Blog Lessons from Dead Tree Authors and Cereal Boxes

I don’t know who said that novelists read the novels of others only to figure out how they are written. I believe it’s true. We aren’t satisfied with the secrets exposed on the surface of the page: we turn the book around to find the seams.

In a way that’s impossible to explain, we break the book down to its essential parts and then put it back together after we understand the mysteries of its personal clockwork.

- Gabriel Garcia Marquez Meets Ernest Hemingway

I’m told that if you want to be a good photographer, you should look at a lot of photos. If you want to be a good painter, you should look at a lot of paintings. I believe that the same holds true with being a blogger, and seeing how other bloggers present their messages, tell their tales, and report their news.

How long are the posts that they write? How frequently do they link to other pages? Do they tell stories about themselves and their lives, or upon others lives, or do they focus upon ideas and concepts? How do they address their readers in what they write? If you’ve spent any time blogging, or considered starting a blog, it’s possible that you’ve started reading at least one blog post and spent more time thinking about how the blog post was constructed than the subject of the post itself.

I know that I can’t help myself but explore the words one blogger chooses to share his or her thoughts, attempt to determine why certain images are included in a post, understand whom they may believe their audiences are, and so on. While it’s a habit that came to me out of a mix of curiousity and schooling, it’s something that I find myself engaged in more often than not.

It’s not a question of competition. I agree with the following answer from Ernest Hemingway, when he was asked about his writing (not that I’d compare my writing with his).

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of yourself in competition with other writers?

HEMINGWAY

Never. I used to try to write better than certain dead writers of whose value I was certain. For a long time now I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can.

Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction No. 21

Just as we can learn from other bloggers to improve how we blog, by thinking critically about what they do when they blog, we can gain ideas and approaches from other authors, including many who were around long before blogging was something that someone could do.

Here are a few examples.

1. How much of the Iceberg do you show?

Ernest Hemingway often followed what he referred to as the Iceberg theory of writing. When an iceberg floats on the waters, you only see a small part of it, with the majority of it submerged. Your imagination and your experience fills in the contours below the surface. If you present what you write well, you may just get your audience thinking about the events that led to the story being told, the lives and development of the characters, and the parts of the story left untold.

When you blog, you have to assume that your audience possesses some knowledge of what you’re writing about, some experience of the ideas and concepts and situations that you present. What do you decide to keep, what to refer to, and what to omit? Are there times when you can link to another resource that can help people who want to see more below the surface? Are there times when those links might prove more of distraction than assistance?

How much of the iceberg do other bloggers show when they write?

2. When you write about trees, are you really writing about the forest?

If you’ve read any poems from Robert Frost, you can see that he often writes about simple topics, such as deciding which path to take when he comes upon a fork in the road, or how two neighbors might get together once a year to rebuild the stone wall between their properties, as seen from the start of the following poem:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.

- Mending Wall

Under that simplicity lays more complex questions about finding the right path to follow in your life, or seeing how peoples and countries might isolate themselves from others or reach out.

Is your post about a flaw found in WordPress, and how someone in the WordPress community helped you find a solution about that simple bug, or about how people given the chance to help others might reach out to do so? Is my post about how Google might define quality in a website about ranking web pages, or about how we might define quality in our lives?

3. Is your work Gothic?

John Ruskin was a 19th Century writer about architecture and art who often wrote about the society of his times through his works. When he wrote about the strengths of gothic architecture, he was also writing about the strengths of society:

How so debased a law ever came to be established, we shall see when we come to describe the Renaissance schools; here we have only to note, as a second most essential element of-the Gothic spirit, that it broke through that law wherever it found it in existence; it not only dared, but delighted in, the infringement of every servile principle; and invented a series of forms of which the merit was, not merely that they were new, but that they were capable of perpetual novelty.

The pointed arch was not merely a bold variation from the round, but it admitted of design; but to the ornamental feeling and rich fancy of the Byzantii1e the Gothic builder added a love of fact which is never found in the South. Both Greek and Roman used conventional foliage in their ornament, passing into something that was not foliage at all, knotting itself into strange cup-like buds or clusters, and growing out of lifeless rods instead of stems; the Gothic sculptor received these types, at first, as things that ought to be, just as we have a second time received them; but he could not rest in them.

He saw there was no veracity in them, no know- ledge, no vitality. Do what he would, he could not help liking the true leaves better; and cautiously, a little at a time, he put more of nature into his work, until at last it was all true, retaining, nevertheless, every valuable character of the original well- disciplined and designed arrangement.

The Nature of Gothic, John Ruskin

When you write something about a new song or movie or piece of software, are you saying something about its creator and audience, and the framework within which it was created? Are you writing about the creative process itself, and the ideas and concepts expressed, and the values those hold?

