Archive for ‘writing’

March 18, 2009

Blog habits and the need for speed

“Users become habituated to Web sites that reward their habituation. One of the many reasons that the Drudge Report pulls so many users is that it’s always changing. Compared with Drudge, the home pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post move at a pace that would bore a tectonic plate.”
Jack Shafer*

Continually updating with new content is tremendously important to any Web venture, and certainly is true of blogging. When I was at The Washington Times, where my duties from 2006 onward included acting as ad hoc liaison to the blogosphere, I became intensely aware of what I called The Need for Speed.

In the news business, there is simply no substitute for the ability to work fast. This was always true in some sense, but is now more true than ever, and since leaving the Times, I’ve tried to explain this to others. Tempus fugits now faster than ever, and if reporters and editors can’t “crank it out,” they need to find another line of work.

In discussing writing with a friend recently, I explained that writing is a skill, not a talent, and thus one’s ability as a writer can be improved by thoughtful effort. The problem with some people is that they graduate college as good writers, experience early success on account of that, and thus never devote themselves diligently to the relentless quest for improvement that could make them great writers. Sometimes I point out that, long after Michael Jordan had become an NBA All-Star, he continued to practice continually at such basic skills as free-throw shooting.

If you are a part-time blogger who finds you have difficulty posting more than one or two new items a day, consider trying to improve your speed of composition. In the news business, the good reporter is the one who turns in “clean copy” — relatively free from typos, misspellings, grammatical or factual errors — and cranks it out quickly. Writing clean copy fast means that (a) the editor doesn’t have to begin the editing process by fixing innumerable sloppy errors, and (b) the story is turned in fairly early, so that there is time to edit it thoroughly. A writer who is slow and sloppy creates problems up through the editorial process.

No one is born with the ability to write clearly and quickly, and everyone who can write can improve his writing ability. Speed in writing is almost synonymous with fluency in writing. Someone who writes fast also usually writes fluently. This is the pedagogic concept of “Time On Task” (TOT): The more time you spend drilling a skill, the more “reps” you squeeze into that drill time, the faster and farther your advancement will be.

Too many writers have the perverse idea that they should never write anything that they don’t publish. This attitude is atavistic nonsense. Go read the collected volume of Hunter S. Thompson’s early letters, The Proud Highway, and what you will see is that Thompson used his personal and professional correspondence as an outlet for practice and experimentation.

Ask Frequent Commenter Smitty, who has access to the editorial archives here, how often I’ll begin drafting a post, spin it out to 300 or 500 words, find myself distracted by some other task, and just leave the unfinished draft in perpetual limbo.** Is this wasted effort? Not at all! For if nothing else, I have at least stretched my legs and jogged around the track a bit, and am limber and ready when the starting gun sounds.

The part-time blogger who wishes to up his game ought to keep in mind the importance of learning to work faster, of trying to write (and link) as fast as he can, so that the few hours he has to spend each week on his blog are as productive as possible. And ironically, the time that is “wasted” composing posts you never publish can be key to this process, so long as you learn to decide quickly whether a post is going to be completed, and learn to cut bait where you cannot fish effectively.

If you can’t compose 400-word rants, try to do some quick aggregation (i.e, posts in which the primary value is the stories that you link, rather than your own writing), but whatever you do, strive for speed. Time is money, and I’ve spent 40 minutes writing this post, so if you’ve learned anything from it or been inspired by it, please feel guilty for not hitting the tip jar, you ungrateful bastard (or bitch, as the case may be).

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* I’m obligated to Sully for that link, and don’t imagine he even noticed the “magic shillaleigh” joke my drunken Irish guest-blogger made last night.

** Also, I am never able to write anything without at least one glitch or typo. So after I post something, I go read it on the blog, go back and fix the errors, update the page, read it again, and fix anything else I see. This particular post went through that process four times in five minutes after I first published it.