Writing Out Loud

Is writing a solitary or collaborative activity? For centuries we’ve cultivated a romantic image of the writer or poet, wrestling thoughts into words, setting them onto the page, and ushering them into the world.

Our tools change the way we write. Words are no longer solely set in print. Word processing has made it possible to tinker endlessly. Social networks and collaborative writing software further change the dynamics of writing.

For me, personally, this has created a conflict of interest. On the one hand, social networks get me writing more because every day I read things which inspire me to comment and I get almost immediate feedback from the original author as well as drawn into discussion with other readers.

Social networks provide inspiration but also endless distraction. My inspiration for one topic quickly evaporates in the face of the next idea. And when I spend my time commenting on other’s posts, my desire to write is fulfilled and my own work piles up looking more and more like a chore. The ease with which I can comment leaves my writing permanently in first draft mode. It’s difficult to step back and really digest the ideas that flit across my screen. It requires discipline to stop chatting socially and focus seriously on thinking and composing.

I have learned that I cannot write in solitude. But I cannot write without it either. I found Thomas Beller’s piece summed up my predicament exactly. He’s writing about his experience on Twitter but it is applicable to my experience both blogging and here on Google+.

Moreover he did an excellent job of explaining why I write. For me, writing is an act of discovery. I write to clarify to myself what I think. Once I have clarified my thoughts, then I can write.

“Some people need to know what they are thinking in order to write it down or say it, and some people need to write or speak in order to know what they are thinking. I am one of those people for whom the act of formulating sentences, and reading them, is intrinsic to thought itself.”

Thomas Beller

Social networks blur the lines between writer and audience, between readers and collaborators. Some of my posts are clearly collaborative. I share something and ask my readers for their reactions. The problem comes when I don’t move on to the next step, when I don’t take what I’ve learned, synthesize it, write it again. As Beller observes, too often, having written something lazily, our mind dispenses with the ideas. We serve them up half-baked and they are gone.

The New Yorker: The Ongoing Story: Twitter and Writing

GPlus Discussion

Jean-Marc Luna – 2013-07-05 21:06:00-0400

Very good share of experience, thanks +M Sinclair Stevens 🙂

Dominique Hill – 2013-07-05 23:09:54-0400 – Updated: 2013-07-05 23:33:23-0400

Nice. Your opinion is most grateful. I see your point.

Tormod Renberg Lerøy – 2013-07-05 23:29:19-0400 – Updated: 2013-07-06 04:49:35-0400

How can I + this?
Audience unknown
A stray impression
Rendered in type
Growing when read
Until it’s read
it is rendered, but not dead.

Richard Clark Jr – 2013-07-05 23:44:51-0400


M Sinclair Stevens – 2013-07-05 23:45:26-0400

+Tormod Renberg Lerøy Nicely done. The funny thing is that the quotes I pulled from The New Yorker article were in prose. However, the only way I could make them to fit in the Google+ photo editor, was to force those line breaks, making them read like poetry.

Thomas Beller said he wrote some of his work as a series of Tweets. I’m guessing this was an example.

My own experience of Twitter is that an individual line is boring. But reading archives, a collection of Tweets takes on a strange cohesiveness. I suppose certain themes emerge from the personality of the writer.

Or perhaps we readers seek patterns and superimpose our own subjective order.

Todd Walton – 2013-07-06 00:08:34-0400

Good stuff, and I totally agree. Thank you for posting.

Christopher Lavene – 2013-07-06 00:13:04-0400

Great words, on both sides.

Nizam-u-ddin Chandwani – 2013-07-06 01:59:20-0400

Thought process is some times revealed…….not all the times

Walther M.M. – 2013-07-06 02:17:44-0400 – Updated: 2013-07-06 02:18:56-0400

It is rare the day when a post of such depth of content (and an evident lack of images) hits the What’s Hot stream. That alone would be worth praising.

There’s much to think about regarding the topic, though. Is the Social Network our muse towards inspiration? Or just death by distraction? A tool that can be used for both good and evil, as the clichĂ© saying goes.

I recently asked for the opinion on Social Networks from a scholar in Buddhist Philosophy, and his reply, I think, really deserves quoting here:

Do you use social networks to ‘engage’ with people?

Or do you use them to passively follow the news about hundreds of ‘friends’ you don’t know, news that you won’t remember, only to judge your own life as inadequate via the prism of the photoshop-ed images they project to the world? Are the news about reality, or just the roots of pointless mental fabrications (comparisons, jealousy, envy, etc.)?

If someone writes about a personal difficulty on a social network, will you pay attention, will you respond, will you remember, will you be able to take it into account 6 months later with awareness that there might be a sore point but without automatically projecting permanency (i.e. the sore point might be gone) i.e. will you be able to use the information to pay more attention, not less?

