The Post I Said I'd Never Write
Some time ago, back in the Kotaku days, someone wrote me asking "how do you write so well?" Somewhat taken aback, I asked him what he meant. "You're interesting," he said, "you should write a post explaining to people how you write like that." I started on the post, but ultimately decided against it. After all, I didn't really know why I did what I did. Later, when I finally came to an understanding of just why and how I wrote, I came to another realization:
People reading such a thread might be offended, because they might mistake my words as arrogant commands, rather than me fulfilling a request.
In the years that followed, others approached me, making similar observations and requests. I struggled with wondering whether I should write the post, which I'd called Doc's Guide to Commenting, ever since. I've matured, gained new skills, and broadened my interests. I'm now a cook, which means I read recipes and cooking tips all the time. I very much enjoy being helpful, and I very much enjoy writing what I take pleasure in reading, and how-to guides are fascinating to me, so the idea of writing a "how-to" guide has begun appealing to me more and more. Now, I've written a few. I've talked about how to manage your backlog, how to get into PC gaming, and how to play/mod STALKER. I'm considering a piece on how to save money while gaming, and other things as well. It's my hope that people find these guides as helpful and fun to read as I find similar guides.
In a recent conversation with a colleague, I was informed that this person perceived the phrase "how-to" as arrogant and condescending, a concept I'm still having trouble understanding. Like I said, I enjoy these guides, and I enjoy learning from people who know more about a subject than I do. How, I asked, could anything so helpful be seen so strangely? I brought up Doc's Guide to Commenting. Telling people how to act is a bit differently than creating a guide for something, after all, even if the principle is the same. "This," I said, "is something I will never write, because I don't want to come across the way you're describing."
...and now, a few months later, I've decided to write it. Funny how things work out.
But... here's the deal. It's not "Doc's Guide to Commenting" anymore. It is an explanation of my own personal posting methodology. It will be written like a how-to, but when I say "you should," the person I am telling it to is me. Perhaps what I write will benefit you, perhaps not. I do, however, hope that the advice I've given to myself might, in some small way, make you feel better about yourself.
It's important that you be worth reading. There is no point to saying something if no one will hear or read it, so if you say something, you'd best make it worthwhile. These three words must guide absolutely everything else that you do. Don't be a waste of time--be someone that says things worth saying.
How do you do this, exactly? Well, that's where everything else comes in:
You are unique.
There is no one like you on the face of the planet. Sure, there are people who are tangentially similar, but who else has done all those incredible, awesome, discouraging, depressing, disheartening, badass, great things you've done? Who else has that experience? Fucking nobody, that's who.
You are the only human being in the world who has done what you've done, seen what you've seen, known who you've known, and said what you've said. There has never been anyone like you before, and there will never be anyone like you again.
No one shares your voice. You, and only you, can express the world the way you can, because no one on the face of the planet has seen, heard, smelled, touched, tasted, or felt the universe the way you have. When you die, the world loses a unique voice. That's not to say you're special, because you're not--special people are people who've chosen, or been chosen, to be special. Anyone can be special, but that requires work, and we'll touch on that topic later. For now, revel in the fact that you, and only you, are, well, you.
So, this means that you should infuse everything you write with those thoughts in mind, because if you write like you aren't different than everyone else--if you kill all the parts that make your writing unique, then what's the point? This isn't school--there are no rules for writing anymore, so why write like a robot that has no personality? No one wants to read a dry, boring essay on a subject, because those are, well, boring. Instead, say what only you can say, and people will want to read it.
Everyone else is unique too.
Everything said above applies to literally every human being who has ever existed, and who ever will exist. That means that everyone is unique. Maybe a girl reading your post has synesthesia, so every letter you type registers in her brain with a different color. A guy browsing your remarks might have never heard of some of the games you're talking about, so to him, your post is a means of discovery.
...and that's important. Remember, you're supposed to be worth reading, and one way to be worth reading is to say something that your audience has not heard of before. An example of this would be the game STALKER. Some have heard of it, but nobody's heard about that time you accidentally killed a guy, and it made you feel so guilty that you drug him to a graveyard, buried him, and committed virtual suicide. That is something worth writing, because it's something that they, in their unique experience, probably haven't encountered.
People are curious by nature. If you keep in mind the uniqueness of your own personal experience, and talk about things people aren't really familiar with, you'll pique that curiosity. Writing a post on why you, personally, feel that Valve is the greatest video game company ever isn't very useful, because quite a few other people have said things that are similar. In other words, don't just capitalize on your uniqueness, but theirs as well--talk about things they haven't heard or thought about.
