Lessons from Blogging

Exercise for my flabby memory is the top reason why I put so much time writing on these blogs.  If I go too long without writing, I’ll notice that I’m forgetting more words in day to day conversations – I have to keep writing to fight the decline of my mind.  But am I writing anything worthy of reading?  I have no trouble thinking up zillions of things to write about, but are my random inspirations really interesting to anyone but me?

I wished I had the discipline to knock out one 1,000 word essay each night, and only in an hour.  What a fantastic workout in my word gym!  I’m lucky to finish two essays a week, each taking 4-8 hours.  And that doesn’t count the two to three abortive pieces each week I don’t finish.

Every evening when I sit down to write, I hope to have an idea that I’ve been contemplating all the day to polish.  It helps if I’m thinking clearly and not tired, which means I need to keep my body in shape.  Sometimes when I’m tired, focusing on an idea will generate energy, so it helps to try to write.  I wish I could say that I’m always inspired by my topic, and it allows me to chisel out one clear expression of a carefully considered thought. 

What really happens is I start with one vague concept that causes me to vomit out a torrent of words as fast as I can, which I shape by rewriting several drafts.  As I write, I research with Google, hoping to find concrete pieces of information to support my ideas.  Between struggling to retrieve lost words, phrases and memories out of my own noggin, I trawl the net looking for new words and verifications of poorly remembered details.  Often I use Google to find the words I can’t recall by searching on related ideas.

I’m sure if I didn’t write these essays, my mind would turn to mush.  Rereading my essays I realize I have a long ways to go towards developing coherent structured writing.  So a new theory has occurred to me about blogging.  What if writing is more beneficial than just strengthening my ability to recall words.  What other lessons am I learning from my WordPress exercising?

It’s quite easy to blather away about anything, but that’s not good neural exercise.  And, quite often I might mention, I’ll tackle a subject that’s either too big for a blog post, or beyond my ability to define clearly, and I’ll have to abandon the project.  Finishing a piece is part of the healthy process, and giving up on an idea leaves me feeling the same way as when I’m having a conversation and I can’t find that damn word I want. 

Up to now, I’ve mostly been working to express an idea that quickly flashed by in my brain.  Sometimes, if I write about a specific topic I’ll do a lot of research to gather facts, like when I write about subscription music services.  This gives me a taste for journalism.  Just a small taste, but enough to realize the work required to write non-fiction.  Opinion essays can be as creative as writing fiction, but both are way to easy to do badly.

The next question is:  Do I write anything useful for other people to read?  If all I’m doing is exercising my wimpy brain, why would a reader care?  My life is no more interesting than anyone else’s, so why would anyone want to read my thoughts?  I think the next stage in the evolution of my writing, I should think about each essay as a product that is useful in some way.  Since my product is free, I don’t actually have to worry about it’s monetary cost to readers, but I personally consider time, extremely valuable, so I don’t want to waste your time.

That means the next challenge I work on learning from blogging is to write 5-10 minute essays that are well worth their cost in time.  That’s quite a challenge, one I’m not sure I can achieve.

Looking at my statistics tell me which essays have been more successful than others.  I know from the WordPress stats that I have around 20-25 people subscribing to my blog as a RSS feed, and 200-300 people finding their way to my pages accidently, through Google and other search engines, or by links put up on various blogs that are kind enough to list Auxiliary Memory.  It is flattering that people actually read my blog at all, so I feel a responsibility to write something time-worthy.

When I think of all the great books and magazine articles I read, I can’t believe people would waste their time on any blog, much less mine.  And there are thousands of blogs better than mine.  I have to assume that there is a quality to blogs that people like that they don’t find in regular magazines.  Or I have to wonder if people only read blogs because they are like kudzu growing over the net, choking up search engine returns, just too visible to ignore.

Learning about what people want to read will be my second lesson from blogging.  My most popular essay is, “The Greatest Science Fiction Novels of the 20th Century,” with over 10,000 hits total, and getting 30-60 more each day.  In other words, I’ve accidently picked a topic that a small number of people want to know about daily.  If you search on that title in Google, I’m 3rd in the returns at the moment, after two links to books at Amazon.com.

This doesn’t say anything about the quality of my essay.  I’ve just hit the right combination of words and ideas to be rated high with Google, and the topic has a steady interest.  I call that “topic background radiation.”  Occasionally I’ll write about something that people have a time related interested in, like the Toshiba NB205 netbook, which just came out and I immediately reviewed.  I’ve gotten 74 hits on that one so far today.  When the Toshiba NB205 gets outdated, those numbers will drop off.  But until then, was my review useful?  I know I solved one lady’s problem, with her new netbook.

