With the deadline fast approaching in the Daily Blog Tips Blog Writing Contest, the time has come to submit my own favourites, chosen from the final list of 122 submissions (Disclaimer: I may not have fully read them all).

In no particular order I enjoyed reading:

It might seem obvious, but to stand out from the crowd, be a successful writer and blogger—even a successful person for that matter—you have to be interesting. Pique people’s interest with your words or website and they will definitely come back; bore them and you will never see them again.

I’ve been writing, mostly about myself, for almost a year now—surely the least interesting topic you would think—yet have steadily built readership and traffic, mostly through writing alone. It’s simple, self-evident even, but when I write, the interest of my readers is always foremost in mind.

In trying to be interesting and relevant to my readership, often writing about things that are anything but mainstream, here are a couple of things I have learnt, some tips to lift your writing above the mundane.

1. Talking about yourself is never interesting

Most of us probably recognise the archetypal bore—the person who only talks about themselves, demands attention but never listens in return.

In terms of blogging it might seem like a contradiction, and in the context of my site even hypocritical—is not the very definition of blogging to talk about oneself, an online diary shared with the entire world? Yes, but there is a world of difference between the conversational forms of writing: confession, auto-biography, story-telling, and their paler, water-thin imitations: writing that is all narcissism, self-aggrandisement and self-interest.

Even in the form of a diary or autobiography, good writers maintain interest by offering rather than taking, sharing their valuable insight, impressions or emotions—sometime literally spilling blood and tears on the page for the sake of their readers, rather than boring to tears.

As an example, you might assume that the life of a restaurant waiter would be anything but interesting, but by sharing the intimate details of his life with others, along with acerbic wit and insight, the writer of Waiter Rant has built a massive readership, landed a book deal and won awards—and is for the most part 100% interesting.

Interesting writers don’t just talk about themselves, they share themselves as well.

2. Talk to people, not at them

Are you talking to people, or at them? Are you having a conversation, or instead making a speech? If the difference is not obvious you may have a little to learn, for the art of conversation implies the participation of more than one person. A true conversation is shared communication, listening by both parties. Unlike conversation, a speech is a one way street—in the blogging sense, your readers can either listen or get out of the way.

Of course every rule admits an exception—the writer of Violent Acres takes opinion, ranting and unabashed raving to their logical, sometimes illogical extremes—naval gazing with a sharpened seppuku knife if you will, the writing equivalent of “going postal”—but is therefore one of the most interesting, readable blogs around. It’s ok to rant and rave, even be offensive and disagreeable if you do it very, very well.

3. Write what people want to read

Kind of obvious this one, but it can imply something of a mind-shift. To be a good writer you need an appreciation of what others might find interesting, whether that be about yourself or a particular topic, as opposed to what you yourself find interesting. Unfortunately, our own and other’s interest are not always the same thing—a successful, interesting writer always has this point foremost in mind, a semi-critical reader of their own work as they are writing it.

4. Cut the chaff, keep the wheat

Less is often more in writing. Particularly online writing, where attention spans are smaller than they ever have been, competition for attention greater than ever before, it is imperative to keep in mind whether every line is necessary to making your point? Does each sentence, each paragraph further your argument or story? Can you complete your sentence with less words, finish a thought in half the…?

You can immediately recognise good from bad writing by the focus of the author; a good writer stays on topic, builds steadily and maintains energy and flow. Their every word, sentence and paragraph is well chosen and appropriate. Fast-paced, brief, more concentrated writing is easier and more enjoyable to read, and therefore more interesting.

5. Be selfless

To some extent blogging is fundamentally a selfless act, albeit perhaps unconsciously so. For most who blog there is little reward, attention or fame—hours are spent creating, offering something to the world for little in return.

Being selfless is synonymous with self-giving, which, believe it or not, intentionally or otherwise, is almost always interesting. When we offer something that people truly want—good writing, useful advice, helpful information—we automatically become interesting.

We all run a mile when we encounter websites that want something from us without giving anything in return—“sign up,” “complete this survey,” “buy this service;” conversely, the most popular, highly trafficked sites on the internet offer something freely, without explicit reward.

Ultimately selfish people or websites are never interesting—they demand our attention, interest, energy but give nothing in return.

