how_to_write   13

How to Blog: My Rules
I hear from a lot of you that what you like the most about our site is that you never know what you’re going to find from one post to the next. I love getting this note — because it confirms that a) you guys are paying attention, and b) because it allows me to write inside-baseball posts like this one and know that you will still come back tomorrow in search of the perfect tandoori burger. Correct?

Today I want to answer a question I’ve been asked a lot: How do you write this blog?  Which I’m also going to interpret as How do you write and How did you start? It’s an involved question, one I’m not sure I’m entirely qualified to answer yet, and one that, you’ll see, sends me in several different directions below. (To give you an idea, the working title of this post for the past few months had been “Everything I Learned About Blogging I Learned in Magazines” before I realized I had so much more to say.) The truth is, I had no idea what I was doing when, three years ago, GoDaddy told me that Yes! The URL is available! But I’ve figured a few things out along the way and thought it might help those of you thinking of starting your own blog. (As for starting a career in food writing, you cannot get any better than this post by Amanda Hesser.) What I wrote below should not be mistaken for The Definitive Rules of Blogging 101. There are about eight million people out there generating eight million hits a day and maybe even making money from it — and if that’s what you are after, you should skip this post and seek their advice. I’ve accepted now that this site will most likely never be the source of a down payment on that house in Block Island overlooking Mohegan Bluffs. (Why God, Why?) But for a satisfying job that has led to unexpected places, these are the rules I’ve lived by.

Lesson 1: Shorter Isn’t Necessarily Better. Better is Better

My crash-course in blogging lasted about two weeks. I had just lost my job at Cookie, the parenting magazine where I was editing features, and a website called to see if I could help out launching a few blogs on their lifestyle vertical. I was feeling a little lost — not to mention there was not one more corner of the house to organize, which seemed to be my way of dealing with my sudden daily aimlessness — so I said yes and pretty soon was on the 8:43 commuter train again, headed to a downtown office where the staffers seemed to check every box for website start-up. (Skull caps: Check; Bright Eyes station playing on Pandora: Check; Enrollment in artisanal, fetish-y food project: Check.) Everything happens faster online (first lesson) so my supervisor did not waste anytime laying down a few crucial rules about blogging to his seemingly prehistoric new freelancer. Don’t write in long paragraphs. Don’t write long at all. Online readers like quick hits. They like lists and bullet points whenever possible! Say things that will start a conversation in the comment field. (Or better yet, incite a riot in the comment field!) Tweet everything! Post everything on facebook! And my favorite, which I think about every single day: Remember: Producing content is 10% of the job; Promoting it is 90%. Ay yi yi.

For week one I just followed orders and repeated to myself “Don’t be old.” But by week two, I was done. Here’s the thing. My supervisor was right about every single thing above. If you want more visitors  (and any blogger who tells you he or she doesn’t is lying) you can get there more readily by following all of his rules. But you could also assume a certain amount of intelligence from your reader and write the way you want to write, the way most readers want you to write, that is, honestly. The masses might not come right away, but if you take time to write something that is pure and resonant and comes with no behind-the-scenes agenda, people will respond. And you will respond to their response. I remember early on in my DALS life when my ambitions were a little grander, I called my VC friend Roger in Palo Alto for a counseling session on building the “business.” He gave me the best piece of advice — or at least the best piece of advice that I felt most comfortable with. Don’t think about anything but the content for the first year. You need to earn the trust of readers and you need to distinguish yourself. The only way to do that is by paying close attention to what you are producing every day. Roger flip-flopped the formula for me and set me back on the path I knew so well from magazines, and that had never really led me wrong before: 90% of your time should be spent thinking about content, fresh new ideas, and presenting those ideas from a fresh perspective. Your perspective. Everything else? 10%.

