Writing, Blogging, Splitting Hairs

When I Grow Up, I Wanna Be a Writer!

Everybody wants to be a writer. I wonder why that is? Do they imagine it’s a glamorous job? Do they hear tales of the six-figure advance and simply not realize how many working writers struggle just to pay the bills, usually by taking a second or third job? It might be more accurate to say that everyone wants to have written, or to be published. When it comes right down to brass tacks, most people don’t really want to write.

Some days, even I don’t want to write, and I’ve been a published pro for over thirty years.

I’ll admit, it is better work than breaking rocks in the hot sun. It doesn’t necessarily pay better, but sometimes, it’s even a thrill. Most days, it’s an unglamorous job that requires applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair and simply doing the work of yanking a bunch of thoughts from your head like mucus from a stuffy nose, and then expressing what’s left with some clarity so others can understand and maybe enjoy it or learn something from it.

My friend Neeraj asked me if I could differentiate a content writer, a blogger, a technical writer,  and a technical blogger.  Most people ask whether there’s a difference between a writer and an author. To me, the bottom line is that a writer writes. In other words, a writer isn’t someone who sits around contemplating having written – or daydreaming about what they’ll do when they cash the six-figure advance against royalties for a book they haven’t begun to draft, yet. Many years ago, I met Tom Clancy online (on GEnie, in the Writers’ Ink RT), and he expressed frustration with that mentality. “Just write the damned book.” In other words, don’t talk to me until you have a product to sell. In his opinion, selling a good book wasn’t that hard. Writing one took – well, writing one.

Beyond that, we’re just talking genre.

Technical Writing

I got into technical writing because “writing the great American novel” doesn’t pay the bills unless you write it, get it published, and sell it. Turns out, I’m not a novelist at heart – at least not yet. There’s no lucrative market for short stories and poetry, as it turns out. And I’m impatient. I don’t like to submit things for publication – not because I can’t handle rejection, but because I can’t handle waiting months to get it. So my first “day job” had nothing to do with writing – and everything to do with computers. My dad’s laughing quietly over there, as he reads this, no doubt recalling the day he advised me to work with computers and I whined, “But Dad, computers are boring. That’s your thing, not mine! I want to be a writer!” Somehow, for some reason known only to God and weeping angels, someone thought it would be a brilliant idea to turn me into a Systems Engineer.

Keep in mind, I may have looked like a child prodigy, graduating with a B.A. in English at 18, but that did not magically confer expertise in computers or math. Whatever skills I had, at the time, I’d learned on the job – a job in automated report distribution, which was way better than what I’d originally been hired to do – breaking out printouts with a letter opener, bagging them with plastic and a heat sealer, and sending them to recipients in other buildings. In my spare time, I learned such useful things as TSO, ISPF, a little JCL, and just enough about JES3 to bump the priority on a job. Oh – and DCF, which was the great-grand-daddy of GML and SGML, both ancestors of today’s XML. That helped me, years later, to land a job at American Airlines – I had no idea what “BookMaster” was but mentioned it looked a lot like DCF, and fortunately someone with DCF experience overheard me and assured the hiring manager that I knew what BookMaster was, even though I had no idea I knew it.

One thing I was good at, though, was taking notes. I took copious notes as a career survival skill. And somehow, the 15 corporate systems I was nominally responsible for didn’t all crash and cause a major oil company to come to a screeching halt. Someone noticed my note-taking, thought it was pretty good, and asked if I might be interested in a “lateral move” to a job as a technical writer. I didn’t know what that meant, other than it had the word “writer” in it and involved the same salary. I was saved.

Now, I realize that people coming out of college today can earn a degree in Technical Communications. Mine is in Rhetoric & Writing. I usually just say it’s a B.A. in English – saves a lot on explanations. But again, the bottom line is “writing.” If you are technically adept – in my case, fairly curious, easily bored, and fairly fearless about trying new things, and stupid enough to think you can actually do the work of a Systems Engineer when you have absolutely no clue what that means and never wrote a line of code – and you are able to write clearly and succinctly and translate technical jargon into plain language – you have the skills to be a technical writer.

