All shiny & new (ish)

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Maybe it’s simply because the sun’s out and the garden is looking lovely, but the truth is I’m in an astonishingly good mood.

This isn’t a recent development, although the moment feels right now to document my shift in thinking. Once a blogger, always a blogger. This is in part down to the completion of creative writing course this week, one which has re-acquainted me with some basic skills. 

So, conscious that this blog has suffered a little bit in recent weeks, here are some shiny new thoughts of mine. None will change the world and don’t think for a moment I think they’re groundbreaking. 

1. I don’t set enough time aside for reading

Reading suffers from an image problem for some of us. Some years ago a friend expressed surprise I found it difficult finishing a book. How could I possibly start another book if I had one unfinished in my hand. His judgment was so marked, that I foolishly concluded I probably wasn’t a reader. Another friend during the same conversation expressed surprise that I wasn’t able to finish a book as quickly as he could. How could I call myself a book lover if I took a long time to get through a story?

That’s bollocks, of course. What I notice now that I’m re-connecting with books is how we little time we set aside for reading in itself. A book is often turned to in order to fill in time rather than for the pleasure of reading itself. That seems a shame and if it goes unchecked will be a case of diminishing returns.

2. I have three books on the go at the moment and I’m OK with that

That’s all changed now. I have three books on the go at the moment. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True and Shaun Levin’s A Year of Two Summers. I like the fact that I can dip into all of these whenever I want. They offer different things and different viewpoints. They’re also different writing styles. Reading all of those things concurrently keeps things a bit fresh.

Like writing, I’ve set aside half an hour each day to read something (other than work stuff), ideally printed, but often via my Kindle. I’m loving it.

3. Mainstream publishing skews the experience of reading

I looked at the Top 20 books on sale in WHSmith last night at Charing Cross station. Yes, they’re the most popular books and might give a suggestion to novices about what to read, but such lists also give the false impression that the familiar is best. Reading ‘off the beaten track’ is slightly more challenging and – for me – ultimately more satisfying. In this way, I think reading could offer me that same voyage of self-propelled discovery that ploughing through Mahler’s symphonies for the first time (effectively) five years ago on holiday.

4. Writing is difficult, but the prize is worth it

During a training course introduction a couple of months ago, the question was asked “What brings you joy?” I answered with “Two things: writing and my garden.” There was a sigh of recognition (at least, I think that’s what it was) when I said it. Saying it out loud was automatic. Like the garden work I’ve thrown myself into this year, writing is difficult because it isn’t an overnight thing. They both demand small repeated bursts of activity in order to get around the negative talk which can potentially block achievement. Nobody ever tells you that when you get underway. Shame.

Knowing you’ve rattled off a draft short story is as satisfying as a warm bath or the knowledge you’ve completed a really thorny task. It is the gift that keeps on giving.

5. There’s a massive difference between writing and publishing

Even if it is difficult, writing is still a pleasure.

Publishing is business.

Don’t get the two confused, otherwise you won’t do anything.

6. Writing is drafting and editing, then more editing

Write something. Anything. Leave it be. Then come back and start playing around with it later. Trust yourself. Nothing happens instanteously. The really satisfying stuff is the complete antithesis to blogging.

7. Classical music has taken a back seat

I’m not entirely sure whether I really mean this or not. Only time will tell. The reality is that I’m switching Radio 3 on less, and the last concert I went to was at Wigmore Hall a few months ago. The coming Proms season might change that, obviously. At the moment, I’m not feeling the classical music love.

8. Blogs are suddenly phenomenally difficult to write

Some people I come into contact with see blogs in negative light. This stems from a lack of understanding or experience. The creativity involved in the process is then overlooked. Sometimes, the line “that seems a bit long”, does make me want to gnaw my own hand off.

That negativity seeps into how I approach writing blogs. As a result blogs now demand great planning and don’t present themselves as an opportunity for near-automatic writing. Some of the joy has bled out of the process. That seems a terrible shame.

9. Career development training courses: some of the most valuable experiences I’ve had in recent years

I may have waxed lyrical to friends and colleagues in recent weeks about this. If you’ve not heard about it then consider yourself very lucky. But, a series of training courses I’ve attended which will (assuming I successfully complete them) enable me to help others develop their own careers has had a profound effect on me. The course so far has increased my own self-awareness to such an extent that I’ve effected real change in my own personal development. I’m really proud of that.

10. Quiet aids reflection

One other experience I’ve had over the past few weeks is discovering what personality type I am.

Others who have been through the same process haven’t necessarily greeted their result positively, but I’ve found the process fascinating. It’s helped me realise that I’m pretty much dependent on ‘quiet time’.

As I think about that more I realise how much at odds that is with working in the broadcasting environment. ‘Selling content’ demands consuming content, and consuming it demands time at the expense of quiet reflection.

Neglected

It feels like I’ve neglected this blog just recently. Until yesterday when I posted this blog about Howard Goodall, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d dropped by the WordPress interface.

In actual fact, it was when I wrote about Strictly’s Louis Smith. Clearly my attention on this blog has waned. Its not uppermost in my mind. Blog statistics seemed like a distant memory. How had this happened? I’d normally been terribly regular with my posts, ever keen to feed my blog-writing addiction.

The main reason is down to the blatant affair I’ve been having with another blog. It’s taken a long time for me to feel comfortable with the one I’m paid to write, but now I’ve got used to it, the About the BBC blog is an opportunity some of my BBC-ness. I have found the perfect job, you might say.

But, the perfect job at a price. Keeping two blogs on the go is an effort. Not just in terms of time, but also headspace: the real world equivalent of living in two separate houses and not feeling at ease enough in either to call them home.

