ENGL. 200 Intermediate Non-Fiction Writing, Fall 2012

W 3:10-6:00

Buttrick Hall, 212

Professor Amanda Little


office hours (Benson 302): Tues, 3:30-5:30 and by appointment

class blog:

The Art of Blogging: Learning How to Write and Think In The Age of Self-Publishing

This course focuses on techniques and strategies for successful blogging. Today, just sixteen years after the first blog was published, there are nearly 200 million public blogs on the internet, some of which have larger audiences and more influence than the most esteemed print publications.

Blogs can empower anyone who has something to say, and the ability to say it in an interesting way. Yet very few blogs are well-written and authoritative, or manage to reach a broad audience. In this course we will track and analyze influential blogs in the categories of politics, business, art, lifestyle, and activism. We’ll look to the past, examining the roots of self-published manifestoes that date back to 17th-century, and to the future, exploring multimedia blogging formats and the “micro-blogging” phenomena like Twitter.

At a time when virtually every public figure from Barack Obama to Lady Gaga has entered the blogosphere, students will come to understand how blogs are revolutionizing the media, powering politics, and shaping culture, and how they are changing the way we write. Students will create and regularly update their own blogs for this course. We will discuss your posts in class and I will critique your writing in private conferences.

August 20  Introduction

What, to begin with, is a blog? Some say we’re in the midst of a “revolution” in communications technology, and that new digital forms of social networking are radically changing the way we think, work, and live. In this first class we’ll tease out what this means: Why are or aren’t blogs revolutionary? What kind of opportunities do they present, and what pitfalls?  Students will also introduce themselves, we’ll discuss our various areas of interest, and the blogs we will follow as a class. We’ll review the syllabus, reading materials and ground rules for blog post submissions.



*Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging

*Become familiar with the following five blogs:

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic

Ezra Klein: WonkBlog, WaPo

Andrew Sullivan, The Dish

Amy Davidson, New Yorker

Writing assignment: Introduce yourself to the blogosphere with a personal bio of 700-900 words. This should be an informal but compelling–which is to say, “bloggy”—piece of writing. Stream-of-consciousness but also structured, raw and sketchy but also polished and authoritative. The central organizing principle of the blogosphere is you – the individual. The success of your blog depends on the clarity and confidence you have in your voice and your set of interests, and on your ability to convey your ideas and interests in a compelling way. This is not a typical bio, it’s a window into what makes you “tick,” a chance to write about what you’re interested in and why. You may want to include basic information like where you were born and raised, what schools you’ve attended, jobs you’ve held, hobbies you’ve pursued, but also delve into events and influences that have had a more subtle but profound influence. Perhaps you’ll describe colossal mistakes you’ve made, transformative books you’ve read, music you’ve listened to, sports games you’ve seen, mentors you’ve met, or any other critical influences in your life that have shaped the way you think and that have made you you. Above all, have fun with it.

August 27  Blogging 101

We’ll discuss the nuts and bolts of blogging, reviewing and critiquing the advice in Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, and define goals for our own blogs. We’ll also fine-tune the process in our class for submitting posts and reviewing our class blogs at

We’ll also review and critique the blogs I assigned. In workshops we’ll share our personal bios in small groups and share portions with the class.


Reading: Read three to five entries from the following 12 blogs.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic

James Fallows, The Atlantic

Amy Davidson, The New Yorker

Mona Chalabi, FiveThirtyEight

Nate Silver, Five Thirty Eight

Jessie Rosen, 20-Nothings

The Bloggess

Mark Forsyth, Inky Fool

Mark Evanier, News From Me

Erik Wemple, Washington Post

Brian Palmer, The Explainer

Ed Yong, Not Exactly Rocket Science

Writing assignment: Choose four of the above blogs and critique them. Which of these blogs interest you most/least and why? Explore the subtleties of the voice and writing style in each blog, and include examples and quotes from specific blog posts. In your critiques I’d like to see you draw from analysis and techniques of writing and blogging that were presented in the readings — both in the HuffPo Guide and On Writing Well. 600-900 words total.


Sept 3  No Class – Private Conferences

In private 20-30 minute conferences we will discuss your writing style, finding your voice and introducing your blog.



On Writing Well, Zinsser

Writing Assignment:  I’m keeping the reading to a minimum for this class so you can get your blog underway. Draft your Mission Statement (think of it as an extended “About” section) for your blog – What is your blog about? What’s the range of topics you will address? What will you call it and why? Why is your blog important now? What are the other blogs in this space and what makes yours unique? Why are you the one to write it? What do you hope to accomplish with this blog? Think of this assignment as a kind of opening salvo – clear, concise, confident – in the same raw-but-polished style you used for your bio. 600-900 words.