I also had an advantage over the more technical tech writers – the ones who were adept Programmers or Systems Engineers who could, incidentally, write: I don’t assume that the reader intuitively knows when to press the Enter key, and I know how to avoid the confusion between “Enter your name into the field” and “Type your name into the field and press the Enter key.” Because, dammit, I’ve been that reader.

Technical Concepts vs. Task-Oriented Instructions

When I was working as a Systems Engineer, and some job would bomb at 3 AM, and the phone would ring… I didn’t care about “technical concepts.” I certainly did not want to haul out a 700-page manual to learn the history and theory behind the development of FORTRAN, or the conceptual differences between various system architectures, or whatever. I wanted to know only what I had to do to back out of whatever caused the job to fail, to fix it, to restart it, and to see it through completion. All I cared about was the downstream jobs waiting on it and that the necessary reports be on my manager’s desk by 8 AM. At 3 AM, I was bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived, and under-caffeinated. The schedulers who called me were lucky if I didn’t fall asleep on my end of the phone while they looked for the part of the printout that would yield clues as to what went wrong where.

That was how I approached technical writing, from the start: What do I need to know to get the job done?

Of course there’s a need for the conceptual background information; that’s where you develop a deeper understanding of whatever it was you did at 3 AM. But you do not have to understand how an engine works, in order to drive a car. Different technical manuals for each audience, right? You probably don’t need to know how to drive, in order to be a good car mechanic. It would be helpful to understand engineering and driving, if you’re designing a new car.

Content Writer vs. Blogger

There isn’t, necessarily, a difference. That said, a blogger or a business could outsource all content creation to writers who are not bloggers. I can imagine a blogger who never writes a word. For that matter, I can imagine a content writer who doesn’t actually write a word, either. But the proper term for that is “plagiarist.” Or “splogger.” Or “scraper.” Or “spinner.” Don’t get me started on PLR and the differences between “ghost writer” and “ghost blogger.”

Article vs. Blog Post

Generally speaking, an article connotes something meatier than a blog post, although the two could be used interchangeably, and often are. An article posted on a blog is a blog post, but not all blog posts are articles. This is reminding me of my Dad teaching me that “All Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac.” I could post an embedded video from YouTube or a short review on the restaurant where I had lunch the other day, or a cute story about something one of my kids did. I don’t think of those as “articles.” I think of articles as something timeless – even if they are based on current events, they contain some analysis that might make them worth rereading a year later.

Related Posts from a Bygone Era

Sometimes a question triggers some vague memory of a conversation years ago, prompting me to answer in URLs, rather than in full sentences. My friend Abhi has teased me about this – I’ve held whole conversations in past blog post shorthand. But here are a few related to this topic that you might find interesting:

BLOGGING = WRITING? OH, CRUD, WHAT NOW?

There’s also a comment I left on FamousBloggers – Hesham had written a post, “Bloggers Are Not Writers, they are Terrible Writers“, and it prompted this from me:

If you want to be read, and you want your writing (your blog) to be enjoyed, and read more than once by the same people, then you need to constantly work at improving your writing skills, if only to smooth out the little mechanical bumps that stand between your pen and your readers’ quick, enjoyable understanding of whatever it is you’ve posted.

Write like you talk, by all means. I see nothing wrong with – in fact, a lot that’s RIGHT with – all writers being storytellers, including writers of non-fiction. People enjoy stories, and it’s one of the ways they learn. Why else would we be subjected to endless “story problems” in Math class, instead of us number-challenged people simply being mercifully culled from the herd the minute our eyes glazed over?

So long as a BLOG is about “content” (what a soulless way to describe written information!) and not about all the crap glugging up your sidebar and begging to be clicked and paid for – so long as “content” is what brings readers to your site and gives you any hope that they may click and pay for things – then it’s important for bloggers to be writers. Or videographers. Or radio talk show personalities, if they’re podcasting. Maybe it helps to develop a versatile skill set involving all three. But so long as the meat and potatoes is the written word, your abilities as a writer are what will differentiate your blog from the other 30 million out there. Even “playing to the crowd” involves writing skill, when you’re online, now doesn’t it?

