Reflections On Writing Blog: Thoughts, Tips, and Suggestions

Opening Moves

How will you capture the attention of your audience?  The first words that readers see are crucial.  Will those words give a good impression? Will they motivate the reader to read on? Will they motivate the reader to care? Or to think well of your work (and of you)? Here are some suggestions for how to think about your opening words.

These considerations have taken on greater import to me than once.   Once, I would have said that the ideas were all. Was the underlying story a good one? That’s what mattered.  With greater maturity, I recognize that no matter how good the underlying story may be, if it is unheard/unread, it is of little value (setting aside the value that the writer may get from writing).  And to get the attention of readers, the opening moves are crucial.

I’m thinking specifically in terms of my new blog, but everything I write has a beginning. What works in a blog is not the same are what works in other contexts, but the basic consideration is still the same: I want people to read what I write. How can I accomplish that?  As a writer, the words I choose are the only tools I have to get people to read (well, I could include images in my blog posts, but, for better or worse, that’s not the aspect of writing that interests me). In this era of search engines, there’s a double level, in needing to get the search engines to notice and then getting readers to pay attention, but still, words are the tools I’m using.  

Whether you are writing a blog or writing for publication or writing a doctoral dissertation, a good opening helps. If you give your readers something that they want, and something that interests them, then your opening moves are going to help you the rest of the way. A good first impression matters.

Because I’m aiming at an audience of writers, I opened with questions of concern to writers, which I hoped would spark the interest of some to read on.  Different readers, of course, want different things. Your opening moves want to be particularly sensitive to these differences, because it is at the beginning of your relationship with the reader that you most need to draw them in. Once you have succeeded in getting someone interested in your work in a positive way, then you can start to pay more attention to your own interests and to discussing your own interests. 

Once you have captured the attention of your reader, you want to try to anchor it by suggesting that the rest of the work offers some promise that they want fulfilled.  For example, as the last sentence of my opening paragraph, I promise some suggestions for how to think of your opening words, which, I hope, is a promise that got you to read on (I suppose that if you’re reading this that it might have worked). Or, for example, if you’re writing about research, you get the reader interested in a general question, and promise to reveal interesting things about that question (or about researching that question). Or, for example, if you’re writing fiction, you foreshadow some future tension (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” — Austen), or you introduce a character (“Call me Ishmael” — Melville; “I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man…. I believe my liver is diseased.” – Dostoyevsky), or something strange and interesting (“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”).

What you don’t want to do is answer too many questions. You want to keep the reader wanting more. If you raise good questions right at the beginning, those questions can hold a reader’s attention through descriptive detail that gives background to your work, but that might be dry in and of itself (not that a good opening is an excuse for a bad continuation, but that’s another question). To keep the reader wanting more, it’s also useful to keep the opening short, that way the reader knows you’re not going to waste too much of their time—you don’t want to earn a “tl; dr” whether literal or metaphorical. And to that end, although there’s a lot more that could be said, I’m going to wrap this up.

To summarize:

  1. The opening matters
  2. Pay attention to your readers’ interests
  3. Appeal to those interests first
  4. Raise questions that you don’t answer
  5. Keep it short

Explicitly Stating Intentions

In some ways, this blog is merely a continuation of a project of ten years or so, but switching it to a new URL is a beginning of sorts, and it can be useful to state intentions.

My general intentions for the blog are to post weekly, generally on a subject related to the process of writing, especially, but not exclusively, academic writing. My hope is that reflection on issues of the process will help writers find insight into their own processes. I often try to blend abstract reflection on ideas with specific practical suggestions, but I have been known to get absorbed in philosophy to the neglect of practical concerns. My hope is also that by presenting useful information about the writing process, I provide potential clients with evidence that my services are valuable. (I’ll risk the danger that my blog posts are so helpful that people who read them never need help again!)  Thus, to summarize, my intentions are multiple: 1. to blog with a certain regularity; 2. to cover a certain subject; 3. to help writers; and 4. to promote my business.

But those are only my intentions for the blog generally.  My intentions for this specific post are to describe my intentions for the blog, and to talk (well, write, actually, but…) about why I want to set my intentions, and, more generally, about the value I see in setting intentions/expectations/goals/what-have-you.

As a writer there are a few reasons that setting intentions/expectations/goals can be helpful. While I don’t think any of these reasons are rocket science or deep hidden secrets, I do think it worth trying to make them explicit as part of a program of convincing writers of the value of setting intentions.

