Random Notes

The public notebook of writer and essayist Scott Nesbitt

We all have friends we cherish. We all have one or two friends who we want to whack upside the head every now and then. Then there are those friends who fall into both categories. At the same time.

I have three friends like that. Great people, but sometimes ...

Recently, one of them said to me Now that you've got all this time on your hands, why don't you got back to learning a language?

I'm not sure where she got the idea that I have a lot of time on my hands (I definitely don't), but what she suggested isn't going to happen.

Why?

I won't go into details, but suffice it to say I'm 0 for 3 when it comes to learning a foreign tongue. My last attempt failed miserably, and I put that goal behind me.

Those three friends, including the one I mentioned, speak several foreign languages to a high level of proficiency. But they don't see my ineptitude in that area. They don't realize, or just ignore, that I have two left feet (linguistically speaking). They seem to think that because they did it, I can do it too. I tried, Ringo, I tried real hard. It didn't happen.

Despite my best efforts to dissuade them (including semi-serious threats of kidnapping beloved pets), they periodically persist in hounding me. None of them notice that I don't have the time to devote to that task. None of them understand that I don't have a compelling reason to learn a foreign language. None of them seem to get that I'm not interested in learning a foreign language.

Yet, their well-intentioned hounding continues.

The moral of this story? If there is one, that moral is there are people in your life who just don't listen. Many of them mean well, but they can be annoying. But you have let that slide and be happy they're in your life. Be happy that they care enough to pester you. You don't find friends like that every day.

A pile of foreign language dictionaries

Some people believe that magical places only exist far away. That you need to fly for a day or drive for hours to get to one.

But if you look around where you live, chances are there's a magical little spot nearby. It might be a park. It might be cozy book store. It might be a nature trail. It might be your own backyard.

My magical place, for example, is the Orakei Basin in Auckland. It's just a few minutes from downtown, and yet has what I find to be the perfect mix of urban elements and nature.

What makes somewhere magical is as much the place as the effect that place has on you. The magic is within. What's outside just helps it come out.

A view of the Orakei Basin in Auckland

From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, one of my dreams was to spend a year living on a houseboat in a canal in England. It's not that I was seduced by the supposed romance of it all. I just felt that I need change of scenery, a change of place, a change to my lifestyle. Living on a narrow boat moored in an English waterway, trying to make my living by my keyboard, seemed to offer all of that.

That dream never came true. For a variety of reasons. But I don't view that as a disappointment or a failure. I don't wonder What if ... I understand that not all dreams come true. Many of them can't.

Dreams are important, though. They offer more than a momentary escape from our sometimes drab and dull lives. They offer us something to strive for. They offer us a little better or a little different than what we have. They offer a glimpse into who we are and what's important to us.

Someone holding a glass sphere Photo by Nigel Tadyanehondo on Unsplash

Lately, I've been watching and re-watching a number of movies. Mainly older ones — anywhere from 25 to 50 years old. What's been striking is the use of music in those movies.

Few directors choose music well. I'd have to put Stanley Kubrick at the top of that list. He not only had impeccable taste in music in general, he also had a knack for choosing a piece of music that fit the mood of a scene. From The Thieving Magpie in the early part of A Clockwork Orange to The Blue Danube Waltz in the weightless scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey to using Hello Vietnam at the start of Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick's choices were perfect.

The only other director in recent memory who comes close is Quentin Tarantino. He's not quite on Kubrick's level when it comes to choice and taste, but Tarantino does a good job of picking the right music to go with a scene or sequence.

The choice of music can make or break a scene. Poorly-chosen music can change a scene's mood from pathos to bathos. Or worse. Well-chosen music can hammer home the emotion, the sensation, the power of a scene.

The best movies combine the visual and audio. How directors choose the music for those movies — whether after deep thought or using gut feeling — I don't know. I'm always impressed when their musical choices enhance the experience of watch a movie.

A page of sheet music

No one likes change. In anything. In their daily routines. In their breakfast cereal. In their software. In the look and feel of their daily newspaper.

Change is jolting. Change can be painful. Change requires you to adapt. And while you're adapting, you feel helpless and lost.

Change can be a four-letter word to some. But change can be good. It can break you out of a routine. It can help you form new habits. It can help you learn. It can help you grow. It can help you move on.

