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Curious & Novel Writing Styles on the Web

Curious – arousing or exciting speculation, interest, or attention through being inexplicable or highly unusual; odd; strange: a curious sort of person; a curious scene.

Novel – “new, strange, unusual,” c.1420, but little used before 1600, from M.Fr. novel “new, fresh, recent” (Fr. nouveau, fem. nouvelle), from O.Fr., from L. novellus “new, young, recent,” dim. of novus “new”


As often happens when I feel like I’m not writing enough, I’ve started noticing different and new ways people have attacked the task of writing online. Looking around this winter, I’ve come across a couple interesting formats for writing: US Senate briefings, sprawling notes, blog-articles, ongoing drafts & brain dumps, marginalia, and others. Each format tends to effect both the technical aspect of delivery, and the actual content, if not just way of ideas. It’s both medium and message.


Novel formats are key to motivating me to write; and I’m always looking for motivation. For as long as I can remember, I was obsesses with office supplies, papers, and notebooks. I wasn’t sure what to do with them – publish, it’d seem – but I had something of a fetish for them. Once BBSes and the web came along, that something was quick and easy to figure out: first asynchronous communications via text (chat in forums), then web pages, then blogs, podcasts, Twitter, and whatnot.

Currently, I’m concerned with motivating myself to do more of all sorts of writing: for both the tech-world stuff I do here, but also for the “civilian” world that doesn’t really give a crap about “computers.” As such, I’ve been making a mental list of some interesting formats for writing. A little treatment of each follows.

US Senate Briefing

While reading Chris Nakashima-Brown’s “Tora Bora and the case of the disappearing necromancer,” I came across the equally fantastic Tora Bora Revisited: How We Failed To Get Bin Laden And Why It Matters Today report from the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Now, this report is a PDF, so web-purists might balk. But if you look at the formatting, layout, and even more important, the style of writing, it’s all over beautiful and, thus, highly motivating. It makes me want to write documents like the report.

Tora Bora Report.jpg

The formatting is pretty text-book: an executive summary, different sections, but then there’s also some little editorial surprises like section headings here and there. In the appendix, there’s a pleasant mixture of “multi-media,” screen shots, charts, and graphs that nicely stand-out from the super-clean formatting and prose in the main part of the document.

Aside from the obvious template for the document, the writing style is very tight (not wordy) and direct. No doubt, this is targeted at people who’re not actually going to read the whole thing and esp. don’t have time for writing that take a lot of time to think about. In addition to the writing, the executive summary (of the entire document) helps here, as do the section summaries.

The “get down to business” writing style is what I like most about the format. And, it looks damn fine as well. You can see me playing around with it (though with bullet points, which the Senate report format seems to avoid) in my RedMonk piece on new platforms from last year.

Sprawling Notes

As Paul Kedrosky puts it, Nassim Nicholas Taleb maintains a curious “non-blog blog.” It’s a rough, sprawling, well, notebook with numbered sections just talking about this and that. Taleb describes it as his “Philosophical Notebook (old-style footnotes for my work in progress).”


Looking at the headers, he just generates it from Word of OpenOffice, which is fantastically simple: just a big file he converts to old-school HTML then slaps up on his website. I’ve always been too much of an HTML purist (I tend to write “natively” in HTML) to do this kind of thing, but I love it when I see it. His main page is equally lo-fi chic.

Aesthetically, then, the roughness of this is appealing. You can imagine Taleb sitting there, typing in a big ass Word document, and just clicking “Save to Web” (or whatever). It’s kind of like off-roading on the web. Stylistically, the spattering of “thinking out loud” topics covered are fun, and the mix of different languages makes you feel like you’re exploring a web wunderkammer. Which, actually, is the aesthetic feel as well: a wonderful junk box where you come across unpredictable content, usually in short chunks. Content wise, most of the text is original or unique to the sprawling notes: there’s very little, if any reference to the rest of the web. In that sense, it’s both prime mover (to be quoted and built on) and cul-de-sac (a restful dead-end).

This is the kind of thing I’d like to be able to do with my pubic Evernote notebook, but it doesn’t really fit that way, since I use the notebook more for ongoing drafts (see below), and rarely for that. Tumble blogs are kind of like this, but the content is usually not at all original. 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 the most writing: it just takes sacrificing the finished content silos – my two blogs – for slapping content into this format.