I do think that storytelling facilitates learning, and more natural writing – writing like you talk, but without the “ums” and “uhs” of normal speech – can be effective in technical writing, too. If you’re old enough, you may remember when technical manuals referred to the reader in third person: “the user,” or “one must…” and it all sounded very stilted and far removed. It was unnatural and hard to relate to. Now, it is considered a best practice to address the reader directly as “you” – using the second person to make it more personally relevant and also to avoid the awkward use of gender-specific pronouns or the grammatically universal but politically incorrect “he” for readers of indeterminate gender. I’d be very careful with this, though, as a blogger – I see a lot of posts, technical and non-technical, wherein the blogger pontificates on the best way to do a thing, full of “you must” or “you must never” and alienating the reader by putting him on the defensive. It gets my hackles up every time. And it doesn’t work in purely technical writing, either – there’s a nice happy medium between giving instructions with unnecessary pleasantries like, “Next, please press the Enter button” (when, in fact, if you don’t press the darned Enter button, you cannot accomplish whatever it is I’m trying to help you accomplish, and I am not going to ask you nicely to comply when you are the one in need of assistance) and demanding or ordering the reader to change his ways (“You should never, ever eat food near the keyboard, idiot!”) Even if you’re right – it’s going to be a bitter pill for the reader to swallow, and an obstacle to learning and developing better behaviors.

I hope this answered your question, Neeraj – if not a few more that were unasked!

 

HollyJahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at http://amazon.com/author/hollyjahangiri. For more information on her children's books, please visit http://jahangiri.us/books.

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15 thoughts on “Writing, Blogging, Splitting Hairs”

  1. “Now, I realize that people coming out of college today can earn a degree in Technical Communications. Mine is in Rhetoric & Writing. I usually just say it’s a B.A. in English – saves a lot on explanations. But again, the bottom line is “writing.” If you are technically adept – in my case, fairly curious, easily bored, and fairly fearless about trying new things, and stupid enough to think you can actually do the work of a Systems Engineer when you have absolutely no clue what that means and never wrote a line of code – and you are able to write clearly and succinctly and translate technical jargon into plain language – you have the skills to be a technical writer.”

    Before someone else says it, yes. I do realize that the sheer number of sentences in this post that exceed three lines in length make that last paragraph arguable and almost ironic. I also realize that’s a more charitable slant on it than saying, “Wow, then you must really suck as a tech writer!” Thank you. Some days, before coffee, I’d agree with you.

    And some days, I talk to myself. What of it?
    HollyJahangiri recently posted…1000 Words + a PhotoMy Profile

  2. You kill me; commenting on what you wrote instead of just changing what you wrote or explaining it further in the article; snicker!

    I like the part about bloggers and content writers. Truth be told, a blogger can get away with just one paragraph if they’re well known or sharing news. Many years ago, I basically wrote a one paragraph article based on hearing some news first hand about a site that many people were using and I couldn’t believe all the visits it got. You couldn’t get away with that as a content writer.

    Overall I can tell you’re more of a writer than a blogger. How? Because of the concept of spacing when it comes to blogging. I’ve become more of a blogger as time has gone on because I’ve learned to find ways of breaking my content up so that I rarely have more than 4 sentences in a paragraph. As a writer, we were taught that paragraphs started totally new thoughts, so if you were talking about the same thing keep it all together.

    But blog readers like some white space; that’s something I had to learn, that blog writing isn’t like a book.

    Regardless of that, I think more bloggers need to be better writers, and also need to be better storytellers. I see some pretty horrible grammar and some posts that are disjointed that just grates my nerves. And we both know few people actually talk like that; oy!
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted…My 10 Favorite Videos of 2014My Profile

    1. All readers like white space. It’s an important concept, especially in tech writing and academics. I just don’t care. 🙂 No, I’m kidding about that – I do care. I think it should be readable, and white space definitely helps with readability. But then, I’ve worked places that insisted we write everything at a 5th grade level – for professional, technically oriented adults. That’s where I draw the line on this blog and say “I don’t care.” Stretch. Work harder. Neeraj will vouch for this – I can be merciless. I have absolute faith in my readers and no problem at all with sending them to the dictionary on occasion.

