Why writing is better than thinking

Laptop full of stickers - I didn't add those!

I’ve known a few psychology students and graduates but only one has said something that I still remember over a decade later.

We were talking about the difference between thinking and writing and she pointed out that you write linearly. Linear order forces your writing into some kind of structure, but thinking, as Tony Buzan has written about, is more creative and less ordered.

I’ve found this distinction to be useful for me. When thinking about subjects I start off trying to find a solution and then my mind goes all over the place, just one more permutation of what Buddhists call monkey mind.

When writing, though, I can strive towards an end, and follow a path. There is an evolution of an idea, a progression and an actual conclusion. And most probably this helps provide some understanding. Often I don’t know where the topic has come from and how it relates to me until I’ve written through and reached the end.

I don’t rate thinking too much and prefer meditation or waiting for my intuition to kick in but writing seems to help draw both of these processes out.

My 3-year-old computer-hog doesn’t allow me too much access to a computer so I’m trying to get as much writing done as possible on my phone and then tidy it up later.

This post on One Man and his Blog got me thinking about why I blog (when I get around to it).

Posting again, every day?

Last year this time I said I would post every day but I didn’t manage it. The thought of trying again has been gently prodding and poking at me for the last few weeks. There is something comforting about having to write. Having to find something to post and not needing to perfect an idea in order to publish it. The smaller and slightly more ordinary find a way to make it on the page in times when they would receive nothing more than a cursory glance.

Let’s see how it goes. Happy posting to me!

The first step in writing

I once had a friend who was a writer. She was a brilliant writer; passionate and artistic. She carried with her a well worn book of Catcher in the Rye and in her notepad of literary scribblings, she had written out Cavafy’s The First Step.

She wrote it out in the original Greek but I’ll stick to English for now.

The young poet Evmenis
complained one day to Theocritos:
“I have been writing for two years now
and I have composed just one idyll.
It’s my only completed work.
I see, sadly, that the ladder of Poetry
is tall, extremely tall;

He is comforted by Theocritos who tells him that

Just to be on the first step
should make you happy and proud.
To have come this far is no small achievement:
what you have done is a glorious thing.
Even this first step
is a long way above the ordinary world.

He goes on to tell him how great it is to even write one poem because it means he stands out from those who never write anything.

I read that now and think ‘yeah right’. With blogging so prevalent that just isn’t true anymore. There are 353,593 bloggers on wordpress.com, there are a myriad more on tumblr.com, blogspot, typepad, posterous and many services I don’t know about.

There are 93,251,087 words on WordPress.com. 93 million. How many of those words are spelt wrong?

I’m being petty and silly. Plenty of journalists, if not more than the average non-journalistic profession, are terrible spellers. They are indeed so cavalier with the written word that it’s as if they have become desensitized to the clarity and beauty that it can provide.

They are functional writers, these journalists. They make a point. They write to get paid. Well, by definition, obviously. But they’re content generators most of them. No, wait. That’s not what i mean to say.

That’s not even the point i want to make.

Let’s get back to my friend who I shall call Tatiana because that is her name.

She was a passionate writer and an even more enthused and sparkling person. I remember letting her down once when I told her that my boyfriend at the time was not my great love. Then why are you with him? she asked. How can you settle like that?

I don’t know how I settled.

I also settled on writing. I post things which I don’t really revise and edit. I post just so I can have something on the blog. Oh the pressure to get as many hits as possible. A few months ago I was getting about 400 hits a day. This dropped to about 200 once I moved the baby blog to its own separate space which only gets a handful now – up to 70 perhaps.

Then the rest diluted to under a 100 on an average day. The best part about having a few blogs is that I no longer worry about how many hits I get. I have one blog which I don’t actually use but I intend to. It’s where I intend to post just on books. It makes me happy that I get no hits on there at all.

I love people reading my work but I was spending time thinking about how to increase my readership rather than focusing on the writing.

I started this blog so that I could explore all different types of writing. I was going to be experimental. Re-write press releases, try poetry (not really), interviews, features, book reviews, restaurant reviews. I wanted to work on the things I found the most difficult. I never did get around to writing about sports. I don’t think a picture of a run counts.

