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A List Apart: How to Write a Better Weblog is actually “How to be a better writer.” And […]

A List Apart: How to Write a Better Weblog is actually “How to be a better writer.” And it gives excellent advice: be precise, don’t be timid, be active (I’m a recovering passive voice addict)


I don’t know what it says about me that I prefer the amateur example over the professional example. “New York is magnificent in the spring”



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  1. 1
    Adam Kalsey

    The only reason the unprofessional was better was that the author expounded upon the statement. Instead of simply saying I like New York, the second example provides the thoughts behind the statement. The problem is that it is not done in a concise manner.

    “New York is magnificent in the spring” doesn’t adequetly explain the thoughts and emotions that led the writer to say that.

    New York is magnificent in the spring. Central Park is abloom, store windows are dressed in the latest fashion, and even the cab drivers seem a little nicer.

  2. 3

    Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems made the point that “bad writing” can be effective, even more effective than “good writing”. He used the writings of Mary Wehmeier, a former figure skater and current weblog-keeper, on the recent controversies in Salt Lake City, as an example of excellent bad writing. Interesting perspective.

  3. 4

    I thought the interesting point he made was that the bulk of our great novels came from amateurs and semi-pros, not professional writers.

    The difference between pro and amateur is often that someone is willing to pay for your work — we have enough Van Gough stories to know that isn’t necessarily a sign of your genius, just your salesmanship.

  4. 5

    that comment about most of our great novels coming from amateurs needs some backup, and certainly some clarification.

    what does ‘our great novels’ mean?
    over what time period?

    and IF you assume the statement is true, and that they are, only strictly speaking, ‘amateurs’ — that has everything to do with the pathetic market for good fiction and almost nothing to do, in my opinion, with their skill or talent.

    great novelists are not the same kind of ‘amateur’ being discussed in the first linked piece.

    terms are being muddied and blurred, at least.

  5. 6

    I think the point is that although some blogs are interesting and unique perspectives, that no one will mistake most of them for professional writing.

    Like everything else, it depends on what the goal is: are you providing information, or are you exploring your personal feelings and emotions? There’s a time and place and writing style appropriate to both.

    It is true that the more you work on being a “good” writer (fiction, journalism, critic, whatever), the more annoying certain things become. I am set into a rage over the confusion of “it’s” with “its.” To me, that is the kind of mistake a child makes when writing, and it astounds me that it’s in print (and web) all the time. I have overcome my dislike of the passive voice.

  6. 7

    I think the question of “what is professional writing” is an interesting one, if semantic.

    Amateurs, as we discussed a while back on the blog, are people who do not get paid for their writing. Yet the word used to mean a passionate expert (who did not get paid) and eventually got saddled with the association of not being particularly good. That might have more to do with our western culture (money=value) than with the quality of amateur work.

    Amateur work is uneven, and certain more uneven than professional (although the San Francisco Examiner gives me pause). But how does one become good enough to merit pay? By being a passionate amateur.

    The indifferent laziness in “New York is magnificent in the spring” suggested to me a professional who no longer needed to earn their right at the table, while the amateur’s struggles to express the ineffable in a way that is meaningful was far more engaging.

    Since I started this thread I’ve been running in the back of my head a way to explain why Palo Alto is magnificent in the spring, and failing. Perhaps it’s better to be driven by the amateur’s passion to try to do right by that feeling — even if it means failing.

    I think it is an amateur’s passion that makes great books: this driving desire to write the thing right, sales be damned (though they sure would be welcome).

    Palo Alto is magnificent in the spring; our back yard is as stuffed full of birds as a child’s picture book. The air bitingly clean in the morning, then the sun and trees laden with cherry blossoms in the afternoon warm the air until it’s as gentle and sweet smelling as my grandmother’s hello-hug.

    In the summer the sky is a blank blue, but in spring there is white wispy sky writing by clouds that bring the rain that transforms the brown hills into the bright green of our Ireland fantasies. We do not have the rebirth of life out of cold ice that the east has, but instead our spring is more like a dry sponge plumped with water. Palo Alto in spring is suddenly plump with green life.

    As a good professional or a true amateur I’d then cut down that mass of description into the few most effective lines… hopefully those least suggestive of cliché and most suggestive of the experience.

    I do think that Mr. Bernstein’s point was that there is always a first book for any professional novelist, and even that may not allow the writer to put food on the table. That getting paid to write is not the only guarantee of quality. But this is only a guess.

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