A couple of days ago, a friend (and fellow blogger) asked me about the motivation behind my recent intello-bullying post. This friend assumed that a major event had triggered this type of rant. Got me thinking about the way I prepare blogposts. And I want to follow up on that bullying post. So I thought I’d combine the two. Especially since metablogging isn’t by itself that much fun. But it’s not working.
So I’ll just write about blog writing.
See, the way I write may be more idiosyncratic than I assume it is. In general, I tend to write very quickly, after having let something simmer for a while. On this, here, my main blog, I tend to post when I have something which smells like it’s ready for some kind of public consumption. Sometimes, I do blog quickly, right after having noticed some “story” which is “unfolding.” But my tendency is to leave things on the back burner. I did write quite a few drafts, several of which aren’t published yet. But my habit, these days, is to keep these drafts as headnotes, instead of cluttering my WordPress.com dashboard.
Though this all sounds like a contradiction to my RERO mantra, I hear it as a corrolary of RERO. Or, at least, a method which allows me to make my RERO goal more realistic.
In my head, it all makes sense. Feel free to ask if it sounds really unclear.
In general, I like to use posts to connect a few things together. One reason is that connecting issues is “the way I roll,” in my life in general. Another is that it tends to enable me to take a step back from a given issue. Plus, it’s more efficient for me to put different things in a single post than writing different posts, one after the other. What’s more, microblogging (on Identi.ca and Twitter, especially) has taken over the “immediate blogging” and “compulsive writing” functions I would occasionally assign to my blog. Facebook allows me to do all sorts of other things that people do on blogs, like sharing cool videos and commenting on news items.
Which makes my blogging activities more “compartmentalized” and more limited.
So… How do I write blogposts?
Well, I typically start from a vague idea, floating in my head. Most of the time, I leave that vague idea there, in my head. If I think I can write a full blogpost right away, from that idea, meaning that I seem to have enough time to do so, I may blog right away. But, again, microblogging has taken that space in my life, over the past several months. So most of my blogposts are written after some of the main ideas had been “sitting in my brain” for a while. These vague ideas are sometimes related to specific things I’ve heard or read. Even when it’s the case, those vague ideas take part in a broader context which include ongoing reflections or discussions, in my life. Some ideas come back at different points in my life, like the social butterfly effect about which I first thought in 2005 and am now toying with, on a fairly regular basis. Other ideas are more situated in a time period. The latter is especially clear with reflections which happen while I teach.
So I get all sorts of vague ideas in my head. I keep them on several backburners. I let them influence one another. I may mention one or two of those ideas in conversations I have offline or online.
Occasionally, I may take a few notes about those vague ideas. I tend to take a lot of notes. About anything. From just about anywhere. And stashed in about any corner of my digital life. On my Gmail account, as draft blogposts, as Notes on my iPod touch, etc. I’ve put aside a number of note-taking methods, over the years. Some I might take up again, others which have been completely replaced. For instance, my iPod touch has completely replaced the PalmOS PDAs I had been using for about ten years. But it’s possible that I might resume my use of Evernote, OneNote, or Windows Live Writer. I still wish I had a good outliner. Little known fact about me: I’m an outliner freak. Evernote doesn’t do outlining and OneNote doesn’t really cut it either. For course material, I’ve resorted to outline mode in PowerPoint (or, more recently, OpenOffice Impress).
Still, on most occasions related to blogging, I keep headnotes. In a way, it enables me to sort out the most important issues about which I want to blog. If something really sticks in my head, “there might be something, there.” IOW, I use forgetting (and absent-mindedness) as a time-management strategy. Not sure Merlin Mann would aprove of my method, but I’m quite happy with it.
At some point in the process, I decide which “code” I’ll use in writing: language, main register, tone, and style. This decision is sometimes conscious, especially when I decide to write something in French. But code selection is also where I take decisions without even noticing. Sometimes, the object imposes the code. Or maybe I’m just in a mood to use a specific tone, as has happened on a few occasions when I felt a bit ranty or snarky. And I do eventually notice the implications of my choice of code. But it’s funny to realize how “unconscious” this process can be.
Once I’m ready to blog, I usually start from some kind of webpage, especially if there’s another blogpost available. Sometimes, it might be one of my own blogposts (typically, because the ideas behind my new post take part in an ongoing reflection of mine). Or it can be some content that I find after having thought of something I want to blog. In other words, I often go and look for a page which will serve as the starting point in my actual writing session. Though it may sound as if I’m blogging another blog entry, I’m frequently using another blogpost as a “pretext,” in multiple senses of that word. One reason I do this is that I like pings and trackbacks. I’m not that concerned about these. Some trackbacks don’t seem to work and I’m not even trying to rectify the situation. I just like to use trackbacks whenever I can. Though I do wish that some of those trackbacks may help get the attention of someone, it’s mostly about striking a conversation or even about sustaining a relationship. I’ve made a few friends through trackbacks and there’s nothing a social butterfly like me enjoys more, from blogging, than making new friends.
