Random Notes

The public notebook of writer and essayist Scott Nesbitt

Far too often (and once is too often), I hear or see something by writers who, when looking back at their early work, express shock and horror at how cringeworthy that work is.

It's a silly reaction. They're being far too dramatic.

They seem to forget that they're not that writer any more. The writer they are now isn't the writer they were when they penned that early work.

That goes for you, too. At least, I hope it does.

If you've been doing everything you should have — studying your craft, writing with intent, pressing the Publish button, getting feedback, and repeating the process — you should have grown as a writer. You'll have improved, honed your craft, and expanded your skills.

Instead of cringing or expressing horror at your older work, you should look closely at it. You should take in how far you've come.

You'll see glimpses of the writer you are now in those early pieces. Sure, that work will lack polish and sometimes seem laboured, but the core of you as a writer is in there. A while back, I resurrected an unpublished science essay that I wrote in the early 1990s. That essay needed to be updated, rewritten a bit, and pared down. But overall, in my opinion, it was a good piece of both writing and thinking.

I view that essay, and the writing I did in that period, as being part of the foundation of the career I have. Yes, I would write all of those articles and essays differently if I was tackling them now. That's not the point. Writing all those words, including (I'd argue especially) the unpublished words, were what made me the writer I am today.

So, if you feel the urge to look back at what you wrote early in your journey as a writer then remember to view that work as the first steps you took. The first steps that led you where you are now.

That's telling a person something they're struggling to learn or do is easy.

Sure, it might be easy for you but it isn't for them. If it was easy, they wouldn't be struggling, would they?

Telling a person that something with which they're struggling is easy makes them feel inadequate. It makes them feel inferior. Frankly, it makes them feel stupid.

Whenever you come across someone who's struggling like that, don't tell them that what they're trying to do is easy. Instead, find out why they're struggling. Offer what advice you can or point them to a person or a resource that can actually help them.

Confession time: I have something of a like/dislike relationship with list posts on a blog. On any blog.

On one hand, list posts are a fast and fairly easy way to get posts out on the web. And, if done properly, they can be useful and informative.

On the other hand, list posts can be a lazy blogger's way to slap together a post and, maybe, squeeze out some Google Juice. In many cases, list posts are packed with SEO keywords and aren't as useful as they could be.

While I don't write all that many list posts, I try to make the ones that I do write interesting and informative. I might not always succeed, but it can be done.

Let's take a look at one way to write useful list posts.

Read more...

I'm happy to announce that my new ebook, Learning HTML: A Quick and Dirty Guide for Writers, has hit the virtual bookshelves.

As you probably know, most of what you find on the web is formatted with HTML (short for HyperText Markup Language). While you don't need to know HTML to publish on the web, knowing HTML can definitely be an advantage. Especially when you need to fix bad or broken formatting.

That's where Learning HTML comes in. By working through this book, you'll quickly learn the basics of HTML. You'll be able to work comfortably and confidently with HTML code when you need to. Regardless of whether you're a blogger, a journalist, a content strategist, or a technical writer, knowing HTML will benefit you and your career.

This book teaches you:

  • The basic structure of a web page or document.
  • How to create headings, paragraphs, and lists.
  • How to build tables.
  • How to add images, audio, and video to your web pages or documents.

And a little bit more. None of that's complex. It just takes a bit of effort to learn and to master. By the end of this book, you won't be a web designer or a web developer. You will have a solid foundation upon which you can build if you want or need to learn more.

Learning HTML is based on the shortcuts I've used, as well as the training I've given to colleagues and other writers over the years. I've distilled what I've taught to all those writers into short, easy-to-understand and easy-to-digest chapters.

You can read a sample chapter if you're curious. You can buy the EPUB and PDF versions of the book on on Gumroad.

Everything these days seems to be a competition. A drive to convince us that one thing is better than another. Competing products, competing ideas, competing methods and styles. In the end, all that competition is an effort to grab market share and mindshare and, of course, profits.

All that competition is manufactured. The folks spurring on that competition want us to believe otherwise, though. They want to make us believe that our lives and our lifestyles would be diminished if we don't latch on to whatever they're foisting.

In 2015, I went on a small electronics buying spree. One of the devices I bought was a Pebble Time smartwatch. Sure, I could have gone with the more expensive option and snatched up an Android Wear or Samsung or Apple smartwatch. I didn't, and still don't, need everything that the fanboys tout as being great about their particular devices. My Pebble Time was simple, which is a key feature that I look for in many a device.

Maybe the world would be a better place if we didn't constantly strive to crush our enemies, see them driven before us, and hear the lamentation of their village folk. Maybe it would be a better place if we let everything find its niche or its market and not worry about the choices of others.

Unlike some writers I know and read, I don't obsess about every little detail. I don't obsess about every word. I don't lose sleep over every term. I doubt that makes me unique among writers, but I really don't sweat the small stuff.

But there is one word I'm struggling with, and have been for a while now. That word? Content. I'm definitely not a fan of that term. I admit, though, that I'm as guilty of referring to what I find on the web as content as much as the next person.

That has to stop.

Why?

Content has the connotation of something that's quickly and cheaply made. Of something that's mass produced, generic, homogeneous.

Content implies something without a distinct voice. Something that's not well crafted. Something that tries to draw eyeballs instead of helping and informing. Something written for algorithms and not people.

Content implies something, to paraphrase the late Harlan Ellison, that bursts into flame and turns to ash shortly after it's published.

Content is something that you read or view and then throw away. Something to be forgotten as quickly as it was read.

When I started to seriously put words to paper in the 1980s, I never thought about writing content. I wrote articles. I wrote essays. I wrote reviews. I even took stabs at writing short stories. I knew that most of what I wrote (and would write in the future) wasn't for the ages. But that work had more than just immediate import or impact. To be honest, I still get positive feedback on some of the articles and essays I wrote in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

I don't think I'd still be getting a good response to what I've written if I'd focused on churning out as much content as I could.

From this date forward, I'm banishing the term content from my writing (unless it's in the pejorative). And you can slap me if you find that term in what I write from now on.

That's a question I'm sure many of us have asked ourselves over the years. What if I made a different choice. What if I took another path or the other fork in the road. What if I made another decision.

Looking back, there would be two, maybe three things I'd do differently if I could. But I also know that asking What if is useless. You made your choice. You can't change it. Thinking about a different scenario doesn't make your current situation any better.

You can either accept and embrace where you are and what you do, or you can make a change. The only way the past can help you is to remind you about what making a different choice is like.

Some interesting posts I've discovered in these parts over the last while:

We all have that urge. To come up with something out of nothing. To build. To form something that's outside of us.

It doesn't have to be art. It doesn't need to be permanent. It doesn't need to useful or made with exacting skill. What we create is an expression of something inside us. It needs to come out, whether as words or images or music or something you can hold in your hand.

Sometimes, you need to give in to the urge. You'll be a better person for it if you do.

We all know someone who does that. We've all run into someone who does that.

Someone who zeroes in on the smallest, most imperceptible flaw. Someone who belabors the most minuscule and obscure point. Someone who makes something of negligible importance the crux of their argument.

People like that don't understand that the trivial isn't important. That's why it's called trivial.

Picking nits, trying to punch holes in something by making a big deal out of an insignificant point doesn't demonstrate highly-developed reasoning. It doesn't demonstrate a keen intellect. It doesn't illustrate your attention to detail.

It makes you look like a petty, insecure little person who's desperate to get others to listen to you in any way you can.

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