Give Me a Break!


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BEST PRACTICES SERIES

Writers write every day. Would-be writers get that advice from many sources; it's one of the contemporary clichés of books on writing. No matter what, even if you throw it away later, every day you must sit at the keyboard and pound out a thousand words.

The same goes double for Web content sites. Come rain, snow, router problems, or backhoes breaking backbones, the content must flow without interruption.

Heretical Advice
Writing advisors leave out the next step—a step I believe also makes sense for content sites. Once you've established that you can churn out worthwhile stuff, once you've established a reputation and a following, you need to stop.

Move away from that keyboard. Post an "out to lunch: back next week" sign on your site. Stop writing. Stop posting. Not permanently—but long enough to make a difference. A week seems about right.

This isn't my "go take a vacation" pitch. Vacations are different. I'm talking about a deliberate break, a period in which you don't produce.

Give yourself a break and give me—your reader or site visitor—a break. Let me know there won't be anyone here for a few days.

This advice does not apply to people who haven't yet found a voice or achieved any success. I believe it does apply to novelists and poets as well as nonfiction writers and essayists. I believe it's worth considering for most content sites, particularly those with a clear mission or focus.

The Pause that Refreshes
Why take a break? Because you've been working steadily at your writing, on your site—doing that thousand words a day (if it's a hobby); getting new material posted every hour or every day (if it's a site). You know you can keep it up—it's become habitual.

For most of us, that leads to a certain loss of freshness. Even newspaper reporters do better work when they see a story with a fresh perspective. Doing the same thing every day encourages bad habits and discourages creativity. Even worse, you may come to assume that the potential reader has the background so ingrained in you by now—or that you're now an expert who must talk down to the ignorant masses who read your writing.

Stepping away from that everyday activity can be literally refreshing. It can help make your prose fresher, the way it was when you were first excited about a topic—and maybe make your site more appealing.

This isn't a theoretical lecture. It's a reflection based on my own experience, both as a Web user and as a part-time writer. Typically, I do put in a "thousand words a day," writing, rewriting, or organizing material. Late last November, after producing the final issue of Cites & Insights for the year, I began to assemble an index for the volume. To leave time for that process, I got a month ahead of standing deadlines.

I completed the index a week ago, doing no new writing during that time. Yesterday was the first time I sat back down to write. I'm enjoying it more now—and I feel able to bring a fresher voice to my work.

I've seen the same thing at those sites that do take breaks. When new material shows up a week later, it's fresher, more vigorous, more interesting, and better focused. The content has been refreshed, not simply by adding new content, but by the deliberate pause.

Measuring Your Drift
When you began, where did you think you were going? Did you have an express intent, other than to succeed? That's an open question for some nonfiction writers, but it's a rare Web site that doesn't have a direction or plan.

Where are you now? Is the direction precisely what you started with or have you drifted away? Shift happens; there's nothing wrong with changes in attitude and course. But it's hard to notice drift or shift when you're constantly in motion.

Stop, look around, look back to your original plan. With luck, you've grown (true for writers and good Web sites), gaining broader perspectives and more areas of interest. That's healthy change.

Drift may also mean that the river itself has changed course. When the field you survey changes direction, you need to change approach to be an effective observer. Sometimes a field transforms itself, not always through obvious breaks. Consider the typical usage of "convergence" today with its meaning half a decade ago: you'll find something less revolutionary, but much more probable. That's partly a matter of deliberate redefinition, but also the reality of shifting fields and trends.

You may have drifted in less positive ways. What began as a series of provocations for discussion may have become dogma, assertions of received truth. A corner of your site may have become the center—even though it remains peripheral to your audience and intentions. One fairly new site that I occasionally visit seems to be shifting from a complex web of observations from various thoughtful writers into a site dominated by one prolific and wide-ranging, but also ill-informed and overly didactic, contributor. As a visitor, I'm losing interest. The site seems to have shifted out from under its creators. If they shut it down long enough to see what's happening, I believe they can refresh the site and arrive at a new center that's worth visiting. If not—if they keep running what's written—the forum will become a soapbox with one primary occupant and a declining audience.

Through The Eyes of Your Readers?
You think you know what you're doing. Stopping to see what you're actually doing may help refine that view. There's another, more important perspective: what your readers see.

Maybe your readers want the same-old same-old, unchanging perspectives, fixed attitudes. If so, you need to check your drift and get back in that lockstep. I'd like to think Web aficionados are more open to change. That optimistic view says that readers expect one kind of content, but will be pleased to find that you've changed in a positive way that's consistent with your original intent, but not limited to that plan.

Can you see your writing through the eyes of readers? I'm not sure, but it's worth a try. You're more likely to succeed while taking a break. It allows a bit of perspective, something that's harder to find in the right-now world of Web sites than in the more relaxed world of print publishing (other than newspapers).

If you take a site break, you may be able to gain a direct sense of how your readers view the site. Keep your feedback methods active. Readers who miss what you're doing may say so, either during the break or when you return. Read those comments carefully: they represent the truest and most valuable views you can find.

Doing It Better
The surest way to avoid writer's block is to keep those hands at the keyboard. A thousand words a day, seven days a week, no interruptions, no excuses. That's a great way to start writing—but it's also a great way to make writing a chore rather than a creative act. Give me a break—as your reader, as your visitor. Give yourself a break. Look at what you've done and what you're doing. With luck, you'll do it better.