The only real mistake is one you didn’t learn from. If you care about improving you have to look back and learn from what was successful and what wasn’t. For reflection to work it can’t be idle chat, have to identify specific changes to try, not vague ‘I should do more of…’ notions.
In that spirit I’ve been looking back at my entries for the Istanbul to Bristol trip , which is by far the greatest amount of writing I’ve done since leaving university. This isn’t a generic list of tips on better writing, Google can supply you with a million of those, this specific to what I feel about my own writing attempts.
- Drop 80% of what happened. Most of the posts were far too long. It’s fine for a first draft to be a fevered shopping list of everything you saw, but the first read-though and edit should be deleting most of it. You have to be ruthless, it doesn’t matter how many hours I invested in writing that first draft; at best 20% is going to be worth keeping. Then focus on and make personal the most interesting aspects.
- Skip the transitions. I felt obliged to try and create continuity between every event by describing how I moved between them, this made for a lot of dull text. If you set each scene up correctly you can trust your readers to be smart enough to realise how you got there; and a lot of the time how you got somewhere isn’t relevant to what you’re writing about.
- Skip the “I saw”, “I looked” or “I wondered”. Just get straight to describing what happened; these things don’t need to be explicitly said.
- I did a post for everyday of the trip, that’s too much (see 1 above). This time I did have a good reason, I wanted to practice that style of writing, so needed to make the most of the available material, but in any other circumstances this is too much. There’s an argument that I should have written them all, but only published the best, but if I’m not going to make myself publish it, then I’m never going to finish writing it.
- I thought my writing would be improved with clever or interesting similes and analogies. Not true. Mostly they come across as either confused or pompous. Occasionally there is a good one, but it’s a rare creature. Never add one because you feel it’s been too long since the last one, no-one will think you clever or witty for adding it.
- Don’t try to out-fact Wikipedia. I kept having to fight the urge to add a lot of historical details to make a scene complete. If the reader wants to know more they can look it up themselves, only mention details that are relevant to your interpretation of the scene.
- Talk about people. When looking at a collection of photos you’re drawn to the ones with people in them, I should write the same way.
- I felt the need to add a moral or meaning to each entry. Often there isn’t one, especially in a travel log where you’re just recounting events and sights. I think films, books and television have made me feel it’s mandatory (even South Park does it). It’s normally good to have one, but I shouldn’t artificially create one if it doesn’t exist.
- Don’t have foot or end notes, it destroys the reader’s flow and is lazy editing; it allows you to dodge the hard decision if something is worth leaving in or not. I’ve struggled with foot and end notes, but in the end decided that, except for references, they’re a bad thing. There are a lot of writers who I like who use footnotes ( Paul Graham , Terry Pratchett and Craig Mod , to name a few) and they fit very easily into the linked style of web writing. But I’ve seen it done badly so many more times than I’ve seen it done well. Writing that is otherwise interesting becomes broken up and scattered. People like Ben Brooks , Nassim Teleb in Black Swan or Steve Salerno in SHAM use a lot of very tangental foot or end notes that add little of value but really destroy the flow. Are you meant to read them once you’ve read everything else and remember what they refer back to? or are you meant to skip down to them, then back up to the sentence you were previously reading? Your writing structure must make reading a fluid experience.