Curious – arouse or excite speculation, interest or attention by being inexplicable or very unusual; odd; strange: kind of curious person; a curious scene.
Novel – “new, strange, unusual”, circa 1420, but little used before 1600, by M.Fr. novel “new, fresh, recent” (Fr. nouveau, fem. nouvelle), by O.Fr., by L. novellus “new, young, recent”, sun of novus “new”
As often happens when I feel like I am not writing enough, I started noticing new and different ways that people have taken on the task of writing online. Looking around this winter, I found a few interesting formats to write in: US Senate briefings, sprawling notes, blog posts, in-progress drafts and brain dumps, marginalia and the like. Each format tends to affect both the technical aspect of the delivery and the actual content, if not just the form of ideas. It is both medium and message.
The new formats are essential to motivate me to write; and i’m always looking for motivation. For as long as I can remember, I was obsessed with office supplies, papers and notebooks. I wasn’t sure what to do with it – publish it, it seems – but I had something of a fetish for them. Once BBS and the web came along, that something was quick and easy to understand: first asynchronous communications via text (chat in forums), then web pages, then blogs, podcasts, Twitter, And so on.
Currently, I’m keen to motivate myself to do more writing of all kinds: both for the tech stuff I’m doing here, but also for the “civilian” world that doesn’t really care about “computers”. . As such, I made a mental list of some interesting formats for writing. A little treatment from each follows.
US Senate Briefing
While reading “Tora Bora and the Case of the Missing Necromancer” by Chris Nakashima-Brown, I came across the equally fantastic Tora Bora Revisited: How We Failed To Get Bin Laden And Why It Matters Today report of the Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States Senate. Now, this report is a PDF, so web purists might hesitate. But if you look at the formatting, layout, and more importantly, the writing style, everything is beautiful and therefore very motivating. it makes you want to write documents like the report.
The formatting is pretty textual: an executive summary, different sections, but then there are also some little editorial surprises like section headers here and there. In the appendix there is a nice mix of “multimedia”, screenshots, tables and graphics that stand out well against the super clean formatting and prose of the main part of the document.
Aside from the obvious template for the document, the writing style is very tight (not verbose) and direct. Without a doubt, this is for people who are not really going to read the whole thing and especially. don’t have time to write which takes a long time to think about. In addition to writing, the executive summary (of the entire document) helps here, as do the section summaries.
The “get to work” writing style is what I like most about the format. And, it looks pretty darn good too. You can see me playing with it (albeit with bullets, which the Senate report format seems to avoid) in my RedMonk on New Platforms article last year.
As Paul Kedrosky says, Nassim Nicholas Taleb runs a curious “blog without blog”. It’s a crass, sprawling notebook, well, with numbered sections that only talk about this and that. Taleb describes it as his “Philosophical Notebook (old-fashioned footnotes for my work in progress).” “
Looking at the headers, he just generates it from Word of OpenOffice, which is amazingly simple – just a big file that he converts to HTML the old fashioned way and then shows up on his website. I’ve always been too HTML purist (I tend to write “natively” in HTML) to do this sort of thing, but I like it when I see it. Its main page is equally lo-fi chic.
Aesthetically, therefore, the roughness of it is attractive. You can imagine Taleb sitting there typing a big Word document and just clicking “save to web” (or whatever). It’s a bit like off-roading on the web. Stylistically, the splash of ‘think aloud’ topics are fun, and the mix of different languages makes you feel like you’re exploring a web wunderkammer. Which, in fact, is the aesthetic feel as well: a wonderful garbage bin where you encounter unpredictable content, usually in small pieces. When it comes to content, most of the text is original or unique with sprawling notes: there is very little, if any, reference to the rest of the web. In this sense, it is both a driving force (to be cited and to be constructed) and a dead end (a restful dead end).
This is the sort of thing I wish I could do with my public Evernote notebook, but it doesn’t quite match that, as I use the notebook more for current drafts (see below), and rarely for that. Tumble blogs are a bit like that, but the content is usually not original at all. My rare “hand blogging” is a lo-fi version of this lo-fi format. Of all the formats, I think this is the one that would encourage writing the most: just sacrificing the finite content silos – my two blogs – to put content in this format.
I recently noticed an interesting use of public Google Docs in this sense. Notably Josh Jones-Dilworth’s life plan and biography pages, which in my opinion are fantastic in form, content, and intent. I can’t think of any other examples just yet, but the published Google Docs pages (and I expect Zoho or even Acrobat.com) to be an interesting take on this format.
As Paddy Donnelly says in the Shattering magazine exhibit on this form:
Let’s face it: the classic blog post is boring.
With the exception of the text and images, each generally has the exact same layout. We see little originality from one post to another. Of course, consistency and branding are extremely important to consider when designing a website or blog, but what about individuality? Does a blog post about kittens deserve the same layout as a post about CSS hacks?
[Instead, blogaziners do this:] Designing a creative layout for each new blog post, based on the content itself, requires skill, patience, dedication to the content, and most importantly, effort on the part of the designer!
This one is out of my hands to produce, but they are fun to read and interact with. Refined design usually results in design-centric content, the best example being Dustin Curtis’ consistently beautiful but searing pieces.
As one commentator said on the above article …