And yet, here I am, feeling that I’m producing mediocre work just so I can get more content.

I read other mediocre work and get angry because it reminds me of my own writing which I don’t like.

Then there is writing that is well researched, creative, inspiring, passionate and so moreish that it makes me want to find something like that to write about too.

I have noticed articles about reclaiming or finding your passion.

Bloggers who call themselves food writers or researchers while journalists lose all motivation.

They will likely never equate the trials and tribulations they’ve faced to become what they are today, with the equally enormous amounts of effort required to become what you are today.

The one part that comes closest to how I feel about blogging, while still not sure about bloggers, is the following:

“If I had to sum up what blogging means to me, I would say, ‘discovery.’ Not only because of all the things I get to research and learn about, but because I continuously surprise myself by finding things in the psyche I don’t know are there until I see them on the screen.”
A year of blogging

Finding my ‘why’ in order to find the ‘how’ in blogging

I scrolled through some old posts in my blog and they all felt so uninspiring. I was bored just looking at them, let alone reading them. I’ve definitely lost my mojo when it comes to blogging.

I started up all inspired and enthusiastic nearly two years ago. I wanted to be a journalist and writing seemed like a great way to do it. That idea of writing for practise and to explore different styles kept me going for a while. I signed up for a journalism course, long distance, and started picturing what it would be like to live in Brussels and get involved with European political scenes.

I then became pregnant and the ideas of journalism kind of flew out of my head. I had a job I loved, great colleagues, supportive family and a baby on the way. I just didn’t see me pursuing a career as a young professional with great shorthand skills.

What then though? Why was I writing?

For a while I kept going with thoughts about the baby during and after pregnancy. Once I split the baby stuff off to somewhere else though it all faded away. Maybe I’m not so good at compartmentalising.

The things on my mind were no longer the kind of things I could talk about. Family and friends seemed to be reading so discussions on personal relationships just weren’t appropriate. Even if I just wanted to vent about something I couldn’t afford to insult anyone.

I wasn’t getting out too often so there couldn’t be too many posts about what I’d been doing. A few food reviews have made it on to the blog but even these have been half-hearted.

I am now on a mission to understand why I blog. I read this great article a couple of days ago and it resonated with me. Ollin Morales quotes Nietsche and then goes on to explain how it applies to blogging: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

It’s worth a read if you’re also feeling a bit of a slump or just want to find out how to produce 201 eggs. You’ll see what I mean.

Grand Place

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?

“It’s Monday! What are you reading?” is a weekly event hosted by Sheila to share with others what you’ve read the past week and planning to read next.

I saw this on Leeswamme’s Blog and since I find myself spending more time indoors lately I thought I would finally take part.


This week I finished two books:

  • Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett, the 37th Discworld novel which provides a great read about some new and old characters in Ankh Morpork – see review on Suite101
  • The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes which was one more brilliant story by a woman who writes a lot more than just chick lit although that is how she is mainly categorised.


  • The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver. A book by the author of We Need To Talk About Kevin. I have started it many times and although the idea that the main love interest speaks with a cockney accent keeps putting me off, I hope to finally finish it.


  • Angels by Marian Keyes
  • The Magus by John Fowles
  • Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates

Other News

  • I like the idea of the Princess Bride readalong, which I read about on Leeswammes’ blog, and will be doing that in October. It is hosted by Chris from Book-a-Rama and begins on October 2

When can you manicure the lawn?

My dad has been a journalist for years. He has written for papers, run his own newspapers, magazine, radio programs and still writes when he has something to say. He is actively political and writes because that’s how he gets his message across. I studied politics, twice, but don’t always have something say. .

On a car journey years ago he was telling me about a young journalist who had written an article about which began: ‘God sat on his throne and smiled at the beauty of the day’ or something similar. ‘Quick’ said his editor, ‘get me a quote from God’.

His point was the same one as Terry McDermott notes in his article ‘A Thousand Cuts’ about the difference between reporting and blogging. McDermott’s word ‘slumbered’, used to describe two political candidates in a meeting, was changed to ‘lumbered’. He was asked if they actually slept through it. The reply was no, that it was meant figuratively, not literally. “We don’t use figurative language here” he was told.

