How I Blog

This blog has had its bursts and lulls, but I’ve finally gotten into a bit of a rhythm — this is now my 42nd straight week publishing a blog post on Friday! I thought it might be helpful to share some thoughts on how I’ve been able to keep that up, and give some insights into how I approach blogging. I’m by no means an expert, but I know some of you would like to get into blogging more regularly, and perhaps what I can share from my process might help you, too.

My latest streak began after I attended a retreat with the Augustine Collective, a group of students at various top-tier universities who run journals of Christian thought on their campus. I’ve been helping write and edit for the MIT Et Spiritus since its inception, and we had the fortune together with hundreds of other students to hear from longtime Christianity Today editor and writer Andy Crouch at this particular retreat.

Crouch had a ton of helpful insights to share with all of us, but what stuck most in my head and became most useful to my blogging habit was his explication of Genesis 1 to describe features of an effective creative process:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2, ESV)

The beginning of the creative process, he explained, often doesn’t look like much. Sometimes you just have to hover over your subject material, mulling it over in your head, letting it rattle around until it coalesces into a key idea or two. (How’s that for mixed metaphors?) To put this into action, I created a Google document that I called “Hovering over the Void” which I use basically as a scratchpad to jot down ideas as they come to me, and later revisit them and dwell on them more deeply. Some ideas become posts; some are just bad, and others are too brief to write a whole blog post about or just need to be cobbled together into one.

Each week, I also take advantage of downtime to ponder what I want to write about that week. The best time for this, in my experience, is while washing the dishes. With the water running to drown out distractions, I’m better able to just think and then start to formulate how I want to approach this week’s post. Folding laundry and my 10-minute walking commute also provide me with time to think, if I let them.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (Genesis 1:3-5, ESV)

Thus begins the first of three “separations” that God undertakes, day from night, sky from ocean, and earth from seas. In the same way, effective creators need to introduce structure into their creative process. Make divisions in space (sections, titled or not) and more importantly, time (deadlines). As he put it, even in the working world, nothing gets down without a deadline. For me, I decided that Friday at 5pm would be mine: I would publish a blog post every week by that time. I chose that timing for a couple of reasons: First, Thursday evenings have tended to be relatively free for me, and second, I can hopefully minimize the distraction damage my (typically rather long) blog posts can cause by publishing them at a convenient time for my friends to read over the weekend.

I suppose it helps that I have lots of experience from college meeting deadlines like this. By now, I have a somewhat uncanny subconscious ability to procrastinate just long enough to finish my post on time. Technically it’s possible to backdate the post to Friday at 5pm if I miss it, but I’ve only had to take advantage of this once.

And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. (Genesis 1:20-23, ESV)

The fourth through sixth days of creation consist of God going back and filling each of the spaces that he had divided up: The sun fills the day while the stars and moon fill the night, sea creatures fill the sea while birds fill the sky, and finally, beasts and creeping things fill the earth. God is certainly all about this filling; His first command to mankind is to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” We can see even here in Genesis that God doesn’t want to do all of the work, but prefers to create things that can then self-propagate. (Some Christian scientists like Ard Louis of Oxford believe it’s more impressive that God would create a self-creating world through evolutionary means, just like how we find it more impressive that Deep Mind’s Alpha Go Zero could teach itself how to play the game of go without building off of reams of human knowledge.)

In the same way, no matter how you measure it, my best blog posts don’t require an extensive outline ahead of time, but essentially write themselves. I don’t know if this would work well for everyone, but I actually don’t typically outline my plans for a post beyond occasionally the section titles. Instead, I always start with the hook and just keep writing from there. The hope, of course, is that this approach will make my posts naturally flow from one point to the next; the fear, on the other hand, is that I might not like where it ends up.

Crouch’s wisdom gave me what I needed to jump-start my blog again, as I quickly jotted down all of the latent ideas I’d had for upcoming posts but hadn’t written down yet. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to sustain a weekly pace, but so far, so good.

I don’t know that I can as succinctly, eloquently, or biblically describe the lessons I’ve learned over these last ten months, but I’ll try to say something. Good writing, like many endeavors, functions best when it navigates well a series of tensions. Conversely, bad writing often arises when you ignore one of the two sides of these tensions.

The first tension comes with what you choose to write about. On the one hand, it’s always easier and more natural to write about what you’ve personally been thinking about recently. When I don’t particularly like any of the ideas on in my Hovering Google document, I sometimes use the cue of “write your week.” My recent posts about Dominion, my summer, and white nationalism all came about more or less in this way: I took whatever I was thinking about that week and connected it to previous experiences in my life to weave a story.

But on the other hand, you want to write things that are interesting, insightful, or at least entertaining, and man, sometimes the things you’ve been thinking about that week are just… not. In my case, I often need to step back from just regurgitating my own experiences and ask myself who my audience is and whether they’d be interested in reading what I’m writing.

Of course, the best way out of this tension is to try to spend your week thinking about interesting things, rather than filling your ears with noise. It’s a constant struggle for me, though; I tend to prioritize what’s familiar, and what’s familiar becomes boring if I blog about it too much.

The second tension I’ve identified comes between writing for the present and the future. I like to monitor my blog stats, and my single most-viewed post is actually one I wrote way back in 2015. I titled the piece “A Real-Life Trolley Problem,” and it’s about the famous societal dilemma that the trolley problem was actually invented for. (I’ll let you check the piece out if you don’t know that tidbit.) When the piece came out and I advertised it to my friends on Facebook, it didn’t make much of a splash. But over the years, it’s gotten a lot of search traffic — apparently a lot of people want to know what a real life trolley problem is.

And then there’s the related tension between writing for views and writing for quality. In the media landscape, on one end of the spectrum are clickbait articles, and on the other end, well, arguably all of academia. Clickbait works — my attempt at a listicle mockery “Five More Things Millennials Need to Kill” got more views than any post since. And yet, while my takes on mail, sightseeing and cars are fun to share, I’m not sure they’re that meaningful.

Andy Crouch shared that at Christianity Today, their digital click stats were rather depressing. To first approximation, as he put it, people only click on articles about celebrities or controversy. My own blog viewership is different of course, but the key is to identify something in the intersection of the things that people like to read and the things that are actually meaningful. I like to think that posts like “What if we actually believed that life begins at conception” fit that mold.

For those of you who were just curious what my blog looks like behind the scenes, thank you for reading! For those who want to get into blogging yourself, I’d encourage you to go for it! Set reasonable goals for yourself, and deadlines that make yourself write. It’s been a rewarding experience for me. 🙂

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