Archives: July 2008
Wed Jul 16, 2008
Focus on craft
There's a kind of blog that focuses on the craft of something -- the book design blogs I mentioned recently, the chess and wine blogs I've looked at from time to time. These tend to give away good information, invite exchange, as other blogs do, but they have the additional trait of having a subject matter that breaks neatly into practical or concentrated little or medium-sized pieces.
I suppose an editor could put up a little passage to be edited once or twice a week and offer an approach to it, and after a year the person would have created a nice little body of work to share. If it were organized in some way, it could be very useful.
A meterologist could do something focused in the same way. Some fields seem well-suited to it. It could be an informal way of drafting a book, too. I suppose that is what has happened at Chocolate & Zucchini, now that books have started coming out there. Very nice hazelnut cream balls coated in dark chocolate -- recipe we tried from the book the other day, by the way.
Tue Jul 15, 2008
Book design blogs
I'm a big fan of the blog and regular email updates from the Book Design Review, the work of Joseph Sullivan. Today's email / blog entry, for example, introduces a striking cover design by David Drummond and links to the designer's blog, with the appealing note that Drummond shows some of the process of his creative work there, rather than just the products -- well in keeping with the spirit of certain kinds of blogs.
Sullivan's entries often comment briefly on a new book cover, always show at least one version of the design -- sometimes the same book from different countries, or the hardback and paper covers, eg. Several people usually talk over the design in the comments sections, too. I have no standing in the world of book design, but when I had to help bring a book to press last fall I found it very helpful to see how good designers were talking about the work they do. What do insiders look for? What is old hat or fresh, in their eyes? What are the elements of their craft? They share this sort of thing on these blogs -- you get to look in, since the sites aren't really aimed at outsiders particularly, I'd guess.
Sullivan also points to designer Henry Sene Yee, whose blog, he notes, also shares elements of the creative process too.
Principles here?: give away good information, written clearly, with lively images; create a place for conversation about practice; do it all for your own purposes but in a spirit that novices and fans and the curious don't feel excluded. Let the light in on the thinking and creativity of your field.
Mon Jul 14, 2008
Follow-up from Jay Rosen
The other day I summarized an old posting by Jay Rosen in which he describes his own practice as a blogger. He was kind enough to email and clarify something I might have given the wrong impression about: he was not seeking to impose an approach to blogging on others. Intead, he was reporting his own method, created over time to serve his own purposes as a writer. For example, he pointed out that not everyone's software will handle all five of the elements of a posting that he aims for on his site.
Thanks, Jay, for helping me correct a wrong impression in the earlier posting, and for all the good work you do.
When I was writing that entry, I emphasized all the elements of Jay's process / product because I think we do a better job when we're ambitious enough to want not just posting but also a good exchange of views afterward. A striking title, a subtitle that elaborates interestingly (if your software will do this), a good little essay, links to other sites that follow up on the posting, and the comments entered on your own site -- that's a good formulation, whether it suits everyone or not.
Each element has an ethical role, perhaps? In a title (and subtitle, if you include that), do justice to the issue and content so as to earn and win the attention of the audience. In the body of the posting, give something substantial that fulfills the promise you've implied in the title and that repays a reader for the time that could have been spent otherwise. In the links to other sites, honor the possibility that your work could be deepened by the insights of others. In the comments, have the guts to listen and respond and let your ideas be tested to see how they stand up.
Political sites that want to win arguments rather than work on ideas take the ethical demands of the four or five elements rather differently, don't they? Eg.:
Obama is a fool. (or, if you prefer: McCain is a fool.) Anecdote that I will only look at from one perspective that proves by its single instance the sweeping thing I want it to prove. An explanatory term or two so dripping with point of view that dialogue becomes difficult once the term arises. A little name-calling directed at those who disagree. Then, either no comments, comments heavily screened to support my point of view, or a comments section where yelling at others and name-calling rules the day.
Something like that, then, with an entirely different ethical stance than the elements Jay sketched in that entry some years ago with such care to avoid imposing one path upon other bloggers.
Fri Jul 11, 2008
Formalist challenge of Twitter
Now I find I'm approaching Twitter like a formalist poet who likes to have the imagination provoked by the restrictions of a given form. You only get 17 syllables, or the next line must rhyme, or there must be a recognizable rhythm, etc. As you face the restriction, you see novel solutions, things you wouldn't have said, or said that way, otherwise. Two tries:
Quoted: "People congratulated me when my son was born, but I worried even then. He will be drafted in 8 years. We'll probably be at war."
Caulking the tub--needed it done long ago. Revised a line of a poem--days after writing, it's easier to see what's off. Wait, or don't wait.
Thu Jul 10, 2008
I noticed that I never got Twitter to make sense -- never felt the energy. Now this not-in-the-spirit-of-things thought: Twitter would make a handy To Do list. Now that's rather anti-social of me. I'll keep trying.
Wed Jul 09, 2008
How to write badly
Dwight Garner's review of Ark of the Liberties by Ted Widmer, former B. Clinton speechwriter, catalogs a number of ways to write badly. Here are some he mentions:
Verbal fillers. "It is worth pointing out” is an example: if it is worth pointing out, why not just go ahead and point out? Why slow the whole operation down by saying, "There will now be some pointing out going on"? Richard Lanham, I think, called this throat clearing.
Truisms. Rehearsals of the obvious, such as "There can be no denying that independence was an extraordinary achievement." In cave man talk, that translates as "independence - good!"
Clichés. Those familiar phrases, no longer fresh, no longer provoking of thought, but piled "like hotcates" in the text.
Fence-straddling. At a certain point in life, we should be ready to risk an opinion, but failing that, we can "on the one hand/on the other hand" a topic to death. Garner says pargraphs based on this structure "fight themselves to a draw."
