At my school there is a template for how most exams are structured after 10th grade, especially when it comes to languages. You will be provided with a text, which can either be new to the students or an excerpt of the literary text handled in class. Then there are three questions, each belonging to a different ‘level’ (in German the levels are called ‘Anforderungsbereiche’).
-First you will be asked to either summarize the main ideas of the given text or list some things you were supposed to know by heart (especially in history).
Then you will work with the text and analyze it, usually regarding a specific aspect (eg stylistic devices, how the author supports his opinion,…). Here you are supposed to quote a lot and not give your personal opinion.
-Lastly, you will have to comment on an idea, which may be in the text or be provided to you in the form of a quote or interpret the text, for instance a poem. Here is where you are allowed to shine: in this level you are supposed to give your opinion, using whatever you want to support it. An interdisciplinary approach is usually regarded as best when answering the third question, meaning that you should draw connections between the text presented to you and other ideas from ‘outside’. For that you can use personal experiences, material you have covered in classes other than the one you’re sitting the test for, and basically anything you can think of. If the question requires a solution, like in maths, and not your opinion, you are supposed to be able to answer by using what you learned in class in a new context.
What does this have to do with writing better? I believe this model also applies to types of non-fiction other than tests, for instance blogging. Here’s me trying to explain the connection the best I can:
Because I know you just fell in love with the word ‘Anforderungsbereich’ when you first tried to pronounce it in your head (ann-foa-de-RROONGS-be-RRAIch), I will use it instead of ‘summarizing’ (Anf. I), ‘analyzing’ (Anf. II) and ‘commenting’ (Anf. III) because, while the English words describe what you’re supposed to do in an exam, they are not ideal when describing other forms of non-fiction texts, and you’ll soon see why.
Anforderungsbereich I (Summarizing)
-When answering the first question of a test, I try to be as bland and objective as possible. My only goal is to state the core ideas of the author in as simple and concise a way as possible, always assuming that the reader is not familiar with them. It takes some skill to be able to do it properly, but it’s pretty straightforward after you’ve got the hang of it. All you’re doing is filtering somebody else’s words for the his ideas and repeating them in simpler terms.
You can use the core of this approach in other types of writing as well. In a blog this could be done in numerous ways. Here are some examples, some involving more work than others:
- Summarizing a book or blog post
- Making a list of quotes
- Making a list of recommended posts by other authors
- Making a list of inspiring videos
- Copying some else’s work (with or without consent)
- Publishing the lyrics to a song
- Publishing the notes to a song
- Sharing photos/images from photographers/painters you like
- … you get the idea
The value of summarizing
-If all you’re doing is repeating somebody else’s work, why do it at all? The answer lies in the value you’re providing. The ideas may not be original, but you’re still providing value just by putting them together, in the case of the list examples, or simplifying them, if you summarized a book or a blog post.
When people read your summary, they will want the content, not you. Here you act only as an intermediary between the person and what they are looking for. Your job is to make someone else’s content more available to the people whom it interests.
Anforderungsbereich II (Analyzing)
-An analysis requires me to take the author’s words and understand them. I dissect the sentences for meanings, the metaphors for what they are trying to represent and why they are being used, the humor for what thoughts it’s supposed to provoke in the reader. Keeping my personal opinion out of the picture, I try to answer questions like What is the author saying? What does it mean? How does he justify/underline/hide his message?
-Notice that an analysis is like an extended summary. Not only does one say what is obvious, one seeks to find out more hidden meanings and give the words a new depth. While in the summary there is a right and a wrong (you cannot say the main character went to Europe when the text says she went to Africa), in the analysis there is a gray area. Though what the author wrote is indisputable, what he meant is not, so there is a little more room interpretation.
In other forms of non-fiction, an analysis can look like a deeper explanation of a concept. Instead of simply saying what the Raw Food Diet consists of, you’d further explain it to the readers, breaking it down into smaller chunks and giving the readers a more complete view of the concept.
When analyzing a historical source, it is common to look for its values and limitations. The same way you could analyze the Raw Food Diet for its strong a weak points. This is the category of book reviews and most recommendations.
Although technically belonging to the ‘comment’ section, I count most personal opinions and personal stories into the second section when it comes to blog posts and books, because most do not meet the standards
The value of analyzing
-Someone who reads a book review does not only want to know what the story is about. They want something more. Sometimes it is your opinion, which would belong into the third section, other times, like if you’re reviewing a personal development book, it’s the books strong points and its flaws. By reading your ‘analysis’, the reader will have a better idea about where to spend their money, or if they want to spend it at all.
In the case of the Raw Food Diet, your analysis might just make someone decide to try the diet for 30 days because you showed them that the benefits outweigh the negative sides.
Anforderungsbereich III (Comment / Transfer, Idea-Orgy)
Until now it has been useful to compare the levels of writing with the different difficulties of the questions in exams of subject like English and History. At this level, though, the expectancy is more similar to that of an Anf. III question in Maths, Physics or Chemistry. While the third question in a language is usually a comment, where you should state your opinion, the natural sciences require something different: you have to put together two ideas from that class that you had never connected before, or use a concept in a different context, or even use something you have learned in a different subject to solve the problem.