The ‘here’ in the previous paragraph refers to a newspaper and while I have never worked at one, I grew up with many a journalistic word of warning and was raised to ensure that every glance I took, at a piece of writing, was a critical one. I once categorically refused to allow someone to use the phrase ‘manicured lawn’ in a piece they were writing. The word manicure refers specifically to taking care of the hand from the Latin word ‘manus‘ (as in manual, in terms of labour, not an instruction manual), I told them.

Another of my dad’s favourites was the discussion on what is news. Dog bites man is not news but man bites dog… now there you have a story. A common journalistic cliche in any language but one turned on its head in Terry Pratchett‘s book The Truth. The first newspaper in Ankh Morpork is the subject of this tale and the former Western Daily Press journalist manages to turn the cliche into something all the more witty and self-referential. Half way through the book, and probably only a month or so after I was adamant about manicuring the lawn, I saw that he went and used the same phrase. Who was in the wrong?

I started writing this post as I was catching up on last week’s FT Weekend and had just read an article by Chris Giles on George Osborne’s trip to China. The headline is ‘China takes an interest in Osborne’s reading list‘, the emphasised part is ‘Countries with high budget deficits must show the world they can deal with those deficits’. My favourite bit is the Chinese vice premier telling Osborne of his love for Jane Austen, and especially Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. “The Treasury could not confirm last night which were the chancellor’s favourites, nor whether he had read them.” It was a smile of a moment in an otherwise straight report on a visit. FT house style and everything.

McDermott’s article contrasted blogging and reporting and it’s a much agonised distinction on both sides of the writing medium (professional and not). The point may be that, while the medium is the focus of the argument, the conversation will fail to die down. When you have nothing to say then the way you write may be the only thing left to talk about.

As my sister reminds me now and then, Ephemeral Digest is a blog, and I can write what I want. I am privileged to not have to worry about what constitutes news and what makes an article. Now and then I do worry about it but a funny moment in a broadsheet reminds me that there’s always a balance out there.

My dad’s advice wasn’t just a way of discussing writing. He was trying to tell me how to best get my message across. My ambition is to find more ways to do that so I’ll happily stumble along and be creative when necessary. Until grass grows hands, however, I won’t be manicuring any lawns. That’s a promise.

Eating: yes. Blogging: sporadically. Critiquing: ?

Everyone Eats is a feature article, by Robert Sietsema, in the Jan / Feb 2010, Columbia Journalism Review. Its title continues with the pointedly honest appraisal: ‘but that doesn’t make you a restaurant critic’. Too true. The article provides a history of restaurant critics and the evolution of food reviews. Most importantly, Sietsema notes the process used by a prominent restaurant critic, and it is this latter part that I want to share with you.

Craig Claiborne, food Editor for the New York Times from 1975 and for three decades after, is generally credited with being the inventor of the modern restaurant review.

Claiborne added structure and ethics to restaurant reviewing: reviews would be done by a single individual who would be named in the piece. At least three visits would be made to the restaurant and a party of three or four would eat and try to cover as much of the menu as possible. Some dishes would be eaten more than once to check for consistency. There would be no free meals and the publication would pay for the dining experience.

Most important of all the reviewer would remain anonymous and not allow the restaurant to realise that a review was in progress. Any reservation would made under a false name and no suspicious behaviour would take place during the meal.

These were his rules and the very structure of them provided a thoroughness that almost makes this critiquing business into a science.
I admire the notion that food reviewing is a serious business and should be addressed as such. In my reviews I want to be as truthful as possible while also noting that my opinion is as subjective as anyone else’s.

I would love to be thorough about all the food but I often get distracted by one item and then lose interest in the rest. As an unpaid blogger I also don’t have the funds to visit a restaurant at least three times over a short period, let alone take along three friends, so we can sample all the items on the menu.

Sometimes it’s not the food but the atmosphere or the company that will be the highlight of the evening. The service may stand out or the dessert might be the only thing I remember with any clarity. I take photos of the food before I eat and occasionally may take notes as well. That’s sure to arouse some attention although I can’t remember anyone offering any free dishes.

