiful, solitary space, carried on to verbosity on a wave of euphoric inspiration. That doesn’t happen. Writers who seek that out every time end up as hermits or drug addicts–or worse, both. Some of us can, like writer Annie Dillard, build a writing studio in the back yard to escape the world. I’m sure this is quite effective, but writers starting out won’t generally have the capability to set themselves up as modern-day Thoreaus (or worse, modern-day Van Goghs, permanently high on absinthe and turpentine). Instead of lamenting your lack of a rustic, solitary cabin with an excellent internet connection, work on the environmental factors that you can change. Believe me when I tell you that college students with their myriad distractions can write brilliant papers–but most of them can’t do so in a dorm room while their drunk roommate plays Xbox. I suggest the following steps to improve your writing environment. Physical space, after all, helps create mental space.

1. Find out what level of noise and companionship you like. As an experiment, take your notebook or laptop to a fairly busy cafe. There should be noise all around you–the hum of conversation, the clink of spoons against glass, the high pitched squeal of the espresso machine–but none of it is directed at you specifically. Now, set yourself a very simple writing challenge. Write a long, involved email or letter to a friend explaining everything you’ve been doing for the last two weeks. As you know, every one of us is behind on our correspondence, so this will be a useful exercise. Note the time when you start and when you finish, and after you sign off, write down a few words about the difficulty of the exercise. Did you write a good letter? Were you often distracted? And if you were, did those distractions help you think, or did they chase the thoughts out of your head?

When you’ve completed your public writing exercise, it’s time to indulge in some private writing. Set an alarm for an hour early–preferably at a time when no one will be awake. Write in a room empty of clutter, noises, interest of any kind. If you’re a student, I suggest a study room at the library on Saturday morning. If you’re at home, write barefoot and in your pajamas–with or without a coffee cup. Now, write a letter or email of the same length and detail as the public one, and time yourself. When you finish, reflect on the experience and note whether it seemed easier or harder, more or less pleasant, than your exercise in public writing.

The results of this little experiment should give you a baseline reading on how you best like to write. I chose personal correspondence as the assignment because it’s a type of writing that causes little anxiety for anyone. After all, our friends love to hear from us, and they couldn’t care less if we use metaphors or not. The only factors causing possible anxiety should have been environmental. What did I learn from doing this exercise myself? That both types of locales have their advantages. For me, I’m faster at home, but I’m more likely to work on what I’m supposed to be doing in public. Experience tells me that while I’ll abandon my writing for lolcats after five minutes if I’m sitting barefoot at my breakfast table, I won’t do the same at Starbucks. I choose my different environments based on my goals for the day and how motivated I feel. If I’m less motivated and I need to write anyway, it’s off to the coffee shop. I find that I don’t hear the distractions after a while–it’s white noise to me, below the threshold of notice. But the mere fact of being in a public place keeps my butt in the seat and my hands on the keys more consistently. However, I’ve got to confess that I mostly blog at home in my pajamas. Why? Blogging, for some reason, doesn’t hit my anxiety buttons like literary criticism or novel writing do. I think it’s the informal, personal nature of the medium.

Have a Writing Ritual

The horrible affliction of writer’s block has a great deal in common with insomnia. In both cases, the mind and body are out of sync, and we just can’t manage to do the thing that we most need or want to do. Thus, it makes sense that the advise that helped me overcome my own insomnia also worked on my poor writing habits. Once you find something that works, keep certain elements the same every time. Here’s what you might do.
1. Write at the same time every day. The more writing becomes a part of your routine, the easier it will be to make yourself do it. It’s not a terrible bother to brush your teeth every morning, is it?
2. Go to your regular writing spot(s). It’s time to put the knowledge you gained from our earlier exercise into practice. If you have an office or a rustic cabin, this is quite easy. If you’re a laptop user like me with no actual desk, you’ll have to get creative. I have three spaces that I work in: my office at work (suitable for research and reading), the leftmost cushion on the couch (suitable for heavy writing), and the Barnes and Noble cafe (suitable for reading and taking notes). I have a feeling though, that if I really wanted to write that vampire novel, I’d take the laptop to Barnes and Noble. For writing with secondary sources, I’m stuck with the couch, because no one wants to drag an enormous bag of books to the bookstore (from, of course, is another story entirely.
3. Have the same drinks and snacks every time. For me, it’s coffee or diet coke. I don’t eat while I write on the computer, as my last laptop got irremediably sticky. If you do get the munchies, I suggest popcorn, edamame, apples, or carrots. Cheetos are a really, really bad idea. Granola bars are also surprisingly crumbly. It’s not that you need a drink or snacks, of course. It’s just that, as it becomes part of your routine, your favorite coffee cup will help you write. I, for example, love plain white cafe-style mugs. All my mugs from home look like they could have come from a cafe (and now it really irks me when cafes use oversize or glass mugs). Even seeing a white coffee mug makes me think of reading and writing–which is a very helpful association if you’re trying to get some words down. Caveat–as I write with a coffee mug on my lap desk next to my laptop, or in the best case scenario, precariously balanced beside me on the couch, I’m sure I’m headed for tragedy and nasty laptop death one day. Perhaps at some point I’ll buy a couch with a built-in cup holder.