      I do try to make reasonable concessions, like not putting white text on a black background (or worse, gray on gray). I’ve bumped up my font sizes for readability – despite the fact that almost every browser and mouse out there will let you zoom in as much as you need to, anyway. But organizationally, I don’t want my posts to be structured like a sales letter. 🙂 Unlike SOME bloggers I’ve run across, I do, at least, write in paragraphs. I write the occasional run-on sentence, but draw the line at paragraphs that go on for screens and pages. Technically, to be fair, most of my “run-on sentences” are just really long and could be broken down; saved by my love of semicolons and em dashes, I rarely write a true “run on sentence.”
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Writing, Blogging, Splitting HairsMy Profile

      1. In health care, we’re supposed to write everything at a 3rd grade level, which is hard when some of the things we need to tell them are at master’s level lol And you’re right, I have an issue with bloggers who treat every line as a paragraph; drives my mind nuts!
        Mitch Mitchell recently posted…4 LinkedIn No-No’sMy Profile

      2. Are you writing for doctors or possibly brain-damaged patients, Mitch? Again, you have to know your audience.

        You might try writing at a 5th grade level for the patients. 🙂

        (Hey, the doctors are busy – you don’t want them to miss a detail! What’d you think I meant?)
        HollyJahangiri recently posted…SaudadeMy Profile

  3. I love the opportunity that blogging has given me to find my inner writer. Way back in 4th grade, I said I was going to be a writer, but somehow that dream got sidetracked. Life experience gave me a story to share and the internet has given me the venue. I believe it’s my responsibility to honor that with the best writing I can create.

  4. At some point years ago, I wanted to so bad to be a writer. I began researching academic programs and entry level positions. I thought that perhaps I could “break into” technical writing, but it is certainly no easy task. Writing may seem easy enough, but it takes real talent. I enjoyed this article/post and am interested in checking out your children’s books! I have a 3 year old who LOVES books; she was beside herself when we asked her to leave her library book in the car while we went into a restaurant.
    Jessica recently posted…My Earliest Childhood MemoryMy Profile

    1. Hi, Jessica! I would love it if you’d check out my children’s books, and I hope your daughter will enjoy them. The last two are easy to read, but may be of more interest to older kids. Trockle is the one I wrote for my son – I don’t know if the notion of monsters in the closet or under the bed has even occurred to your daughter, yet, but if it has, Trockle LOVES to visit and make new friends. 🙂 You can find them all here: http://www.amazon.com/Holly-Jahangiri/e/B002BMEYUC BUT – Trockle is much less expensive straight from 4RV Publishing: http://www.4rvpublishingcatalog.com/jahangiri.php
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Writing, Blogging, Splitting HairsMy Profile

  5. Thank you Holly for the post.

    I want to write a post “everyone should write frequently” be it as a known person to everyone or unknown( “Anonymous”), as even if its not the glamorous job then also it helps a lot. It helps in sharing your thoughts, feelings, sadness, happiness, skills etc.

    Yes, I got many answers from this post.

    Regards
    Neeraj Rawat recently posted…How to Install Android 4.4 KitKat as a Virtual Machine in Your Computer?My Profile

    1. Reading and writing are the BEST forms of training for writers. In a sense, it’s like sport – you study your rivals, learn to appreciate them for their skill and ask yourself where you can do things differently, maybe better. You imitate (never plagiarize – but think how many variations there are on, say, the Cinderella story – you imitate and make the story uniquely yours, in the process). Then you branch out and develop your own style. Others’ influences will always be seen.

      Anyone recognize the underlying literary influence behind this? http://hollyjahangiri.typepad.com/blog/2007/02/just-a-little-peace-and-quiet.html
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…1000 Words + a PhotoMy Profile

  6. I write blog posts (which tend to go long – 1500 words is typical) and novels (1 so far) that are VERY long.

    Writing non-fiction for a commercial market isn’t my bag; I need the time for my fiction more than I need income. Freelance and regular gigs require a whole different mindset. Me, fiction. The non-fiction is on my blog.

    A lot of people live their whole adult life writing ‘content’ and technical manuals – more power to them. It’s a skill like any other, and a marketable one.

    PS I think I’ve reached my comment limit – yay!

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