Only if you let it, though.

People like putting things, and others, into little boxes. They like categorizing things. They like pigeonholing people. All of that sort of thing. It's easier than thinking, and doesn't disrupt their view of the world.

But rarely does someone fit comfortably into any one category. Life just doesn't work like that. Take music, for example. When I was a teenager, I listened to a lot of thrash metal. Immediately, people assumed that was the only music I was interested in. They didn't realize that I also listened to progressive rock, jazz, blues, classical, Krautrock, and more. When they learned that, dazed and confused was the only way I could describe their reactions.

If people try to pigeonhole you, the problem lies with them and not with you. They refuse to think before they make a judgement. You're not going to change them. Don't try.

A green pin stuck in a bulletin board

Once upon a time, I used to blog a lot. No, make that a lot. During those days, I ran into a lot of the information and advice about blogging out that's floating around out there. Not just for beginners, but for more experienced bloggers as well.

A lot of that information and advice is good. Some of it sits on that line between being useful and being dubious. The rest is rubbish.

While all of that information and advice is interesting, and sometimes useful, it’s not gospel. It’s not written in stone. Some people seem to think it is, though.

I’m going to spend the next few hundred words offering you some advice that goes against the grain of the so-called conventional wisdom for bloggers. That information worked for me and fit with my goals when I was a blogger. It might also work for you.

Forget Keywords

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: keywords. Keywords have become tightly linked with SEO, and my thoughts about SEO are fairly well known in some circles.

Keywords can be either a precision tool or a bludgeon. Far too often, they’re a bludgeon. A big, heavy, nasty bludgeon.

Keywords and keyword density don’t matter. Keywords might draw traffic to your blog (though I’m not entirely convinced of that), but it won’t keep people on your blog. It won’t keep readers coming back. Remember that readers aren’t looking for keywords. They’re looking for information they can use. They’re looking for stories they can relate to.

If you feel the need to use keywords in your blog posts, don’t pack them in. It makes your writing sound unnatural. Writing like that doesn’t flow and reads badly. It sounds stilted. It sounds contrived. It reads like it was written for an algorithm rather than for human eyes and brains.

Someone suggested that you use one to two keywords in each paragraph. I’d go so far to say use them in every second paragraph. If that.

When in doubt about the number of keywords you’ve added to a blog post, read it out loud. If the post doesn’t sound natural or doesn’t flow, rewrite it.

WordPress Isn’t the Only Game on the Web

Many bloggers choose WordPress as their blogging platform. With good reason. But don’t think that WordPress is the only option you have.

While people pooh-pooh Blogger, Write.as, Ghost, Write.as, and other platforms for their supposed deficiencies, not everyone needs what WordPress has to offer. They can more than get by with simpler blogging platforms.

Choose your blogging platform based on your needs, not on what all the cool kids are using. If you want to go with WordPress, fine. If not, that’s fine too.

Remember that readers don’t care what blogging platform you use. They probably don't know that platform you use. They won’t run away in fear or disgust if you’re not using WordPress. They probably won’t know the difference, anyway.

And, if you haven't already guessed, this blog is hosted using Write.as. So there!

There’s No Ideal Length for a Blog Post

A question people often ask me is How long should a blog post be? You might as well as me how long a piece of string should be.

I’ve hear people talk about the optimal or ideal length of a blog post being between 1,200 and 1,500 words. It isn’t

A blog post should be as long as it needs to be. No more, no less. That could be 400 words or it could be 2,000.

Not every idea, not every topic will fit into that 1,200 to 1,500 word container. What’s the point of stretching and padding a post to reach that length? All those extra words aren’t adding anything, except unneeded bulk, to the post. So why add them in the first place?

You Don’t Need to be a Great Writer to be a Good Blogger

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone say that you need to be a great writer to be an effective blogger.

You don’t.

You need to be what I call an effective writer. By that, I mean someone who knows the basic rules of writing. Someone who’s willing to occasionally break those rules. Someone who can organize a piece of writing. Someone who can come up with interesting ideas, and who can tell an interesting story (when needed).

It’s not just about writing quickly. As the late William Zinsser (a legendary journalist, author, and writing teacher) said:

Just because you’re writing fluently doesn’t mean you’re writing well.