Do you use social network to be open to the world, i.e. vulnerable? Or do you use them because they seem to protect you from pain, by allowing to zap fast to the next item should one item be too uncomfortable? Or do you use them to pretend you’re someone you’re not, e.g. by exclusively picking the ‘best’ pictures of your holidays, by being silent about your difficulties, by saying (in a quest of ‘like’ and +1) what’s socially-acceptable instead of thinking for yourself? Do you use +1 as useful feedback on posts (incl. what may be needed all the more because it is not popular!), or do you rely on +1 for an ego-trip and self-confirmation?

Do you use social network to reduce the distance? Or to increase your separation from what you’d wish different (incl. and primarily “in yourself”), from what you don’t know how to appreciate?

In the end, I’d say that social networks are what we make of them. There’s potential for much good, and much bad. It may take some discipline on our part to be sure we sow what we want to eventually reap from it.

Saima Yunus – 2013-07-06 02:44:22-0400

Wow. Very good points.

+Walther M.M. well said

Mike Mike – 2013-07-06 06:43:46-0400

Well put. I’m the same way with photography. When I see the initial image I think – that is NOT what I saw. Editing (both writing and photography) fine tunes everything.

Sajid Ali – 2013-07-06 07:19:52-0400


Mike Mike – 2013-07-06 09:10:21-0400

Absolutely Robert! I see lighting far different than the camera records it and of course the emotion when taking a picture – cannot be IN the picture unless one does some editing. You may well write an emotionally charged piece, review it the next day and wonder where that emotion IS and so you edit to bring it back to what you felt at the time.

Meirav M. – 2013-07-06 09:35:10-0400

I can relate to what you’re saying – about social media providing both inspiration and distraction, which is something I constantly struggle with. And also the need to write in order to think through stuff – some of my posts are very much about thinking aloud, I don’t know where I’m going when I start them.

Meirav M. – 2013-07-06 09:40:04-0400

+Robert Hare I use my blog in the same way as you describe using a word processing programme – unlike G+, on WordPress I can save a post as draft and come back to it another day and edit, rephrase, rethink. (Though it’s doable here too if you use +Do Share)

Arnold Kintu – 2013-07-06 10:33:06-0400

Wow what a read!

Chris Collins-Wooley – 2013-07-06 10:51:12-0400

We all collaborate in the sense that at the very least, an audience passes judgement on a piece, which inevitably influences one’s next piece. So, the question is, to what degree are you comfortable collaborating?

I worry an idea until I know it. Then I figure out how to convey it to an audience. Then I incorporate feedback — be it from an editor, collaborators, or G+ commentators, rinse, repeat. That’s the way I trained as a writer and then as a technical communicator, and it suits me best. In my experience, unless collaborators closely match the target audience, the idea tends to drift out of focus.

Others do better combining idea development and collaboration from the get-go. Waterfall vs. agile.

Silvio Guspini – 2013-07-06 11:42:48-0400

i hope that’s sarcasm +Robert Hare

because negative feedback is what i thought helps me grow. as a writer.

Tiffany Ward – 2013-07-06 12:09:23-0400

+M Sinclair Stevens I hope Thomas Beller isn’t correct on rereading the archives of Twitter and status updates, to discover an underlying theme of someone’s personality. The reason I hate to think that as wisdom or truth is because I got sucked into the craze when I was 19. The underlying theme of my personality is stupidity. But I also think all writers mature over time. Social media becomes irrelevant because there are better methods to create outstanding intellectual thoughts. Needless to say the underlying theme for me now is still young minded, but refined comprehension.

However, I do agree with +Robert Hare that editing is the real writing. To master technique, tone, audience, and suspense of any written piece takes time and determination. I personally would love to have a blog or be on social medias more often, but I find my best writing to still be obtained in handwritten journals. They help me to sort out my thoughts and get everything onto paper. A teacher of mine called this process “puking on a page. Where you allow your mind to vomit all thoughts out of your head, down through your arm, out of the fingers, into the the tip of a ballpoint pen.” Keep in mind, I am biased on my writing process. I compose better on paper. Others do wonderful on their laptops.

M Sinclair Stevens – 2013-07-06 17:02:43-0400

+Robert Hare I always prefer editing to writing. One of the things I like about Google+ is that I can edit both my posts and comments. It’s very rare that I read anything (my own or anyone else’s stuff) without the desire to edit it.

One of the advantages of Google+ for me is that I’m a little more relaxed, (that is, not obsessively in edit mode) especially when in a discussion in a comment thread. In these situations, I can explore my ideas by writing them down, clarifying my thoughts and solidifying my arguments when people respond with questions pointing out elements of my explanation that confused them. This is the brainstorming, collaborating, feedback step. One of my favorite writers calls this “pre-writing.”