So, when I have a relevant webpage in front of me, I usually click on a bookmarklet which allows me to start a new blogpost with the full link (URL plus title) and, sometimes, a quote from that webpage.
(Bookmarklets are gravely underrated, IMHO. Probably because they’re too simple. But they’re, really, very convenient. Sometimes, I use them repeatedly to collect full links from multiple pages to which I want to link a post I’m writing. I know there are other methods but this one makes sense in my workflow.)
Once I have a blank page with a convenient link, I just start typing. More often than not, I’ve already prepared some complete sentences that I wanted to use in that post. In some cases, I even have a fairly detailed outline of what I want to write. In those cases when I do have a structure in mind, I usually end up cutting a lot off. Much of that extra content might simply become part of other activities of mine. I do the same thing when I prepare lesson plans for a course I teach, so it’s a rather well-ingrained habit.
As I type, I refer back to some of my headnotes. This is actually when forgetting connects with RERO. If I have a difficult time retrieving some of the points I wanted to blog, I assume that they weren’t that essential or that I’ll have other occasions to use them in the future. So it allows me to restrain my blogging session a bit. This may sound a bit counterintuitive, but not keeping a clear plan often helps me to not devolve too much time to writing.
While I write, I often look for other links to include (including to acronyms I use), I check some things online, and I look for the right word. I never agonize on any of this but it can take a significant amount of time. Still, I write pretty painlessly and rather quickly. I’d say my average is probably around a thousand to 1500 words or more an hour, including lookups and link additions. I never really checked, but it sounds about right for most unproblematic writing. Maybe it’s not so quick when compared to others, but anecdotal evidence seems to show that a number of people I know who write a fair deal (without being practicing journalists) take more time to write.
As is surely very obvious, I allow myself to go on many tangents, as I type. In my blogging activities, most of these tangents are kept in the final version of my blogpost. In other types of writing, especially formal writing or any type of writing with high stakes (say, a very diplomatic message written as a way to help solve a tricky issue), I can leave very significant sections out of the finished piece of writing. In fact, I’ve written fairly long messages to replace them with a single sentence. IOW, I do censor myself outside of blogging. But I mainly do so after having written.
Though my mind doesn’t really work in linear ways, my blog writing does tend to be fairly linear. I may go back and forth between paragraphs but, as I write, I tend to go pretty sequentially from one thought to the next. OTOH, I never worry about sequence as I write anything. I think about the text as a whole, about the detail of what I’m writing, but I pay relatively little attention to how it flows from one paragraph to the next. What’s funny is that this might be the part of my writing which has changed the msot, with experience. I used to be more concerned with finding the most appropriate way to connect paragraphs or sentences within a paragraph. After having been told that, at least when writing in English, I should use less connecting words, I learnt to not worry as much. I’m sure I still use way too many connecting words than is deemed appropriate by native speakers (I also use too many parentheses, too many quotes, too many adverbs, too many words…). But I’m “choosing my fights.”
Once I’m done with a draft of the main text, I go through the whole thing again. Sometimes, I edit very little. With shorter texts, especially texts with very low stakes, I don’t even copyedit. With blogposts on this blog, my second pass through the text is usually the time I use for listing categories and tags (yes, those things I make way too extended a use of). That second pass is also the one during which I switch the order of some paragraphs, look a bit more at the structure, etc. In more formal writing, this would also be the time at which I settle on some headers. When I use an outliner, the process is mostly one of replacing a keyword by some kind of title.
I sometimes do a third pass, especially if I’ve added significant amounts of text during the second pass or if the text is a bit tricky in its potential consequences. In more formal writing, the second pass is merely about structure, the third pass is more about proofreading/copy-editing, and I may go through the text a few more times afterwards. In some cases (outside of blogging), I do occasionally start over. Sometimes, starting over is even a kind of cathartic experience. But my writing habits have stabilized enough at this point that my subsequent passes through a text tend not to change that text so much.
In blogging, I even “push the envelope” in terms of posting something even when it’s not to my liking. I often get an alea jacta es moment and I occasionally tell myself «les jeux sont faits, rien ne va plus».
In the case of this specific blogpost, I’ve pretty much decided not to edit at all. I’ll add tags and categories and I’ll press publish.