Practice Pre-Writing and Post-Writing

I would not expect even the best novelist to produce her best sentence in the first fifteen seconds of a writing session. You have to work yourself into it. For pre-writing, I suggest that you keep a separate notebook or document purely for your feelings and anxiety about the writing process. I used this technique for my dissertation, and I can tell you, my pre-writing scrapbook is full of every curse word I know and dire proclamations written in all caps. Somehow, a few minutes of writing anything will reconcile me to doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
Post-writing is equally important. The idea is to leave yourself a plan for the next day’s work. Human beings write better in coherent chunks. If you can, it’s always ideal to write a whole blog entry or a whole chapter at one setting, but with lengthier projects, this just isn’t possible. For post-writing, I use my primary document. I append post-writing comments directly to the day’s work, and for me, it’s usually a one-to ten-step plan of what I need to accomplish in the next session. I know from experience that my maximum production in one sitting is somewhere around 4 pages double-spaced. This isn’t very much compared to the overall length of a dissertation (300 pages double-spaced) or a fantasy novel (up to 700 pages double-spaced). Like Hansel and Gretel, you have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind you. Now, sometimes I don’t follow the path I’ve laid for myself. Writing is a process of continual discovery, and when it takes a left turn, I like to follow it to its logical end. However, it’s comforting to have a to-do list. If I don’t accomplish a step in the plan, I save it until I do. At the end of chapter three of my dissertation I had five pages of excellent plans that just never came to fruition. I only deleted them when I was certain that I was done adding new material to the chapter.

Time to Write, Right Now

The techniques I’ve described have helped me tremendously. Even though I’m a “professional writer,” (it still feels odd to call myself that, though it’s in my job description) I still need them. I still wrestle with the angel every time I sit down to write–especially if my job is on the line. I urge all aspiring or current writers to see inspiration, and writing itself, as a mechanical process that obeys certain rules. If you put work in, you get results out. That work does not have to be brilliant–it just has to be present. A great second draft, after all, can be written from any sort of first draft, even the worst one possible. However, a great second draft cannot be produced with no first draft at all to support it. So, open up your word processor–today–and see what happens.
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Syd’s Guide to Blogging Part I: How to Read

Syd’s Guide to Blogging Part I: How to Read

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With the recent release of Ulduar, most raiding WoW players have upped their reading and research. At this point in the progression curve, the ability to extract and process information from different resources on the web is what gives some players a critical edge in strategy or play. I have been blogging since October 2008, but I’ve been reading WoW blogs for a lot longer. However, in the interest of full disclosure, the thing that has inspired me to write a series of meta-blogging posts is my experience teaching college-level literature classes. Since I work in a foreign language, my daily task is teaching students not only how to write well, but how to read. My firm belief is that in order to be a good writer, you first have to be a good reader. If you follow these simple tips, your blog reading will become a more informative and rewarding experience, and your blog writing will probably improve as well.

Tip #1: Know Your Medium

The biggest thing I learned from Matticus when I started working for the site is that blogs differ from traditional writing. Blogs have their own set of rules and conventions, and a thoughtful reader should be aware of them. The following are what I consider the primary blog conventions.

A. Blogs are designed to be skimmable. Writers tend to bold their most important information.
B. Blogs use personal experience as their evidence. Even when facts and numbers are cited, the personal is always paramount.
C. Third, blogs are constrained by design. Bloggers have to develop a shorthand both to combat space restrictions and to keep from revealing too much personal information about the writer and his or her acquaintances.

How does knowing how blogs work make me a better reader? First, because I know that blogs are meant to be skimmable, I read the bolded or highlighted text first in order to find the post’s thesis. At this point you may prioritize and choose to read or not to read. I always choose to read, even if the post has no clear argument, but that’s just me. Identifying the thesis statement might sound trivial, but if you don’t know what you’re reading about, how can you react?

Secondly, because I know that blogs as a genre extract their primary evidence from personal experience, I read any narrative with a critical eye. I don’t take it as absolute “truth,” because I know that autobiography, as a subjective genre, is a prime spot for literary manipulation. When I read someone’s personal experience, I take it as a metaphor for something greater. Sometimes a less skilled blog writer will not provide a thin red thread of meaning that readers can follow through the labyrinth of narrative, but usually a personal account has a “point.” Personal accounts have become my favorite aspect of reading blogs. Because I am attentive to their details, I can sometimes extract more from them than the original writer intended. If you are one of those types who can learn from the experience of others, the personal account of people’s successes, and even more particularly, failures, can enrich your game experience.

