Ali recently gave us five reasons why blogging improves your writing, and I don’t disagree with any of them. What ruined my writing ability (temporarily, I hope) was not the chance to write regularly or to get instant feedback. So what ruined it?
Did I get worse the more I practiced? Can that even happen? Sports coaches and music teachers will tell you that it can – if you practice doing it wrong instead of doing it right. If you repeatedly practice bad habits, they will become ingrained habits. Email and instant messaging may have taught people how to type better, but I don’t think it’s teaching them to write better.
What ruined my writing ability was placing money and productivity higher than integrity and honor. I told myself, “This assignment pays half of what I need to earn per hour; therefore, I will only spend half an hour on it.” In retrospect, I realized that I was gaining income, but losing self-respect. I was quickly lowering my standards to meet my financial goals, but found that I couldn’t raise them back again so easily. In essence, I was training myself to write sloppily.
Disclaimer: Daily Writing Tips is a good example of a blog that attracts lovers of writing and pays them well. I’ve done some of my best work here. Perhaps I’ve done even better writing on my personal blog – for which I receive no money at all.
There is an economic aspect to writing professionally, of course, but I found that it also involves economics that are not monetary. The British economist E.F. Schumacher called this “meta-economics.” A job working with hazardous chemicals may earn you a higher salary, but may cost you in quality of life. Writing only for the money, even when my heart wasn’t in it, paid most of the bills. But meeting a word count without meeting my personal standards, in effect, lowered my personal standards. I almost forgot what they were.
I found out what had happened to me when I was offered a secure job in the marketing department at a local university. I took it and put my freelance writing career on hold. My freelance writing experience was one reason why I was hired. Yet when I began writing documentation for my new boss, he was unenthusiastic about using it. The problem wasn’t my style or grammar or punctuation. He only told me, “I’ve found that when you really understand something, you can explain it clearly.”
Professional blogging, for low pay and not for love, hadn’t taught me to explain things clearly. We expect bloggers to entertain us more than to inform us. When we expect them to inform us, we don’t expect complete information. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve found, however, that you advance by exceeding peoples’ expectations, not simply meeting them. And you won’t advance as a writer when you don’t meet your own expectations, especially when you tell yourself that you don’t need to.
To be fair, I was not a typical blogger. I was a professional blogger, trying to support my family and pay a mortgage in the US economy. When I complained mildly to one of my editors about my low pay scale, he wisely pointed out that my rate was typical for the industry. Even more wisely, he told me that most of my fellow writers were blogging because they loved their subject, not because they were depending on an extra few dollars to pay the mortgage.
The danger I’m warning against is not confined to the world of professional blogging. Everyone who writes for the money but doesn’t get much of it is tempted to cut corners. Writing keyword-rich SEO copy is perhaps even more dangerous for aspiring writers. At least blogs have to appeal to human beings. That isn’t a requirement for SEO copy.
Every time you tell yourself, “I can dash off this post; I don’t need to devote any time or thought to it,” you make it easier to do it the next time and the next time. It’s quite easy to lose your critical ear and lower your standards if you deliberately do it over and over.
You’re never writing only for others. You’re always writing for yourself too. You’re never dealing only with money. You’re also dealing with your ability and integrity. Your writing skills are like the assets of a bank account. You can add to your assets by doing your best work, all the time, and always raising the bar. You can lose assets as a writer when you don’t.