There are a lot of places to draw inspiration from when you set out to communicate with others through a blog, from movie posters to cereal boxes to subway maps, from movies to commercials to news broadcasts, from popular blogs to library bookshelves. Harvesting inspiration from how others communicate around you, and experimenting with different ways to present ideas is both part of the fun, and part of the challenge in blogging.

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32 thoughts on “Blog Lessons from Dead Tree Authors and Cereal Boxes”

  1. Wow, really feels good to read those tips, especially from “Gabriel”.
    I am actually looking to find out a few articles that was written when blogging was starting off back in 2005. If you can post some links in here, it would be great.

  2. Well, comparison can be a good way to learn more about writing. Being honest to ourselves we can say that we have all learned from reading each other’s blogs, haven’t we?

    On the other side I don’t do well when I spend a lot of time comparing myself with other writers. Too much comparison leaves me feeling a bit inadequate and overwhelmed..

    The best way when reading other blogs f.e. should be to spend as much time that u lean something useable but not too much time so you dont get caught up unhealthy comparisons.

    It’s still YOUR writing style that will make ppl love to read ur postings.

  3. Favorite part “sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can” Hemingway. Great.

  4. That’s so true we can / should learn from those around us.

    If you can try to immerse yourself in the blog in question the results can be amazing, a great way to do this is by guest posting / guest blogging.

    I’m just starting to try to guest blog; it’s a long process and involves building a relationship with the blogger in question. In order for your post to be accepted you need to understand and what they stand for and how they feel about a range of topics. Already I can already see my writing style begin to improve and change, leaving me more able to write for a range of purposes.

    Now that’s what I call progress.

  5. Wow, that’s a very inspiring post on a SEO related blog. I see you’re a skilled copywriter. That’s one of the reasons I keep following you besides wanting to hear your Google insights :)

    Cheers!

  6. Great to hear about the old ones. Hemingway was good!
    This is my takeaway for today.

  7. One issue with the iceberg ideology is the assumption that people have some basic knowledge. Sometimes in SEO, website owners are seeking that basic knowledge and you might turn them away from you blog by only partially depicting the information. But I guess you can’t please everyone :)

  8. Very good article, no matter how much you think you know or how good you think you are there is always someone who knows more or is better. So i agree looking at other blog/companies/individuals etc will allow you to always learn more.

  9. Hi Nishant,

    Thanks. I love that essay from Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As the very successful writer that he was to become, his reaction to seeing Ernest Hemingway on the streets of New York was priceless, as were his thoughts about how writers can learn from and be inspired by other writers.

    Quite a lot of blogging was going on before 2005, and there are some very good resources for bloggers on writing. Here are a couple from back that that I was inspired by to some degree:

    10 Tips on Writing the Living Web by Mark Bernstein

    Ten Tips For A Better Weblog by Rebecca Blood

  10. Hi Michael,

    I’m not sure that it’s helpful to fixiate on comparing yourself to other writers either. Everyone has their own experiences and past, and their own preferred ways of communicating ideas, and different audiences that they might be writing to. It is something that you could get lost in.

    What I do find helpful though is paying attention to how different bloggers approach blogging, and seeing what you like and what you might not like, and thinking about how you communicate with your audience.

  11. Hi Dan,

    I really liked that quote, which is why I guess I used it in this post. I wish I had come across that Hemingway interview a long time ago. There’s some great questions and answers in there.

  12. Hi Justin,

    Good points. I’ve done some guest blogging in the past, and it is something that can help you improve and expand your writing. It enables you to possibly reach a different audience than you otherwise might have, and it places some constraints upon you and what you write – which I think helps in becomeing a better writer.

  13. Hi Corey.

    One of the strengths of blogging is that you can publish something everyday if you want to, in posts that are short enough for someone to read in a few minutes and possibly learn from.

    One of the problems with blogging is that most people don’t visit a blog with the expectation that they will be spending most of the day there reading a single post. :(

    When I write about topics that can be fairly complex, such as a search related patent, I’m not sure if it would be useful or helpful to write about many of the basics with each post. They would be pretty long posts, and I wouldn’t have time to do too much else with my day.

    There are some great resources that do cover a lot of the basics, including blogs that focus upon search related news and topics geared towards beginners, guidelines from the search engines, and others.

    One of the constraints of any writer is that they have to make some decisions about who their audiences might be, and try to do their best to write to those audiences. That may mean that beginners might not find discussions about advanced topics very accessible, and that is one of the risks of choosing to write about more advance topics sometimes.

  14. Well, comparison can be a good way to learn more about writing. Being honest to ourselves we can say that we have all learned from reading each other’s blogs, haven’t we?

    On the other side I don’t do well when I spend a lot of time comparing myself with other writers. Too much comparison leaves me feeling a bit inadequate and overwhelmed..