September 10 How to Write Well

We will discuss the principles of good writing and storytelling that we’ve read in On Writing Well and apply these principles to the  blogs we’ve been reading – what’s good about their writing? Where are they failing? We will also watch some TED talks on story telling, and peer-review the “opening salvos” we’ve written for our blogs, helping each other refine and amplify your visions for your blogs.



Say Everything, Scott Rosenberg – first half to Chapter 6, page 165

Telling True Stories, excerpts

Writing assignment: Write your first “freestyle” post for your blog, on any top of your choosing. 650-900 words.

September 17  Why Blogs Matter, and Where They Come From

We will discuss Rosenberg’s survey of the blogosphere, Say Everything. What are the origins of blogging? What happens in a culture where everyone says everything? What are the costs and benefits of all this democratized expression—how do we extract what’s useful and ignore what’s useless? We will apply Rosenberg’s insights and analysis to the five blogs we are reading. In workshops we will discuss our own blogs and present portions to the full class with a verbal questions-and-comments session about each blog.



*Say Everything – second half

Class blogs (the list of 11 blogs above)

Writing Assignment:

Using tracking mode in a Word document, produce a thoughtful, comprehensive edit of one of a fellow student’s mission statement and/or first post. I will assign partners for this exercise.  The art of editing takes as much thought and intensity and presence as writing does. I want to see you respectfully challenge and motivate your fellow students in this exercise. Learning to be a great editor will make you a much better writer.

September 24  The Art of Editing

There will be a class appearance via Skype by Scott Rosenberg, author of Say Everything – we’ll discuss the principles of his book and present selected student blogs to him. We’ll also discuss and present our editing exercises for this week.



*Understanding the Media: Marshall McLuhan excerpt

*Bloggerati, Twitterati: How Blogs and Twitter are Changing Pop Culture, Mary Cross

*Five class blogs

Writing Assignment:

Rewrite your “mission statement” according to my edits and feedback from classmates in workshops, and write your second free-style blog post. The voice and rhythm of your blog is beginning to take hold — run with it.  Be rigorous about working through the weaknesses we’ve identified in your blog and continue to take risks with your approach and voice. 700-900 words

OR If you’d like a more structured assignment:

Blogs and twitter feeds can spark reactions and events that change culture, as Mary Cross chronicles in her book.  Pick a cultural event or phenomenon that has been sparked by a blog or twitter feed in your area of interest; chronicle and analyze it.  You could examine, for instance, why uprisings in the Arab world have been characterized as “Twitter revolutions;” or how a little-known blog became a novel or movie (Julie & Julia et al); or how literary blog like “How I Write” at is changing reader-author relationships; or how a twitter feed from a sports fan changed the course of a game; or how a satirical blog spoofing a candidate influenced a political race; or how youth climate activists are using blogs and social media (350.0rg) to build a global climate movement; or how a music blog launched an indie band. If you can’t find an event or phenomenon to chronicle in your area of interest email me and I’ll get you on the right rack.  700-900 words.

October 1 How Blogs are Changing Culture

We’ll talk with Geoff McDonald, Vanderbilt Tennis Coach and author of The New York Times sports blog “Straight Sets.” We will discuss McLuhan’s seminal work and Mary Cross’s Bloggerati and Twitterati, and apply these texts to our own work and the five class blogs we’re following. We will workshop and present student blogs and the cultural phenomena you analyzed.



Blogging Heroes, by Michael Banks. Choose 15 of the 30 interviews/profile segments to read, be sure to include the segments on Chris Anderson and Brian Lam.

Get up to date on the Five Class Blogs, which we’ll be discussing in class.

Writing Assignment: Write your next freestyle blog post. 700-900 words.

October 8   Blogging Heroes

We will discuss the “Blogging Heroes” of Michael Banks’ book – the strategies and techniques they employ as writers, the goals and philosophies that drive them, and the business and marketing strategies they use to build their audiences. And we’ll workshop and present a sampling of student blogs to the class.


Reading:Read comments section in depth on all five class blogs

Read “The Opt-Out Generation Opts Back In” by Judith Warner in the New York Time Magazine, August 7 issue. Also read Ann Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” in the Atlantic Monthly and examine how these pieces ricocheted through the blogosphere with a selection of spin-off blogs and commentary.

Writing Assignment: Write your next blog post, on any topic of your choosing. 700-900 words. Also post a response to Warner’s piece on in the comments section. Put your response in a word document and send it to me along with your post. Posting your response to the article will require registering your name/email on the site, which takes a few seconds.

