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Grumbling Appendix’s Guide to Blogging

November 10, 2014

There are almost as many different kinds of blog as there are people. On-line journals, where the writer talks about events from life and how they reacted to them are amongst the most powerful and interesting; but my advice is not about that type of blog. Instead, I focus on type of blog I write myself: opinion. Opinion can be difficult to write because it involves marshaling abstract ideas and developing arguments. But nursing needs more of it; the only way we can move forwards is by challenging conventional wisdom and making the case for our profession.

The advice below is aimed at novice bloggers, or existing bloggers who want to write better. It’s based on my own experience, plus common problems I’ve identified in the many blogs I’ve read. My focus is style, but if you’re a nurse or other Health Care Professional, I strongly recommend you also read this blog from David Foord, which covers many of the practical and professional issues you need to consider before you start.

 

1. Aim for depth rather than breadth. Don’t try to cover too much ground. A post should critique a single news item, an aspect of a report or even a Twitter conversation. If your canvas is too large, you’ll end up speaking in generalities – and generalities are by definition bland and uninteresting.

 

2. Read other people’s writing. The most important advice I can give you – and the good news is, it doesn’t have to be War and Peace. For would-be bloggers, the best resource is short articles: both professional journalism and stuff by people who are already blogging. Familiarising yourself with a variety of genres will expose you to different approaches. From there, you can work out your individual style.

Opinion pieces in quality newspapers are particularly valuable: here you can pick up the tricks that ‘proper’ writers use structure their work. No one’s saying you have to write to their standard, but it’s useful background knowledge all the same. Amateur writing is more variable – but that means it’s your opportunity to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. Analyse the writer’s technique. Ask yourself: did it keep me reading? Did my attention wander? If I had written this piece, what could I have done differently?

Extra tip: Occasionally read articles about things you’ve got no interest in, but are intellectually capable of understanding. For me, football fits the bill. Match reports are novels in microcosm, but what I really like is stuff on club politics or the existential crisis at the heart of the English game. I don’t give a toss about any of it – so I’m free to concentrate on the writing. And there is some very good sports writing out there.

 

3. Practise. Don’t launch yourself straight onto the web. If you’ve never written in a blogging or journalistic style, you can’t expect to get it right first time. The results – disappointment and even embarrassment – are guaranteed to put you off blogging for life. Before I started Grumbling Appendix, I experimented a lot. One of the things it taught me was that despite recent disagreements amongst certain high-profile media types, I really like the historic present. When I switched to using it, my narratives shook off the deadening confines of the past tense and came alive before my eyes. Learning that lesson – finding something that worked for me – brought me closer to my authentic voice and gave me confidence.

Extra tip: Reviewing television programmes is brilliant writing exercise. A TV programme is an entirely self-contained thing – no need to swot up or cite references. Watch it for half-an-hour and hey presto! – you’re an expert; you know everything there is to know. Writing a light-hearted review, a few hundred words long, is the perfect antidote to that academic mindset that nurses often complain they can’t snap out of. Check out Sam Wollaston in the Guardian for a class-act style-guide to this type of writing.

 

4. Keep control of your material – but be flexible. Paragraphs are your building blocks. Write one at a time and before you start each one, be clear about three things: the points this paragraph will make; how it will develop your argument; how it will lead on to the next paragraph (or form the conclusion). Sticking to this rule should help you to avoid the well-known pitfall of writing waffle.

You may find, as I often do, that writing itself gives you new ideas and pushes you in directions you hadn’t thought of when you started out. If this happens, don’t panic. Instead, stay in control (see above), think through the implications, don’t be afraid to abandon your original plan and adjust your focus if needs be – you’ve just experienced how writing can clarify your thinking! The worst thing you can do is simply jumble up new ideas with old ones and hope no one will notice. They will. All you’ll end up with is an illogical mess, and even worse, your readers won’t have a clue what you’re going on about. All of which leads me conveniently on to…

 

5. Keep readers on-side. Your ideas should challenge your readers; the way you express them should not. Show you understand your readers by writing in ways that make it easy for them; they’ll return the compliment by continuing to read. Careless technique, on the other hand, will irritate and confuse – leaving readers with much less attention to devote to your core message. Do you really want to divert attention away from your core message? What I’m saying is, putting yourself in your readers’ shoes is the road to better results. Here are some dos and don’ts.

DO lead your readers through your work. Provide signposts to what’s coming next.

DO address your readers directly. They’ll see you’re thinking about them, and it creates a bond between you.

DO throw in the odd knowing reference to popular culture. It gives you a hinterland and makes you seem like someone readers might actually want to meet.

DON’T pose questions you don’t intend to answer. Firstly because you’re unfairly raising readers’ expectations; and secondly because when they can’t find the answer (because you haven’t provided one), they’ll blame themselves for being stupid. And making readers feel stupid is a really, really bad idea.

DON’T rely on elaborate metaphor, especially if it’s of limited relevance to your subject matter; readers will be distracted by it, and won’t concentrate on your true message. Simplicity is always best. Say what you mean in plain language, and you won’t need metaphor.

DON’T be afraid to use colloquialisms. They wake up your writing and make you look cool – and everybody wants to look cool, right?

DON’T let your verbs wander – it’s a recipe for confusion. Unless you have an obvious (and signposted) reason for swapping, stick to a single person and tense for narrative sections.

DO write with confidence! Readers won’t believe in you if you don’t appear to believe in yourself.

 

6. Use personal testimony and/or examples from life. Readers are nosey. If they weren’t nosey, they wouldn’t be readers. Illustrating your points with personal testimony and examples from life is always a winner because it plays to that nosiness – and keeps readers reading. It’s also a great way to add originality, personality and texture to your writing.

Extra tip: Personal testimony/examples from life are a great way to start a piece. The ‘story’ element forms the hook that pulls readers in – but the real trick is to lead from your specific example to a discussion of more general problems. Read the opinion columns of any decent newspaper and you’re almost guaranteed to see examples of writers doing exactly this: using the specific to illustrate the general. Here‘s a random example from the past week. Read it through. Notice how the writer moves from a specific incident (‘A few weeks back I was sitting at a bar’) to the story of her life (‘it was a disheartening reminder of an assumption that has circumscribed my life’) to what’s wrong with the world in general (‘It’s an aggressively entrenched paradigm’). Bingo!

 

7. Remember Philip Roth who famously said (in The Ghost Writer) “I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and turn it around again…” Just because you started off writing something a certain way, doesn’t mean it has stay that way for ever. Ask yourself if re-phrasing something would give it more impact. This is especially important when it’s your first sentence.

Here’s the opening line from a blog I read recently: ‘Humankind has been interested in flying for a long time’. Perfectly decent – but let’s try turning it around. How about ‘Flight has long been the dream of humankind’? Or ‘Humans have always dreamed of flying’? Or even ‘Oh! If only we had feathers!’. Ask yourself which of these is most likely to make an impression. Chosen your favourite? Good – you’re making progress!

 

8. Remain calm. When you do finally publish, resist the temptation to tweet the world that ‘Hey!!!! I did a blog!!!!’. Unless, of course, you actually want to sound like you did it in the toilet.

 

Grumbling Appendix is always happy to give advice to aspiring heath care bloggers.

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