Over approximately a ten-year period, I volunteered at three different radio stations. The first was a student station at the University of the West of Scotland, which overlapped with my second, a community station in Govan. These gigs were then followed by an eight-year stint on hospital radio in Dundee.
The main reason I gave up the hospital radio was to focus on writing, but the ability to play back your own recordings is definitely a transferable skill. I also have a camcorder, and I used to ask someone to film my live performances so I could learn from them.
During this last year of online gigs, going on camera has become almost the only way to perform to a live audience. Here’s one that’s been submitted to Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists for an event tonight:
When I look at that, I can see it’s not very well framed, and there are a few pauses towards the end as the last few lines were improvised. However, the sound is nice and loud, so it’s good enough for the purposes of the event.
As I’ve been writing for so long, I sometimes forget that less experienced writers still struggle with the initial hurdles that I overcame a long time ago.
Earlier this month, my partner sent me a poem she’d written, after we’d spoken about her interest in developing her craft. She’d always been reluctant to revisit and redraft her work, yet that’s arguably the first step to improving your writing. When you’ve just placed something on the page, you’re not reading it fresh like the next person will.
We discussed the sent poem, in which I suggested trimming many words and restructuring the stanzas. It’s not unrecognisably different from the first draft, but it now flows significantly better.
And now a friend has asked me for help. She has no problem redrafting her work, but is reluctant to show it to anyone. It’s a real fear among some people that their work will be disrespected. I’m currently working with this person to encourage her to open up a little.
When I’m asked to look over someone else’s piece, I sometimes ask whether there’s a particular aspect I should focus on; for example, grammar, structure, themes, &c. I also make it clear that whatever suggestions I make are optional. This sometimes means letting go of aspects that break convention: a couple of poets, for instance, like to capitalise the beginning of each line, even though the widespread practice died out a century ago.
When someone has asked me to look over a piece I might not understand it, or it might not be to my taste. But what I won’t do is sneer at, ridicule or dismiss someone’s work when they’ve taken the time to request constructive feedback.
The daily pictures on my Instagram page are devoted to a particular theme that changes every month. Previous ones include photographing red objects, finding signs containing numbers, and completing a 1000-piece jigsaw.
This month’s theme is called Fifty Shades of May, an exploration of the influential but largely mocked E L James novel, which has turned into more of a literary analysis than I’d expected.
Let me tell you in a nutshell how it’s going: my copy is 514 pages long and I’ve already managed to eke out five days of criticism from the first 10% of the story.
On day two, for instance, we looked at how some words didn’t carry much weight and could have been trimmed. On day four, we explored the character background of the 21-year-old Anastasia, through her assertion that nobody had ever held her hand before, and her reaction when Christian Grey does it without asking her first.
At some point, I will have to read past page 50, but if these initial reactions are representative of the rest of the novel, it’s going to be a painful ride.
Last week, I said I was organising three live events over the next month and that there would be more about those in this entry. On reflection, I think this is better done as a reactive post, as I can then talk about two of the final performances. So that will definitely appear next week.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in a pub in Stockton-on-Tees called the Thomas Sheraton. Behind the bar was a coffee machine with the label ‘Biscuits don’t live here’.
For some reason, I found this particularly amusing. By the time my meal was served, I’d written a good chunk of a piece that’s now sitting at around 350 words. It’s a surreal narrative about anthropomorphised biscuits are who are fed up with people and are leaving town.
Normally when I look back on work, I’m inclined to remove words from it. In this case, however, I’ve added words almost every time.
But where is the line between a nonsense piece and one that’s simply rubbish? Here’s my view on the matter.
The Bob Dylan track Subterranean Homesick Blues is a disjointed sequence of phrases and imagery. It’s lauded as summing up the counterculture movement of the day. However, even taking into account that many of the references are now outdated, I simply don’t find the lyrics cohesive enough to enjoy them.