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Why we could all do with digital lay-bys

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Blogging, social media and life in the ‘digital space’ (forgive the pretentious phraseology there) can sometimes feel a little like towing a caravan. Everything is stored in the box-with-wheels precariously swinging around behind the car its attached to. A mixture of pride and excitement consumes the driver of the vehicle, not least because caravans mean holidays, an valid excuse for a spot of self indulgence.

Just like caravans and the thought that everything you’ll ever need for a holiday on the move is contained in the box you have on your back, so digital publishing can fill me with the same pride and excitement. So long as I have access to the internet and a device with a keyboard, I can still satisfy my creative urges in the event the balloon went up, collapsed or burst.

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But, caravans are dangerous things. In strong winds they can be a bugger to control. It doesn’t take much for their delicate frames to get buffeted around on the motorway. They get in other people’s way too. They’re usually in the wrong lane. And they’re usually driven by people who we perceive to have absolutely no idea of what’s going on in the world around them.

Sometimes those same vehicles can come a cropper, unceremoniously upturned on the side of the road with their owners stood on the hard shoulder looking on dazed and confused.

Motorway Caravan Crash

Egos bruised. Wife balling her eyes out at the prospect of their annual holiday totally ruined. Police having to close motorway lanes and redirect traffic. It’s all a bit unfortunate, ever so slightly embarrassing and probably signals something important for all concerned.

Time to retreat. Clear up the mess in front of you. Slope off home (it’s OK to feel sorry for yourself, sir). Make yourself a cup of tea. Put your feet up. And rest awhile.

The insurance may pay out for the caravan. Maybe you can spend that money on a replacement or take your wife off for a week-long stay in a 5-star hotel as recompense. She probably deserves it. She only said she liked caravanning holidays to please you anyway.

The analogy has gone on a good deal long than I anticipated. Still, it’s pertinent.

I’ve been buffeted around too these past few days. My eyes are sore. My ego bruised. My fingers singed a bit.

So, I’m taking a break. Maybe for a week, maybe longer. Sometimes we all need a bit of a lay-by to avoid the potential for a jackknife. *

Honey, I don't think this is the caravan park

* The only caveat to this is a royal death. If the Queen dies, I’m back in the saddle.

My ten reminders for a corporate blog post

I’ve been doing a lot of talking about corporate blogging just recently.

Corporate blogging – talking passionately about the organisation one works for – need not be dull. It need not be uninteresting. It need not be regarded as one more thing on a list of things which needs to be done.

Here’s a few things I like to have in mind when I’m preparing a corporate blog post. Some things will appear really obvious. It’s often important to start at the beginning. So, if you feel like I’m patronising .. bite me.

 

1. A blog post is a web page with some copy, pictures, audio and/or video on it. There’s also usually an option for the reader to leave a comment on it. If that web page doesn’t contain all of those elements, then it’s not a blog post, it’s a press release.

2. The same rules that apply to news stories whether they be TV, radio, print or online, apply to blog posts. Readers have considerably less time than their grandparents did when they were reading the Times newspaper and sucking on a pipe. They will stop reading after a few seconds.

3. If you don’t care about point 2, there’s no point in reading any further.

4. You don’t like reading pages and pages of text. Why subject your reader to the thing you have an aversion to.

5. What exactly is the message you want to get across? And how would you get that message across to your own mother? Would you stand on a box shouting through a megaphone, or would you take on a journey? Would you tell her the garden is lovely or would you take her on a short trot around the garden so that she could see for herself?

6. If you don’t get point 5, there maybe someone who does. Maybe you need to get them to do it. Just be sure they understand every point so far before you hand over the reins.

7. Remember one very important maxim: too many words in a blog post are BAD.

a. Long descriptive passages of the kind Dickens wrote aren’t right. Over-compensate and use as few words as possible. If there’s a message you’re trying to get across in a wordy bit, then consider putting in audio, video or pictures.

b. You’re allowed to use long passages of text if the reader’s attention is maintained throughout and there’s a undeniable editorial need to have loads of text. ‘Padding out’ isn’t really cricket.

8. If when you’ve edited your blog down to as few words as possible you read it back and wonder what it is you’re actually saying in your finely honed 200 words, then the chances are you have your answer. You probably shouldn’t be writing anything in the first place because you haven’t really got anything to say. Maybe text isn’t the right format at all. Maybe what you need to consider is a video or an audio-slideshow.

9. Your blog editor is your friend. He’s not an arse. He isn’t someone who just publishes ‘stuff’ on your behalf. He’s someone with a vision. With passion. With determination. Love him.

10. There is no point in publishing a corporate blog post if you don’t expect or want anyone to read what you’ve written. That’s an entry in a private diary.

 

None of this necessarily applies to personal blogging, though some points may be worth bearing in mind.

I will, if you will.

How television is a bit like blogging … maybe

Stephen Fry writes in the first volume of his autobiography:

The thing about television is that you do it once and then forget about it, while some obsessed fans will watch programmes over and over again and end up knowing the scripts better than you ever did, even at the time of recording.

I don’t have any obsessed fans (if I do, they are very quiet ones) and I’ve never done TV. But what Fry writes about isn’t entirely dissimilar to my experience of blogging.

The moment I hit ‘publish’ the preceding x-hundred number of words are dead to me, making anyone who follows up face to face on what I’ve written something of a curiosity.

That in itself is a bit mean, I know. I shouldn’t be so ungrateful. But I wonder whether the process of jettisoning that creative effort at the point of publishing is an attempt at self-preservation. A way of stopping myself getting too wrapped up in my own words by immediately cutting it loose.