Lesson 2: Define Your Mission

One of my earliest magazine jobs was at a major women’s lifestyle title. The editor at the time was a veteran magazine editor named Carrie — she had been in the industry for 25 years, wore all black along with trademark black-framed editor glasses. I didn’t know a whole lot, but I knew enough to know that I should write down every single thing she said and commit it to memory. At our Tuesday line-up meetings, she’d hold up some new book that we should be paying attention to (I one-clicked Botany of Desire as soon as she held it up saying less as a suggestion than an absolute command, “Pay attention to this guy. His name is Michael Pollan”); or of a magazine that was doing something new and exciting visually (Everyday Food! RIP! ); or simply what her latest fashion philosophy was. (“Gap Clothes, Prada Accessories!“) On the Tuesday meeting after September 11th, she told us that she had thought long and hard about our magazine and its place in the new world and decided there was going to be a revamped mission. “We are not a magazine people come to for the news” she told us. “We are a magazine that tells people how to handle the news.”  She went on to say that from that point forward the mission of the magazine could be pared down to three simple words: Comfort, Community, and Control. They became known as the three C’s, and if we had an idea we wanted to assign for the magazine, it had better fit into that description. Boy did we roll our eyes at the Three C’s! But boy did they ever work. Having a mission sharpened our focus. It helped us define who we were and why people came to us. When I moved on to my next job and oversaw a large section of the magazine, the first thing I tortured my team with was defining its mission. I also spent about six months writing the mission for this blog. I knew it would be as important for me to lay a blueprint as it would be for anyone who happened to drop by to see what the heck I was up to. This page is one of the most visited of the site. Which is another way of saying This is where I reel them in.

Lesson 3: No Harm in Making Things Pretty
If you spend a little money on a good designer, you will be ahead of 99% of the websites out there. It can take a lifetime to articulate to a designer the look you are after (I was lucky to earn my Masters in this at Conde Nast) but it helps to “pull scrap” as Carrie used to say. Bookmark anything online that you respond to — not just blogs, but websites, textures, colors. Create an inspiration board on Pinterest to stay organized. Or do it the old fashioned way, cut layouts out of magazines and pin it on an actual physical bulletin board. Fonts are incredibly important. Colors are incredibly important. I knew I didn’t have have a lot of time with online readers so I knew the visual first impression would be crucial. When I was working with my very gifted designer, Ava, I sent her photos of baby birds with their mouths wide open. (Because my dad used to say that his three kids asking to be fed and clothed and, you know, parented, conjured up this image.) After a few back-and-forths she landed on the masthead you see at the top of this blog. I love those birds and feel they are a crucial part of my identity. She also must’ve gone through 25 different logos before creating the chalkboardy font. I think because Dinner: A Love Story fell under the “mommy blog” umbrella, her first instinct — like a lot of people — was to go precious and cutesy and retro. So for a while there, every time she sent me something to review, I kept returning it to her with the same instruction: “No! More f–ked up!” The creative director at Cookie (who is now at Bon Appetit) taught me that one. Thanks Al!

Lesson 4: Ask Yourself: What’s the Hed & Dek?

This might sound a little crazy, but it took me a little while to learn that anything worth reading, for the most part, has a central idea behind it. It doesn’t have to be a big central idea, but it has to have an idea. You need to ask yourself, what is the point of writing this. Blogging is a dangerous medium for the same reason that it is a marvelous one: because you can do whatever you want whenever you want to and however you want to. I don’t think there’s a single person out there who hasn’t read a post by someone and wondered Who cares? Why is this person spending so much time on this? In magazines, there was a little exercise we’d do beforehand to make sure this never happened. We’d do a little something called an OUTLINE. It didn’t really matter what the outline looked like, what was important was the Title and the Subtitle. (Or, in magazine parlance: “the hed and the dek.”) What is the hed and the dek? Before I write anything — whether it was a chapter in my book, a post, a magazine story — I try to ask myself this. If I can’t explain it in a title and a subtitle, I’m in trouble. If I can, there’s my idea. It’s really nothing more than the topic sentence we learn about in third grade writing. Once I know what I want to say, I spend the rest of the piece saying it.