October 15 The Audience and the Importance of Comment

We will Skype with Nicholas Thompson, editor of In class we will discuss the role of the audience and how the perpetual feedback of the global  “peanut gallery” changes the way we think and write, and the way we revise our thinking and writing. How and why does information “go viral” online? We’ll examine the blogosphere’s reaction to the Warner and Slaughter articles.  And we will do an in-class workshop in which we comment on each other’s blogs.



“Black Box” by Jennifer Egan

The F***ing Epic Quest of @RahmEmanuel,  excerpt

The twitter feeds of the five class blogs

Writing Assignment: Write a blog post on a topic of your choosing that incorprates twitter — either periperally or centrally. Your post could be composed as a series of tweets, inspired by the works of Sinker and Egan; alternately, it could be written as a response to a tweet or series of tweets in your area of interest, or you could write up a post on any topic of your choosing, and at the end write several mock tweets promoting your post. 700-900 words.

October 22 The Art of Twitter

We will Skype with Elliott Holt, and award-winning fiction writer who experimented with twitter as a platform for her art. We will discuss the microblogging platform: What are the synergies between twitter and blogs – how do they inform and modify each other? How have Sinker and Egan managed to elevate this platform to “epic poetry”? How is twitter changing the dissemination of news, and in turn, news media? In workshops we’ll apply the lessons learned from the reading to the twitter feeds of the five blogs we’re following, and we’ll discuss and share our own twitter-style blog posts.



Bloggers on the Bus, Eric Boehlert, excerpt

The Argument, Matt Bai, excerpt

Five Political Blogs in depth

Writing Assignment: Write a blog post about American politics in 2013: Present your opinions on a current political issue in manifesto form. It’s not the substance of your opinion on politics that matters so much as how you present it, using the blogging techniques we’ve learned throughout the semester.

October  29  Blogs and Politics

The week before midterm elections, we will open class by skyping with Howard Fineman, editorial director of Huffington Post/AOL. We will discuss with him his experience as a political blogger, and more broadly the influence of blogs on politics, and politics on blogs. We will analyze and discuss the five political blogs we read for class in depth. We will discuss how blogs have changed – and perhaps even revolutionized — politics in the last decade.

For next week:


Mike Allen, “Playbook” on Politico blogs in depth

The 5 most influential political blogs, details to come

“A Blogger’s Creed,” Andrew Sullivan

Writing Assignment: Write a freestyle blog post on any topic of your choosing, ideally with a political angle. 700-900 words.

November 5  Blogs and Activism

In the wake of the midterm elections, we will speak to Lisa Hymas, editor of the activist site, about the influence of blogs on activist movements in America.



View a collection of current vlogs, specifics to come

Assignment: Option: Write another freestyle blog entry on any topic of your choosing, 700-900 words. -OR- Make a video blog — “VLOG” — entry for your blog and/or bring images into your blog entries. Supplement your vlog with a brief post explaining and illuminating the use of video and images in your blog.

NOVEMBER 12 The Vlog

Blogs are often only as strong as the images that illustrate them. We will discuss the increasing integration of words, images and video in the blogosphere. Has the internet become a kind of TV station, and blogs just another form of reality TV? We will discuss the marriage of pictures and words. We will also schedule student conferences this week to discuss and plan for your final projects.



Five Class Blogs

Also research in depth the other blogs in your field of interest – not just the one blog you’ve been following but at least three others, examining and comparing the techniques used as you read.

Writing Assignment: Critique the broader genre of blogs in your field of interest – how are bloggers taking different approaches to the same topic? Who is doing the most interesting work and how has it changed the way you read and understand the blog you have been following, and the way you write your own blog?




Five class blogs in depth

Writing Assignment: Write your final blog entry.  Read through all your blogs as a full body of work and begin editing them.

Nov 26 Professional Blogging

Rufus Griscom, a top digital consultant to Conde Nast, will speak to our class via Skype about how to take your blogging skills into the real world.


Writing Assignment:  Rough Draft of your final essay “Why My Blog Matters” Reflect back on the blogging voice you have developed, excerpting from the full body of blog posts you’ve assembled. Reflect on readings in class and the blogs followed in class. Critique the evolution of your own voice.  2000-3000 words

December  3 The Wrap-up

Insights, gripes and revelations: We’ll discuss our final projects and lessons learned throughout the course.

Dec 10 Final Projects due

Submit your full body of edited blogs and the final 2000-3000 word analysis paper: “Why My Blog Matters”


Class Participation: 25 percent

Short writing assignments, collectively: 50 percent

Final reported piece: 25 percent

Honor code and plagiarism:

You must observe the Vanderbilt Honor Code for all work in this course. Work completed for this course must be entirely yours and any outside materials must be credited. If you’re ever in doubt, check with me before turning in the assignment.




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