Firstly, clearly stating intentions gives your readers a reason to read. By clearly stating that my intention is to help writers, potential readers who are interested in their writing process might be motivated to read. Admittedly, stating my intention also sends away potential readers who are not interested in writing, but that’s okay because I can’t really help people who aren’t writers. It’s not entirely out of the question that someone might enjoy my writing style, or might read my blog for a personal reason (like that they’re my friend), but on the whole, what I have to offer is help for writers. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to offer something that everyone wants—that’s got to be good for a business, right?—but rather that what I do have to offer is of value to only some people. By stating my intentions, I can create a connection with my readers.

A separate level of value in setting intentions is its value for my writing process. In this respect, setting intentions can be a two-edged sword: if intentions are poorly stated, disappointment can follow, and disappointment does not help a writer keep writing. At the same time, though, I believe that the other side of the dynamic is also operative: not only is there a danger of being disappointed after clearly setting intentions, but there is also a danger in not setting intentions, and not setting them clearly and realistically. Without setting intentions, you can spend a lot of time and at the end feel like you’ve got nothing to show for it (that may not be true—spending a lot of time writing, even if without clear intentions, can certainly help improve skill as a writer).

Setting intentions will help you focus efforts: if you say “I want to write a blog post”, that defines parameters. If you say “I want to write a blog post to help writers,” or “I want to write a blog post about setting intentions that will help writers,” all of these statements help me focus my efforts.  Having set an intention, I have a focus for my writing that guides me when interesting but tangential ideas occur to me, or ones that are interesting and completely unrelated. My intentions help keep me from getting distracted.

It can be frightening to set intentions—by saying “I want to get published,” a standard is defined that can be violated, thus leading to disappointment or frustration.  If I say (as I have), “I want to post a blog post each week,” then if I fail to post, I am disappointed. Multiple failures to post might even lead to sufficient disappointment in my ability to post that I start to think that I can’t live up to that standard. If I say I want to get published and I don’t get published, that is obviously disappointing.

But if we’re concerned with the psychology, isn’t it also worth noting that, because setting intentions is frightening—because saying “I want to get published” is intimidating—we might harbor the ambition without admitting it?  A creative writer might say “Oh, I’m just writing for the fun of it,” when, in fact, he or she wants to be published but is concerned about setting a goal and then failing to reach it.

It might be worth it to state ambitious intentions and then be OK with not quite achieving them. After all, if you fail to achieve a goal on a first effort, that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve it on the second. Indeed, often the first failure is crucial in providing guidance as to how to move forward. 

I’m going to wrap up even though I’ve got more to say. One of my general intentions for this blog—one on which I was pretty clear, but which I did not state earlier—was to write posts of about 1,000 words in length, and I’m getting right up to that now.  There’s more that I could say about setting intentions and the benefit in setting intentions, but I’m not going to cover it all.

Going forward, I want this blog to help writers. I want to provide guidance that helps people develop effective and productive writing processes and practices. My subjects and discussion will be skewed towards talking about academic writing, and especially common dissertation problems, because that’s where I’ve done most of my work, but a lot of writing issues are true for all writers.

Welcome to my new blog

Over ten years ago, I started a blog on Blogger, using that service because I didn’t want to try to manage my own blog (WordPress was still young, and I was unfamiliar with it–I’m hardly at the cutting edge of tech).

I started with a modest post about developing “momentum” as a writer–developing a sense of progress, a sense of motion that helps make each new writing session move better. It aimed at helping others with their writing, and also at providing a practice that would help me improve my writing.

It’s been an on-and-off project. For over a year back near the beginning, I wrote a post every day, usually with a length of around 1,000 words.  That practice helped me improve my own writing, but I let it lapse to focus on other writing projects (two books completed: one as second author–Horst Rittel’s Universe of Design, and one all my own–Getting the Best of Your Dissertation, as well as a third currently in submission to publishers).  For many years, I posted rarely, if at all, but last year, I started posting on a weekly basis with an aim to improving my search engine visibility, which is also my motivation for moving both blog and website to a new WordPress platform.

My primary aim is to provide useful suggestions and guidance for writers, though I will likely write about other subjects as they suit me. I invite you to ask questions: do you have any questions or ideas about the process of writing?

My old blog and its posts are currently at thoughtclearing.blogspot.com.