Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Thoughts (Nightmares) On Blogging

Recently, I took a spin around the blogosphere, gathering up words of wisdom on just how to do up yer average, everyday ol' blog just right. When I really got down to it and considered what the "experts" were saying, though, I was horrified.

Write catchy headlines.

Use short segments; break up text with headings and sub-headings. Add bullet points.

Make text easy to scan.

Write to address as large an audience as possible. Don't use big words. Never write long sentences.

Use eye-catching graphics to pull readers in.

But don't make the blog's appearance so glitzy as to turn people away. Think the uncluttered simplicity of Pottery Barn catalogs, not the glare of the local carnival midway.

Perhaps you are thinking, "Yes; I can do this!" Grand. I'm so glad for you.

I was horrified. Horrified, especially, when I thought how such advice casts writers as followers, not leaders—certainly not as change agents, hoping through their craft to make a difference in their culture.

I've heard that The New York Times had—at least at one point—been written at an eighth grade reading level. There is no way, following today's advice to bloggers in particular, that even that level of education can be spoken to. Some material online seems as rudimentary as a fifth grader's essay on "How to Mow the Lawn." No wonder readers need to scan through online articles; there is no substance to captivate the thinking mind.

There is even a term, used derisively on some social media sites, for instances where one dares to put up a writing sample—say, of some substantive issue, such as political or economic analysis—for discussion. "TL;DR" is the new shorthand for "too long; didn't read"—but it is an epithet delivered with attitude.

I'll have to admit, if those are the standard recommendations for bloggers, I've failed the whole lot, miserably. I even confess to writing sentences long enough to fill an entire paragraph. Long live Russian novelists! My paragraph-long sentences are no match for the giants of another era's literature.

Granted, many of those seeking to emulate today's writing advice may be blogger wannabes, hoping to make the big bucks like the blogging superstars they've heard about. Perhaps that is not the same genre as what we geneabloggers seek.

If you've stuck around long enough to get to the end of some of my more long-winded posts, perhaps you are part of genealogy's Marines: "The Few; the Proud." There may not be very many of us, but we understand that stories have a purpose. Whether that purpose is to help us learn something, to get us to think, or perhaps even to change us in some microscopic yet significant way, it has to serve as a catalyst to insure that we never exit in exactly the way we began the encounter.

Where is writing's impact in the milieu fostered by today's writer's advice? How can today's writing—stripped down, dumbed down, propped up with catchy headlines—make a difference in a reader's life? What value can be gained by zipping through a pat post of platitudes? If we can't take the time to think about what we are reading, how can it massage needed change out of our behavioral rut?

In the many springtime engagements my husband does for the Every Fifteen Minutes program, he has a little card he hands out to the high school students in the closing assembly. The goal of the card—no larger than a business card with the words, "Because I said I would," printed on the bottom margin—is to allow participants to commit to a promise. The promise, of course, is the hoped-for result of experiencing the program: to not drive after drinking alcohol or using drugs—or at least to take care of each other so their friends don't get behind the driver's seat under those impaired conditions. The card, however, is left blank so students can put into words whatever they want to convey in that message.

In the two days leading up to that point of distributing the blank cards, a team of professionals—fire fighters, highway patrol officers, defense and prosecuting attorneys, judges, joined by bereaved parents and former students released from their prison time to share their tragic experiences—has worked with my husband to educate the students on every aspect of what it means to lose a life on account of a drunk driver's actions.

My husband spends the beginning of that program getting to know the students first as friends. It is only after that point of winning their hearts that he shares his own story of devastating loss. His goal is to bring about a change of attitude, not just mentally but in their gut—what education professionals might call "affective learning outcomes." If people don't feel strongly about something, they are not likely to make that change in their behavior.

It's after the wrap up session, that final assembly, when my husband calls upon the student body to make a commitment to each other—to their friends. That's when he passes out those cards. The cards are for the students, not necessarily to turn in for anyone else's information. But if they want to, the students can hand them to the school's representatives at the assembly. Often, my husband will receive many of those cards after they are completed. And they are quite encouraging to read.

Just recently, a high school junior and his parents walked up to my husband after he completed one of these assemblies. It was pretty obvious that student had been experiencing some strong emotions as the assembly drew to a close.

The student wanted my husband to read his card, right then. "You changed my life," the card read, followed by a commitment to stop abusing drugs and alcohol.

While I'm sure that student may see some twists and turns in his path toward honoring that commitment over a lifetime, I'm also certain that change of heart wasn't brought about by a five paragraph, subtitled, bullet-pointed blog post with handy-dandy free ebook offer attached. There may be some ways to evoke strong emotions rapidly, but I doubt substantial change can be brought about by the advice pedaled by today's writing "experts" on how to get your message out. If change takes time, so does the process of convincing one to take that first step.

When I think of experiences like that, and juxtapose them alongside the glib advice offered to today's writers, it's obvious the preferred path will be to take the route designed to make a change. After all, why read something if it isn't going to speak to you in any way? If what you are reading leaves you in the exact condition in which it found you, I reckon it might just have been one of those bullet-pointed, sub-heading-slashed five paragraph wonders littering the blogosphere. It certainly won't have been one of those dour Russian tomes reflecting on the condition of Life. Hardly the concentrated supply of inspiration to convince you to make a change. Not even enough controversy to terribly inconvenience a few electrons.

When I consider blogging as a medium for getting out one's message, I fervently hope this universally-accessible form of communication resists the temptation to take its marching orders from the drivel masquerading as today's expert advice. I hope blogging is a medium still evolving; that the format will deliver substance deserving more than a cursory glance.

"Too long; didn't read" is, after all, not the response of the thinking public. As leaders, writers who put faith in the hope that there are others out there keen on considering thoughts worth thinking are themselves shaping a future that reclaims a rightful place for the reflective life. While I may only be able to do my minuscule part, in synergy with others of like mind, it will make a difference.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Gayle! Now, that's a retort I can keep in my lexicon! I like that one :)

  2. Some of your best, most moving posts have many words and a good handful of multi-sylabic ones to boot. Writing for the masses.. seems counter productive.

    1. Thank you, Iggy. That's reassuring. I appreciate the support.

      I guess I just had to get that rant off my chest. I worry about what kind of culture we are shaping when we succumb to the "common knowledge" of how writers should write. Writers should instigate change. Words are tools to use as catalysts, not just to placate and lull to sleep. If no one wants to take the effort to pay attention, though, where does that leave us?

  3. Ah I don't read the experts, seems I am in the same boat as you. What happened to originality and individuality? Gone with the wind on Twitter maybe:)

    1. Yeah, maybe I should take a vacation from reading those experts. I do tend to get all worked up over plain vanilla presentation.

  4. When I was still teaching, I sat through a presentation by some expert brought in for our enrichment who poo-pooed the idea of doing research papers because "long" is not the way of the world anymore. "Don't give me 10 pages," she said. "Give me 2 of your best sentences that express your point." WHAT? Students already know how to do that. Developing an idea, supporting an idea - that's what they don't know how to do.

    1. So true, Wendy. And when people don't learn how to develop those ideas of their own, they are not likely to have the patience to listen to the ideas of others as they are being unfolded. That, incidentally, is the exercise that helps stretch us--our minds, that is--to increase our capacity for consideration. For thought. We are, in essence, training people not to think.


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