Alister Cameron // Blogologist

Changing the world. One blog(ger) at a time.

How good a blog writer are you really?? (Here’s a great test.)

vintage typewriterTwo nights ago I got upset about something and did one of the two curious things I tend to do when I get “hacked off” and want to vent: I wrote a letter to the editor of my local newspaper (in my case the Herald Sun Newspaper).

The other thing I do — usually when I’m in the car — is call a talk-radio station. The latter is not always satisfying because you can wait 15 minutes on hold, only to find at the end of it all that they run out of time and you don’t get on. Anyway, back to my letter to the editor…

It got published! This certainly doesn’t happen every time, but it does, regularly enough. I don’t hammer them repeatedly on a particular topic, so it’s not like they see my letters coming, know who I am, and what angle my letters will take. Conservatively, I write a letter once every six months or so… not a really big deal.

But here’s what I’ve discovered after a couple or more months of fairly focussed blogging: the skills required to craft the kind of letter that will get the attention of a newspaper letters editor, and the knack for crafting just the right turn of phrase; for humour, wit, irony — or whatever other device — is precisely the same skill you need to perfect in blogging.

Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Writing Well

Dear fellow blogger, I beg you not to underestimate the importance of good written expression. I personally do not think good blog writing is the same as good journalistic writing (although granted, it can vary from blog to blog). I rather see skilled blog writing as a kind of middle road between uncomplicated stream-of-consciousness, conversational-style writing on the one hand, and the more evolved, colourful and even poetic style of a magazine feature writer, on the other.

I don’t know if that makes sense to you or not. Let me keep trying to unpack this a little further…

My thesis on blog writing is that you can’t just expect either the newsworthiness or the intrinsic “value” of the content you’re blogging about to keep your readers coming back. They also want you to hold their attention, spark their imagination, and delight their literary sensibilities. Now, that may sound like a tall order, but that’s the challenge I put to you. Don’t shy away from it. Aim for excellence.

So what does good written expression look like? Well, I started this post by suggesting it’s whatever it takes to impress a newspaper letters editor enough to publish your letter. He/she’s looking for a mysterious combination of timeliness and newsworthiness of subject-matter, “colour”, clarity of expression, punchy and emotive tone, and brevity… in the end they want to see qualities that make your letter a stand-out alongside the dozen others that are ostensibly written about the same thing.

It worked for me today. Here’s what I wrote:

Film director James Cameron has a thing for shipwrecks. First it was his epic film ‘Titanic’ and now a TV documentary (and book) based on a story that was well and truly sunk about twenty years ago: the unearthing of the alleged burial site of Jesus Christ.

I have no doubt Cameron will make some quick dollars out of his latest project, but his credibility and integrity will have sprung major leaks. Putting his name alongside such dodgy pseudo-science and iconoclastic sensationalism was not a smart move. Clearly, Cameron picked the wrong partner-in-crime in Simcha Jacobovici, the documentary’s producer, who is far better at sniffing a juicy story than scientifically rigorous and responsible archeology.

Joe Zias, former curator for anthropology and archeology at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem is blunt: “Simcha has no credibility whatsoever. He’s pimping off the Bible … He got this guy Cameron, who made ‘Titanic’ or something like that – what does this guy know about archeology? I am an archeologist, but if I were to write a book about brain surgery, you would say, ‘Who is this guy?’ People want signs and wonders. Projects like these make a mockery of the archeological profession.”

All this notwithstanding, I’m sure it won’t be long before we’re seeing this anti-Christian documentary in Australia… on SBS, of course.

Can I say, straight up, that I laboured over this. I sweat bullets over every letter to the editor that I write. Why? Well, I want to get it just right! I don’t want to just write in grammatically correct English, I want to paint a vivid picture, evoke a precise emotional response, peppered with humour, with no more words than necessary to do the job. Heck, I want my letter to stand out for the quality of the prose, so that if the editor is ho-hum about the subject matter or my approach to the issue, I’ll still get published thanks to something impressive enough in the copy.

In this particular piece there are a few things going on:

  • I pick a newsworthy subject that I suspect few other letters will address (i.e. few similarly-focussed letters for the editor to compare mine to).
  • I start with a short sharp statement that is playing on the meaning of “shipwreck”. It’s punchy and it’s a little “smart”.
  • I repeat the sinking/water theme in a funny way a few times throughout the letter. That’s funny and a great choice of word-play, given the subject-matter.
  • I use some carefully chosen words that carry a lot of meaning, and are very evocative (i.e. “iconoclastic sensationalism”).
  • I fuel the fire of controversy by implicitly accusing SBS (a government TV station) of broadcasting anti-Christian content regularly. It’s true, by the way!
  • I keep the letter to four paragraphs, knowing that paragraph three can go if they don’t have the space. (Indeed, they cut that out for publishing today). But I make sure that it all still hangs together without that paragraph (I’m thinking for the subeditor, see).
  • I write with enough polemic/accusatory tone that it almost demands a polarizing response from the readers – for or against my stance.
  • I spell-check, read, reread, rephrase, eliminate redundancies, reorder, until I am satisfied it’s shaped just right.