By contrast, I thoroughly enjoy the Simon Armitage poem Thank You for Waiting, which is structured as an airport boarding announcement, but the categories of passengers he describes become increasingly more bizarre. Taken together, all the lines poke fun at the class system.
So for me, even a loose cohesiveness or some form of internal logic makes all the difference between the nonsense I enjoy and the nonsense I don’t. Remember this is only my definition, and it’s not wrong to like what everyone else hates, or vice versa.
This month, I’ve been taking part in Fun a Day Dundee, a project to create whatever you like in or throughout January. Mine is called Line for a Walk, where I’m writing fragments every day to form a circular sentence by the end of the month.
Back in 2015, I made a post where I talked about my creative response to an exhibition where I wasn’t happy with my own work. This month, I’ve had a similar experience – particularly from Day 20 onwards – as I’ve realised my project is running out of steam. I did have a lot of ideas at the beginning of January, which I’ve now used.
I will finish the project as planned, but I’ve realised I need more focus. This doesn’t mean taking a prescriptive approach, merely setting some type of restriction or theme. A blank page is harder to tackle than a brief which reads something like ‘In 500 words, write about two characters on a boat’.
Where I have enjoyed some success is in my handful of side projects – those that are part of Fun a Day but don’t fall under Line for a Walk. These spontaneous side projects have included poetry and visual art experiments, but relying on spontaneity for a month is a tough request.
Meanwhile, I need to realise that I’ve yet to see the end of the project and that those perceived weak links might not be as flimsy as they now appear. I also need to remember it’s supposed to be a slice of fun.
I hadn’t written a response blog for years, and now this is my second in a fortnight. But this time, it was requested.
Scott Graham runs Suited Sorted on Blogspot, where he has recently re-focused on Android technology, although he has back entries discussing music, television, holidays, and weight loss. He has asked for some constructive criticism about the page, and with ten years’ blogging experience, I reckon I’m qualified to pass on some tips.
Tone, spelling, and grammar
Scott wonders if he’s a little too conversational. There’s a certain style that many bloggers go for, whether they mean to or not. The closest off-line equivalent is an opinion column in a newspaper. You’re telling the reader your view on a particular matter, but using everyday spoken words. For instance, you’ll say asked for rather than requested, or use contractions like can’t instead of cannot.
But this isn’t a licence to spell words any old way, or leave out punctuation where it’s needed. Almost every piece of blogging software has a spellchecker. Spelling extensions are available for Firefox and Chrome, most mobile phones have the facility built-in, and the latest edition of Microsoft Word even lets you post to WordPress directly. If the reader doesn’t have to decode what you’re trying to tell them, your message will come across much stronger.
Scott, you’re doing fine on that front.
Newspapers and magazines learnt early on that long articles do not translate well to the Web. When you’re reading a three-page printed interview, your neck automatically moves downwards as your eyes follow the text, where scrolling down with your hands requires more conscious effort. A normal screen – not an e-ink display – is also brighter than a page, so it’s harder to read from.
That’s why I restrict my paragraphs to about three to six lines, and leave a clear line between each one. A lot of people will give up reading a wall of text, if they attempt it at all.
Your paragraphs can be quite long, Scott, but certainly not the dreaded wall.
Using the site analytics tools on WordPress, I’ve found that my posts attract more attention and reaction if I post them between around 6pm and 10pm Monday to Friday. Entries made at any time on Saturday or Sunday simply don’t seem to be noticed. Certain tags also seem to generate interest, while others have no effect.
For years, I posted with LiveJournal and tagged my entries. I very much accepted that hardly anyone except my friends read the page, as they were the only ones to comment. But when I moved to WordPress, I realised I’d been missing out on this vital piece of analysis. Everyone will be different, and some will find that daytime or weekend posts work for them.
So keep tagging your entries, Scott, and have a look at Blogspot’s analysis tools to find out exactly when people are reading you. I hope you’ve found this critique helpful.
To everyone else, I’ll be pleased if any of my suggestions help you with your own blogging.