I’ve noticed some interesting use of public Google Docs along these lines of late. Notably Josh Jones-Dilworth‘s life plan and bio pages, which I think are fantastic if form, content, and intention. I can’t think of other example right now, but published Google Docs (and I expect Zoho or even pages are interesting approach to this format.


As Paddy Donnelly puts it in the Smashing Magazine piece on this form:

Let’s face it: the classic blog post is boring.

Barring the text and images, each one generally has the exact same layout. We see little originality from one post to the next. 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 one 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 of all, effort on the part of the designer!

This one is out of my hands to produce, but they’re lovely to read and interact with. The fine design typically drives design-centric content, with the prime example being the ever beautiful yet searing pieces from Dustin Curtis.


As one commentator for the above article put it “So what you are advocating is a return to the efforts we used to make with personal sites 10 years ago.” Indeed. As with the Sprawling Notes from, but from a completely different angle (design perfection), it’s the hand crafted and unique nature of each post that’s interesting. I can’t speak for the authors (as I can’t do that kind of design), but I suspect there’s a certain pressure put on the actual text itself to match if not the beauty of the design, to be highly useful and interesting. Otherwise, you might as well jam a bunch of Lorem Ipsum in there.

This is the kind of format I’d so if I had a budget. Sadly, along with print design, I think this is most tough to achieve. There’s probably not enough cash to pay designers fairly to do it. It also evokes pre-web ‘zines, which I have a retro-soft spot for, and dabbled in a briefly long ago (though, without the page layout skills).

Ongoing Drafts & Brain Dumps

Mixing together sprawling notes and “blogzines,” and you get something like what Robert Brook does with his “blog” (“website” is more appropriate) and content. The format is geared towards informal, but concise text and has a certain minimalism to it. I’d say it’s a decedent of tumble blogs, which have branched out into a life on their own.

Robert is ever fussy and messes around with his content strategy every 6-12 months. Just seeing the new ways he chooses to organize his content each year is entertaining enough. What I also find interesting is that he’s never afraid to break web-content taboos like dropping comments and indexes of posts.

You can tell – or maybe this reading too much into it – that he’s not interested in being found by just anyone. Instead, the format and writing he does is very personal: he doesn’t lock his doors, but there’s no sign out front. And, indeed, if you know him through podcasts, Twitter, and his content, that pretty much fits the web-persona he has, which is comforting.

His post on London, for example, is a good example of all of this. He’s been compelled – asked – by folks to write something about London. Instead of writing some epic, polished essay or a series of posts, he just jots some notes and reflections always sort of watching himself write, it seems:

I think the London I live in in the London of my past. I live in my memory of a place, rather than the place itself. My London has wharves and docks in the east of the river, no Westfield, plans for something called the Fleet Line, buses you can jump in and out of and trains with doors you operate yourself. I certainly don’t mean that I see the past through rose-tints, only that London has out-run me. Underneath it all, it’s still London though. I can still navigate the streets pretty much the way I used to. There are still places the money hasn’t reached.

Perhaps everyone gets like this as they get older. A lot of the surface of the city has changed, but under it all it’s still the same. Life is “easier” for me now, but there’s somehow less of it.

I don’t know if I love London. I don’t know if London loves me. I doubt that I’ll ever leave here, though.

I call these “ongoing drafts & brain-dumps” for lack of a better phrase, Robert tends to pre- or post-fix his posts with notes like “I don’t think I’m quite finished with this post. Needs more… something” which opens up the idea that the pages are more “living” chunks of text instead of “finished” blog posts. He mentions some of the ground rules and is always pretty open about how he’s going about things.

What’s nice about this format is that it has a very evolved blog feel to it. Blogging essentially stopped evolving once it “professionalized.” I very rarely come across a blog that gives me the same thrill as blogs used to: someone has written something new and interesting…not just news or content I need to keep up with professionally. Worse, I know that my personal online writing has gone through that (once I set up over here at RedMonk), and even my “personal podcasting” has sadly dropped off.

While Robert’s content disappears and goes on holiday from time to time, it just has that fun, adult play and day-dreaming feel to it.

