I reached a kind of landmark this week with this blog. I have been making entries since January 26th, posting one item each weekday, except for a three-week break in June. As a result I have now posted over 100 entries and consisting of over 100,000 words, longer than either of my two published books.
Why do I blog? Why does anyone blog? The Doonesbury comic strip of Sunday, July 3, 2005 fed into the stereotype of bloggers as self-important losers who cannot get real jobs as writers, and feed their ego by pretending that what they say has influence. The idea behind this kind of disparaging attitude is that if no one is willing to pay you to write, then what you have to say has no value.
Of course, there are a vast number of bloggers out there, with an equally vast number of reasons as to why they blog so any generalization is probably wrong. So I will reflect on why I blog. Some bloggers may share this view, others may have different reasons. So be it.
The first reason is the very fact that because of the blog, I have written the equivalent of a complete book in six months. Writing is not easy, especially starting to write on any given day. Having a blog enforces on me a kind of discipline that would not exist otherwise. Before I started this blog, I would let ideas swirl around in my head, without actually putting them down in concrete form. After awhile, I would forget about them, but be left with this nagging feeling of dissatisfaction that I should have explored the ideas further and written them down.
The second benefit of writing is that it forces you to clarify and sharpen your ideas. It is easy to delude yourself that you understand something when you have the idea only in your mind. Putting those ideas to paper (or screen) has the startling effect of revealing gaps in knowledge and weaknesses of logic and reasoning, thus forcing a re-evaluation of one’s ideas. So writing is not a one-way process from brain to screen/paper. It is a dialectic process. Writing reveals your ideas but also changes the way you think. As the writer E. M. Forster said “How can I know what I am thinking until I see what I say?” This is why writing is such an important part of the educational process and why I am so pleased that the new SAGES program places such emphasis on it.
Another benefit for me is that writing this blog has (I hope) helped me become a better writer, able to spot poor construction and word choice more quickly. Practice is an important part of writing and the blog provides me with that. Given that the blog is public and can (in principle) be read by anyone prevents me from posting careless or shoddy pieces. It forces me to take the time to repeatedly revise and polish, essential skills for writers.
When I started this blog, I had no idea what form it would take. Pretty soon, almost without thinking, it slipped into the form that I am most comfortable with, which is that of a short essay around a single topic each day. I initially feared that I would run out of ideas to write about within a few weeks but this has not happened. In fact what happens is what all writers intuitively know but keep forgetting, which is that the very act of writing acts as a spur for new ideas, new directions to explore.
As I write, new topics keep coming into my mind, which I store away for future use. The ideas swirl around in my head as I am doing other things (like driving and chores), and much of the writing takes place in my mind during those times as well. The well of ideas to write about does not show any signs of going dry, although it does take time to get the items ready for posting, and that is my biggest constraint. Researching those topics so that I go beyond superficial “off the top of my head” comments and have something useful to say about them has been very educational for me.
Since I have imposed on myself the goal of writing an essay for each weekday, this has enabled me to essentially write the first draft (which is the hardest part of writing, for me at least) of many topics that may subsequently become articles (or even books) submitted for publication. If I do decide to expand on some of the blog item for publication, that process should be easier since I have done much of the preliminary research, organization, and writing already.
All these benefits have accrued to me, the writer, and this is no accident. I think most writing benefits the author most, for all the reasons given above. But any writer also hopes that the reader benefits in some way as well, though that is hard for the author to judge.
I remember when I was younger, I wanted to “be a writer” but never actually wrote anything, at least anything worthwhile. Everything I wrote seemed contrived and imitative. I then read a comment by someone who said that there is a big difference between those who want to be writers and those who want to write. The former are just enamored with idea of getting published, of being successful authors and seeing their name in print. The latter feel that they have something to say that they have to get out of their system. I realized then that I belonged to the former class, which I why I had never actually written anything of value. With that realization, I stopped thinking of myself as a writer and did not do any writing other than the minimum required for my work. It is only within the last ten years or so that I feel that I have moved into the latter category, feeling a compulsion to write for its own sake. This blog has given me a regular outlet for that impulse.
I would never have written so much without having this blog. I would recommend that others who feel like they have to write also start their own. Do not worry about whether anyone will read it or whether they will like it. Write because you feel you have something to say. Even if you are the only reader of your own writing, you will have learned a lot from the process.
Paul Krugman is an economist at Princeton University and is a member of the reality-based community. His July 15, 2005 op-ed in the New York Times shows how far politics has moved away from this kind of world and into one in which facts are seen as almost irrelevant.
Thanks to Richard Hake for the following quote by F.M. Cornford, Microcosmographia Academica – Being A Guide for the Young Academic Politician (Bowes & Bowes, Cambridge, 4th ed., 1949 first published in 1908), which might well have been addressed to Krugman and other members of the reality-based community, although it was written over a century ago:
You think (do you not?) that you have only to state a reasonable case, and people must listen to reason and act upon it at once. It is just this conviction that makes you so unpleasant….are you not aware that conviction has never been produced by an appeal to reason which only makes people uncomfortable? If you want to move them, you must address your arguments to prejudice and the political motive….