Iraq Journals: A Little Writing Advice for Bloggers

19 07 2004

In a comment to the previous post, reader Kayz alerted me to a page she keeps that’s devoted to promoting blogs by soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a number of civilian blogs by Iraqis (and one Saudi, which looks interesting). I spent yesterday afternoon reading through most of the soldier-blogs and reviewed three of them at Omnium. I’ll be getting to the others over the next couple of weeks. Hopefully.

I didn’t include them here not because they’re without interest but because they’re not, for the most part, very well-written. Certainly nothing I’ve seen so far comes up to the standard set by MY WAR, and the problem with almost all of them is a simple one often made by new writers: they’re trying to Write with a capital W. They seem to think that writing is about adjectives. One of them (not yet reviewed) was so full of ponderous layers of pseudo-profound adverb/adjective combinations piled on top of each other like compost that it was almost impossible to wade through.

So, for what it’s worth, a few words of advice to aspiring bloggers on how to make your writing more interesting.

1. Define your audience

Who are you writing for? If it’s friends and family, then write the way you normally talk to them. Skip the hoary, cliched metaphors and tell them what’s going on with you as plainly and as honestly as you can. Let them hear your voice, the voice they know and love, coming at them through the page. Don’t try to dress it up with profundities; it’s profound enough for them that you’re there, risking your life. Try to write as if you were on the phone with them; they want to hear you, not The Voice of the People.

If you’re writing for the general public as well as your family and friends, that’s harder. The best advice I can give you is: Don’t try to write, try to tell what you see, hear, and feel as honestly as you can. Good writing is about telling the truth–as you see it–with as little spin as possible. Good writers don’t include adjectives they don’t need.

Try to include some news, either personal or general. We get very little back here but generic Happy Talk and scanty reports of bombings. Anything you can tell us about the real situation in which you live every day is like feeding someone who’s starving.

2. Carry a notebook at all times

Don’t trust your memory–it plays tricks and it’s unreliable. If something or someone catches your interest, then take the first moment you have to spare to write down everything about it that you can remember: what happened and in what order? what did s/he look like (hair color, facial expression, clothes)? how did it start? how did it end? who were you with? how did they respond? The immediacy of what you write in the notebook close to the event will translate into the post you write later, giving it life and us a feeling that we’re right there with you. And I’m not just talking about combat or patrols or ‘events’; I’m talking about the everyday details of your everyday life that you may not think are important. What’s the chow like? do you live in a tent? what does it look like? smell like? what do you do when you’re not on duty? That stuff is fascinating to read because it’s so totally NOT a part of our world. And it’s important stuff for us to know if we’re to understand what you’re going through.

When the guys finished their tours in Viet Nam, they came back to a country that had no clue–zero–what it had been like for them and consequently no idea how to talk to them. They found themselves isolated as civilians, unable to connect with their families or their friends. The same is uncomfortably true with vets from the First Gulf War. One of the great strengths of blogging is its potential for communicating stuff like that and making connections possible between you and us both now and once you’re home. (See Iraq calling for a pretty good example of what I’m talking about.)

3. Write as often as you can

The truth about writing is that the only way to learn how to do it is to…do it–a lot of it. The more you write, the better your writing will get. That’s the way it works. And the more you write, the more you’ll realize that writing is only a tool, a means to an end–it’s what you use to tell a story with, not the end in itself. All those pointless adjectives just take up space you could be using to tell us your story; that’s what we want to hear.

4. Write what’s in front of you

Writing is about people, not things. Somebody once said that if you set out to write the Great American Novel about The Immigration Experience, you’re going to end up with nothing but social-scientist cliches and platitudes. You can only write about the people who immigrated–who they were, the experiences they had, what happened to them. The ‘Immigrant Experience’ comes through them. Blogs are no different. They’re about you, the people you work with, the people you hang out with, the people you meet, not about The Great Geo-Political Issues. Those things will come–can only come–from writing about the people who live with the consequences. A story about how a family’s life changes when its electricity gets turned on is worth a thousand stories repeating again and again like ad copy, ‘We turned on their electricty!’ Maybe it shouldn’t be but it is; that’s the way people are.

5. Don’t use semi-colons

Kurt Vonnegut hates them.

I know you have other and better things to do, and for all I know you’re blogging on your laptop for the few moments a day that you’re not being shot at. This advice is only for those who would like to and/or are able to blog to a larger purpose: telling us back home about you over there–what you’re doing, how it makes a difference. I must have read ‘I can see that we’re making a difference here’ a dozen times, usually in the same post, but not once did any of these writers tell me what they saw or how it made a difference. If you want us to understand what’s happening, you have to tell us–we’re not there. You are. And you need to tell us in small, human terms we can understand, not in grand geopolitical designs that mean nothing in the abstract.




3 responses

21 07 2004

You sure gave me a lot to think about today. Thank you for writing this post. I’ve been trying to figure out how to improve my own small corner of the blog universe. You have my little wheels spinning, so to speak. *grin*

Thanks again,

21 07 2004

Mick, hope it was ok I linked back to this article from the men and women of the USS Denver ~ US Navy at A Sailor’s Journey. This article is great and in plain english They our new to blogging. It will help them greatly.

Thanks for the space.


(the ET3George is my son. I am using his account as I help them build their blog)

22 07 2004

Don’t mind at all, Rg. As a matter of fact, I’d already found ASJ (the only sailor-blog so far) and it’s on my list. When I found it, tho, there was only one post. I was hoping that by the time I got to it again there would be more.


You’re welcome, Jen, but remember: that advice was targeted to novice military bloggers away from home; at least, some of it was. It’s not necessarily all applicable to standard blogs, which have a different purpose and a different audience. But asking ‘Who am I writing for?’ is always a good question for any writer to wrestle with, I think.

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