In his early collection of miscellaneous writing Paperweight, Stephen Fry includes a column from The Listener called Absolutely Nothing At All, about… writing a column. He prefaces it in the book with the excuse, “Journalist friends tell me that columnists are allowed to write one column of this nature once in their lives.” On the assumption that bloggers get the same allowance, here we go…
I’ve had this post largely worked out in my head for several weeks. It’s been sitting there with half a dozen others, gestating, waiting for me to have the time to sit down and type it out. But if you’ve been monitoring activity on this site over the last few months, you will have surmised that such moments, those quiet half hours to polish off something as relatively trivial as a blog post, are getting harder and harder to find. Only this morning I had to batten down the hatches against the brewing panic of several looming deadlines at work; whilst kids and garden, the occasional foray into the world of leisure activities, and obtaining sufficient sleep all take precedence at home. Of course, I’m not alone in feeling these external pressures, and yet other academics manage to blog with alarming frequency. Which has got me thinking a bit about the why of my blogging, but even more so about the how, and I thought I’d share some conclusions.
Even four years and more into this blogging experiment, ideas are not (yet) the limiting factor I thought they would inevitably become. Certainly I have enough to maintain a much more respectable posting frequency. They hit me from all sides - from reading or conducting new research (perhaps less often than I initially assumed); more often the process of being a working scientist, a person, and a dad. A while back I published a 'placeholder' post (so perhaps I’ve already used up my allowance? Come to think of it, I’m sure I’ve written about blogging before too… Oh well.) with a list of things I planned to write about. Several of those are still to be finished, and many others have formed since.
So ideas come, and fortunately, because the net of my memory has always been pretty fine-meshed, they tend to remain in its cod-end and are usually still there when I finally get around to hauling them on deck for closer examination. As the net ages, though, holes are more frequent, and I decided I need to back up to external memory. For tiddlers, little scraps of ideas, I set up a ‘blog ideas’ project in Things, a task management app from Cultured Code that I use for my general to-dos. Things syncs nicely between devices: I stick a one line memo into my ‘blog ideas’ project on my phone, and there it is on my desktop when I eventually sit down to write.
Then we come to writing itself, and the search for a nice word processing package, the modern version of the search for the perfect stationary, or the perfect desk position, in the writer’s list of procrastination activities. I have settled, for the blog anyway, on Scrivener from Literature & Latte. Scrivener is actually designed for writing big and complex projects, and lends itself very well to scientific papers (allowing nice split views of notes, manuscript sections, figures and analyses). But I’ve used it much less for that than I thought I would. Instead, just as in Things I have a ‘blog ideas’ project with a load of component documents filed under ‘ideas’ (where this is now), which Scrivener lets me view in various ways - I particularly like the corkboard. Then there’s a second set of documents under ‘final versions’ (to where this will move in due course). It works nicely for me, and is a logical way to transfer my ideas from Things to somewhere I can write them up.
Ah, writing them up. That’s where the process slows right down. The trivial explanation for that is I’m busy, and blogging is low priority - it’s important to me, but not as important as other facets of my life and career, and it seldom reaches the levels of urgency that demand immediate action. But, as mentioned above, plenty of academic bloggers, all of them as busy as me, manage to find that hour or two a week to sustain their output. So, whilst busy-ness and other priorities are important, for the main cause of slow output we have to confront the ‘why’ of my blog.
When I started to blog, it was an outlet for the frustrated writer in me; frustrated by having to conform to the norms of formal scientific discourse in most of my writing. I wanted to write differently, and I wanted to write well. Moreover, I wanted to use the blog to experiment, to learn to write better. I still try to keep to these original objectives. I want to write with precision: to use the correct word if I can (something that used to come more easily; now I find myself frequently fishing around at the bottom of that net, feeling the perfect term slip through my fingers…). I want to match tenses and styles, to write with clarity, to eliminate errors; in short, to avoid cliche. And just to throw this in, so it may haunt you too - Martin Amis wrote somewhere that you should never begin two consecutive paragraphs with the same word (three in a row is acceptable, if intentional). I cannot not notice that now, in my own writing and that of others.
Writing, then, is something I take reasonably seriously, something I work at. After writing a post, I put on my editor’s hat, and edit. I try to cut the fluff - ironically this post looks like ending up longer than the 800 or so words I usually aim for. I proof read and try to spot errors and imprecisions (doubtless some will remain in this piece; they always do…) One of the most used apps on my phone is a dictionary - I use a cheap one, Advanced English Dictionary from jDictionary, which has its quirks but is pretty comprehensive. I look up every word whose definition I doubt - and sometimes those I’m sure of, just in case.
I try, then, to publish reasonably polished posts. I’m much less interested in churning out ideas as soon as they occur to me - I use Twitter for that. (Though I do the proofing and dictionary thing there too. Yes, I know…) - although I often read posts of that nature, and find them interesting and useful. And don’t get me wrong, many academic bloggers seem able to write high quality posts with a frequency that I find humbling. I can only suppose they need rather less sleep than I do.
Well, that’s me. As I said at the outset, the ideas keep coming, and every so often one will get processed. In the meantime, thank you for your patience.