Tag Archives: writing

i wrote a thing – paragraph, a simple plugin for wordpress

Along with becoming more active on Mastodon,  I’ve been thinking more about concision recently.

One of the big selling points for Mastodon is that the character limit per post is 500 instead of Twitter’s 140.

And I was thinking, “what if there was a way to force you to write better by writing less / more compactly / more concisely?”

So after a couple weeks, I sat down and wrote an incredibly simple WordPress plugin. Introducing Paragraph.

Paragraph removes all formatting of a post or page, effectively turning it into a wall of text.

How does this help you?

If you see your writing as an uninterrupted wall of text – or a “paragraph” – you may notice that what you’re trying to say is getting lost in the noise.

It could also help force you to write more often but shorter each time.

Or maybe you’ll find it completely useless: and that’s OK, too.

plogging?

Wired Magazine recently had an article on the rise of “plogging“.

By their definition, “plogging” is “PLatform blOGGING” – or blogging as part of a network/site/service (DZone, LinkedIn, Medium, Facebook, etc) instead of running your own blog somewhere (WordPress.com, Blogger, self-hosted WordPress, etc).

This seems to be a modern representation of what newspapers, magazines, etc used to be (and still are, to some extent) – a place where you can find your favorite authors all in one place.

There certainly are benefits to this model – but there is also a loss of a sense of personal connection in such a model. As I wrote before, the facebookification of society has some pros and cons. One of those cons is that companies increasingly (and now, apparently, writers) are branding on the platform/network instead of via their own site and service.

The instant network aspect of “plogging” has appeal – otherwise why would Sett exist? Or Stumbleupon? Or any of myriad other networking sites and services.

Heck, remember back in the Good Ole Days when you had link sharing and webrings?

This also plays into the walled garden effect that AOL had 20 years ago: as I wrote yesterday, Facebook is merely the new AOL. Writing in an established (or establishing) network makes a great deal of sense – an “instant” audience, the “rising tide” effect, etc.

But it also means you are bound, for better or worse, to the rules and regulations, guidelines and gaffes of the site/service you decide to write on and with. Community building is hard. Administering built communities is hard. And it doesn’t get any easier by deciding to go all-in with a “platform”. (It may not be any harder, either – but it’s not quantitatively eased by any stretch.)

Forum tools have been around since the dawn of time. And every one has had its rules. From the Areopagus to Stack Overflow, synagogues to the Supreme Court, every community has its rules. Rules which you may either choose to abide by, petition to change, or ignore (to your “detriment”, at least in the context of continuing to participate in said community).

I guess it’s like they say, “what’s new is old again”.

first experiment follow-up

I’ve been attempting a “reactive”/”consumptive” reading experiment recently.

The first book I tried it on was the Henry Petroski’s horrid To Engineer is Human (my review). That turned into a failure as I couldn’t stomach his writing, and so “reacting” to it was going to pretty much be an exercise in futility.

So I’ve ditched that book – maybe someone else will not find it so poor a read.

Many of the books I read (and review) I get from my local library. All of which, therefore, are poor candidates for consumptive reading in the sense Ryan Holiday used the term in his blog post.

But as I dove through his writing a bit more, I saw his mention of a “commonplace book“.

“A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.”

Specifically, he was taught how to do one by Robert Greene (author of Mastery, The 48 Laws of Power, etc), and he cites various individuals in history who have maintained them. It’s also something that Roald Dahl mentioned obliquely in his book The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More (one of my favorites by him (PDF)) in “Lucky Break” – namely, that he always keeps something on which to write nearby (a notebook, a scrap of envelope – even the dust on his car bumper) so that whenever an idea strikes him, he can jot it down in case it was good enough to actually write about:

“Sometimes, these little scribbles will stay unused in the notebook for five or even ten years. But the promising ones are always used in the end. And if they show nothing else, they do, I think, demonstrate from what slender threads a children’s book or short story must ultimately be woven. The story builds and expands while you are writing it.”

This got me to thinking about how I might integrate the idea myself – though, of course, in a slightly different way. And that’s where I am progressing to now: instead of “consuming” all the books I read, ones I find interesting I’m taking notes on in a composition book (specifically a quad-ruled one, as those are my favorite). I’ve found so far it’s helped form better reviews. It’s also not the only place I’ll keep those notes – many will end up on this blog. Others will end up on Twitter. Others maybe in email signatures, or Facebook posts, or wherever.

In our amazingly digitized world, writing by hand seems, well, old-fashioned and trite. Or hipster-ish and cool. (Depends on who sees you doing it, I think.) Sometimes I’ve already found my notes being done electronically – via SMS to myself, or draft blog posts, or just a quick Notes session on my laptop.

Anyways, where I’m going with all this is instead of always being a mere passive consumer of writing, I’m trying to be a bit more “thoughtful” about it 🙂

reading experiment

In follow-up to a recent blog post shared to me by my friend Steven, thinking about my aunt’s old practices, and comments from my wife and another friend, I’m engaging in a “consumptive”/”reactive” reading experiment wherein I am going to do something I haven’t done in a non-workbook book since my time at HVCC – I’m going to try writing in a book.

