Writing Workshop Notes: BlogHer 2008

Me, missing the morning sessions of BlogHer because I was posting all this stuff…

I’m at the BlogHer 2008 conference in San Francisco, where later today I’ll be giving a writing workshop. I’m a last-minute replacement for BlogHer cofounder Lisa Stone — talk about someone who’s tough to replace! But I’ll do my best.

Feel free to contact me with followup questions or discussion:

Here is my “online handout” for this workshop, with links to several resources I might mention. After the session I’ll update it with additional resources to cover whatever comes up. I also created a writing exercises wiki for this workshop.

So here’s the plan…

OPEN QUESTIONS to start discussion

  • Why write at all? Why bother?
  • Why write online?


  • What kinds of writing do you do?
  • What do you like about writing?
  • What aspects of writing are more difficult?
  • What more would you like to be getting out of your writing?
  • Any specific issues you’d like addressed in this session?


I definitely DON’T know everything about writing! So I’m hoping we can learn from each other in this session.

I’m pretty opinionated and unconventional about some writing/editorial issues, and many smart people disagree with me. If you disagree with or question anything I say or recommend in this session, please speak up! We can explore it.

In writing, there’s rarely an absolute right or wrong. Most important is for you to tune it to what sounds like potentially useful or fun options for you to try.

I apologize that several links within my older Contentious.com posts are broken. I’ve been doing this blog since 1997, and I’ve endured five major CMS changes. My archives are a mess.

Although I’ve outlined some topics I want to cover, we don’t have to stick to this agenda. We can definitely take this in whichever direction we want to go.


How you THINK about writing is as important as writing itself.

  • Much more about process than product.
  • Just keep writing.
  • This is NOT easy
  • Conversational writing (even Twitter, IM, e-mail) can be an important part of your process if you use it that way
  • Be willing to experiment — especially online.
  • Don’t be boring. Especially to yourself. If you’re not having fun or feeling engaged, you need to change what you’re doing.


Effective Writing for the Real World

Most of us don’t just write for the hell of it.

Clarify your purpose or goal: What EFFECTS do you want to happen because someone reads what you write? Be specific

Who must you reach in order to make those desired effects happen? They’re your core community (not “target audience”)

  • What are those people really like? Preferences for tone, credibility, professionalism, personality.
  • How will they probably encounter your work?
  • What do they know, believe, or feel about what you’re writing about?
  • What is their single greatest point of connection, concern, or resistance regarding your topic, venue, or you? (Good to lead with the “so what,” from their perspective.)
  • How much time will they realistically give you? Multiply number of minutes by 250 to get a rough target word count.


Picture gears turning: It’s a visceral process. Plant nuggets throughout your writing that they can easily grab. This will pull them through to the end.

Reflect your audience:

  • Show that you really understand them — or at least want to.

  • You are NOT your audience. If it doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t work.
  • People generally like to see themselves, put themselves in the picture. Compelling context.


Efficiency (tightness) is neither crucial or most effective for every type of writing, but it generally is the default. Therefore, if you choose to be less efficient (or more rambling), be conscious about it. Make sure you have a damn good reason — one that will work for your core community. Also, develop an alternate strategy to keep them reading.

Copyediting for readability is extra work, but it also is well worth the effort. More people will read you if you are easy to read.

  • Set context. Tell them right away why what you’re going to say matters.
  • Then make your points.
  • At the end, after you’ve built momentum by making your points, send them off in a useful direction (call to action, suggestions for next steps, ask questions they might consider, etc.) This can even apply to personal expression or fiction.
  • Average reading speed online: 200-300 words/min. Call it 250. Use that to calculate target word count, and try to stick to it. Great exercise. Check your own reading speed.

Amy’s triage editing tips for improving readability quickly.


Poor readability can be a significant obstacle. And online, ANY obstacle is potentially a show stopper. Readability IS usability.

Cut the flab: Tight writing is easy to read.

  • My target sentence length: 15-20 words max. (YMMV)
  • My target paragraph length: 60-75 words max. (YMMV)
  • Don’t over-tighten — too choppy

Amy’s readability tricks:

(See the writing exercises wiki for this workshop.)

The ear catches what the eye misses. Read sentences and paragraphs to yourself to catch clunky or flat parts.

Strong words free your mind. To loosen up, go way overboard with your first draft. You don’t have to show it to anyone. Faster way to get to the heart of what you want to say, in a way that will resonate with your core community. It’s always easier to tone writing down than to punch it up.

Keep sentence structure simple. The easiest way to do this is to fix your verbs first. Choose strong, specific, vivid verbs — and use active tense unless you’ve got a damn good reason not to. Simple sentences are especially useful if you’re writing modular content.

Eliminate unnecessary prepositional phrases and gerunds (-ing words where a verb masquerades as a noun).

Stay on track: Frame before finishing. Sketch out the broad strokes of where you want to take your readers — write the transitions first so you make sure your pieces fit together and build momentum. Then flesh out details. Saves time, keeps you from rambling.

Bulleted list tips.

Strong Finish: Writing Effective Conclusions


  • Being a writer (even if you don’t feel like one).
  • Inspiration and motivation
  • The “lone writer” myth: Most people think and write more clearly through engaging in conversation. (Social media really does “count” for writing practice!)
  • Perfection sucks: How to get out of your own way. Being willing to make mistakes, even in public.
  • Does grammar matter? When, how, and why?
  • Ethics: Transparency, accuracy, fairness, etc.
  • Voice: Finding it, using it, not getting trapped by it.
  • Are you having fun or getting other rewards? (Money is almost never enough.)
  • Handling criticism: Kickboxing (or other stress release) helps — better than kicking yourself. Handling criticism, knowing your vulnerabilities, and setting boundaries is an important part of writing process.



  • What kind of jobs? How to find them? How to get started?
  • Being independent and riding the roller coaster
  • Ethics on the job: Transparency, accuracy, fairness, etc.
  • Copyright, Creative Commons, etc.
  • Working with (or being) an editor.


  • Journalism
  • Educational / how-to
  • Community building
  • Business/professional
  • Academic
  • Commentary
  • Fiction
  • Personal journal
  • Seeking or offering support
  • essay/op-ed
  • analysis/synthesis
  • humor
  • briefs


  • Your blog
  • client/employer blogs
  • team blogs
  • intranets
  • wikis
  • community sites/forums
  • news media
  • e-mail lists
  • blog comments
  • Twitter and other bite-sized venues

11 thoughts on Writing Workshop Notes: BlogHer 2008

  1. The workshop was brilliant, Amy. I really enjoyed your positive viewpoint and got a lot of value from the tips and tools you shared. Thanks so much. You are obviously very good at what you do!

  2. I was in the audience at the writing workshop and really enjoyed it. Just wanted to say thanks for managing to put together something so valuable on short notice. I’m trying out some of the tools you recommended already, such as co.mment and lijit. Thanks.

  3. Wow that’s fantastic material on writing {seesmic_video:{“url_thumbnail”:{“value”:”http://t.seesmic.com/thumbnail/sNFkecHfw7_th1.jpg”}”title”:{“value”:”Wow that’s fantastic material on writing “}”videoUri”:{“value”:”http://www.seesmic.com/video/2h4HHChGtS”}}}

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  6. Amy: Thank you for sharing those important, concise and clear writing tips! I appreciate you offering them to those of us who weren’t able to attend the conference. I am planning to start a blog – your tips are helping me focus my goals and style! Pattie

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