10 January 2011

Writing without a spotter

Photo by athena.
Writing is hard, but writing alone is even harder.

Most writing projects are team efforts. Even if only one person is responsible for the final product, there's someone else to read drafts and help shape the text into something clear and pleasing. Books or newspaper and magazine articles have editors. Scientific papers usually have coauthors, or at the very least colleagues who'll provide feedback on a draft—and then peer reviewers and journal editors who will point out inaccuracies and missed commas with equal delight.

You can even ask your roommate to look over the essay you're writing for English 102, if he's still awake at 2 a.m.

By comparison, blog posts are often composed in a vacuum. I'll read a scientific paper or a news article, or view a video on YouTube, compose my thoughts about it, drop in a Creative Commons-licensed photo or two from Flickr, and then give the whole thing a read-through in Blogger's "preview" mode to make sure I like it. Sometimes I'll repeat that final read-through a couple of times for a long post, but that's all the editorial process I have. I'm the only one to see the work until I click "publish post."

This never really seemed like a problem to me until I was working through my reviewing for the Open Lab 2010 anthology, and began to suspect that I'm not the only one writing this way. Time after time I read Open Lab submissions and caught myself thinking about the comments I'd scribble in the margins if I were editing them, instead of rendering yes/no judgements.

Not that these OL submissions weren't good writing—several were among the best in my list to review. But as a reader who wasn't also the author, I could see how small changes—moving a few paragraphs to create a clearer train of thought, or returning to an idea from the first few sentences to provide a neater ending—could improve the work. I'm left to wonder what improvements someone else would suggest if he or she could look over my posts before I publish them.

I'm not about to hire an editor for this one-man blog, and I don't know how often I'll get up the nerve to ask colleagues or my roommate to look over blog posts and give feedback. Short of that, I think I'm going to spend more effort thinking about what I like in the kind of writing I want to do here—science, for non-scientists—and how I can emulate it. If I can't have an editor or a coauthor, I can at least pay deliberate attention to what works and what doesn't, and see if I can't get better at writing without a spotter.

I may end up with some bruises to the ego, but I'll survive. After all, I've only just realized that I'm in danger of falling.

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