I have doubts about my own consistency and there are few professional food reviewers I go out of my way to read. I adore the work of Mark Taylor who writes in the Bristol Evening Post on a Thursday and edits the magazine Fork. However there are other reviews, such as ones I’ve read in the Metro, where from the first sentence I failed to believe a single judgement. A particular review was about a place I had visited recently and the effusive proclamations about the food had probably more to do with the two bottles of wine drunk by the reviewer, and partner, than the actual quality of the restaurant.

I raise these points as an exercise in self-awareness and with the intention to introduce more consistency into my critiques. If you also write reviews, professionally or not (i.e. paid or unpaid), then do mention any rules you may have, or procedures you may follow. I would love to hear them. (Don’t forget to mention the bribes.)

The image is from the tapas style lunch I ate at the Clifton Lido in Bristol.

Using the Guardian as inspiration

A New York Times review of So Much For That by Lionel Shriver has the reviewer Leah Hager Cohen remark that the content in the novel about healthcare and the economy sounds more like editorial. She goes on to say that this might reflect Shriver’s journalistic status as a regular contributor to The Guardian of London”. Of London? I’d not heard references to the Guardian framed in such a way before so I searched and the location specific reference does not appear to originate from the newspaper.

I realise that there are other newspapers entitled ‘Guardian’ (Guardian of Nigeria, The News Guardian of North Tyneside, the Croydon Guardian, the Sutton Guardian and a few others out there) so there must be some need to whittle it down to specifics.

The references to the London location were mostly from American newspapers and one of the most interesting articles I came across was by the Nieman Journalism Lab. The project is “a collaborative attempt to figure out how quality journalism can survive and thrive in the Internet age” and is run by Harvard University. The article is about the MP expenses scandal which was brought to light by the Daily Telegraph and then opened up to the public by the Guardian. The analysis explores how interaction is promoted and how value is gained from the audience.

The Daily Telegraph had gained access to over 2 million documents and once they were made publicly available they were put online by the Guardian. 170,000 documents were reviewed in the first 80 hours, thanks to a visitor participation rate of 56 percent. The Nieman Lab talked to the developer, Simon Willison, and he had some tips on how to get people involved in providing valuable information: make it fun, give people a goal to share, provide a narrative (a purpose) and make it personal.

The Guardian (in London) makes it look good and promotes a level of interaction which is very high. The European Journalism Centre (ECJ) also looks to provide interaction, involvement and high quality results and has funded a European blogging competition, TH!NK3 in pursuit of such goals as

  • promote high quality journalism through professional training, particularly in a European context;
  • provide a forum for discussion, debate, and exchanges of views and experience for journalists, editors, media executives and other media professionals;

Th!nk3 is the third global blogging competition funded by the EJC. It will focus on sustainable development and global cooperation in the lead up to the high-level plenary meeting on the Millennium Development Goals at the UN 65th session of the General Assembly in September 2010.

The competition brings together journalists, journalism students, academics and experts from 27 EU Member States, neighbourhood countries and beyond, to write about global cooperation in international development. TH!NK3: Developing World will run from 24 March, 2010 to 31 August, 2010.

I will be attending the Brussels launch event, which will include speakers, workshops and opportunities for all participants to meet each other and network as a team. TH!NK3: Developing World will also offer the project’s top bloggers the chance to cover the issues from the field via reporting expeditions to Asia, Africa and New York City. In order to qualify for these awards, participants must blog at least 20 times throughout the competition.

Lionel Shriver’s latest work follows on her acclaimed success as the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin which was a winner of the Orange Book Prize. As the NYT reviewer mentions, “the questions this novel raises about human existence prove less ontological than economic” and the story is about a man planning to leave his current unfulfilling existence to a place where money is worth more, an island off Tanzania. The UN Millennium Goals are

  • End Poverty and Hunger
  • Universal Education
  • Gender Equality
  • Child Health
  • Maternal Health
  • Combat HIV/AIDS
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • Global Partnership

and the work involved will look at reasons that take account of economics but are more about everyone coming together and working towards a better world. Readers of this blog will get to read (or at least note) these posts and while I’m excited about the opportunity I also welcome any interaction from others. The next step is to figure out how to make it fun. Ideas are always welcome.

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