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Being boring (Sins of blogging)

Oct 13, 2009 • blogging, creativity

Being boring is sin #3 in my list of the seven deadly sins (other sins include being fake, irrelevantunreadable, irresponsible, unfindable, and inattentive). Perhaps a more tactful way of saying something is boring is to say the writer neglects to "keep the audience's attention." I'm always hearing about the short attention spans of online audiences, that readers only skim your content and spend a minute per page. Because of this short attention span, you're encouraged to keep your posts short.

I somewhat disagree. When readers complain that writing is too long, what they're really saying is that they're getting bored. The length isn't so much the problem as the content. They want to click elsewhere because they're bored.

What Is Boring?

To better understand what defines boring, let's look at a random article from the Technical Communication Journal – a journal that is known for being a bit on the dry side. As an academic journal, the authors perhaps feel constrained by scholarly conventions. These conventions involve omitting personal experiences, avoiding the use of "I," backpedaling from straightforward speech, and taking as long as possible to get to the point. Here's a passage in the August 2009 issue from an article about mentoring:

In our survey, we asked participants to explain any "risks" (Society for Technical Communication 2002), "constraints," or "difficulties" they may have encountered in their mentoring relationships; however, we allowed respondents to interpret these terms as they wished. Their responses, which were lengthy and covered multiple issues, indicated that they defined these terms in a broad sense. Three readers (two of the authors of this paper and a graduate student) analyzed the responses independently and parsed each response to the questions into individual comments—the length of which was determined by topic rather than by grammatical unit. To ensure the reliability of these divisions, all three readers had to agree on the length of the resulting comments. As a result of the divisions, there were 267 comments.

Realizing we may have biased the responses with our example ("a student who asks her mentor for a letter of recommendation when she has performed poorly in the eyes of the mentor"), we tagged any comment that related to that example as a "metacomment" and excluded these responses from our analysis. We also tagged participants' comments that were unrelated to the issue (such as comments about mentoring in general or comments about the questionnaire) as metacomments. That left us with 208 comments to categorize.

The readers then tried to categorize the comments using an existing taxonomy, Eby and Allen's (2002) multilevel taxonomy of protégé's' negative mentoring experiences (see Appendix B), that we had revised to reflect a mentor's perspective. For example, we took Eby's category, Lack of Mentor Expertise, and changed it to Lack of Protege Expertise. We felt the taxonomy might be a valuable tool for organizing the results. We soon discovered, however, that the majority of the comments from our survey did not correspond to Eby and Allen's taxonomy.

Although some of the comments fit into some of the categories (29%), most of the comments (71%) did not fit into any of the five categories in the Eby-Allen taxonomy of negative mentoring experiences. Therefore, the readers took the remaining comments and grouped them by topic and created a new taxonomy (as described in our Results section) to better reflect the academic mentor's perspective. (p.250).

Are you bored yet? What exactly is it about this article that makes it boring? The authors do focus a lot on the process instead of the point. This may be a required academic convention for journal articles, but if so, perhaps it could be moved to some footnotes or an appendix. It's the equivalent of describing the writing process. Can you imagine a post that contains the following?

First I made a series of notes on a piece of paper. The paper was 8.5 x 11 and purchased at Staples at a discount. The fact that the paper was purchased at a discount did not bias the way we used the paper. We made our notes in a dual column format, with pros in one column and cons in the other column. In my notes, pros is synonymous with advantages, while cons aligns itself with disadvantages, though it also included negative connotations. As I began to make notes, I also compiled a brief bibliography on the topic. Readings included both websites, blogs, and articles. STC publications were given priority as well as articles submitted to tc.eserver.org. With each reading, I added notes on index cards, which I then taxonomized into a hierarchical structure sorted first by author and then by date. The index cards were lined and initially encased in thin plastic.

It's dreadful writing like this that partly discouraged me from academia. In addition to emphasizing seemingly unnecessary details, the writing omits any personal experiences.

