Blogging and Writing 202 – Idea Generation

I guess one of the most basic questions for bloggers is, “How do you decide what to write about?”  While it may be one of the first questions asked, I think it is one of the later questions to be answered. I wrote for years before I truly found what it was I wanted to consistently write about.

Let me explain.

I am not saying that bloggers don’t start out with an idea of what they want to say. Of course they do, or they wouldn’t blog. What I am saying is that for some of us, it takes time and just writing for a while to find the themes that really resonate with others, that seem to flow out of us most effortlessly – or are at least the effort!

I began blogging 7 years ago about stories of what was happening in my life. Along the way, I found that incorporating the spiritual themes I was learning was what really popped out of my writing. Then, as I began to focus more specifically on the actual places in my heart and life where Jesus showed up consistently and powerfully, my writing jumped a level. So did my readership. So did my passion for writing.

I didn’t start out writing like I do now. It took the practice of consistently writing for years, of consciously evaluating what worked and didn’t, of examining what rang my writer’s bell. It has taken time. I also ask for feedback from those whose opinions matter to me.

So, back to the question of how to decide what to write about…my advice is to begin with what is on your heart, whatever that is. I think the greatest sin in writing isn’t in writing badly, but in not writing at all. Then, write consistently, whatever that looks like for you. For me it is at least once a week, and usually at least twice, centered around whatever series’ I am working through at the time. (Again, this rhythm has emerged over the years. I didn’t start out at this pace. It is just what works for me now and is subject to change.) Then, evaluate where your writing seems to come to life, where it seems to move or connect with other people. And then, be willing to be open – to change, adjust and grow.

Now that I know what I really, really want to write about, idea generation isn’t the problem. Idea retention is. (See previous post in this series.) As I go through my life, blog entries along my heart themes seem to emerge naturally in the everyday. My job isn’t really to generate ideas, but to capture the ones that show themselves throughout my normal activities. Then to hone them into a useable form. 

And I generally try to live an idea generating life anyway. I read stimulating books and other blogs. I engage others in honest, deep conversation. This allows me to hear another’s heart and practice articulating mine. I move my body to sensory-stimulating environments – beautiful places, people-watching venues, etc. I walk, run or swim often – these are perhaps some of the greatest idea generators in my life’s rhythms – and I think almost everyone ought to walk or exercise more:) I regularly practice solitude and quiet, giving myself time and space to hear the ideas percolating from within.

Here’s the bullet point summary:

1. Practice writing about whatever – and see what happens. What you love to write about and what you write well about will eventually rise to the surface. 

2. Live an idea generating life – one that is outwardly oriented and inwardly nourishing. This will look different for each person. Then, keep post-it notes handy.

3. Pay attention – to what works, what resonates, what stinks and what you enjoy. Regular self-evaluation is a strong tool of improvement. 

Blogging and Writing 104 – Learn To Write Well

(This is part 4 in a series on the how-to’s of writing and blogging, numbered from the beginning of the series. Previous entries are here: 101, 102 and 103)

Blogging is a dynamic medium. That means you can think it, write it and post it all within a few minutes time. This is great in terms of communicating from the heart and the moment. It is not so great regarding grammar, spelling and sentence construction. Or writer’s regret – i.e. writing something in the heat of the moment you’ll regret later.  I am not stickler for anal-retentive punctuation. Some of my favorite bloggers intentionally don’t use capitalization – or they creatively punctuate for emphasis. And I believe if you are going to write something, please feel free to write substantively or emotionally. All that being said however:

10. Check grammar, punctuation and sentence structure before posting. Many people who read your work don’t know you personally – and their first impression will be the neatness of your work. It is sort of like when you invite a friend to your house but neglect to clean the foyer. It doesn’t inspire confidence in the homeowner.

11. Learn to write clearly understood sentences. I was a former high school science teacher, which meant I graded a lot of science project reports. One of my favorites informed me that “90% of all people were satisfied with the results of their autopsy.” Really?  Something in that sentence didn’t flow right, did it? Feel free to be creative. Short, long, wordy, sparse, rhyming, whimsical, comedic, ironic, poetic, matter-of-fact…Use whatever style suits you. (Hint – I think some of the best writers manage to write exactly how they talk.) But I would suggest that whatever style you use, construct sentences that say what you mean and say it clearly. Don’t make your readers work too hard to follow your point.

12. Read up on how to write well. It should come as no surprise to my regular readers, that if I am interested in it, I have probably read on the topic. This includes writing. Below are two of my favorite writing books and definitely recommended for anyone wanting to improve as a writer.

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott.  Author and writing instructor Anne Lamott nails it here. While the second half of the book focuses on fiction writing (not my territory, but interesting nonetheless), the first half is solid gold in terms of learning to find your style, getting over writer’s block, identifying what it is you really want to say, the writer’s journey (those of you who are compelled to write will understand this), etc. Plus, it is very, very well written and laugh out loud funny in places, making it a pleasure to read.

Word Magic For Writers by Cindy Rogers This book is an amazing summary of how to write well. It is covers a lot of grammar (in a very engaging, easy to follow and even entertaining way – really:), but it is also about effective communication. All who aspire to be good writers should read and refer to this book often!

