Writing under constraints

Nearly all my writing has been done for electronic publication. In 1980 or so I sent my first email. In 1982 I joined a research lab where email was used extensively to coordinate and execute projects. In the late 80s I began reading Arpanet and Usenet newsgroups (worldwide discussions conducted via email) and in the early 90s I started participating in them. When weblogs first came along in early 2000 I started one of those. And I’ve written articles and extended book descriptions for a catalog that now exists only as a website.

Each one of those contexts has its own constraints, some that are common to electronic texts and some that are peculiar to themselves. For general issues with electronic publication, I recommend turning to Jakob Nielsen, who has studied the ways that people read text online and has tested the effectiveness of various approaches to presenting them with text. His own writing is simple, down to earth, and scrupulously follows his own guidelines, so it is a pleasure to read what he has to say on the subject.

There have also been occasional studies of how to write in specific electronic contexts, such as email or blog posts, but mostly I haven’t found these helpful. I think the reason is that the really helpful guidelines are ones that are developed with a goal in mind, but choosing a sufficiently specific goal also narrows down the potential audience to the point where it’s not nearly as attractive to create and publish guidelines. For example, I could go on at length about effective and ineffective ways to write and manage email in a research lab, but what I would say would be much less applicable for commercial software development (where I’ve also worked), marginally applicable to corporate marketing, and not at all to casual personal email exchanges. The more contentful my guidelines, the less generally applicable they would be.

Even if we pick a fairly specific context such as blogging, there is very little in terms of goals which would unify all bloggers; bloggers fall into several categories, and there isn’t all that much overlap between them except for the format (titled posts displayed in reverse chronological order). Some blogs allow comments and some don’t. Some bloggers interact with commenters and some don’t. Some blogs consist of short entries commenting on linked material found elsewhere on the net, some present explanatory essays with extensive linking to supporting material, some present self-contained essays with few or no external links. Some blogs are collaborative efforts, and some are the work of a single writer. Some blogs are devoted to writings on a narrow, focused area of the blogger’s interests, and some offer a stream-of-consciousness running commentary on any and every event of current interest.

There is no single set of guidelines that can cover all these different sorts of writing. Worse, it is still early in the game for many of them, and new approaches to writing under those constraints appear regularly. Various bloggers have risen to the top in different categories, but I don’t have the sense that any have established a definitive approach to the category they dominate. There is still a lot of turnover in the A-list from year to year.

I’ve tried various approaches to blogging over the past ten years, none of them chosen very deliberately. But since we moved to the farm in 2005 I’ve narrowed my range considerably, trying to write mostly about useful things I’ve learned or figured out. Now that my day-to-day accounts of farm life appear elsewhere, the blog posts tend to be long, detailed, infrequent, light on external links, addressing subjects that are far richer and deeper than the few hesitant observations I am able to make about them.

And they are deliberately limited to observations that you are unlikely to find elsewhere. I’m content to let more competent writers deal with matters that are on the front burner. And if I can’t think of something to say that others aren’t already saying, I spare my readers by keeping silent.

One of the reasons I’ve narrowed down my blog writing so severely is that I am not a natural-born writer. What I’ve learned so far about how to write has come slowly and tediously, and my education continues. So it has been very helpful to do that learning in a context narrow enough that I can become very familiar with it. For this specific kind of writing it is slowly becoming natural for me to choose the words, structure the paragraphs, craft the transitions, eliminate the unnecessarily clever turns of phrase, turn aside from inviting rabbit trails, and so on. When I sit down to write I know roughly how things should sound, how much detail to include, how long to go on.

It also puts me in a middle place where it is inappropriate for me to just write off the top of my head, yet still possible to start without having structure mapped out and details nailed down. This post, for example, was inspired by one by Cindy Rollins that I read last night (although you’ll have to continue to the end to see exactly how). It occasioned an “aha” moment, crystallizing a number of ideas that had been floating around in my mind for months. I spent the evening thinking about them, and as I sat down to write this I knew roughly the points I wanted to cover. But nowhere near exactly—as each paragraph is written I stop and think out the next one, filling out the next piece of the rough sketch I began with. In the process, what I think becomes clearer to me.

So writing these blog posts in a particularly narrow manner has been very helpful to me. I’ve learned how to write better, and I’ve been able to think through some difficult and puzzling matters. But there are still some things I’d like to write about which don’t fit into that narrow range. Often I will just skip them. Occasionally I will just break the rules, especially if the piece is short, such as the previous post on Rayna Gellert.

And sometimes I look for a different outlet. This is where the Curiosities sidebar originated. I really enjoy the briefly annotated links that are posted on Arts and Letters Daily, and years ago I posted a similar stream of links to the Highlands Study Center website, then later to the Cumberland Books website, using the same style of brief descriptions. Somewhere along the way I discovered del.icio.us, which let me easily bookmark web pages along with a brief note, as well as a WordPress plugin that could display both the link and the note in a sidebar. That subtle change in format, though, led me to start annotating my links solely with a pull quote from the article; in fact, if I can’t find a suitable pull quote, I will often change my mind about posting the link.

The Curiosities sidebar lets me offer most of the “suggestions for further reading” that come to me. But occasionally I’ve wanted to offer “suggestions for further thinking,” a compact statement of a direction I’ve been pursuing profitably but am not ready to write about at length or am otherwise not interested in doing so. This is where Cindy’s post comes in—it reminded me of Twitter, and its essential character of a stream of 140-character text bursts. The perfect context for posting dense, terse thoughts that need to be unpacked by the reader.

And of course it turns out that there is a WordPress plugin which will display your last few tweets in a sidebar. I’ve added that under the Curiosities sidebar, and there you can follow my experiment with using Twitter this way. But let me repeat my first tweet here, so just this one time I can do a bit of the unpacking myself.

Anyone zealous to build the kingdom of God should consider the story of Jehu (2 Kings 9-10): "Come with me and see my zeal for the LORD."

This was inspired by the book I am currently reading, Jacques Ellul’s The Politics of God and the Politics of Man. It is a Bible study, at least as Ellul conceives of it, of the Second Book of Kings, where he puzzles over the many baffling stories about the prophet Elisha. One of Ellul’s overall themes is that, although God is in complete control of history, he does not manipulate man’s behavior in any way, but simply allows them to respond as they will to the unfolding situation (e.g. Naaman’s mind is changed about dipping himself in the Jordan by a simple, natural observation by his servants: “What could it hurt?”).

The chapter I had just read was about Jehu, whose starkly wicked behavior is the vehicle by which God’s judgment is imposed on the house of Ahab. And it has been much on my mind how God so often punishes unrighteousness in one through the unrighteous behavior of another—which makes me think twice about zealousness for being an instrument of God’s punishment. How many movement leaders have turned out not only to have feet of clay, but have had their feet turned to clay by their zealousness for the cause?

This is the sort of unpacking I will be pointing the reader towards when I issue such a tweet. Whether I can come up with suitable tweets in the future, or whether readers are interested in pursuing such lines of thought, is an open question.


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