What to Blog/Write About
When you first start blogging and even years after you've been blogging, the question of what to write about is constantly on your mind. In the past, I've followed traditional advice (from people such as Lorelle at WordPress.com) and maintained a specific focus to my blog. I've also recommended this strategy to others. In fact, after recommending it to one blogger, she reported that having a specific focus helped her come up with ideas to write about.
This past week I've been rethinking the need for a specific focus. I don't know exactly when it happened, but I had an epiphany the other week about my life, and I looked at my blog and felt that I wasn't writing the way I truly wanted to write. If someone were to hack into my database and corrupt it, causing me to lose all, I wouldn't be broken-hearted. A lot of these topics -- on technical communication -- don't have a lot of meaning to me.
Which caused me to ask why I'm not writing about things that mean a lot to me. When life is all over, I would like to have written everything I wanted to write. Otherwise, what's the point of spending so much time blogging/writing?
A lot of writers feel compelled to write a literary novel, or to write poetry or even book-length nonfiction. But for me, I've always been fond of the personal essay. I like the honesty of the voice, the realism and the spark of discovery. Philip Lopate, Joseph Epstein, Ian Frazier -- these were my literary heroes in graduate school.
I tried to imitate them, but for lack of material, I resorted to too much personal narrative, and it didn't have the same appeal as the personal essays I admired. My essays were also tough to get published, much less to receive payment for them.
After graduating, I found that in getting a job, technical skills and tool knowledge were valued more than creative writing and literary knowledge, and I moved in that direction for about the next eight years.
My blog helped satisfy my desire to write, keeping my creative side quenched enough to allow me to be a happy procedural writer during the day. In the evenings, ideas for work-related posts came easy -- all I had to do was pay attention to the events of the day. My blog helped move my career forward, making me visible in the profession and connecting me with other professionals.
But still, inside, despite the frequent technical communication topics of my blog, it was the personal essay form I wanted to write – the reflective narrative that interweaves personal experience with topical exploration. Personal essays actually fit well with blogs, I think. A good blog post can pass as a personal essay, and a personal essay can pass as blog post.
Personal essays describe a form that can fit around any content, including technical communication. Surely a good many of my posts could pass as personal essays.
But I have varied interests -- not just technical communication. Sometimes I like to pick random topics and see what I can make of them, the ideas I can squeeze out. I believe I can start at any point and find something interesting to say. For example, one time while teaching composition as a graduate student, I told students about this idea of starting anywhere and dared them to bring up a topic. A kid held up a walnut with a brand on it. For the next hour we talked about animals on campus, such as squirrels, and whether one should feed them. Heated debates ensued.
More than ideas though, good writing has to tell a story, and I try to see the story even when story isn't apparent. Story is, I'm convinced, the most important element of writing. A good story doesn't have to feel anecdotal, or include protagonists and rising action, reaching a climax and turning point, followed by a change of character and denouement. But if you look at events and histories and other ideas, they have a kind of story in themselves. They rub against conflict, evolve to overcome it, and change things as a result.
Audience is another consideration in my writing. You often hear the advice to write for yourself and no one else. I wish I could actually believe that advice. As hard as I try, I can never completely remove the audience from my mind. I'm not explicitly writing for anyone in particular, just a faceless entity who may be reading my writing at some odd hour in the night. Perhaps I should bring my posts as reading material when I go on trips, because as narcissistic as that sounds, that's what the advice seems to suggest.
But I don't mind writing for an audience. For me, the experience of writing and reading is about connection. Connection with the Other, as Emmanuel Levinas might say. Whether you write as a form of therapy, to express something inside, as a tool for thinking, or for remembering, below it all is a desire to connect with others. On the deep, philosophical level, I believe we write to overcome the sense of isolation and solitude that haunts us. I know I can't connect with others until I write about things that first connect with myself.
This week, which is Spring Break here in Utah, I'm going camping down at Wolverine Canyon in Southern Utah. Maybe the four days in the desert -- away from technology and my blog -- will help me find my writing roots. (I also might be washed away in a flash flood, making the whole question of what to write about obsolete.) But overall, what I'm trying to articulate is that I want my blog to mean more to me than it does. I want my posts to be more significant in my life, to be the content I need to write to have made it all worthwhile. It makes no sense spending hours each week in activity that doesn't fulfill, in every way, my motive to write. So while I may continue to focus on technical communication, as well as a variety of other topics, my future posts will embrace more of a personal essay form.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.