When you do this right, something wonderful happens: you become memorable.
Nobody gives a shit about things they forget. If they remember it, they care. Like Film Crit Hulk says, MEMORABLE ACTION GOOD. Okay, he doesn't actually say exactly that, but I can't find the quote. Point is, if someone can forget what you've said, then there is literally no reason to have said it. Try to rephrase things in a way that people will remember. If it's been said a hundred times before, then chances are that people will gloss over what you've said, and then they'll stop listening to you. If, however, you say it in a memorable way, then they'll listen.
Actually, this brings up another really good point: predictability is the enemy. Same idea. If you're predictable--if people know what you're going to say next, then whatever you have to say is irrelevant. In the same way that audiences don't enjoy or connect with predictable movies, audiences won't enjoy what you have to say, much less connect to it, if they already know what to expect.
However, there's a flipside to this: if you're too unpredictable, people will stop caring. No one wants you to be randumb. If you're too random, then you become hard to follow, which is bad, so it's important that you be consistent. You must main consistency with your writing, because if people can't understand what you're saying, they'll stop reading.
A couple paragraphs ago, I said "nobody gives a shit about things they forget." That might be backwards. Maybe they forget a thing because they don't give a shit about it.
How do you get people to care about something?
The first, and easiest way, is to surprise and excite them. Like I said, predictability is the enemy, and surprise is a great way to offset predictability. Saying "I like this popular video game" isn't going to surprise anyone, but saying "I like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for its intelligent story" absolutely will. Of course, it's important to note that dishonesty will get you nowhere, so never make something up for the sake of being surprising.
Like surprise, excitement is a positive emotion that can greatly benefit a post. It can also be very contagious when used correctly. Enthusiasm is a powerful tool for your writing; if you're not excited about a topic, then your audience won't be either. Consider, for instance, a video game review. If you're reviewing a game, and it's so excellent that you've got to give it a high score, then it's safe to assume that you want others to experience the same feelings that you are. If you write with sterility, however, saying "it is a good game that I like and others might enjoy as well," then chances are, nobody's going to buy the game.
Instead, consider letting your enthusiasm spill over into the review. The English language has a lot of punctuation available, so put it to work for you! When sharing enthusiasm, an exclamation mark can be your best friend. Seriously: punctuation is far more useful than I can ever hope to convey. A post with nothing but periods is a post that isn't worth reading. A post with a healthy variation of punctuation is a lot more interesting.
That said, it's hard to be excited about things that are terrible. Enthusiasm works wonders when dealing with things worth being enthusiastic about, but... when you're talking about negative things, it doesn't really make a whole lot of sense. You might have noticed that I didn't bold the remark about enthusiasm. That's because, to be more comprehensive, I'd recommend that you always be passionate. Enthusiasm, excitement, consistency, and everything else falls into place when you're writing about something you're passionate about. Passion is what people. The best possible result of a passionate read is that the audience feels that it was both worth reading and helpful.
A passionate, but unhelpful post might be worth reading, but the emphasis there is on the word might. If it's unhelpful, then it's not as worth reading as you might think. Using the STALKER example above, sure, an article about how a game caused a player to kill a guy by accident, bury the body, and commit suicide might be a passionate, memorable post, but what does it help? In the end, it's an interesting read, and that's all there is to it.
A helpful read is one that, hopefully, people will come back to. Instead of talking about a unique experience, talk about how it's important, why people should experience it, and talk about ways to have a similar one. Another way to be helpful is to connect your ideas to other ideas in ways that make sense. Of course, don't just connect the ideas in your post to external ideas--make sure that the ideas in your articles connect with each other. This goes back to consistency. If you show an audience two different things, then show how those things work together, they'll have that "ah-hah" moment that teaches them to think differently.
So yeah, always be helpful, because enlightening your audience will make them better for having read your articles, and it's good to be someone who can say that people are better off for your presence. If your audience feels that they've improved as a result of your endeavors, chances are, they'll want to keep listening to you. This ability to enlighten others is one of the reasons that Film Crit Hulk is such an important writer. Keep reading Film Crit Hulk. He'll teach you so much, not just about cinema, but about people, about thinking critically, and about passionate discourse.
While we've already covered passionate discourse, let's talk about people and thinking critically for a minute.
Some people forget that they're talking to people when they write, which is bad, because writing, of any kind, is ultimately about starting dialog. It's why writing like you talk is so important. We know that it's bad to be boring, and that a diological style can keep things interesting, but it has another great advantage: it gets people engaged. Punctuation, as mentioned earlier, is super useful. Where the exclamation point helps convey excitement or passion, and where the comma helps pace things, the question mark helps get people involved.