But I’m already interesting?

So you already think you’re interesting? Witty, original and creative. Are you tempted to play with fire, dance with the devil and go for broke? Submit a suitably interesting catchphrase (my entry: “Putting the Miss in Misanthropic”) to the ongoing Violent Acres Catchphrase Contest and receive a link from a high-traffic, PR5 site. And maybe a little personal abuse…

Update

The final list of entrants in the Tips and Tricks Contest has just been released,  and it includes entries by Sensitivity to Things friends NetWriting, AllAboutRunning and DontBeShy. Hopefully I didn’t miss anyone as it’s a long list.

Already at work, early morning here in New Zealand and trying to do a spot of writing before the day proper begins, I had half an eye on the World Cup Rugby, a live game being played between Scotland and Romania—I, the world’s most lukewarm rugby fan snatching a few seconds here and there, eyes raised whenever loud cheering or excited commentary crowded past the corner flag of my awareness.

What do you suppose then did I suddenly hear?

“I don’t think they respect the ball enough. It’s got to become your friend, something you cherish and really look after…”

By which I was reminded of something in character parallel, but form and shape entirely different, tangential flight of imagination embarked, as is often my wont.

I am not infrequently reminded to respect meditation more, to make it my friend, cherish its practise and really look after the positive fruits it bears. It is too easy to let meditation become just another part of the day, to sandwich it between sleep and waking, but never snack in between. To not give it it’s due—due respect, gratitude and devotion. To not see the bigger picture that meditation is painting every day, one slow brush stoke at a time.

It is a slow and steady process. We are in the process of consciously becoming in the outer world that which we have always been in the inner world. But this process of growth has no end; we can grow eternally. We need never stop.

We have sown the seed, and right now we have a tiny plant. If storms of doubt and hurricanes of jealousy come, then naturally the progress can be very slow. But if there is implicit faith and devoted oneness, the plant will very soon grow into a tree. Previously there was only a seedling, but now it has germinated into a tiny but healthy plant. So there is every hope that it will weather all the buffets and blows of human doubt and weakness and grow into a huge tree.

Excerpt from My Meditation-Service At The United Nations For 25 Years by Sri Chinmoy.

Respect the ball?

Of course, a case can be made that some people “respect the ball” a touch too much.

In the following (admittedly cool) video, several New Zealand All Blacks discuss what the “haka” means to them (a traditional Maori war-dance performed at the start of each match).

Relative size of the earth, sun, planets, solar system, stars, universe

VV Cephei is an eclipsing binary star system located in the Cepheus (the King) constellation.

VV Cephei AWhat the? First I write about rugby, and now astronomy? I’m not deliberately trying to antogonise my readership—strangely silent since my recent piece on oval-ball madness. Let me try and explain…

Binary star systems consist of two stars which orbit each other. Kind of like soul mates, or eternal foes. The significance of binary stars to astronomers is that the relative rotation of each star allows them to precisely calculate their respective masses, and as we all know, astronomers like nothing more than a bit of calculator action. I do know this actually—I have a university astronomy paper to my name. But more on that later…

Binary orbits aside, VV Cephei A and VV Cephei B, or Tweedledum and Tweedledee if you prefer, are interesting because of their size. The Cephei twins, more big and little brother, red and blue respectively, are kind of big; VV Cephei B no smurf coloured slouch at approximately ten times the diameter of the Sun; VV Cephei A in fact one of the largest stars known, possibly the largest. Not just giant, but supergiant.

How big is a supergiant—astronomically correct term as well as accidentally cool moniker? In terms of our Sun, the foremost of the Cephi twins is 1600–1900 times larger, and 275,000-575,000 times as luminous. Were it located in our solar system, it would extend past the orbit of Jupiter and nearly to Saturn, and burns a fair number of candles, blazing into the night at 3300-3650 K.

Pretty big right? Incomprehensible even? If like myself you have a distinct aversion to the dryness of facts and figures, and a simultaneous desire to grasp reality between your fore-fingers rather than with the blunt pincers of your mind, have a look at the following animation, courtesy of Cycomedia.net, which illustrates graphically the relative sizes of a sequence of planets and stars, from the Earth and our Sun through to the supergiant VV Cephei A.

