I’ve noticed a strange trend online in the past few weeks. There seems to be a tendency for people to praise the writing of bloggers whose writing skills are, actually, often marginal.
I’m all in favour of encouraging people to write well – I’ve written quite a lot on the subject – but praise should be given where it’s genuinely warranted. By telling someone who’s not really that great how wonderful they are, you give them false confidence, and minimise any inclination to self-analysis and improvement, because it’s a sad fact that writers are too close to their work, very often, to see errors and defects without making an effort to do so – and I do mean all of us.
Far too many, it seems, fail to even read their work before publishing it, or even bother to hit the spell-check button, the result being rather less than praiseworthy, from weird punctuation (just a misplaced comma can radically change meaning), to essential words that are completely missing – as if the writer had gone off for a pee in the middle of a sentence, and forgotten to finish it.
When we speak we often use a verbal shorthand, omitting or eliding words – that should not find its way into writing, except in dialogue, a rarity in a blog post – you knowing what you mean is no guarantee everyone else will. I’m not saying you should write perfect English (which can be dull), but you should know how to do so before you take liberties with it.
Paragraph spacing catches some people out. You either go with the traditional single space and indent, or the word-processor-originated, and now the more or less accepted norm online and in letters, double-space, no indent which, especially onscreen, is much easier to read. I know several bloggers who use the latter form, as do I, but their spacing is inconsistent, which doesn’t help clarity. As for double-space AND indent – NO! Never.
I write my blog posts in Word. There’s a body of opinion among WordPress bloggers, who should know better, that doing this is in some way wrong – no it’s bloody not – were it really wrong, WP wouldn’t actually provide a “Paste from Word” button, would they? It’s vital, though, to use that button, not just drop text into the New Post pane – you’ll bugger the code doing that, which won’t improve your blog.
Using Word makes it much easier to spell-check (and you really must use the personal dictionary option right from the outset – Word’s native dictionary has the vocabulary of a 10-year-old, which is of little use to an educated adult), and also to read, carefully, what you’ve written.
I find, especially with a post of several thousand words, that it’s best to go away from it for a few minutes, maybe have a coffee, or potter round the kitchen, before proof-reading it. Be aware, too, that if you have a regular blind spot (like me, inserting an apostrophe into the possessive “its” – I know it doesn’t have one, but when typing on autopilot it often gets one), going straight into reading mode may cause you to miss it – having a break for a few minutes first reduces that tendency, for me at least.
I also have a problem, which relates to my ME/CFS (which has the capacity to cause a high degree of intellectual impairment, especially when I’m tired), in that I confuse homophones when typing – as with the erroneous “it’s” I do know better, but often I type on autopilot** and insert them all unknowing – the spell-checker won’t find errors in which the wrong word, correctly spelt, is used, so you need to be on the lookout for stuff like that (and even then, the odd one will likely get by you).
**I don’t plan what I type – as I’ve explained at length elsewhere, I have a subject in mind, the words pretty much take care of themselves with little conscious input from me.
A good test of how good you really are is to go back to a blog post you wrote a couple of months ago (not much help to a new blogger, I know, but bear with me), and read it with a highly critical eye – as if you were reading someone else’s blog post. If you think, “Wow, that’s pretty damn good!” then you might be on to something (if you’ve been genuinely assiduous in your critique). If, however, you’re mortified that you ever published it, and find errors, then you have work to do.
That’s something I do myself, even though I’ve been writing on a regular basis since 2004 – and on and off since I was 19 – it can provide a salutary lesson, because no matter how good you really are, nobody is perfect, and we are all capable of improvement. And error.
And anyone with a punctuation blind spot really should read Lynne Truss’s book Eats shoots and leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, because screwing up punctuation can seriously interfere with what you’re trying to say.
Finally, I have a nagging feeling I’ve already written this post, However, I’ve checked, and I haven’t published it. I might well have written it, though – I write a lot of stuff that doesn’t get published, because it’s not up to standard, or because it runs into a cul-de-sac. Just like a book, a blog post has to have a beginning, middle and end – far too many (and I’ve read a few like this in the past couple of days) – simply stop and leave you hanging in mid air. A good way to get a feel for this is to read short stories, and learn how to bring a short piece to a natural end, like this.