Skyrim's dialog feels so boring, not because of its delivery, but because nobody ever asks questions. If you want someone to pay attention to you, then you've got to make them participate in your discussion. This is not to say that you should just write half-a-post and wait for others to talk, because that would be silly. Instead, learn to use rhetorical questions, particularly ones that result in simple answers. "Do you know what it's like to commit regicide?" Immediately, your reader is going to come up with an answer--either yes or no. The answer is simple, but you can take it one step further.
Remember, curiosity is important, and what better way to create curiosity than to get the audience to ask a question? (hey look, a question!) Using our above example, it's possible that the reader might respond with "no, what is it like to commit regicide?" By encouraging a reader to want to know what happens next, you'll ensure that they want to keep reading what you've got to write. Comic writers use this tactic to make their books compelling. Some writers will end every page in a way that makes a reader want to turn the page. "It's you!" someone might say, causing the audience to ask "who?" and turn the page.
This might sound weird, but food analogies are incredible and you should use them. People like food. People eat food. Food is something that the entire human race has in common. Talking about food is a great way to help explain concepts that have proven challenging to explain. Consider, for example, a food analogy on the importance of having consequences. "Imagine going to an ice cream shop, asking for chocolate, and getting vanilla. When you ask why you didn't get chocolate, they say they don't have any, so you ask for strawberry, and what do they give you? Vanilla. As it turns out, the only flavor they have is vanilla, despite offering more flavors." Of course, that food analogy is useless, so you need to make sure to connect it to what you're talking about. First, ask a question. "Wouldn't that suck?" The response to that, hopefully, is "yes," which means they'll be more likely to agree with the point you make next. "Likewise, a game that offers a lot of choices, but no consequences, has no meaning."
Again, passion and emotion is useful there. Not getting the ice cream you want, for instance, can be upsetting. Enjoying a great pizza can be awesome. Emotion helps create involvement, which is that thing that's going to encourage people to keep reading.
Be intelligent, because your audience sure as hell is. Being intelligent doesn't mean that you have to be confusing, however--a clear, understandable post that makes intelligent points can often be smarter than one that uses words no one recognizes. Your audience deserves nothing less than the best effort you can give them--not the best post, because you can't write your best post every single day, but the best effort. Treat them like they are smart no matter what, because that means you will treat them with respect. It also means that you'll never run into oversimplification or leave out data that might otherwise Be warned that speaking intelligently can occasionally backfire. Like the idiots in that one Simpson episode, who took intelligent speech as indicative of an arrogant attitude and became hostile, you'll always run into people who, for whatever reasons, are at odds with intelligence. The only alternative is to start talking simply, and when you do that, you're treating them like idiots. Critics of intelligence are of no value, so if someone tells you to stop talking with intelligence, don't listen to them.
Also, and this is incredibly obvious, but still worth saying: never, fucking ever, make a claim without either backing it up or backing it up when asked. If you cannot back a claim up, do not make it. It's cool if you do a "I remember reading an article once where [CLAIM]," if you have to, but always use some caveat to express that you're not just pulling it out of your ass. In general, caveats or disclaimers are really useful, and if you need to use them, don't be afraid.
It's important to be confident and knowledgeable about what you're saying, because it's important to be right about things. Likewise, don't back down just because someone challenges you, but, at the same time, it's always worth remembering that confidence doesn't mean belligerence. Always be open-minded, and never run away when you discover that you are mistaken. You might, for instance, start an article to show how there are too many first-person shooters in the world, only to discover that FPSes aren't nearly as common as they appear to be. Cool! Instead of abandoning it to continue your agenda, start writing an article on how FPSes aren't that common, despite appearances. Someone might tell you that your knowledge on a subject is incomplete or incorrect. In those situations, assuming they're right, then thank them and correct yourself. In situations where they're wrong, tactfully explain why.
Let's say you've done everything here... and nobody responds to your post, or they respond in a way you didn't see. Congratulations, you've failed! This can be great!
There are a lot of reasons your post might be a failure. Maybe you're in a rush and make a mistake, or maybe you've failed to leave any room for discussion. Perhaps you've just got a case of writer's block and what you write feels like shit. Whatever the case, not all your posts will be great, and that's okay! While it's fine to be disappointed that a post doesn't succeed, don't let it discourage you from writing more. One of the most valuable pieces of advice ever given is this: adults are harder to teach because they let themselves be too easily crippled by failure.
