For a blog which started on July 6, 2009 as general-paper practice – featuring rigidly-structured articles with thesis statements, content paragraphs, and one too many adverbs – getting to 1,000 posts two Saturdays ago has provided more than just academic enrichment. And because this endeavour has been so meaningful, I believe more could and should pen thoughts or perspectives too, and in the process of sharpening personal faculties contribute to a broader socio-political discourse. So here are five lessons – and reasons to start a blog – from the past seven years (based largely on a speech I gave earlier this year).
1. Focus on areas of interest.
Even in Singapore, the socio-political space houses a range of issues, so narrow down a few topics which appeal. Personal experiences are good starting points. With some research I could write about healthcare, housing, or retirement, yet my articles about community service, National Service, and education policies – as a volunteer, a (former) national serviceman, and a student – have resonated better with readers.
And with a little more expertise in these areas of interest, I explored different modes of storytelling (conducting surveys about community service and National Service on my own, for instance), and even delved into my areas of interest as research topics in both the business and public policy schools. My dissertation on the measurement and management of performance in Singaporean non-profits is one example of such research.
2. Get your perspectives heard.
Because if you don’t shout about your own articles, who else will?
Increasing the reach of your articles – especially in the beginning – means taking advantage of social media, and learning how best to optimise them. Yet beyond the online platform, physical ones exist. I write letters to the editor to reach the print audience, bring my blog into conversations at events to get more people reading, as well as attend forums and discussions (the protests in 2013 and 2014, the “Our Singapore Conversation” initiative, and talks or dialogue sessions) to get to know more people. On these occasions, moreover, I found new perspectives and platforms too.
3. Open doors, and have doors opened for you.
Writers write to be read, and there is an added bonus if the pieces are read by decision-makers or an ideal target audience, interested in the subject. American writer Elwyn Brooks “E.B.” White wrote that “Only a person who is congenitally self-centred has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays”, so once you get into that routine, why not get the word out?
So getting your blog and articles out in a public space is the first step. This opening of doors may be intimidating – especially for those like me, who are averse to social engagements – but two benefits follow: first you ensure that you are not espousing views within an echo chamber, and that these views are actively challenged; and second, as you put your name out there, you find more doors opened to you. It is a virtuous cycle, the maintenance of which demands constant effort.
4. “Every writer needs an editor”.
My reliance on the structure of the general-paper essay or academic writing only eased in 2013, when I joined the now-defunct “Breakfast Network” (and today, “The Middle Ground“). Whereas my writing used to be (more) preachy and monotonous, in both these news rooms my editors have only challenged me to do better: first crafting the opening and closing paragraphs with an overarching structure, being meticulous with self-editing, and finding succinct or sharper ways to tell a story. The editing process has made me more aware of my shortcomings, and because the editors have spent decades in the industry there is so much to learn from their experience and expertise.
Doors to a news room opens, if you work hard and take chances.
Reporting opportunities have therefore also opened up for me, such as during the general elections last year, when I wrote about campaigns and rallies, provided daily coverage, and even interviewed personalities. And in this vein, learning is always part of the job.
The best writers I know are the most disciplined and voracious readers. In the face of good writing, the feeling of admiration – like, “how can this be so good?” – is often followed by a desire to emulate aspects of it.
While learning from the writing styles is important, reading – in addition – provides substantive gains too. To write about the news in particular, background knowledge has to feature, and such knowledge can only be gained through good reading habits. This explains why I maintain “The Book Club” and recently started the weekly news roundup, so as to always keep in touch.