Focussing on practice

I was reading Chris Bowler’s most recent email newsletter today. In the intro to it he makes the comment:

It has simply been a matter of waiting and looking for the right things to write about. And maybe to focus on practicing more than preaching (always a good thing).

I can identify with both searching for the right things to write about, and especially the focus on practicing rather than preaching. I did go through a period a few years back of literally preaching in church, and often my blogging has been somewhat preachy. My current phase of life one of trying to concentrate more on the practicing aspect.

I am reading the Bible more than I was a year ago, am absorbing what is taught at church rather than arguing with it, and am searching for what my role should be over the next five years or so.

As far as blogging or writing goes, I’m still finding my way. Obviously I’ve not written much over the last few months, instead I have been reading and slowly making a balsa wood toy boat for my son.

I’ve been learning a bit about science writing and creative nonfiction, a potential direction that makes sense of my background and training. However, deep down I would also really like to write fiction so I’m still not sure which direction to move in. I guess the sensible thing would be to do the best I can at one or the other in order to gain practice as the experience can be used whichever way I finally go in.

Book learning

As I’ve been reading and researching information about writing for the web, I realised that it will save me time to find a book on the topic by someone who already knows about it. After a bit of indecision and largely based on reviews on Amazon, I have chosen the book Writing for the Web by Crawford Kilian.

The author of this book spent 40 years teaching at community colleges and from what I’ve read so far appears to know what he is on about. In fact, just reading the introduction I learned a new concept for me, the difference between hypotaxis and parataxis, and the idea that hypertext relies more on parataxis in which ideas stand alone without being linked to the previous idea.

I’m wanting to learn without my existing biases getting in the way so it makes sense to carefully read through this book (and possibly others), putting what I learn into practise and also following through with further reading and research where I can.

More information about hypotaxis and parataxis:

Reading on the web

This is part of a series on Writing for the Web.

The famous answer by Jakob Nielson to “How do users read on the web?” is “They don’t.”

Very few web users read written web content word-for-word. Instead, they scan the page searching for the information they want.

However, I question this finding. The eye tracking study which showed people scanning for information on the page was conducted in such a way that participants were given the task of looking for specific information on the page. When a person is searching for something in particular they will scan written text looking for it, whether it is written on a screen, paper or the side of a building. But there are still plenty of people who like to read in order to learn, for entertainment or because it is enjoyable. These are the people I want to write for.

Reading behaviour for long articles

To me, a more interesting question is, how do people read an article on the internet when they are interested in what it has to say? Are there differences in how we read a 1,000 word magazine style article on a website compared to how we read it in a newspaper?

Farhad Manjoo wrote an article on Slate which looks at roughly this question. He asked a data scientist to analyse the scrolling behaviour on Slate articles to determine what proportion of users scroll all the way through their articles. Taking a very broad view it seems that only something like 10 to 20% of users scroll all the way to the bottom of an article. These figures do have some correlation with actual reading in that better quality articles tend to end up with a better proportion of people scrolling all the way to the end to see what is there.

Reading online takes longer

It takes people approximately 20-30% longer to read online than it takes to read on paper. (The effects of reading speed and reading patterns on the understanding of text read from screen. Mary Clare Dyson & Mark Haselgrove Journal of Research in Reading 23(2):210 – 223 · June 2000)

Multitasking is more likely online

In a study comparing on-screen and hard copy reading, 90% of students stated that they are more likely to multitask when reading from a screen. (Redefining reading: The impact of digital communication media. NS Baron – PMLA, 2013)

Reading from a screen is harder

Naomi Baron found that people consistently said it is harder to concentrate when reading from a screen, and that it is easier to focus when reading hard copy.

Physicality of books helps reading

Baron noted that in her studies there were significant preferences for the physical attributes of books, preferences which can inform how web writing could be made easier to read. These physical aspects of books include the ease of navigation and knowing where one is reading and how it relates to the overall text, the book cover and it’s visual imprint on memory, being able to easily annotate a book, and the ease of flipping from place to place in a paper book.

Short and scannable is not the only option

Despite the commonly held view that web readers prefer short, scannable content, there is evidence of an audience hungry for longer articles that engage and inform them. In fact, Jacqueline Marino found that even if an article is very text heavy, it can still be engaging if it is well structured and well written. Similarly, Chris Giliberti argues that Millennials are seeking out high quality long form content to counter the constant stream of short, shallow web content which has become the norm.

Challenges to web writing

From what I’ve discovered about how people read online, here are some of the challenges for a web writer:

  • Readers switch from linear reading to searching or skimming.
  • Reading online is slower.
  • Distraction is a problem for web readers.
  • Web readers often multitask.
  • Web writing needs to be well written and well structured.
  • Readers typically expect shorter content online.
  • It is assumed that reading should include instant access to other resources.
  • Help readers navigate through the text.
  • Visual markers are useful to readers.
  • Ease of annotation may help readers.

On Editing Harshly

I came across an interesting little post about how to write (and edit) a blog post which is fairly realistic about how the process really happens. I’m not quite as rigorous on the editing now that I’m trying to put something out each day.

Randomly think of a thing. Let it bump around your head a bit. If the bumping gets too loud, start writing the words with the nearest writing device. See how far you get. The more words usually mean a higher degree of personal interest. Stop when it suits you.