It’s enough to make you say “Wow!”

Related

Ah, the Rugby World Cup is here, and New Zealand played its first game today…

Children protesting the 1981 Springbok outside Parliament, Wellington, NZCan you detect the uncertain tone in my voice? The slight reserve, pause before speaking that belies I am of two minds? For of this simple, four-yearly sporting event, I have decidedly mixed feelings.

Lace up your boots, tape up your wrists and shoulder your shoulder pads—I’m going to tackle the game of rugby head-on.

The Spiritual Home of Rugby
New Zealand, my home for all but one of thirty-two years, is the self-proclaimed “spiritual home” of rugby—although in this context, a sport more guttural than ethereal, spiritual takes on a slightly different sense than usual. The physical home of rugby of course is England, but as with other sports invented by the “Mother Country,” New Zealand plays it considerably better.

When the New Zealand All Blacks are playing, the entire country, from business to play, closes down, and it is said that a sitting Government will win elections when the All Blacks win, lose them when they lose.

The All Blacks
Jerry Collins of the All Blacks.The New Zealand rugby team are considered to be the “Brazilians” of world rugby, and like the Brazilian football team play the game with a flair and a passion seldom seen elsewhere; New Zealander’s do not just expect their side to win (and win every game), but expect them to win well, with “beautiful” play. New Zealand would be the only country in the world where the phrase “the beautiful game” doesn’t refer to the sport of football.

The All Blacks have one of the highest win ratios of an international sporting team in any sport—74%, and there are still major international sides yet to record a win against them—Ireland, Scotland, Italy and Argentina included.

I am not a true devotee of our national religion, and despite being descended from an All Black trialist grandfather have never even played the sport, but by virtue of my black singlet, black-booted heritage, permit me to comment a little on New Zealand’s national sport, part-time indulgence, full-time obsession.

Grown Men Hurling Themselves Into Each Other
Most would assume that American Football is the most violent, confrontational of sports, but most would not be familiar with rugby, played at a similar tempo and rate of collision, but with a bare minimum of protective clothing. In rugby, where the minimum playing weight is near 200 pounds, grown men hurl themselves into each other repeatedly, and occasionally pass the ball.

To the unfamiliar observer it seems a complicated sport, and has become more so in recent years—several law changes leaving even players unsure of the rules—but in essence the object is to “score tries”—touch down across the opponents end-line with ball in hand, passing the ball backwards but never forwards on the way. Everything else in rugby is secondary.

The Tour
Springbok Tour protestors face police in Palmerston North, New Zealand.It is said that New Zealand came the closest it’s ever come to a civil war over the sport of rugby, and those who say so are not exaggerating. The 1981 Springbok Tour—referred to as “The Tour” then and ever since, was a three month visit by the racially selected, white only South African rugby team, and it gave rise to the largest ever protests and acts of civil disobedience in New Zealand’s history.

The fallout from the tour indirectly lead to the fall of the Muldoon Government three years later, and was almost their downfall at the time, the conservative National Party only retaining power by the narrowest of margins—winning despite a minority of the vote due to the vagaries of the then electoral system. Countless marriages and friendships were divided between sporting white lines, and for the first time in New Zealand’s history sport became a source of national shame, rather than pride.

There were, in fact, many peaceful protests around the country, but sporadic violence attracted the press and led to the impression of a nation at war with itself. The police, on the other hand, prevented the release of ‘provocative’ images (such as an officer on fire after being hit by a molotov cocktail). These images were, however, shown to policemen to ‘motivate’ them before the Auckland test. Perhaps because of this, the tour remained a bizarrely civilised breakdown of order. Neither side used firearms or tear gas. There were no deaths, and no serious injuries. Some of the more violent policemen were quietly disciplined. Protesters who might, in another country, have faced charges of attempted murder or treason, were charged and convicted of relatively minor and unimportant disorder offences — or acquitted after defence by pro bono lawyers. Leaders of both sides went on to fill important roles in public life.
Source: Wikipedia

I had an uncle in the “Red Squad” as it was called, the arm of the New Zealand Police formed to confront and disperse the protesters, which in effect equated to hitting unarmed members of the public with truncheons—the official protest movement chose Gandhian non-violence, and were a soft target for the specially issued long batons. My uncle left the police force several years later, officially because of stress, but no doubt several broken skulls were a contributing factor.

