A Well-Meaning Assignment

Ballon Bear in the post office in Japan, 2014

You Could Skip This Cliché: Writing is Hard

I have a really tough time writing. I know, I am writing a blog post, so how hard can it really be for me? In answer, I’ll let you know that I’ve already questioned whether the first 2 sentences you read were too conversational for my personal writing genre, or if they adequately capture the “blog” genre enough to negate my penchant for academic writing, or if I am just not pushing the boundaries of the “blog” genre enough to create my own blog-appropriate “voice.” I’ve also questioned my word choice 4 times (including the repeated use of the word “blog” and the word penchant – exactly the word I needed, but maybe not rhetorically correct for a blog genre). And now I have to wonder if my excessive use of parenthetical asides should be contained, or if my need for digestible information drove this post toward unnecessary headers for each section…

If you managed to get through that first paragraph without clicking away, you may understand what I mean. With all of those thoughts roiling my brain fluids around (and probably giving me a concussion), it’s a wonder I have any room left to actually write something meaningful. I feel like 80% of my writing is anxiety about writing and only 20% is actually good content on a page; I think my Writing Accountability Partner (yep, “WAP” for short) knew my struggle when they told me to analyze someone else’s blog post for my first assignment. See, all of the thoughts that prevent the words from filling the page also double to help me scrutinize other writing in pretty great detail. Perhaps writing down those thoughts is a good gateway into 1) actually writing things down, and 2) better understanding the “blog” genre enough to quiet the little voices in my head as I write. So, if you are wondering why you are reading a blog post about a blog post, blame my WAP and then ask yourself how long you’ve been falling down the internet hole in order to arrive at this post.

What You Should Read: Me Analyzing Someone Else’s Blog Post

While scanning Leo Babauta’s  Zen Habits, I marveled at the instructional nature of the titles. I understood fairly quickly that I read blogs primarily for information rather than entertainment, but I intend to write blogs for entertainment and self-fulfillment. Perhaps some of my genre confusion stems from this contrast. Anyway, I selected the post Act with Devotion & Intention, Letting Go of Attachment to Outcome because it seemed like a fairly applicable post to my current situation. I am a Project Manager; my life is about outcomes.

The introduction is conversational, but concise enough that I lingered long enough to get to the gritty sections of the post (unlike this post, I realize). Babauta  (hereby, “LB”) uses a present progressive tense in the second person point of view (ex: “you are starting  a project…”) to imbue the concepts in the introduction with a sense of immediacy and truth the reader might not otherwise feel. While necessary for legitimizing the need for the instructions following the intro paragraph, the selected tense and point of view drive the points home without modality (words that make the verb less severe or definite… ex: “you might be starting a project”) and thus risk the intended solidarity with the reader by sounding too forceful. So, the reader should read the introduction as though it is very applicable to their life, but may resist the statement due to the slightly confrontational tone.

To credit LB, the reader’s tension between “Gosh this describes my life!” and “I don’t always do that!” may be the exact point of uncertainty needed for the reader to honestly consider LB’s instructions for better zen without feeling the goals are too lofty to actually achieve. Importantly, LB’s second person voice serves to distance themselves from the described lifestyle even as it attaches itself to the reader. LB thus says, “I don’t have this problem anymore.” LB asserts a fairly accepted notion that “stress, fear, and doubt” are the problem, and suggests we (the reader) invest too much in “outcomes” rather than… well, the “rather than” of the piece is why we are reading LB’s post, and so the reader has to read beyond the introduction to find out the “rather than.” I think this use of organizational suspense works really well, if not a bit ironically, since the reader now stresses about the “outcome” of the post enough to continue reading.

Following the Introduction, LB distributes bullet points to negate the “outcomes” value in question. The proposed values LB later posits weigh more substantially in the reader’s life — if the reader agrees the “stress, fear, and doubt” associated with an outcome focus negate some of the importance of the “outcomes” value. With three points of ~7 word soundbites in bold font, LB states a claim, then explains the claim in normal font. I think the bullet point structure with eye-catching font and memorable phrases works effectively for the overall “how-to” blog genre.