So — no joking here — I’d like to challenge you to join me in my fun game (that’s what it mostly is for me) of trying to get published on a vaguely regular basis in a major metro newspaper somewhere near you. Without exaggeration, I’d say that if you can get published even just occasionally, you’ve every reason to conclude you’re a more-than-decent writer.

George Orwell’s Rules for Clear and Simple Writing

Writing a letter to the editor forces you to focus your writing skills, and to do a lot of the things that make for good writing, generally. Which, according to George Orwell, is based around the following very sensible rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

(Aside: Jeremy Zawodny and I obviously have fairly similar views on how sloppily many press releases are written. He says, “If you’re bored, take a random press release and try running it thru the filter of rules #2, #3, and #4. I suspect you’ll end up with something far shorter, more clear, and just as informative.” I totally agree.)

Confronting the Brutal Facts

I come from a family of polyglot language junkies who are all born communicators, so I feel like I have an unfair advantage. So please do not read arrogance or juvenile sillyness in what I say next. I just want to be transparently honest and clear…

Some of you are way smarter, way more energetic and way more impressive than I am likely to ever be, but you shoot yourselves in the foot with sub-standard written communication skills. And I read your blogs and I feel upset and annoyed for you, because I want you to have the attention from your readership that you richly deserve. But you’re going to have to learn to write better.

You need to spend some time in your reader’s “moccasins” to see what demands a first-time read of your content places on your average reader. Speaking for myself, I get really frustrated when I know you have an important point to make, yet after repeated re-readings of your post or paragraph, I still don’t get it!

Good Writers Are Good Readers

Is it going to be hell for you to learn to write better? Not if you read good writers! And that’s probably the key to good writing: good reading. You have to learn the stuff from somewhere, right?! And good writing doesn’t mean just anything, because a lot of modern prose is pretty ordinary.

To conclude here’s a free takeaway for you – one of my all-time favourite writers. This woman is an absolute jewel and I read her/listen to her for both her compelling argumentation and the sheer beauty of her language. She is Arundhati Roy.

Here are a few paragraphs from “Come September“, a piece Roy wrote in 2002, reflecting on American aspirations to Empire. (Apologies for the unavoidably political slant to this, but perhaps we can agree to ignore that for now, so we don’t miss my point!)

Recently, those who have criticized the actions of the U.S. government (myself included) have been called “anti-American.” Anti-Americanism is in the process of being consecrated into an ideology.

The term “anti-American” is usually used by the American establishment to discredit and, not falsely – but shall we say inaccurately – define its critics. Once someone is branded anti-American, the chances are that he or she will be judged before they are heard, and the argument will be lost in the welter of bruised national pride.

But what does the term “anti-American” mean? Does it mean you are anti-jazz? Or that you’re opposed to freedom of speech? That you don’t delight in Toni Morrison or John Updike? That you have a quarrel with giant sequoias? Does it mean that you don’t admire the hundreds of thousands of American citizens who marched against nuclear weapons, or the thousands of war resisters who forced their government to withdraw from Vietnam? Does it mean that you hate all Americans?

This sly conflation of America’s culture, music, literature, the breathtaking physical beauty of the land, the ordinary pleasures of ordinary people with criticism of the U.S. government’s foreign policy (about which, thanks to America’s “free press”, sadly most Americans know very little) is a deliberate and extremely effective strategy. It’s like a retreating army taking cover in a heavily populated city, hoping that the prospect of hitting civilian targets will deter enemy fire.

But there are many Americans who would be mortified to be associated with their government’s policies. The most scholarly, scathing, incisive, hilarious critiques of the hypocrisy and the contradictions in U.S. government policy come from American citizens. When the rest of the world wants to know what the U.S. government is up to, we turn to Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Howard Zinn, Ed Herman, Amy Goodman, Michael Albert, Chalmers Johnson, William Blum and Anthony Amove to tell us what’s really going on.

[Applause]

Similarly, in India, not hundreds, but millions of us would be ashamed and offended if we were in any way implicated with the present Indian government’s fascist policies which, apart from the perpetration of State terrorism in the valley of Kashmir (in the name of fighting terrorism), have also turned a blind eye to the recent state-supervised progrom against Muslims in Gujarat. It would be absurd to think that those who criticize the Indian government are “anti-Indian” – although the government itself never hesitates to take that line. It is dangerous to cede to the Indian government or the American government or anyone for that matter, the right to define what “India” or “America” are or ought to be.

To call someone “anti-American”, indeed to be anti-American, (or for that matter, anti-Indian or anti-Timbuktuan) is not just racist, it’s a failure of the imagination. An inability to see the world in terms other than those the establishment has set out for you. If you’re not a Bushie you’re a Taliban. If you don’t love us, you hate us. If you’re not Good, you’re Evil. If you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists.

If your politics are mortally offended by Roy you may not be able to cope with reading her essay in full, or (as I would suggest for full impact) watching her read the essay as a speech. If you can handle it, however, I invite you to take the 45 minutes or so to watch her. She uses beautiful writing as a weapon of mass destruction and it’s a delight to watch!