("America Abroad: Examining What We’ve Done in the Name of Freedom," NY Times, 7/9/08)
Tue Jul 08, 2008
Rosen on the five elements
I noticed in an old posting by Jay Rosen that he sees the care and tending of the conversation that follows a blog posting to be one of the five essential elements of blogging, as well as a responsibility of the writer. It's interesting that he sees different demands being placed upon the writer by each of the five elements -- they are different genres, I guess. And as thoughtful as the essay section might be, he claims that the thinking goes on in the forum that follows it:
In this example, The Tipping Point, there are five fields that get filled in: the title, the subtitle, the essay, the “after matter” (with notes, reactions and links) and the comments. Each requires of me a different kind of writing. The title condenses what the post is about, and arrests attention. The subheading explains the argument, previewing the “story” in the essay. The essay is an essay, but with links— a gesture unto themselves. The “after” section edits and tracks the wider discussion in the blog sphere. The comments begin the dialogue.
A successful post is when all five parts talk to each other as they are read against one another. A PressThink entry is not “done” until the after matter, trackbacks and comments come in, which sometimes takes more than a week. That’s one cycle in the turning of a weblog. When it works (always a hit and miss thing) the post at some point turns into a forum on the subject that occasioned the post— and the forum is what “thinks.” Of course, I didn’t know about this stylesheet and the posting logic it enforces until after I had stumbled on it through trial and error.
So the whole single genre of blogging is made up of the five elements; blogging is the collaborative project, not merely the essay or shorter posting by the soloist. That's a step farther than most of us have probably called it. When I'm not attending to all five elements, I'm not really blogging, Rosen implies about 1/3 of the way into his explanatory posting.
("Questions and Answers About PressThink," 4/29/04))
Mon Jul 07, 2008
It's a long reach from blogging, but it may still be suggestive: I see that the Strategic Studies Institute of the U. S. Army War College publishes a series of its students' best papers. They are carefull to say that these papers might not be included in the Institute's regular publication series (or they might), but they still see a virtue in making this work public. I understand the caution, since colleges and universities are tempted to feel they are safeguarding the heritage of civilization each time they put their name on something. But I admire the commitment to student work, though admittedly the War College is not your average institution. Col. Dennis O. Young's piece is an example of a publication from the student or Carlyle Papers series. (Most of our students are not high-ranking officers doing graduate work to prepare for the next stages of their careers.)
On another topic:
Notice, too, that on at least some of the pieces in their regular series they invite republication. I saw this first on the pdf version of the July 7, 2008 op-ed piece by Dr. Steven Metz.
Fri Jul 04, 2008
Asking Google for advice
That provides the shallow and playful premise of this week's radio essay. On the 4th of July, can Google help an American, interested in self-improvement, figure out how to get ahead in life?
Thu Jul 03, 2008
Other people's sentences
I'm busy messing with other people's sentences again these days, doing editing work. It's so good for fine-tuning one's sense of the ways sentences and paragraphs work. Sadly, it's far too structured a practice to have much of a role in the blogosphere. That's too bad, since you learn so much doing it. We have to rely on other virtues on our blogs, but we abandon some along the way too.
Look, for example, at this first paragraph of a short essay in the New Yorker this week -- see how explicitly you can name the relationship between neighboring sentences. Here and in the rest of the little essay, you can say exactly what the writer is doing, structurally.*
When bad things happen, it’s always nice to have a scapegoat. So, with Americans furious about soaring oil prices, Congress has gone in search of someone to blame. There are a number of usual suspects to choose from, depending on your politics—OPEC, greedy oil companies, lily-livered environmentalists opposed to oil drilling—but now Congress has seized on another set of villains: commodity speculators. “Excessive market speculation,” in the words of Senator Joseph Lieberman, has supposedly inflated the price of oil and other commodities beyond reason. Curb speculation, as a raft of proposed laws intend to do, and oil prices will soon return to earth. (James Surowiecki, "Oily Speculations," 7/7/08)
See how the first half of sentence 1 is picked up in the first half of the sentence 2, and the second half of sentence 1 is picked up in the second half of sentence 2 -- an explicit double link between the two sentences:
"bad things" - "scapegoat" / "soaring oil prices" - "someone to blame"
Next, "someone to blame" in sentence 2 links to "usual suspects" in sentence 3; "commodity speculators" in sentence 3 links to "excessive market speculation" in sentence 4 and to a solution -- "curb speculation" -- in sentence 5. Very nicely done. You can do the same kind of thing with the other paragraphs in this short essay as well as with the relationships between the paragraphs.
*Structure is only part of the story, of course -- a rhetorical reading might begin by asking what is gained and lost by the fact that he posits his conclusion in the first sentence: all this recent hubbub is just scapegoating. It's very clear, but it might also be a way of preaching to the choir, say....
Wed Jul 02, 2008
A small ethical blogging decision
An email arrives congratulating the blogger on being in the top 100 bloggers of some kind or another. Curious, the blogger visits the site, sees that it is probably an attempt to draw links, since the list of 101 blogs -- miscounted, for some reason! -- doesn't really say much about them and doesn't otherwise have much to do with the site's mission. So, does the blogger link to the list of 101 blogs because it's kind of handy to have the list, or ignore it because it's probably a gimmick? One of life's little decisions.
Tue Jul 01, 2008
What students like
And furthermore, about that conference on the weekend: students like challenges, they like to dig deep once they get a taste for it. They like feeling alive, feeling that their brains are alive, that what they do matters, that they have something serious to think about, that they can play seriously with ideas, that they can be respected, that there are other people exploring the world around them. Remember that feeling? If not, why not?