This is the level of true creation. It’s when you consciously and subconsciously bring together two or more different concepts to create a new one. You can do this consciously by trying to explain a mathematical idea through a metaphor, for example, or subconsciously, when you suddenly have a ‘new’ idea. Most of the times it is a bit of both: you’ll be more or less aware of how your into is being processed and how a new ideas is emerges, but there is always some mystery to it. “Aha-moment” is a good description of this. Matt Ridley says it’s “When Ideas Have Sex”. You know the feeling.
It was this kind of divine inspiration that led to the birth of this blog post as well. I was reading a post by Steve Pavlina and suddenly something clicked, and I knew I had to write this post. Somehow my mind connected the idea of an exam to how to write better, and this post is what their child would look like. In school we also call it ‘transfer’. By transferring an idea out of its original context and putting it somewhere new, a cool new thing just might emerge.
The value of an ideal orgy (no pun intended, or was it?)
Besides simply being a lot more interesting than summaries and analyses, the third level is where the magic happens. People reading your post/book will finally get it, because they will be able to associate the complex topic you’re trying to explain with something that is more familiar to them; they will have breakthroughs and feel that you really provided value to them. When talking about a blog, these posts are usually the ones that are considered ‘gems’.
In the end what you want is to make some new connections in the reader’s brain, which will allow him to see things from a new perspective. You’ll literally, physically change the people who read your post, and you might even be the catalyst for big change in their lives.
Here’s a short list for categorizing level 3 posts:
- they explain something through a different concept (metaphor)
- they create breakthroughs in the reader
- they resonate deeply with some part of the reader
- they inspire change and growth
The more points your posts contains, the better.
OK, enough explaining. What can you actually do with this?
How To Write Better Blog Posts
-The three levels I just described to you are not either-or-or. They are more like a sliding scale, since there are many levels in-between the three main ones. A slightly better analysis would be further away from a summary than a regular analysis, yet not reach the third level. So your goal is simple: write more and more posts that are higher in the scale, and fewer posts that are lower in the scale.
Here is a simple process to help you do this:
- Notice what your average level is. Are most of your posts summaries, analyses or idea-orgies? Do they usually provide a lot of value, some value or just a little? If you find it useful, you can rate your posts from 0-10, where 0 equals pure plagiarism and 10 is a multiple-breakthrough-inducing pound of pure gold made out of 10 grams of iron and a broken light bulb (thumbs up for enlightening metaphors). If you find out that most of your posts do not provide your reader with a lot of ideas, don’t judge yourself for it. We’re all learning, and you can do better.
- Do just a little better. Whatever your average level is, consciously aim higher in many posts. If you notice that you usually write posts that are a 4 out of 10 ask yourself what a 5 or a 6 would look like, and try to elevate your average to that.
- Rinse and repeat. This process takes time. You might feel suddenly inspired and write an awesome post (like I’d like to consider this one to be), and then not anymore for a while. That is fine. But the more you consciously try to push your limits, the better.
This process takes time, and it takes effort, but if you’re truly passionate about writing and helping others, you’ll enjoy it. Besides this simple 3-step process, there are a few other aspects that will help you achieve this faster and more peacefully:
- Write a lot. This process is useless if all you do is try to create a 10/10 post, fail, and quit. So what if not all your posts are super high quality? Try to always provide some value to your readers in all posts, and work towards always providing more value.
- Be open to inspiration. The post you are reading right now is a product of me being open to inspiration. While reading Steve’s blog I go the idea for this post, and I started writing it. I got so carried away by the idea that I didn’t even finish reading Steve’s post. I knew that after that the window of inspiration would have closed, meaning that I would no longer feel so motivated to write.
- Be patient. In conjunction with the first advice, it is very important that you are patient and that you push through. You’ll encounter fears and insecurities, you might want to quit. Be patient, keep a positive attitude and take positive action — the results will come, I guarantee you.
- Consume other people’s ideas. Read blog posts, watch documentaries, listen to people when they talk to you, listen to yourself as you talk (I literally had the idea for this post on the Law of Attraction in the middle of a conversation). Everything can be a source of inspiration. As long as you are open for it and keep stimulating yourself by entering new situations, inspiration will come. With time you’ll learn that inspiration can be everywhere, and you will begin having those ‘aha’-moments much more frequently.
- Write your ideas down. You will not always be near a computer and have the free time to write a post when an inspired idea comes to you, so I definitely advise you to write all your ideas down (when I had the idea for the LoA post, I stopped mid-conversation to write it down). The sooner you can act on it, the better, but if you can’t right now, write it down. This will also put you in a more accepting state, since your brain recognizes that you acknowledge the ideas it sends you, thereby wanting to provide you with more.
-Really be patient, and don’t demand too much of yourself. Have high ambitions but no expectations (this could be a whole new post by itself; yes, I wrote it down). For instance, when I wrote the post connecting the Law of Attraction to light and electricity (yes, I am blatantly asking you to go read it. now.), I was aiming for a post that would enlighten everyone who read it. It would *click* in everyone’s head and empower them. So what if it didn’t become as awesome as I had set it out to be? At least I wrote a post and practiced (sound familiar?).
Now it’s your turn. Go practice, and most of all, enjoy it!