Lesson 5: Seek Out an Editor (Preferably an Editor Who Knows What He or She is Doing)

You need someone circling your copy … [more]
Uncategorized  how_to_blog  how_to_start_a_blog  how_to_write  jenny_rosenstrach  GR-starred  from google
january 2013 by lacurieuse
In Defence Of Obscure Words | Will Self | BBC | 20 April 2012

Learning requires effort. And that is how it should be. So it's dismal to see "the traditional set texts chopped up into boneless nuggets of McKnowledge, and students encouraged to do their research – such as it is – on the web"

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education  how_to_write  language  literature  Society  from google
april 2012 by ammonite2
All They That Labored | Jennifer Howard | Chronicle Review | 31 December 2011

Intriguing look at history, legacy of King James Bible. Created by a team of 50, it was one of the most remarkable collaborative projects undertaken. "The diction is very simple, almost homespun, and yet it has a terrific dignity"

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Arts_&_Entertainment  christianity  how_to_write  literature  Philosophy_&_Religion  religion  from google
january 2012 by ammonite2
The King Of Human Error | Michael Lewis | Vanity Fair | 08 November 2011

"When I first met Kahneman he was making himself more miserable about his unfinished book than any writer I’d seen. It turned out to be just a warm-up for the misery to come, the start of an extraordinary act of literary masochism"

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how_to_write  literature  People  popular_science  Science_&_Technology  scientists  the_mind  from google
november 2011 by mshum
How I Automated My Writing Career | Robbie Allen | O'Reilly Radar | 03 November 2011

"Creating software that can write long-form narratives is very difficult, full of interesting artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language problems. But with the right mix of talent we've been able to do it"

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how_to_write  literature  software  technology  from google
november 2011 by fakelvis
Situation v. Plot
I am thinking about doing NaNoWriMo this year, joining with thousands of others in trying to write 50,000 words–a novel–during the month of November.

You can’t count any words written before November 1, but I know I can’t do this if I don’t work on a plot before the mad rush officially begins. So far, I only have a situation.

What’s the difference in a plot and a situation?
A situation is a single event, a strange combination of story elements. For example, there’s an annual contest called Stuck on a Truck. The idea is for selected people to put their hands on a truck and keep them there. The last one standing–and still stuck on that truck–will win the truck. It usually takes 100 hours for the last ones to drop out. That’s 4-5 days with no sleep.

It’s an interesting situation and one that I’d like to write about. But it’s not a plot.

Transform a Situation into a Plot
For the situation to become a plot, I need to add characters with real problems they must overcome. I am sifting through the ideas for characters, looking for flaws, quirks and a heart for readers to connect with. I also need to add a setting, ground the story in a particular historical period (contemporary, historical, fantasy, etc.), a particular geographical place. And finally, I need to be mean, cruel, despicably unfair to my characters; in other words, I need intense complications that force my characters to make decisions they don’t want to make. Tension on every page.

Fortunately, there are 29 plot templates I can follow when considering options.

Also of interest:

30 Days to Stronger Scenes
30 Days to a Stronger Novel
Villains: A 3-part series
How to Create Whacky, Interesting Character Descriptions that Stick with a Reader
The Mesh of Plot and Subplot
4 Ways to Deal with Narrative Summaries

Need help with something else? Use the Search Box to look for more information. Or ask a question in the comments or send me an email at darcy at darcypattison dot com.

Are you doing the NaNoWriMo? Why is it right for you this year?

Available on

Now an iBook

For more info, see
first_drafts  character  how_to_write  NaNoWriMo  novel  plot  setting  situation  tension  from google
october 2011 by beccabrown
On The Travelogue | Iain Manley | Old World Wanderings | 14 October 2011

On the history and decline of travel writing. "A journey fits neatly into the format of a book: it has the prologue of departure and the epilogue of return, as well as the new beginnings of the next chapter and another place"

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how_to_write  literature  Travel  from google
october 2011 by fakelvis
On The Travelogue | Iain Manley | Old World Wanderings | 14 October 2011

On the history and decline of travel writing. "A journey fits neatly into the format of a book: it has the prologue of departure and the epilogue of return, as well as the new beginnings of the next chapter and another place"

More about this article
Arts_&_Entertainment  how_to_write  literature  Travel  from google
october 2011 by ammonite2
Eric Olsen on How to Write
Image by xlibber on Flickr

From their egos and anxieties to the way they work, writers have more in common than we might think. The journalist and editor takes us inside the writing process and reveals who gives the best advice for aspiring authors

If someone were to read all of these books you’ve chosen, would they come out with a good idea of how to write? How did you select them?