The corresponding disadvantage is whether I take the results of our Google+ collaboration and write something more formal or whether the discussion satisfies my need to mouth off on that topic.

As for composing with third party software: Google+ was never very good at word processing and over the two years I’ve used it, it has become progressively more difficult. So, yes. Using supplemental software is almost a requirement now and one of the reasons that I’m using Google+ less and less these days. Even sharing this post (which it interprets as a picture with a caption rather than a post with an illustration) took twice as long as it should have, especially given that most of my notes were typed originally in Scrivener.

M Sinclair Stevens – 2013-07-06 17:22:01-0400

+Chris Collins-Wooley I am a technical course developer by trade and so in my professional writing I’m very used to the development cycle you describe. I have the opportunity to watch what works and doesn’t work and then go back and revise. My work is versioned the same way software is. Items are deferred. Bugs are tracked.

I find this approach quite freeing because I know I can continue to tinker. It’s a completely different experience than writing fiction or articles for a publication. In those cases, when something is published it’s set in print and you have to let it go. That would create a kind of pressure that would drive my perfectionist side crazy.

Typically, I’m more like you when you say, “I worry an idea until I know it. Then I figure out how to convey it to an audience.” The Google+ environment encourages me to write actively, to stay in the habit of writing. Not to over think an idea so much that I freeze up—I struggle with this problem.

I find my Google+ experience to be freeing. There’s something about the rapidity of articles floating by in my stream that encourages me to jump in and get my feet wet, to just start writing. That’s the upside to me.

M Sinclair Stevens – 2013-07-06 17:30:16-0400

+Tiffany Ward said, “I hope Thomas Beller isn’t correct on rereading the archives of Twitter and status updates, to discover an underlying theme of someone’s personality.”

Actually, I was the one who posited that, not Beller. Whether it’s Twitter, Instagram, or whatever kind of visual or textual snapshots you take, individually each data point can be rather dull. But taken together, layers of meaning build up and a narrative arc emerges. Each individual piece fits together in the larger puzzle that reveals a picture of the writer’s life.

Carley Allison – 2013-07-06 17:40:58-0400

that is a good poem. I like it.

M Sinclair Stevens – 2013-07-06 17:46:01-0400 – Updated: 2013-07-06 17:48:07-0400

+Tiffany Ward Addendum You do raise an important problem in “thinking out loud” on the Internet. (Beller referred to it to when he said some thinking out loud is better done in private, like singing in the shower or practicing your dance moves in front of the mirror.)

Unfortunately, the Internet leaves a permanent public record. If one is aware of this, it is almost impossible not to self-censor. This puts a damper on brainstorming, on exploring ideas that turn out to be dead-ends, to take risks which will probably end in failure but are useful in terms of learning.

Moreover, as you own experience indicates, it means we are never free from foolishness of our younger selves, not free to grow and learn, because the past is never gone or forgotten.

M Sinclair Stevens – 2013-07-07 08:05:51-0400

I’m surprised that this post garnered 197 plus ones and 74 reshares. Unfortunately the new Google+ card design no longer lets me see who all of you are. It shows only a subset and mixes the names up in a way that doesn’t distinguish between people who plus oned, reshared, or commented.

Once again the redesign of Google+ emphasizes that the features here are not for those of us inputting data into the system but for the machines which collect it.

This makes me wonder. Why is it important that Google know who plus ones my posts and which posts I plus one? Don’t give me any bullshit about building communities and being social because that only works when I can see who interacted. Which I can’t. So it has nothing to do with you communicating with me or me communicating with you.

Yes, I already know the answer. I just didn’t think they’d be so obvious about it. You think they’d dangle a few carrots to lull us into happy distraction so that we keep mindlessly feeding the data miners.

Robert Misner – 2013-07-07 12:19:07-0400

I joined Google+ and started using some of the other social networks more publicly because I was writing. It turns out I enjoy it more than I should. I spend an insane amount of time between here and Twitter every single day.

But I wouldn’t want to stop for more than a couple of days. I don’t even use it for promoting anything I do, really. I like being able to show potential clients that I am active online, but really, I work from home most days and the sort-of social interaction is super valuable to me.

Carley Allison – 2013-07-07 12:19:30-0400

your post is soooooo true. we spend all of our time on the internet nowdays

M Sinclair Stevens – 2013-07-07 12:54:51-0400 – Updated: 2013-07-07 13:02:54-0400

+Carley Allison And how does this affect how you personally read, think, write, and behave? Do the tools you use alter you habits? That is, do the tools serve you or do they control you? Do you believe that the design of the tools encourages some behaviors while discouraging others? Do you feel that you behavior is being manipulated by these tools?

Carley Allison – 2013-07-09 17:37:25-0400

Cool. What’s next?