    The best way when reading other blogs f.e. should be to spend as much time that u lean something useable but not too much time so you dont get caught up unhealthy comparisons.

    It’s still YOUR writing style that will make ppl love to read ur postings.

  15. There’s so much to learn in order to be successful in this field and it is so amazing that there are so many learning materials and tips out there such as this article.

  16. Interesting post. I think that we all have something to learn from the work of others. We each have our own unique style and should never outright copy someone else. But looking at the work of others can sometimes inspire our own work and push us to improve.

  17. Hi Alex,

    I think if we each recognize that we have our own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to writing, and our own styles, that those comparisons need not be too much of a concern. We can potentially learn something from others that can help us become better writers, and I think that’s part of being a good writer as well.

  18. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks. Success is often one of those things that we build brick-by-brick. I think having an enthusiasm for learning really helps.

  19. Great post! So interesting. Keeping the door open to new things is always such a crucial part of life. Very good!

  20. Thank you for saying this! People who feel technology has dumbed-down the way we write, how we write, and the mediums with which we right don’t understand what you have just explained. Just because the medium is called a blog and is published on the Internet doesn’t mean it has any less societal and literary merit. For example, if you go to the most popular Harry Potter fan website, among the games and entertainment news, people have posted blog posts that amount to thorough literary critiques about biblical allusions and different themes. Throw that into a book you can find in a library, and it would it would be praised. Put it on a fan website, and it’s considered an unreliable opinion. But, it’s just as reliable as any book that contains someone’s literary opinions. It’s just on a screen, not on paper. In face, it’s even better placed on a website because people can discuss and engage with it and the author right then and there.

    Not to get sidetracked, though – your point about not comparing yourself to other bloggers is very good. I have to admit that I strive to eventually produce a blog that is as popular as an SEO by the Sea blog with information that is just as high-level. So, in that way, I do think I am comparing my writing to others. But I think in this instance it can be good to compare if I’m careful to develop my own style but look at others to see what has made them successful.

    To your point, Hemingway also said, “I’m not going to get in the ring with Tolstoy.” I keep the same thing in mind for now as I build up our company’s blog.

  21. Hi Lori,

    Thank you. The web is increasingly giving people the chance to self-publish in many new ways, from blogging to posting in forums, in social networks, and in other forms as well. While many of these opportunities to write and publish may not feel like they are permanent the way that a printed volume might, they provide authors with the chance to try many new things, improve their ability to write, and explore new ideas and topics.

    I love the ability for people to interact with one another online, as you describe. I’ve long held onto the idea that books and magazine articles and other printed media can be part of a conversation, albeit a slow one, in which answers and feedback and criticism and praise may take years or even decades to find themselves in the public eye. Or they can be purely broadcast with no concern for responses and an exchange of ideas. I also think that sometimes writing online can be guilty of that also, where people really don’t want any feedback or response. Personally, I’d rather hear from other people, receive comments from my posts, and respond to them. I often learn as much from the comments I receive as I do from the initial research and writing of something that I post.

    Finding your own path, but paying attention to what others is doing is definitely a good approach to follow. Thanks for the Hemingway boxing quote – a good one.

  22. Good post. I have always felt that creativity inspires more creativity in terms of a postive feedback loop. The hardest part is therefore starting and then maintaining momentum. Personally I have more respect for the below average, nervous first time muscian than the polished studio based megastar who wont perform live without the use of tapes. Same principle applies to blogs. Just go for it. Learn from others yes, but at the end of the day make the first steps

  23. Hi Andy,

    Thank you. I definitely encourage people to start blogging and exploring what they can accomplish. The first steps can be hard, but I think it gets easier over time the more that you do it.

  24. Good post. It’s a guideline of every ethic blogger out there. I think all the essence taken from this post needs to be exposed for a wider audience.
    From my experience, writing blog is a kind of a poetry, and to write a good blog you need to have several years of experience. Plus you need to be a good writer too, to catch the audience and to inspire.

  25. Hi Martin,

    Thank you. There are many different approaches to writing that authors have explored in the past that we can learn from as we write our blog posts. It’s worth exploring them, and trying new things with our posts. That’s part of the fun. :)

  26. Dear Bill Slawski,

    yes, I do agree. For example, my inspiration to write something on my blog comes in a non scheduled way, I mean I do not have a day of a week or certain hours that I have to write something. I rather prefer spontaneity. No matter where I am, if I have an idea to cover on my blog I capture it straight away.

  27. Hi Martin,

    I prefer spontaneity as well. For many of the patent related posts that I write, it can take more than a couple of hours to write them. Sometimes I’ll be in the middle of one or two of those, and something else comes along that practically writes itself.

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