13. Please be aware of the cringe factor. I’ve read some blogs and thought to myself, “TMI!” (too much information). I cringe because I know they’ve gone beyond the boundaries of appropriate sharing and know they will probably regret posting this later. (More on this in a later post.) Please, before you hit the publish button and put your thoughts out there for the world to read, think about whether you will regret it later. Or whether your readers will regret it. The tension of course is that many writers want to connect authentically with their readers. Sharing on a personal level can certainly be a part of it. But usually we know when the line has been crossed. Figure out where your line is and try to stay on the safe side.

14. Wait at least a week from the end of the writing process to pushing the publish button. Not everyone needs to follow this. Personally however, I’ve found that I need the time to sit with a topic before I’m ready to release it. I might want to edit it. To think about whether it is too personal or how it might affect another’s perception of me. (I don’t write to please others, but I do need to guard my platform and respectability – or I will lose any influence and audience I might have.) Because I am a spiritual writer, it gives me time to engage my Jesus on what I write, making sure it is true, human, accurate and beneficial. I will often bounce my topics off of other people, to see how it lands with them. This is very valuable feedback. The in-between time, from when I first write until when I publish, is often my favorite part of the whole process. It can feel like an ongoing conversation with the idea I am trying to communicate, like an ongoing conversation with Jesus about the idea He is stirring within me. This process of waiting also ensures that what makes it to the light of day is my best work.

Blogging and Writing 103 – What Are You Trying To Say?

(Part 3 of a series on blogging and writing how-to’s, numbered from the beginning of the series. Click to read 101 and 102)

6. Know what it is you are trying to do with your blog.

It seems to me that blogs often fall into one of many, many categories – you may recognize some of the following:

The mommy blog – with photos, babypalooza stories, recipes and tons of mommy and domestic know-how. The review blog – with thoughts on media. The rant blog – angry writer lets us all know what he thinks about something. The photo blog – self-explanatory. The spiritual direction blog – with believers of whatever faith sharing their thoughts, theology, life, etc. The education blog – the writer knows something about something, so they write informationally – cooking, DIY, shoes, cars, etc. The story blog – someone embarks on some sort of adventure : travel, adoption, getting married, new job, battle with cancer, loss of a loved one, etc and tells the story over time. A writer’s blog – an outlet for someone’s creative juices, where they post their created work. You get the picture.

Of course, few blogs fall cleanly into such categories. They are written by people and people tend to defy orderly categorization. And yet…having some sort of idea about what it is you are doing with your blog is important. For your reader as they decide whether to give you some of their online reading time, and for you as you try to sharpen your writing style.

What is your goal with blogging?

How would you categorize or describe your blog? 

What topics do you write to?

Who do you hope will be reading?

How would you describe your style?

Having brief concise answers to these and similar questions can help you focus your efforts, find your target audience and sharpen your writing style. Everyone should have the freedom to deviate when they choose, but identifying your core writing objectives can be very helpful and clarifying.

Presently, I would categorize Intersections as a spiritual autobiographical memoir/writer’s blog. At times it is my personal website with contact information, references and audio – with a few reviews occasionally thrown in for good measure. One of the things I knew I didn’t want this to become was a rant blog that critiqued others or their work. I want to be a creator, not just a critic or consumer with my online presence. I knew starting out that I wanted this blog to be about idea generation and creativity and the exploration of truth and where it hits real life. I guess my title and tagline say it all : INTERSECTIONS: where roads meet, choices are made, collisions happen and directions change.

It has taken me a few years to figure out where to land – but I feel like I have a good handle on what I’m trying to do here and how I want to go about it. I know what I am trying to say. Being able to articulate my objectives has made me a better writer.

What are some practical applications from having this knowledge?

7. Titles are important – In the modern age, people don’t read less, as is commonly thought. Instead they read differently. They skim. They read broadly till they find what it is they are really interested in, then they slow down. And even then, the skills that have been fine tuned through Facebook, twitter, texting and the internet are not just turned off. People read and leave pages quickly if they do not immediately seem relevant or worthwhile. That means how you title your work is incredibly important. It allows people a chance to  gauge whether they need what you have to offer. A good title can act like a reading speed bump, slowing someone down just long enough to engage. I’ve experimented with this and have found that my creatively or more specifically descriptive titled entries get higher traffic than my straightforwardly titled ones. Use adjectives, ask questions, pick words that grab attention or defy normal conversational use. Brevity can be powerful, as we all know, not all words are created equal. Give thought to the big words that go on the top of the page because they determine whether someone will stay and read – or not. And, make sure the overall title of your blog is interesting/creative/descriptive/intriguing or attention-getting. It, after all, is the most read thing on your blog. It lets your readers know something of your personality, style and objectives right out of the gate.

(If you would like another post with more details about titles and examples, just leave a comment below and I’ll try to get back to this at a later date.)

8. Introductory and concluding ideas are important – When listening to a sermon, most church goers can only recall the first and last things the pastor said. I’ve found the same is true of reading. Beginnings and endings are the front and back door of your ‘writing house’. Think of when you go to visit a friend at their house. At least in my experience, the conversations I have as I arrive and as I leave are often them most important ones. They determine how I remember the quality of my visit. In your writing, first and last sentences or the short paragraphs that surround the core ideas found within them, are what link your readers to a particular article. Take some time and really word-smith the first and last things your readers will read from you.

9. Consider numbering your points – If you write topically, numbering your points may be an idea worth considering. Sure, it takes away from the flow or poeticism of your prose. But if your objective is to impart information, (and this is where knowing your objective is very useful) then you want to make it as easy as possible for your reader to find and access your points. Numbering is a visual handle, allowing your readers to grasp and take away what they need easily.