Growing Up Rugby
So what does all of this have to do with the Rugby World Cup? I grew up in the middle of the 1981 Springbok Tour, actually attended protest marches with flag waving mother and teaching colleagues, and like many of my age group, was forbidden to play the sport for years to come.

Virtually a religion in New Zealand up to this point—playing the game, like church service, was compulsory for boys in the junior years of many high schools—rugby became a social and political issue during my childhood, and for the first time ever people questioned whether manhood and rugby were one and the same thing.

James K. Baxter, postieSoccer, who adherents up to this point were usually foreigners, near universally decried as “poofters,” boomed in popularity—New Zealand reaching the World Cup finals for the first time a year later—and this period saw cultural high-points in music and theatre and film, often in direct reaction to rugby and its all encompassing “culture.” It is not an exaggeration to say there was virtually no culture besides rugby in New Zealand before the 1980s—a repeated subject of poet James K. Baxter’s often vitriolic Pig Island Letters fifteen years earlier.

From an old house shaded with macrocarpas
Rises my malady.
Love is not valued much in Pig Island
Though we admire its walking parody.

James K. Baxter from Pig Island Letters, No 2

At my mother’s insistence, I went to one of the few high-schools in New Zealand where there wasn’t a rugby team—one of the few schools in fact without a school uniform—and soon a young, effete “artist,” I looked down my upturned nose at the “rugby-heads” from other schools—beer-swilling, muscle-bound neanderthals as I and my friends saw them.

Over-reaction or exaggeration on my part? Arrogance and excessive pride? I had long-hair in my teens, and during a brief visit to a small rural town, had within half-hour of arriving been told to “get a haircut,” my Cambodian friend called a “gook,” and my other friend’s manhood questioned by the rugby shirt wearing locals. We moved on before insults turned to blows. Rugby and it’s culture of confrontation reached far beyond the four corners of a grassy field.

And so I have mixed feelings about rugby. Growing up hating it, hating the people who played it and the thoughtless, violent culture it represented, I have slowly learned to admire it’s positive side—the courage, strength and skill required to play a most brutal of sports. I admire the discipline and comradeship of those who play it, the breath-taking talent and athleticism at the highest level. At a simple level, I enjoy rugby now as just a game, rather than symbol of culture or identity, and am happy to sup lightly national pride and fervour when it is played.

But you still won’t catch me playing the game.

While I struggle to produce my next post, stuck between work and a hard place, regular readers may like to stop by The Onion, a newspaper which, like the vegetable namesake, is guaranteed to draw a tear to the eye.

The Onion may look like a serious newspaper—it formatted and, to first impressions, written like such—but delve several layers beneath the surface and you will discover anything but. The Onion is 100% satire—news stories written from bottom to front, down to up, stories which turn upside down all that is conventional and proper, to humourous effect. The Onion is proof that, The Daily Show aside, irony is not completely lost on American shores.

So good is The Onion that, like a favourite poet or author, you want to savour each and every line—afterwards swallow the nagging regret that you didn’t write them yourself.

But don’t just take my word for it—peel yourself an onion and prepare to laugh until you cry.

CIA Realizes It’s Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years

Black highlightersLANGLEY, VA—A report released Tuesday by the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General revealed that the CIA has mistakenly obscured hundreds of thousands of pages of critical intelligence information with black highlighters.

According to the report, sections of the documents— “almost invariably the most crucial passages”—are marred by an indelible black ink that renders the lines impossible to read, due to a top-secret highlighting policy that began at the agency’s inception in 1947.

CIA Director Porter Goss has ordered further internal investigation.

“Why did it go on for this long, and this far?” said Goss in a press conference called shortly after the report’s release. “I’m as frustrated as anyone. You can’t read a single thing that’s been highlighted. Had I been there to advise [former CIA director] Allen Dulles, I would have suggested the traditional yellow color—or pink.”

Goss added: “There was probably some really, really important information in these documents.”

Read more: The Onion: CIA Realizes It’s Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years