I’ve been going through them the past couple of days, just refreshing my memory, and looking at them all in one big chunk. What a young or beginning writer is going to get out of all of them is how similar all writers are in many regards – when it comes to process, fear, neuroses, and the pleasures that are derived. These are books by well-known writers; they give examples of other well-known writers. They show how writers, at even the highest level, obsess about the same things that the rest of us obsess about.


I was going to ask if they contradict each other. But you’re saying they’re actually surprisingly similar in terms of advice?


When we did the interviews for our book We Wanted to Be Writers, several people talked about the pleasure in losing control as you write. The work begins to write itself. Ralph Keyes, in The Courage to Write, makes note of the fact that writers have huge egos, which is true. But what a lot of the writers that I spoke to said is that they try to reach a state where they’re not an ego any longer, the work takes over and the writing begins to write the writer, rather than the other way around. One of the points of difference that struck me is that in one of these books, The Faith of a Writer, Joyce Carol Oates talks about how the writer has to be in control. But other than that one point, everybody had the same basic things to say about what’s important in writing and what a writer faces on a daily basis. The Courage to Write by Keyes is different from the other four books in that it’s dealing specifically with fears, the others are more “how to” books. But otherwise they all get at the same points.


You’re a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, probably the most prestigious writing programme in the United States. Is writing something you can learn?


Boy, that is the question. On the workshop’s own website, the introductory paragraph says (and I paraphrase) or used to say: “We agree, in part, with the consensus that writing can’t be taught.” In one of the chapters in our book, We Wanted to Be Writers, we begin with that statement and discuss it. More recently, Samantha Chang, the workshop’s director, was interviewed on PBS and the moderator asked her, “Do you think writing can be taught?” Sam’s answer was something like, “Not really. If I just brought chicken soup to class every week the writers would get better.”


This is an ongoing debate, which has been going on since the workshop was first started 75 years ago. Among the people that we interviewed, the consensus was that there are a lot of aspects of writing that certainly can be taught. You can speed up the process of maturation of young writers, by talking about the mistakes you made in your career. As a teacher, you can speed up the process towards getting better. When I was an editor, the consensus was that a good editor could improve a piece by 15%. In the realm of teaching and learning writing, there’s a general consensus – among those who think it can be taught – that you can take a good writer, and make him or her a little better. There are always ways that you can help a writer along. You’re not going to take a mediocre writer and turn him or her into a great writer, and there are also some things that can’t be taught, like the basic desire to be a writer. That seems to be a given. You’re not going to make someone want to be a writer. Sometimes what goes on in a writing workshop is that you convince the writer that he doesn’t want to be a writer. That is a kind of teaching too…

Ron Carlson Writes a Story
By Ron Carlson


Your first book is the Ron Carlson book, Ron Carlson Writes a Story. It’s very practical, isn’t it?


Yes, that’s what I love about it. This whole book is, “Look! Here’s how to be a better writer.” I love how he uses one story, The Governor’s Ball, and his own experience of writing that story, to talk about the process of writing. What I found fascinating too is that he does such a neat job of talking about letting the story write itself. Here’s a guy for whom each sentence that came next was a total surprise. It was an exploration – he was just following the story as it went along. When I’m doing my writing, this is what I long for – those moments when I don’t know what is going to come next, and the story tells me what comes next. I write novels, which I don’t think write themselves quite in the way a really short story, like the one Ron is writing about, might. But I just love his very clear and precise description of the way he puts the story together.