How to Write a Blog Post by Michael Lopp (Rands)

Some reasons why I have my own website

Digging through my massive archive of Evernote clippings I came across one from a guy named Brett Slatkin in which he outlines some reasons why he chooses to have his own website. The reason I kept the note is to remind me to consider this question for myself and to write my thoughts on the topic.

In the past my typical response to this sort of topic has been to begin a draft with the intention of writing a comprehensive post drawing together all my thinking on the subject. I’m increasingly aware that it is much more constructive for me to throw together my thoughts at the time when I’m motivated by the topic and publish it, whether I feel it is complete or not. I can always circle back around at some later time to add more ideas or update my thinking in the light of experience.

So, I’m going to steal Brett’s major headings and start from there:

A home base

This blog is where I write first. I have tried various social media channels and failed at most of them. My blog is personal to me, it is where I automatically think to put anything I write, and I’m trying to make it the hub of whatever else I do online.

Self expression

Initially (back in 2010), I found it difficult to come out of my shell and ‘be myself’ in what and how I wrote on my blog. Gradually this has changed and although I do maintain boundaries as to what I share, nowadays what you read is generally likely to be what is on my heart at the time of publication. I’m also aiming to expand the ways in which I use my blog as a form of self-expression, varying the styles of my writing, including a range of posts from short status updates or random thoughts through to much longer articles. Don’t hold your breath Chris, but maybe even some poetry!

Something I’m interested to try is photography. I’m not a good photographer, but it is a good way to catch some things that can be difficult to put into words. In the past I used a lot of stock photos but have grown away from liking those as I’ve moved more into personal blogging rather than writing about faith as I used to. Instead I’d like to use more of my own photos to illustrate my life rather than just talking (well, writing) about it.

Internet citizenship

This heading would not have made it into my top three if I hadn’t stolen it! However, it is actually an important issue. As sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn have created their own ‘silos’ effects, locking user-generated content into their own systems, I’m becoming increasing bloody-minded about avoiding such silos and publishing to the ‘open web’. I do like what Brett had to say about linking and citing others, this is both and academic necessity in my view and also common courtesy. Unfortunately, some sites are making even this difficult, I noticed today when I scanned my site for broken links that all the links I have to articles from the New York Times are broken because of their pay wall – in my view this is just plain obnoxious.

Now a few headings of my own:

Freedom

This is a major factor for me. I greatly value the ability to create a backup or export of my entire site and move it to whatever web host or platform I want to. Over the years I’ve experimented with WordPress.org, WordPress.com, Ghost, Squarespace and a bunch of html files. All this is possible with your own website and the only limits are time, patience and technical prowess (I’m lacking in the third of those attributes).

The other aspect of freedom is being free to express my own views. I’m not a political writer so freedom of speech has not been a significant issue to me, but I do write about my faith in Christ and in some situations the freedom to do this could conceivably be curtailed. I just like knowing that I’m not unduly constrained by some company that ‘graciously’ lets me post stuff on their site for free.

Legacy

The longer I maintain my own website the more valuable it becomes to me, and potentially to my children. I want to continue building this legacy, and also to be able to ensure ongoing access to it. Even if I were to take the site offline, it could still be made into a local copy that could be accessed by my family. It can be exported into plain text files which theoretically should still be readable in 50 years time, or it could be printed onto good old paper for others to read. Some of these options would cause a loss in functionality, but the core content remains my own possession. Again, not left at the mercy of a company that allows me to put stuff on their platform for free.

Customisation

Being able to tinker with how my site looks is fun (and time consuming) and I do like being able to decide what extra functionality it has. However, this is not an especially significant item on my list. In reality I tend to opt for some sort of theme template that thousands of other sites probably use, and prefer a fairly simple layout so I can take or leave this particular aspect. It is nice to have the option open though.

A final link

While writing this I came across this article: Chopped up or Cloned: You Choose which gives a nice summary of how having your own website can act as an online hub, without having to forsake whatever other sites you happen to already use.

I have referred to and largely based this post on IndieWeb ideas, but really all I’m emphasising is the value of having your own blog or website. The more I have scratched around IndieWeb sites and their wiki the less inclined I am to fully embrace the whole thing because it seems vastly more complicated than what I want out of my own site.

I found some ‘lost’ blog posts

One of my goals with this blog is to keep a record of my thoughts, ideas, plans and actions for posterity (whatever form ‘posterity’ actually takes). In this sense there are some blog posts that I’m keeping primarily because they record something about my life at the time they were written rather than due to their literary quality. I’ve noticed as I pick through old Facebook status updates that there are things I want to keep simply because they are small incidents from actual life which are not particularly significant in themselves but strung together these snippets do tell a story of me and our family.

For this reason I was delighted to find an old blog backup file from January 2015 which contained about 30 points which were not already on this site so I’ve imported them and are working through them to keep the good stuff. As I look at each one I recall some were never published at the time and had sat in my drafts folder for months (I have a bad habit of half-writing blog posts, a habit I’m trying to break out of). I’ve already tidied a couple of these up (minor spelling and grammatical changes so they make sense) and published them with the dates when they were last saved (both in 2014). Some others were just ideas thrown into text which I am going to do some more work on and post soon. Those which had publication dates I’m posting with those original dates.

Another useful thing about this backup file is that it gives me another data point for a post I’m piecing together mapping out the various web hosts I’ve used over the years. I’ve made so many hops from one hosting company to another that I thought it would be useful to me at least to map these out and also include what I can remember of why I made the choices I did along the way.