At its worst, the fear of failure can prevent someone from ever trying again, and denying your unique, invaluable perspective to the world is a horrible thing. Imagine if Film Crit Hulk suddenly stopped posting. Imagine a world where Joss Whedon was too discouraged by Buffy's failure as a movie and never went on to direct Firefly and The Avengers!
So, accept that you will fail, but never give up. In doing so, you will become a better writer, which means you will be able to positively affect a lot more people.
All this is well and good, but a lot of writers have a lot of different styles. This is just one style that seems to have worked pretty well in the past. It's not the be-all, end-all style, so remember that it's okay to buck the rules or advice you've been given if they're not what's needed at a given point. Ever heard of "The Rule of Thirds," for instance, or "The Three-Act Structure?" It's perfectly acceptable, even important, to stray from them if you can do things even better. Rules aren't meant to be broken, they're meant to make you better. If breaking all the advice given above means you can write better post, then by all means, do it.
There is one rule that you must never break. I've written 3,287 words so far, and none of them mean anything in the face of this rule. You will, of course, break the rule, because every human does, but it's still the most important rule of all:
Be kind. Always, always, always be kind.
People often mistake kindness for niceness. The two are related, to be sure, but not synonymous. Niceness means that you're always polite, always friendly, never confrontational... and as a result, you run the risk of being useless. Niceness is a good thing to be by default, but sometimes, niceness doesn't work. You shouldn't be nice to everyone, because sometimes, you've got to be harsh.
That's where kindness comes in.
To be kind means that every action you make is one motivated by the desire to benefit others. That means being nice by default, and trying to maintain niceness for as long as you possibly can, but it can also mean punishing or admonishing someone when they've done poorly. If you're nice to your brother after he's just broken a good girl's heart through his carelessness and selfishness, it may take him years to learn just what a thing he's done. If, however, you offer him the sincere kindness of your severity, he might realize the mistake he's made sooner, and be the better off for it.
Good parents punish their children because they love them, not because they want to hurt them. A good parent grounds a daughter who shoplifts because they want to keep her from being jailed in the future. A good friend stops his drunk friend from driving home, even when the drunk friend hates it when people get behind the wheel of his car.
Kindness doesn't mean always being nice, it means doing what's necessary to help better people. Sometimes, that's a kind word of encouragement and a smile. Other times, it's "you fucked up bad, man, and you need to own this."
Be kind, because it's the best thing you can ever do.
So far, everything I've written is the advice I've given myself. At the very least, I've written a post that I can bookmark to read every time I get frustrated with a post that isn't coming along properly or annoyed with a commenter who seems to be giving me a bad time. Hopefully, those of you who have wanted to know how and why I write the way I do have gotten the answer you've been asking me for years.
But... I do hope that maybe some of you might find some use in the advice I've given to myself. I know that I'd be really, really excited to read all the different ways and mindsets that drive the way you guys post the way you do, so if you'd like to talk about that, it'd really mean a lot to me.
Now it's time to give you some advice. I don't mean to be presumptuous or arrogant or anything of the sort. I'm writing this because I know some of you feel it, and I feel it all the time as well. It's part of the reason I occasionally come across the way I do--because I am telling myself the thing I need to hear the most. So... I'm going to direct it towards you, and if you don't feel that it applies, then cool; it's meant to help the people it helps, and it does no one any harm to have read it.
You really are fucking great, you know that?
Stop pitying yourself, or whining about how insignificant you are, or talking about how you'll never be a success, because... well... it's idiotic. You don't need to put yourself down, to make yourself feel like shit, or to act as if you don't matter, because you sure as hell fucking do. You are smarter than you give yourself credit for, better than you'll ever know, and more impactful on my life than I can ever communicate.
Shit! Why would you even tell me you're not smart enough to say smart things? You're awesome and one-of-a-kind, you magnificent unicorn of a person, and if you weren't, then I wouldn't be inviting you to chat with me over on #Polynauts on IRC, or friending you on Steam, or, hell, hanging out here on the forums in the first place. What, you think I came here to hear myself speak? I've got a blog, yo. I write here because of you.
You matter to me. I write because I want to know you. I write because I'm hoping you'll get involved and as excited and pumped as I am about things. I write because I hope that maybe you will as well, and we can get some cool dialog going. Do you think I really care about spending a bunch of time and money buying last-generation console games you recommended because I want to play them? Hell no! I'm DocSeuss, PC gaming die-hard! While I do buy games to expand my horizons, the biggest reason I do it is because I want to understand you better. Why do you recommend the games you do? Why do you like what you like?
How come you're so fucking awesome?
That's what I'm here to find out, and the one thing I know for certain is that I'm privileged to know you. Thanks for being great.