That said, the actual content LB proposes serves more as a reminder of other accepted values rather than ground-breaking concepts that will change the reader’s life. I personally need the reminders more than anything ground-breaking, so the moderate effect of the reminder-values worked for me as a reader. LB reminds the reader that the journey to an outcome lacks control, that imperfection is the essence of most outcomes, and (again) that stress, fear, and doubt hinder the outcome as much as the journey. LB almost relies once more on the reader’s need for outcomes to make the reader think about the value of “the journey.” Even LB’s transition into the “So-What” bullet points takes on the need for outcomes, conceding that sometimes they need to happen, but the reader need not be so attached to them. Again, note how LB finagles these ideas into the reader’s uncertainty established in the introduction.

Interestingly enough, LB employs the same moderate effect of the sound-bites and transition on the actual explanation of each point, easing from the non-modal second person present progressive tense into a modal first person present tense (ex: “Sometimes other people  get in the way…“). While it may seem weak-sauce to present your ideas so gingerly, LB exercises some serious Jedi mind tricks, wedging these softened values right into the tension and uncertainty created in the introduction. I am not always a fan of changing tenses, but I think LB changes the tense subtly and correctly.

LB sneaks alternative values into existence and then hits you with them. First, the reader, with LB’s assistance, assess a potential problem with their value system because their focus on outcomes may prevent other values from coming to fruition in their life. Reading on, LB then breaks-down what might be the problem with an outcomes-only perspective by reminding the reader of the negativity associated with an outcomes-only perspective. The reader, at this point wonders what the alternatives to an outcomes-only value system might be — even if outcomes retain some value in the practicality of daily life. Then, BOOM! LB gives the reader a new set of irrefutable bullet points of five values that not only outweigh the “outcomes” value, but also solve the negativity crisis generated by the first bullet-points when paired with passive acknowledgement that outcomes still need to exist somewhere external to the reader’s new foci.

LB ensures that the 5 new values have a fairly “BOOM!” effect by shortening the bold statements to 1-2 words, and retaining the first person point of view in the present tense but with renewed non-modality in the explanations so that we know LB speaks truth without any doubt (this gives the post a sandwiched feeling of BOLD claim, soft claim, BOLD claim). The 1-2 words LB chooses usually connote positivity in regular use, further supporting LB’s claims that these values have more weight than the costly, sometimes negative “outcomes” value. LB suggests we focus on, “the intention, the effort, the process, the moment, relationships.” In effect, LB reorganizes the widely accepted value of “The Journey” as an alternative to “The Outcomes” into five smaller, more tangible values. Because LB is a blogger promoting “zen” (the tangible practice of intuitive and peaceful concepts), breaking a positive value like “the journey” into practicable action-values is the ultimate “so what” of this sort of blog post.

Like the Post I Analyzed, I Have a “So What?”

I have learned a few things from this assignment. While I don’t think Babauta’s genre is the specific blog genre I want to use, I think the takeaways will still improve my own blog writing. Here’s my breakdown: 

man blue men wall
Photo by iiii iiii on Pexels.com
  • Starting a post with a non-modal, second person point of view in the present progressive tense may turn off reader if they don’t think I am a knowledgeable source… or if I am writing a piece for entertainment that needs some first-person connectivity.
  • While I am skeptical that I have a handle on how to shoot bullet points (oh, yeah! that was an intended pun) at my audience for an entertaining read, I think LB aimed in the right direction for a “How-to” blog post.
  • When speaking about values, regardless of my genre, LB’s structure of BOLD-soft-BOLD paired with hypothesis-support-counter claim, may be very effective in resonating with readers.
  • Your writing doesn’t need to make new, perfect, bold claims if you take the time to organize them well and really hash them out with your readers in an enjoyable way. I think this shows that LB’s writing style captures what LB’s content suggested: outcomes are really not the only important thing.

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