Third, I recognize that blog writers are bound by the constraints of their medium. I don’t expect the fullest possible exploration of any topic. I try to read between the lines–many things must be left unsaid to protect the innocent or the guilty, and I depend on the writer’s tone to pick up some of the implications of their argument, especially if I’m dealing with a personal narrative. The public nature of blogs means that writers feel the need to “protect” their real-life and in-game acquaintances, sometimes to the point of obscuring the events that prompted them to write. Regarding the “shorthand” of different blogs, my best advice is to read the same blog over the course of several weeks. The best writers have a strong personal style that allows them to present concepts in an abbreviated form. Familiarity breeds comfort in this case.

Tip #2: Read for Detail

Just because blogs can be skimmed, it doesn’t mean they should be. If you’ve read through the bolded sections, and the post topic interests you, it’s time to go deeper. If you’re reading a guide, and you intend to use that information, take notes. Nothing is more inconvenient than having to go back to a webpage you read earlier in the day 30 seconds before you pull a new boss in order to get the exact name of his abilities. If you have to do that, you didn’t “forget” the information–you never memorized it in the first place. I always tell my students that writing things down–particularly with pen or pencil–makes it easier to create the long-term memory. However, guide-type posts are not the only ones you want to read carefully. Posts on class mechanics or class changes, best-in-slot lists, and opinion pieces on controversial topics actually draw more comments than guides. Many of the people who comment, however, are sloppy readers, and nothing annoys a blogger more. Here’s a little test that, in my mind, you must pass in order to comment on your favorite blogs.

1. Who wrote the article? Go ahead and laugh, but the comments for many of my past posts (I’d say at least 25 in total) identified the author of the post as Matticus, not me. Nothing gets on my left nerve quicker a lack of recognition for my efforts. My right nerve, in case you’re wondering, is reserved for my annoyances with students who don’t come to class. Even if you’re reading on RSS, you need to be able to identify the author. In order to test your reading skills, think of your ten favorite blogs or authors. If you were to receive a stack of papers with the blog posts on them, without any images, formatting, or bylines, you should be able to identify the author. If you can’t, you’re not reading well enough to catch an author’s style or tone. Style refers to the mechanics, rhetorical figures, and structure that an author uses, while tone refers to their word choice, overall attitude, and “sound.” If you can’t understand the style and tone, your comment runs the risk of misunderstanding the post altogether. You might have missed the humor or irony if you’re not reading for it.

2. What is the date of the article? My second pet peeve about blog commenters arises from reading negative comments on outdated posts. For example, one commenter noted that my observations about Ulduar mana regen were completely wrong. Of course they were! The post in question was written on February 7, before the PTR or concrete numbers were available. If you’re going to criticize someone’s argument, make sure you understand the context in which their article was written.

3. What is the article about? Certain blogs have certain preoccupations, and articles run in series. In addition, multiple blog authors enter into dialogue with each other. If you’re just reading one thing, you might be reading in a vaccuum. Before you press that comment button, try to make sure you know what the actual topic is.

4. What argument does the writer make? The classic, and in my mind the best, way to construct an argument is to have a thesis and an antithesis–or in other words, a point and a counterpoint. I see some commenters read so quickly that they mistake someone’s antithesis for their thesis. The commenter thinks they’re arguing against the blog poster when in fact they’re reinforcing the original author’s claim. These comments usually have me shaking my head.

5. What are the author’s strong points? I learned in my grad school classes that while anyone can identify a literary critic’s flaws, it’s much more difficult to pinpoint their strengths. Before you comment, especially if you’re going to argue with the writer, make sure you’re able to understand them well enough to identify the potential merit of the post. It’s rare that a seasoned blogger creates an entirely off-the-wall argument–well, except for those who do it on purpose. As for those guys, you should be able to identify them by their tone and style.

Tip #3: Read Both Deeply and Widely

Some blog readers follow one or two blogs exclusively. In particular, I know of many readers who consult only WoWInsider and occasionally the outside posts that it links to. Learn to be critical of your media. One blog, even a great one like World of Matticus, is only one perspective. All blogs have a certain ideological slant, and if you’re not aware of that, it will influence you. However, if you just read random posts here and there, you’ll never understand any of the particular writers. The ideal blog reader will choose 10 or so writers or sites and consult them fairly regularly. How much reading you do depends on your time, but think about it this way. If you read just one guide or watch just one video of a boss fight, what is your chance of success? There’s only a slim chance that one specific strategy will work for your guild. However, if you read/watch 10 different guides, you have 10 potential paths to boss death. Even the most careless reader’s chance of success would go up.

Conclusions: The Benefits of Reading Critically

Reading isn’t easy, folks. We learn to do it in elementary school, but many of us grow up blind to all but the most obvious meaning of the things we read. Critical reading takes time and care, but the effort is well-spent. There is a certain delight in understanding a skilled writer’s metaphors or wry sense of humor. The process of careful reading, particularly when your reading material comes from writers who are worthy of imitation, can enhance your own writing. I urge you to beg, borrow, and steal style and inspiration from other writers. If I were giving advice on writing fiction, I would tell you to go read your favorite genre voraciously for a year, take notes on what you like and don’t like, and only then start your own novel. My advice to aspiring or current bloggers is much the same. Read authors you admire and let them teach you.

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