Whether or not you “get off” on Roy, how about trying to get a letter published in your local paper? (And when you do, come back here and let us know!) Go on… it’s addictive 🙂

arundhati roy, good writing, communication, expression, writing, blogging, blog, alister cameron, blog writing, writing skills, george orwell

8 Comments

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  1. Posted 10 years, 8 months ago // Permalink

    This was a fabulous post – erudite sententious pithy ach, darn, I can’t think of any shorter, more concise words. I just enjoyed it immensely.

    That’s not to say I wasn’t intimidated by it – and I won’t be taking you up on the writing challenge – but it is Grade-A food for thought when it comes to raising the bar in your blog-writing skills. And I do appreciate that.

    Your quote was a beaut, and I am going to try and find the time to listen to the essay. And those Orwell points are always welcome.

    Thanks for this.

  2. Posted 10 years, 8 months ago // Permalink

    As a guy who makes a living from writing, I say – “That was a great post.”

  3. Posted 10 years, 8 months ago // Permalink

    Orwell’s Politics and the English Language always gets lots of attention but his Why I Write is also worth a read. FYI: both are from 1946.

  4. Posted 10 years, 8 months ago // Permalink

    As a former newspaper editor and publicity expert, here’s an inside tip about the two kinds of letters to the editor that editors love to print:

    –Letters that comment on an article printed in that newspaper or magazine, even if the letter is critical. An editor’s worst nightmare is that no one is reading the publication. That’s why they love to print letters that comment favorably or unfavorably about something they published recently. This includes letters that offer another perspective or angle on the article. So if you see an article about one of your competitors, dash off a quick letter to the editor comment on it and mentioning a topic or angle that the article didn’t include.

    –Letters that come down very hard on one side of a controversial topic. The media love controversy.

    Also, be sure you know the maximum length for letters to the editor. Don’t write more than what’s allowed or they will either edit out parts that you think are important, or they’ll just ignore the letter becauase it wouild take them too long to edit it.

  5. Posted 10 years, 8 months ago // Permalink

    I love the idea of a letter to the editor. It’s like a type of opinion advertisement but you’re not charged. I think the radio stations are a great place to vent too…Especially college and local stations where you won’t have to wait to get on the line…

  6. Posted 10 years, 8 months ago // Permalink

    Wow – great tips Joan!

    Alister – quick! Blog about them! 😉

  7. Posted 10 years, 8 months ago // Permalink

    Taking the time to write something that is going to be printed instead of just electronic has a lot of value. There was a study where they looked at the parts of the brain triggered during writing. They found that the parts triggered while using a computer were different than the parts triggered while writing with a pen and paper.

    Spending some time with your notepad can be a good way to avoid writers block because it forces you to think differently.

  8. Posted 10 years, 7 months ago // Permalink

    I share your sentiments regarding Arundhati wholly and completely. I composed a short blog expressing my adoration in Roy at
    http://winstoninwonderland.blogspot.com/2007/04/arundhati-roymy-thoughts.html

11 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Original post: How good a blog writer are you really?? (Here’sa great test.) by at Google Blog Search: juicy free Technorati tag: Juicy free

  2. 6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.I wish I had the time and energy to make my writing (and life in general) into a purple cow … So far, though, I’m just busy breaking Orwell’s rules. HT: Alister Cameron ________________ Technorati tags: Miscellany

  3. and it’s a delight to watch! Whether or not you “get off” on Roy, how about trying to get a letter published in your local paper? (And when you do, come back here and let us know!) Go on… it’s addictive [IMG :)] Comments Bookmark WebProNews: [IMG]

  4. and it’s a delight to watch! Whether or not you “get off” on Roy, how about trying to get a letter published in your local paper? (And when you do, come back here and let us know!) Go on… it’s addictive [IMG )] Comments Bookmark WebProNews: [IMG]

  5. Why Do You Blog?” – what is a meme anyway? Is it really a contraction of Me! Me!? Anyway, go back to 1946 and see what George Orwell would have said…My goodness, it resonates. Alister Cameron’s How Good A Blog Writer Are You? is rather an intimidating read, but a motivating one nonetheless. His highlighting of Arundhati Roy is most welcome. And, in the unlikely event of it doing nothing else for you, it resulted in the link to George Orwell.

  6. the importance of writing well and why good writers are also good readers

  7. as a kind of middle road between uncomplicated stream-of-consciousness, conversational-style writing on the one hand, and the more evolved, colourful and even poetic style of a magazine feature writer, on the other.” Please take the time to read the complete article and visit his site. He is a great guy and has been a real asset to A. and I as we develop our on-line presence. We all enjoy a good story, but a good story that is well written – that is a cake with

  8. the importance of writing well and why good writers are also good readers

  9. […] the intention of posting about it – but never got around to it. Seeing the essay mentioned on both Alister Cameron’s and Guy Kawasaki’s blogs finally spurred me into […]

  10. […] How good a blog writer are you really?? A great little test. (alistercameron.com) […]

  11. […] and even poetic style of a magazine feature writer, on the other.”Please take the time to read the complete article and visit his site. He is a great guy and has been a real asset to A. and I as we develop our […]

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