First Principles, Best Practices

I need to be focused on writing most of the time in order to make a living at it. Other wordsmiths might be able to put in far less effort and get a similar result, but I need to work at it continuously to keep it flowing and fresh. 


The creative aspect of this work is effortless for me. I simply need to turn on the mental spigot in my head. Once I do I’ve access to that right-brained creative writing ability, and can just let my imagination fly. But in the case of grammar and technique, I admit that I have plenty of room for growth, which is why I enjoy articulating these fundamentals of writing.

The type of writing we’re doing dictates the method we use. Sometimes we express private thoughts in a journal in an emotive way. Sometimes we wax poetic using ‘stream of consciousness’ writing. Other times we employ a system to make sure we meet a higher standard, like in journalism. 


First Principles


George Orwell said, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed, everything else is public relations.”


Journalism is guided by five values: honesty, independence, fairness, diligence, and accountability. Their ethics are similar to conclusions I’ve come to in my own intellectual journey. They’re a set of standards for speaking truth to power that align with my own ideals: skepticism, veganism, activism, organization, environmentalism, and empiricism.


Skepticism is a huge part of my first principle. Nothing is sacred from that need for ultimate truth. Every story has an identifiable truth, and is legitimized by facts that can hold up to intense scrutiny, in the same way that the results of a scientific study will be challenged if the data doesn’t add up. 


As a skeptic, I challenge assertions I read in the same way that journalists and scientists look for mistakes in their own work before they make claims. I want to know all the questions people will ask already. If it’s a questionable idea or theory, I want to try to disprove it. Even if you want it to be true, don’t just assume you’re right. I want to have already pulled every possible thread to its zenith. 


Passion is there as well. The passion for a good story, true or not. People tell stories because everyone likes a good story. All children are raised on stories. It’s the same reason you watch movies, because, when you boil it down, they’re really just awesome campfire stories. The only limit is the imagination.


The rites of storytelling are as old as language itself. In that tradition is the whole of human history. From cave paintings to Egytian hieroglyphics, from Gilgamesh to Neischze, from science fiction to scientific articles.


You write best when you write what you know. Michael Crichton wrote science stories. John Grisham wrote law stories. Stephen King writes horror stories. Ronan Farrow writes extraordinary exposes. If you’re a writer, you try to use your voice to passionately illustrate meaning where you can most efficiently derive it.


I love writing stories because it feels as if they’re a part of an ongoing conversation. A newspaper is a collection of current events stories, and as a writer, I get to contribute to that culture. Access to an endless font of current events is a wellspring for some of the best writing you’ll ever read. 


Best Practices


How to begin? Make an outline, create a mind map. Sit and think about the subject for a bit. Put a simple series of words on a page, even if it doesn’t read well yet. Make short summaries and bullet points to expand and expound. 


Sketching some type of physical representation of the idea helps to flesh out your piece of writing. Using the aforementioned techniques can give you more perspective. Think of these tactics as tools that are there to help you learn how to fill in the gaps. 


In contemporary freelancing, editors can’t just include Chicago/AP style of editing on their resume anymore. Contemporary editing and writing lives in Word and Excel formatting and HTML coding, SEO, different levels of engagement, and integration with different platforms. 


If you use formatting and code well, it will make your writing more effective and accessible to readers via search engines and social media. If you use it badly, then your story will sound like a robot wrote it. Creating good work relies on tastefully employing these tools without destroying the integrity of the idea being expressed. Seamlessly integrating code and formatting into your own writing is invaluable to your development. 


Some simple examples of areas where traditional editing and html code can very simply overlap are in H1, H2, and H3 headers. Learn them and use them always(link to tutorial). They mirror an outlines’ structure, and/or a bullet points’ natural hierarchical structure (expand and develop each point in the thread to build your story). Another fundamental tool is to tag your H1/H2/H3 headers back to a concise table of contents(link to tutorial). You could even set word document templates for stories and another for long form essays in this way, just to be prepared and well organized. 


I even went as far as going back and taking a word & excel course on youtube. I took notes and everything.  I wasn’t using this software to its full potential. Best practices are so overlooked nowadays. They really are the difference between a novice and a pro. Best practices can make a big difference as far as how you come off to your peers as well. 


Of course, those are the most basic examples. On the opposite end of the spectrum storytellers are also programmers and coders who tell stories in nonlinear fashions using straight code instead of word docs, or use 3d environments to take people through the scene of a crime, or even create a whole new world. For most people, they won’t get that far, but if you ever embedded a video, tweet, or instagram post, then you’ve already stood at the intersection of content and coding.


So what about Yoast and all the trends that think they’re reinventing SEO? What about them and their super traffic web creating ability? I personally am against having to repeat long term keywords unless it’s done very tastefully by a skilled wordsmith. Anytime this is done by someone who’s not a writer, it’s obvious and hacky. 


Yoast, and other SEO apps, suggest repeating these keywords and the long term keywords, which are entire sentences, five times each to make sure that bots and search engines rank it better. That technique produces terrible writing. Redundancy with search terms is also blatantly lazy storytelling. There’s a place for codes and keywords in the stories you write, just be stylish and creative when you do. 


In the end, this is about writing and doing it like a professional. Linking to sources and adding some engaging content can help, but always make sure your written word does the heavy lifting. 

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