Two, actually. One is To Engineer Is Human (by Henry Petroski; my review). The second is Knowing God by JI Packer.

Wish me luck. I’ll report back when I’ve completed at least one of the books in the experiment.

“Books are made to be broken–literally or figuratively. I recently bought a 80+ year old book for $76 (a rare book called If It Had Happened Otherwise). I took special pleasure folding the pages and writing on them. It’s mine, why treat it like a delicate flower?” –Ryan Holiday

the art of the essay

Paul Graham is one of my favorite essayists. The following are some excerpts from his excellent 2004 essay, “The Age of the Essay“.

The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens.

With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Who cares about symbolism in Dickens? Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball.

in the late 19th century the teaching of writing was inherited by English professors. This had two drawbacks: (a) an expert on literature need not himself be a good writer, any more than an art historian has to be a good painter, and (b) the subject of writing now tends to be literature, since that’s what the professor is interested in.

The other big difference between a real essay and the things they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn’t take a position and then defend it.

Defending a position may be a necessary evil in a legal dispute, but it’s not the best way to get at the truth, as I think lawyers would be the first to admit. It’s not just that you miss subtleties this way. The real problem is that you can’t change the question.

And yet this principle is built into the very structure of the things they teach you to write in high school. The topic sentence is your thesis, chosen in advance, the supporting paragraphs the blows you strike in the conflict, and the conclusion– uh, what is the conclusion? I was never sure about that in high school. It seemed as if we were just supposed to restate what we said in the first paragraph, but in different enough words that no one could tell.

To understand what a real essay is, we have to reach back into history again, though this time not so far. To Michel de Montaigne, who in 1580 published a book of what he called “essais.” He was doing something quite different from what lawyers do, and the difference is embodied in the name. Essayer is the French verb meaning “to try” and an essai is an attempt. An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.

Figure out what? You don’t know yet.

If all you want to do is figure things out, why do you need to write anything, though? Why not just sit and think? Well, there precisely is Montaigne’s great discovery. Expressing ideas helps to form them.

Questions aren’t enough. An essay has to come up with answers. They don’t always, of course. Sometimes you start with a promising question and get nowhere…An essay you publish ought to tell the reader something he didn’t already know.

An essay is supposed to be a search for truth. It would be suspicious if it didn’t meander.

The Meander (aka Menderes) is a river in Turkey. As you might expect, it winds all over the place. But it doesn’t do this out of frivolity. The path it has discovered is the most economical route to the sea.

The river’s algorithm is simple. At each step, flow down. For the essayist this translates to: flow interesting. Of all the places to go next, choose the most interesting.

So what’s interesting? For me, interesting means surprise. Interfaces, as Geoffrey James has said, should follow the principle of least astonishment. A button that looks like it will make a machine stop should make it stop, not speed up. Essays should do the opposite. Essays should aim for maximum surprise.

I found the best way to get information … was to ask what surprised them. How was the place different from what they expected? This is an extremely useful question. You can ask it of the most unobservant people, and it will extract information they didn’t even know they were recording.

[T]he ability to ferret out the unexpected must not merely be an inborn one. It must be something you can learn. How do you learn it?

To some extent it’s like learning history. When you first read history, it’s just a whirl of names and dates. Nothing seems to stick. But the more you learn, the more hooks you have for new facts to stick onto– which means you accumulate knowledge at what’s colloquially called an exponential rate. Once you remember that Normans conquered England in 1066, it will catch your attention when you hear that other Normans conquered southern Italy at about the same time. Which will make you wonder about Normandy, and take note when a third book mentions that Normans were not, like most of what is now called France, tribes that flowed in as the Roman empire collapsed, but Vikings (norman = north man) who arrived four centuries later in 911. Which makes it easier to remember that Dublin was also established by Vikings in the 840s. Etc, etc squared.

There are an infinite number of questions. How do you find the fruitful ones?

I write down things that surprise me in notebooks. I never actually get around to reading them and using what I’ve written, but I do tend to reproduce the same thoughts later. So the main value of notebooks may be what writing things down leaves in your head.

Whatever you study, include history– but social and economic history, not political history. History seems to me so important that it’s misleading to treat it as a mere field of study. Another way to describe it is all the data we have so far.

Gradualness is very powerful. And that power can be used for constructive purposes too: just as you can trick yourself into looking like a freak, you can trick yourself into creating something so grand that you would never have dared to plan such a thing. Indeed, this is just how most good software gets created.

If there’s one piece of advice I would give about writing essays, it would be: don’t do as you’re told. Don’t believe what you’re supposed to. Don’t write the essay readers expect; one learns nothing from what one expects. And don’t write the way they taught you to in school.

Popular magazines made the period between the spread of literacy and the arrival of TV the golden age of the short story. The Web may well make this the golden age of the essay. And that’s certainly not something I realized when I started writing this.