Thinking about getting better at writing


Photo (c) 2009 Markus Rodder – Creative Commons Attribution No Derivatives Licence 2.0

I want to become a more engaging, more thorough, and more organized writer. I want to be able to write clear and insightful essays – not high school book report essays, but discovering-life essays. I want to get good at capturing all this raw material that flows through life, and digesting them so that I and other people can learn.

Practice is essential, of course. Stephen King writes:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcuts.

I’m not looking for a shortcut. I’m looking forward to decades of figuring this out. If I remember to keep backups along the way, it will be fun to review the archives.

Deliberate practice and feedback would be good, too. A few weeks ago, I posted an oDesk listing for a personal blog editor and writing coach. I’m not particularly impressed by any of the candidates. Part of it is because I’m not yet clear on what I want.

Part of it is because what I want is different from what most people writing blogs want. I don’t want to write a niche blog that rockets to the top of Google rankings and becomes a passive income stream through affiliate marketing, ads, or information products. I’m not failing with my current blog, and I’m not looking for help “fixing” it. I’m doing better than I could’ve imagined my notes could do. Who knew so many people would keep coming back and reading? One of these days I might discover what you like about this blog – or maybe you can tell me, and I can think about doing more of it.

Here’s how I want my blog to work, in some ideal future: I’ve got an excellent capture workflow that encourages me to write about everything I’m learning. A subset of this is published to my blog, where interested passers-by and the occasional searcher can find (a) technical snippets that save them hours of work, or (b) reflections that make them go “hmm” or “aha”. My evil plan is that people might discover other interesting posts along the way and will look up from their browser window several minutes or hours later having learned about all sorts of things they wouldn’t have thought of searching. I will settle for going through that same discovery process myself, as I find things I’ve forgotten writing.

How can someone help now? I want someone to read my planned posts and tell me: here you need to explain things more. Tighten this up. Take this out and put it into another post because you’re trying to do too much. Get rid of “nice” and use a real word.

But more than this surface-level editing, I want logical editing. What’s your point here? It doesn’t make sense. That argument doesn’t support your conclusion, so get rid of it. That’s a fallacy there. Let’s work on that metaphor. If you reorganize it like this, everything falls into place.

And then I want meta help: on how to ask interesting questions that lead to exploration, how to capture as much learning as possible, and how to organize all of that so I can make sense of it later. Like Lion Kimbro’s How to make a complete map of every thought you think, except maybe less rigorous and more technologically-assisted. I want to be able to work with an archive spanning years and years.

I could edit myself. I have old entries I’m no longer attached to, and future ones that I can examine closely. I keep looking for ways to improve my system. I can just throw a lot of time and effort at it, and become much better in a decade or two.

It would be good to work with other people, though, who can be more ruthless. It would be great if they’ve spent lots of time figuring out their own workflow and system for keeping everything organized and they can tell me the pitfalls I should avoid or address.

I haven’t found anyone I really want to work with. I don’t think I’ll find other people who are passionate about this kind of braindumping on oDesk or any other freelance site. (Particularly geeks who can also help me tweak my Emacs setup to totally rock.)

Sometimes it feels like I’m going after the fiddly bits, that last 20% that will take another 80% of effort. I’m a good-enough writer, and my notes are organized well enough. The blog is searchable, and I’ve got structured text files holding almost everything else. Sometimes I worry that I’m leaning towards perfectionism and indistinguishable differences. But then I read people who are better writers, and I think: I’ve barely begun.

No substitute for writing, reading, or living. I’m going to have to do the hard but fun work: reading interesting people and figuring out what I like about them, living, writing about life, revising, tinkering around with some kind of organizational system.

Ah, well. I guess there are some things you can’t learn from books. There are some things you can’t even learn from teachers.