I suppose I expose my biases here, but good writing mixes the personal and professional. In other words, good essays have a balance of personal experiences and ideas. You may only be a "narrative presence," as Ted Conover explains, but don't completely omit the personal if you want your ideas to come alive. The experiences you bring to the topic not only give the essay a engaging spin, personal experiences also usually bring in story, which is essential.

Story

Your writing will ultimately bore readers unless you can hook them with story. Story is the sine qua non of writing -- without it, chances are what you're writing will be lifeless.

When I refer to story, I'm not talking about Cinderella or Huck Finn narratives. Any time someone or something struggles to overcome a problem, that's a story. The problem could be purely conceptual, such as a philosophical idea you struggle against. Better stories have characters (perhaps the character is you) that experience a change to overcome the problem, but that change isn't always necessary. A bare bones story simply needs conflict. However you tackle it, when you approach your posts from the perspective of story, the writing gains propulsion and keeps the reader engaged.

A while ago, I read a chapter in a book -- Ivan Tors' 1979 memoir, My Life in the Wild -- that provides somewhat of an example with the power of story. Tors is probably an author no one has ever heard of. And rightly so -- his prose is pretty bad and unenlightening. I bought the novel at a thrift store looking for some cheap adventure nonfiction. However, in his chapter "In Cold Sweat," he nails the story technique.

Ivan is an animal expert accompanying a video documentary team in Kenya. On an outing to observe migrations of animals from the dry Serengeti to Lake Victoria, his jeep's water pump gives way, stranding him miles from camp. As he starts walking back to camp, he realizes something is following him. He writes,

As soon as I began my long walk, I heard the yellow grass rustling behind me. I turned and looked. There was an enormous female lion following me, just sauntering behind me. I knew that I must not run or I might provoke an attack. When a 500-pound body pounces on a human back, something is bound to give. I knew what I had to do. I must disregard her and do nothing that would excite her, but I could not help thinking about my friend who was killed by a lion, and this did not do much for my morale.

At this point, Tors has our attention. The conflict is clear: he is stranded in a hot desert with a lion surreptitiously following him. Because the reader is somewhat hooked, Tors can move us in whatever direction he wants now. He can launch into exposition about the behavioral patterns of lions, and we will still remain attentive because of the story. And this is exactly what he does. Tors explains,

Lions have formed the habit, during the many millions of years of successful existence, of surprising their prey. This means stalking them from behind against the wind and jumping on their backs when an attack is least suspected -- usually breaking the back of the prey. Antelopes, for their part, have learned that frontal attack is unlikely and that spotting al ion and not running is the safest tactic. If an antelope herd sees a lion, they usually turn toward the lion and stare him down. The lion, thus discovered, becomes confused, and then disappears to try his luck on another herd of antelopes that perhaps will remain unaware of his presence.

Were it not for the story, this exposition about the behavior of lions would quickly tire us out. Likewise, if we were only fed details about the experience, without the information of the lion's behavior, the story wouldn't be as engaging. It's the combination of personal experiences and ideas narrated against a conflict that makes writing interesting. (I scanned the "In Cold Sweat" chapter and converted it to PDF format here if you want to read it.)

You may object that I'm comparing apples to oranges with my examples. Clearly the Technical Communication Journal's articles follow one style, and Tors' literary memoir another. However, regardless of genre, if you follow the story, mixing personal with professional, you can usually keep the reader's attention page after page.

For example, an article on mentoring could perhaps begin with an anecdote about a mentoring relationship that went sour, which then prompted the author to survey other academic mentors as to whether their mentoring relationships were also strained and why. A 17 page article on mentoring could be peppered throughout with personal experiences and reflections from different mentors about the root causes that destroyed their mentoring relationships.

I recognize that this is not the academic way, that injecting the personal element presents the possibility of bias and of conclusions drawn from anecdotes rather than empirical research. While I recognize this, I think you can't omit the personal without suffering the consequences: with few exceptions, the reader will get bored. The personal element plays an especially critical role with blogs, since many readers value the honesty and transparency that comes from personal exposure.


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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.