Strive to be great. But become a good writer first. There are too many hacks posting horrible writing on the web as it is. Why not set yourself apart from them? To become a good writer, you need to practice, practice, practice. Then repeat the process. Again, and again, and again. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

It’s Not About Numbers

It would be nice to have tens or hundreds of thousands of people reading your blog each week, wouldn’t it? Getting a bit (or more) income from all those readers would be nice, too.

Sadly, for many bloggers that’s not going to happen. Even if it did, how many of those visitors:

  1. Will come back?
  2. Are truly engaged with what you’ve written?

Probably only a fraction of them.

What you should be aiming for is a core of enthusiastic, engaged readers. I’d rather have 100 engaged readers than 1,000 casual ones. People who keep coming back because what I’ve written is helpful, is interesting, and speaks to them.

Not Everything Needs to Tell a Story

About eight or 10 years ago, people started nattering on about how everything that you wrote needed to tell a story. Whether it as marketing material, website copy, articles, books, or blog posts, the story (we were told) was the key to engaging readers. That’s nothing new — newspapers have been doing that for centuries.

To be honest, I got storied about pretty quickly. While stories can humanize writing and can help people relate to what you’re writing, not everything fits into the framework of a story.

But a story isn’t suitable for everything. Trying to shoehorn something you’re writing into the framework of a story can make it look like you’re trying to shoehorn it into the framework of a story. The writing becomes awkward, forced, unconvincing.

Don’t try to tell a story with everything you write. In some cases, you’ll use a scenario to frame a problem you’re trying to solve or to introduce what you’re writing about. Then, get to the heart of the matter. Jump into a procedure, a how-to, your idea or opinion. Don’t waste words going into detail or adding background. Offer your key insights or the solution immediately.

Final Thoughts

What’s important when blogging? It’s all about what you have to say. And you need to say it effectively.

Focusing on keywords, link building, audience numbers, and the like doesn’t get the job done. Instead, focus on crafting good blog posts. Focus on creating blog posts that will help your readers, that will entertain them, that will keep them coming back.

If there’s any secret to good blogging, that’s it.

Scrabble tiles laid out to spell 'BLOG'

Once again, I've been thinking about when a place has its greatest impact upon us.

I've found that a place has its greatest impact not when it's teeming with people. No, that has the opposite effect. Milling crowds with their cameras and smartphones generally take away from a place. Instead, it's when a place is at its calmest, it's quietest, it's most tranquil that you can really feel its power.

You notice more. You sense more. You feel more. I've experienced that with monuments, places of worship, memorials, and more in a number of countries.

Sometimes, you just don't get that feeling of power, that feeling of awe. Sometimes, you get mixed signals. Sometimes, you just wonder why.

Cliffs at Monkey Bay in New Zealand

That pretty much sums up life.

No one enters the world a perfectly-formed human being. We're pretty much blank slates, gathering a store of experiences that mold us. That imbue us with a sense of being and purpose.

Those experiences are nothing without opportunities to grow and to learn and to change. The number and quality of the opportunities we're presented with vary depending on a number of circumstances. Some of us let opportunities slip through our fingers. Others reach out and grab them in a death grip.

Those opportunities, those experiences pile up. They define the kind of people we are and become. That shapes our view of not only ourselves, but of others and the world at large.

Rain can be many things. It brings life. It brings destruction. It's an annoyance. It's a pleasant surprise. It makes a beautiful sound. It's incessant and depressing.

I have two very strong memories of rain. Memories that I don't think will ever leave my brain.

The first from when I was a child. It was a Sunday afternoon in October. The mid 1970s. I watched the heavy rain that had been falling since early morning flow into a sewer grate near my house. A steady, unrelenting river that soon had the sewer overflowing. My childish imagination conjured images of a flood of biblical proportions engulfing the street I lived on.

The other memory is when I was in Beijing one July in 2006. The heat, the humidity, and the pollution came together to create a dark, oppressive smog that blanketed the city. A typical summer day in that burgh. The rains came, and washed away the dirty air. There was a short break in the rain, then it started again. I looked out the window of the apartment I was staying in and saw something beautiful: cyclist wearing multicoloured rain ponchos streaming down the street below. By the time I got my camera, they were gone.

Raindrops hitting the ground

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