Including even mundane things, like how you name your characters…


Yes, that’s really interesting, as is his emphasis on the importance of detail, and the inventory that he talks about. This is a terrific book for any young writer or even a not-so-young writer. Even if you’ve been writing for years, it’s good to be reminded of these things now and then.


I like Carlson’s take on the rule about writing that we’re all taught in high school, that you should “write what you know”. In the book, he says that whenever he’s asked about this, he replies: “I write from personal experiences, whether I’ve had them or not.” He argues that teachers are trying to prevent students from writing a crazy science fiction story or some cliché they saw on television, but not, in fact, to completely restrict writing to events that have happened to you personally.


Ron talks about three sources of story idea. In describing how he wrote The Governor’s Ball, Ron talks about how he drew on his own experiences, the experience of others, and stuff he just made up. Some of the authors, like Joyce Carol Oates, are, I think, of the school that serious writing is done from your own personal neuroses and experiences and fears and torment. That’s where the serious stuff comes from, or so we’re told by serious, “literary” writers. The guys that write science fiction and mysteries, they just make everything up, and that’s not as important as the other kind of writing. I’m not sure I’d go along with that.


So they disagree with Carlson and say you really do need to stick to your personal experience to write well?


Yes, and when I was at Iowa as a young writer, in the mid-1970s, I didn’t want to write about myself, or my life. I got some crap for that in the workshops, because the real serious stuff was supposed to be people writing about their dysfunctional families. Because when you’re 22 years old and starting to write, what can you write about from personal experience except your own dysfunctional family? I didn’t want to write about my dysfunctional family. I wanted to write science fiction. But you couldn’t submit science fiction at Iowa (except Joe Haldeman, who’d already published). It was forbidden. So I would write other stuff, but it was never about me, or drawn from my own experience.
next →
Arts_&_Entertainment  how_to_write  literature  from google
september 2011 by lindish
Andrew Cowan on Creative Writing
The Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at UEA says that Joseph Conrad got it right when he said that the sitting down is all. Here he chooses five books to help aspiring writers

How would you describe creative writing?


Creative writing is an academic discipline. I draw a distinction between writing, which is what writers do, and creative writing. I think most people in the UK who teach creative writing have come to it via writing – they are bona fide writers who publish poems and novels and play scripts and the like, and they have found some way of supporting that vocation through having a career in academia. So in teaching aspirant writers how to write they are drawing upon their own experience of working in that medium. They are drawing upon their knowledge of what the problems are and how those problems might be tackled. It’s a practice-based form of learning and teaching.


But because it is in academia there is all this paraphernalia that has to go with it. So you get credits for attending classes. You have to do supporting modules; you have to be assessed. If you are doing an undergraduate degree you have to follow a particular curriculum and only about a quarter of that will be creative writing and the rest will be in the canon of English literature. If you are doing a PhD you have to support whatever the creative element is with a critical element. So there are these ways in which academia disciplines writing and I think of that as Creative Writing with a capital C and a capital W. All of us who teach creative writing are doing it, in a sense, to support our writing, but it is also often at the expense of our writing. We give up quite a lot of time and mental energy and also, I think, imaginative and creative energy to teach.


It is hugely rewarding, engaging with the students, but it is hugely frustrating as well, because the larger part of it is engaging with an institution. I’m sure I’m not alone in being very ambivalent about what I do!
Arts_&_Entertainment  how_to_write  literature  from google
march 2011 by lindish
What Makes A Great Speech? | Mary Beard | Guardian | 26 February 2011

Wonderful report on historical approaches to oratory. Demosthenes, possibly greatest speaker of all, advised stammerers to "go down to the seashore, fill your mouth with pebbles, and force your words to overcome the impediment"
how_to_write  literature  from google
february 2011 by fakelvis
I, Reporters | Anonymous | Economist | 16 February 2011

Researchers try to create serious article using team of distributed writers. Headline, summary, charts all handled by separate amateurs. Nobody gets to see each other's work. Will final product match that of a professional reporter?
how_to_write  literature  from google
february 2011 by fakelvis

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