In the beginning was the Word

Author’s note:  This is a long post, an address I gave at WordcampDetroit,  for bloggers using WordPress.  It should be helpful for any writer, and interesting to most readers.  After all, readers struggle because writers don’t.

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Hello everyone.  I’m Wally Metts, and I’m the daysman.

Since I’m speaking at a WordPress conference, I should establish my bona fides.  I have four WordPress blogs, although two of them are merely archives. I also help students set up portfolios on WordPress.

I got my Ph.D. at Michigan State, and direct an online only graduate program in communication at Spring Arbor University, where I’ve been teaching journalism and advertising over 25 years.

I’m also a pastor of family ministries at Countryside Bible Church, but don’t worry.  Even though it’s Sunday morning, and even though the title of my talk is a biblical allusion, I didn’t come here to preach.

The title, of course, comes from the famous logos passage in John 1, and I think it is an apt metaphor for what we do as bloggers, or even as writers more generally.  We start with an idea.  In the beginning was, or is, a word.

And then, “the word becomes flesh.”  This refers to the incarnation, of course.  But any idea must be fleshed out, in a sense.   In this passage the result is “grace and truth.”

Writing is like that. We start with an idea.  It “becomes flesh” as we express it, and then there is some effect.  So this is what we will talk about today—the idea, the expression and the effect. All communication concerns itself with this.

The idea

Matthew Arnold once said, “Have something to say and say it as clearly as possible.”

This something to say is the basis of all great blogs.  Or books. In the end, people don’t come to our blog for its functionality—plugs-in or design.  They might not come back if these things are not done well. But they come for information, entertainment, and understanding.

Each post or article, then,  requires a strong idea.  But so does the blog or website itself.  Mine is a Christian cultural critique, helping me and my readers make sense of a fuzzy world by being “biblical faithful and culturally thoughtful.

But what’s yours?  Put it on your about page or in your tagline.  And then keeping doing it.

For years your teachers said you needed a thesis.   You still do, each time you write, even if you don’t put it at the end of the first paragraph. But your blog needs a thesis too. The idea of your blog is a social contract, an agreement about what I will find there.  I come back because you deliver it over and over again.

This contract is also part of any individual post or article.  Within three or four sentences I should know where it is going.  Good writing is almost always about making and keeping a promise.

The writer has to know what that promise is.  He or she needs to think about it more, plan for it by filing away links or resources that help them keep it (I use delicious for this).

Every blog needs an editorial calendar or some sort of plan that keeps it focused.  And every blog and every post needs an idea that holds it together.

The expression

The expression of that idea should be credible, concrete and concise.

Being credible has to do with your sources, knowledge and understanding, of course.  This would be true even if you were trying to be funny.  I was “freshly pressed” once, trying to be funny about marketing to boomers.

But there were references to several companies and techniques.  No decent comedian is as ignorant as much of what passes for humor on the Internet.  Writing humor is difficult and challenging.  You actually have to know what you are talking about before you can make fun of it.

More often, however, we are not writing humor but providing information.  What we want is to be a trusted adviser.  We want people to come to our blog because they want to know about technology, or food, or fashion. And over time we want them to trust us enough to come back.

This trust has been part of our understanding of rhetoric from before Aristotle.  Credibility involves creating this trust, through both our reasoning and our identification with our readers.

What you don’t want is generalizations, red herrings, slippery slopes and band wagons.  What you do want is experience, success, reputation, endorsement and longevity. Getting what you want requires consistency, planning and research.

But you need more than credibility, you need clear, concrete writing.  This is what your teachers meant when they asked you to explain or give more detail.  It involves turning boats into battleships, moving from the abstract to the specific.

Better examples help.  But the clearest path to concrete writing is stronger verbs and stronger nouns.

Sometimes it helps to turn adjectives into nouns.  There is no need for an educational system when what we are really talking about is an education.  You’ve been using flowery adjective since junior high, when what you needed were better nouns.  The adjective is the enemy of the noun in the end, diluting it through overuse.

Nouns can also be turned into verbs.  You can have a decision.  Or you can decide.  Deciding is better, since it forces you to name the person who did it.  Nominalizations like this are often linked to a wordy style.  And to find them and fix them is to do what your teacher told you to do but you never understood how—avoid the passive voice.

I would add that good writing is often sensory as well.  More concrete nouns and active verbs.  We write easily about things we see and hear, but once we introduce texture, even smell or taste, our writing is more vivid and memorable.

Don’t tell me you like to be grandma’s house.  Make me smell the bacon.  Because there is no place for more limp, passive prose on the Internet.  Enough of that.  There is a place for clear, crisp, concise writing

Unfortunately most of you still live under the tyranny of the 500 word essay, padding your prose to get to the required length when all you had to do was have more or better content. Instead you learned to write fat.

Stop it.  You rarely need to say really.  Or rarely, for that matter.  (Adverbs are as bad as adjectives.)

It’s redundant to say something is full and complete.  Or that you have future plans.    A tragedy, by definition, is terrible.

Almost anything an educated American write can be reduced by a third without missing anything at all.

Try it.  Before you hit the publish button.

The effect

These disciplines of purpose and practice provide a more powerful effect.

When the word became flesh, the effect was grace and truth.  And I think this motivated the first blogger ever, Martin Luther the German reformed.  Right on the cusp of a new technology he posted his 95 thesis (you only need one), and its effect was multiplied by the printing press, just as ours are by WordPress.

I’m sure he would be blogging today.

But across the top of the paper he posted on the door of the Wittenburg chapel, he wrote “Out of a love for the truth, and a desire to bring it to light….”

That would not be a bad goal for any blogger today.  But regardless of your purpose Luther shows us that our motives matter.  And always have.

The creation story tells us that Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed.  I think there is something about that which suggests a marriage, a conversation, a forum, or even a blog can be a safe place, where people can be honest and not afraid.

A good blog is a place readers come because they know what to expect, a place where their needs are respected and their comments are welcome.  This is a place where the idea, the expression and the effect come together so you can create conversations that matter about things you care about.

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For a list of resource, see the cheat sheet

Also download the handout:

inthebeginning

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About wally metts

Wally Metts is the daysman. He is director of graduate studies in communication at Spring Arbor University and is a pastor at Countryside Bible Church in Jonesville, MI. The father of four adult children, he and his wife Katie raise barn cats and Christmas trees in Michigan. His grandchildren call him Santa.

2 Responses to “In the beginning was the Word”

  1. Thanks for the tips! I’ll try and put some of these ideas into my future writing, and start figuring out some sort of thesis for future blog posts.

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  1. thanks be to God | the daysman - August 21, 2012

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