Looking at it as motivation then, there’s an excellent selection of “casual topics” to write about. Like, old books and coins in cake. And the publish it before its done approach is more about having a conversation than crafting text. Essentially – and I mean this is a the best of all possible ways – the format lowers the bar for writing. It’s all too easy to get worked about needing web-writing to be something brilliant, if only funny, and well polished. But that chops out the casual conversation that the early web excelled out – it was about asynchronously hanging out with people (which all happens in highly structured mediums like Facebook and Twitter now) not reading their “published works.”

Some select tumble bloggers have this as well, but they tend to fall into re-blogging holes. In the non-text category, photobloggers do well here too, esp. in the design/trend watching space: Things I’ve Seen, some of the posts Piers Fawkes does over on PSFK, and then food blogging.


This is more the “classic” blog format: back when the only way to slap-up interesting things on the web was to blog about it – no delicious, Twitter, digg, tumblr, etc. You mostly cut-n-paste content and links with varying degrees of commentary. Original content is light, but occurs from time to time. Kedrosky does this well in his domain of finance and business, but Bruce Sterling’s Wired blog has a nicely unique way of doing it. You get the feel it’s inherited from formatting emails and even sending around faxes (or snail mail!) with marginalia written on the paper.

In general, Sterling does liberal copying of the content he’d like to share, and uses typographic marks to pre-pend or slice in his commentary. What’s fun is that he puts his commentary – even playful remarks along the lines “Yo, right here, buddy!” when the content refers to “sci-fi authors” – right inline, marked off by triple parenthesis. Here’s him breaking up otherwise impossibly academic prose:

So there is no surprise that such profound tendencies towards paradigmatic change in the conditions of being human in the world call forth the twin ideological effects of blinkered conservatism and apocalyptic endism. In Žižek’s mind, there are four types of the latter: Christian fundamentalism, New Age spirituality, techno-digital post-humanism and secular ecologism. (((The Four Horsemen of Gothic High Tech philosophy. Interesting to see them as brothers. No doubt, from sufficient historical distance, they’ll have a lot in common.)))

Note that Žižek is not employing the concept of apocalypticism pejoratively. The apocalyptic is a mode of experiencing time, and it may be, that confronted with a genuine prospect of catastrophic transformation, it is the most germane, while the linear mode of continued progress and development is illusory. (((”Most everybody I know seems to have died suddenly and horribly — yeah man, that was some mode of timely experience.”)))

As with other political phenomena, apocalypticism in itself is a form rather than a content; an empty signifier which can attract to itself a variety of beliefs and imperatives.
To dismiss something as apocalyptic, then, is in itself a mode of disavowal. (((And so is dismissing guys for dismissing guys as apocalyptic. So there, man, GAME OVER!!!)))

Here, you have the type of curated content that reddit & co. have taken over. The professionalization of blogging (of which Sterling is a beneficiary, no doubt) has marred up much of these efforts with page-view hogs who seem to go for quantity and scandal over quality. What Sterling does is like the scrawling notes format, but without original content. Again, the key here is curating content with some commentary. That’s motivating to witness – and nice to read – because it provides a guide for that kind of curating.

Others like Idea of the Day have an interesting take on this, which is a format I’ve been imitating with my own curated linked of late – and it’s very pleasing so far.


There are endless other formats, all of them more popular than the above. The tumblr format seems to have won out at the moment and there are several tumblrs I really enjoy – bytesized, KirinDave, ClusterFlock, and Josh’s, among many others.

As mentioned above, there’s also the powerhouses of Twitter and Facebook, which have their own sublimeness. Less so Facebook which I mostly view as just another AOL 1.0 – quick! cash-out before the users discover the web! – but there’s definitely something going in Twitter.

In the non-text format, I’ve noticed some recent MMS podcasts like Planet Money developing an interesting, web-native format: small enough chunks that they can do three a week but still interesting and “professional.” It’s just barely above that “from the cutting room floor” feel, but has the same general charm.

While it’s really “profesional blogging” (or “journalism” if you’re on the other side of the stick), I keep my eye on The Texas Tribune for interesting new approaches. Finally, there’s an increasing amount of long-form, non-tech blogs like BLDGBLOG which I don’t really know how or where to place.

(As some additional reading on the topic, Kevin Kelleher’s post “How the Internet Changed Writing in 2000s” is nifty.)

Disclosure: see the RedMonk client list in case there’s anything remotely related to the above.

Categories: Blogs, The New Thing.