Generally, I talk about my reading.  For instance, I wrote a weird take on “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury.  I’ve gotten almost a 1,000 hits on that one, trickling in at 3-4 a day, which is a revealing topic background radiation.  I’m guessing it is a story used in schools for discussion, because I’ve written on far more famous SF novels, and their topic background radiation is very low, like 1-2 a week. 

Of course, this all depends on how Google ranks my page.  For some reason, I’m in the first page of returns for “The Veldt,” but on the second page for Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein and Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, two books I think are very worthy of reading but seldom get hits at all.  Or is that because people seldom go past the first page of Google returns when searching for a review?  And if someone is thinking about reading one of those books, did I say anything to help them make their decision?

Once in a blue moon I’ll accidentally mention something that’s in the news, like the Kindle Reader for the iPhone.  That post got scads of hits for a day or two, and hardly ever got called into reading action since.

If I wanted to just get hits, I would go to Google Zeitgeist everyday and pick a topic.  Why are “basking sharks” and “raging elephants” so interesting on July 14th, 2009?  And who the hell are Shane Carwin and Lisa Loring?  Shows my lack of pop culture knowledge.  It is quite doubtful that Google will rank my page within its first 100 returned just because I mention those hot search names and phrases.  It’s not that easy to get noticed.  And God knows, many people try.  For what value are hits, really?  There’s no guarantee that people read what they hit on.

Take this essay, for example.  What value is it?  Because I’m not reviewing a book, movie or computer product, I’m pretty sure it won’t get many hits at all.  Hopefully, I haven’t bored my handful of regular readers, but have I given them anything worth their time?  If anything, I’ve taught them not to read blogs but write them, it’s good memory exercise.  If I had some quantitative way of proving writing blogs helps with memory, I might have a good article.  Readers love self-help topics.

Here’s something to consider that might be worth your minutes spent here reading.  If everyone read a little each evening, but only read the absolute best essays and articles, the English speaking world would only need ten monthly magazines, but let’s stretch that to one hundred for reading variety and the coverage of the diversity of sub-cultures.  All writers would compete to write the very best essays and articles each month to sell to those one hundred editors.  Everything else could be considered crap and thus time unworthy.

So why read off the web?  Because it allows you to read exactly what you want to read, at the moment you choose.  It’s pitiful to think that any of my essays come up on the first page of Google returns.  If you search on the phrase “The Time Machine by H. G. Wells” my essay comes up 5th.  It really shouldn’t.  The real lesson from tonight, is why the very best essays ever written on any topic, aren’t the ones that Google links to in your search.

JWH – 7/14/9

2 Responses

  1. I can only speak for myself…I guess I could speak for others but they probably wouldn’t appreciate it…

    I really enjoy your essays. More often than not you are writing about things that admittedly are not in my top areas of interest. Its been many years since I’ve had the financial means to be able to keep up with the latest technology. I used to build my own computers, and ones for friends, and now I don’t even having a working desktop to play my games on. I am reduced to schlepping my work laptop back and forth from work to home so that I can be online in the evenings and on weekends. Many of your essays are about these technical things, or the products built around them, and I still find them very interesting.

    You often make me think about things I would not have been contemplating and certainly your writing has helped me be more aware of how I write.

    I do think you are dead on with your thoughts on the need to exercise the mind so that it doesn’t turn to mush. I’ve been missing the creative exercise of blogging over the past several months as life and responsibilities have kept me from spending much time with it. It is important to get outside of the day to day conversations and places ones mind is forced to wander to by inane television and news that often isn’t worth listening to. Writing is a great way to do that.

    Like you, I enjoy the process most when an idea has been in my head all day and I’ve been rolling it around during the day, examining all sides and imagining exactly how I want to phrase it, what images I might want to include, etc. I miss that being such a focus in my life while at the same time I am very happy with the things I have been doing lately: getting my finances in order, caring for my wife as she recovers, diving in to big projects at work, exercising and going to bed early to improve my own physical health. Now I just need to find a way to work this regular blogging thing back into my existence.

    Keep at it Jim, your posts are never dull!

  2. I agree. Furthermore, to hell what other people want!! This is your blog and you should use it in a way that suits you best. If you happen to post stuff that people enjoy, or find useful, then great. If not, so what?? This, as you point out, is (or has been so far) primarily an exercise to help your own mental health/writing ability/memory/whatever.

    If you start to consider trying to write what you think others would appreciate, then you risk taking the focus off those things that are important to you, and that are the reasons you (I assume) started this endeavor.

    If you can do both things in parallel, or reach a happy medium of some kind, all well and good. But my opinion is that if you (or me, or anyone) starts to cater more to the needs of others in terms of content then you risk losing what makes all this important and special to YOU.

    Have a better one…
    Aaron

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