Back of the Envelope: Inspiration, Compromise, and a Short Introduction

For a while, I’ve been wondering what to do with my ever-growing backlog of potential post ideas and half-finished drafts. And I think I’ve found a solution.

Yea Kagami! Tell 'em like it is!

I wish I looked as smug as Kagami when I came up with this idea, but sadly I’m neither 2D nor adorable.  (´Д`。)

The main problem is that my current style involves attempting to really flesh out an idea and compose a comprehensive and cohesive argument around it, which is time consuming. It might be because I’m relatively new to blogging (although I’ll be approaching 6 months soon!), but each blog post takes at least a few hours to write up, edit, and polish before I put it up. And it seems I just don’t have the time for that all that often. Thus, I’m going to be starting up a new post series, “Back of the Envelope,” which should enable me to bypass some of these problems while still being able to express my ideas in a decently coherent form.

To reach a compromise, I’m going to take a note from the style of bloggers like AceRailgun and Artemis. First, they will be shorter than a normal post. Only the essentials will be included, and the focus will be on the ideas over a comprehensive argument for or against them. Second, they will try and incorporate some discussion from you guys (my readers!). Each one will include some questions concerning the ideas I put forward, hopefully to foster discussion and allow me to see what others on the anisphere are thinking. I’ll probably still include pictures, possibly with captions to more strongly tie them into the ideas brought forth. Hopefully with these changes, posts in this series will only take 1-2 hours to write up rather than 4-6.

For example, my friend and I (both male) were thinking of doing an Ayumu and Haruka duo cosplay for Anime Boston this year but eventually decided against it. Still, what a brilliant idea AMIRITE?!

For example, my friend and I (both male) were thinking of doing a duo cosplay of Ayumu and Haruka (with shared Mystletainn) for Anime Boston this year but eventually decided against it. Still, what a brilliant idea AMIRITE?! Discuss.

The story behind the name of the series – “Back of the Envelope” – serves as a possible example of what these types of posts will be like.

A “back of the envelope” calculation is an astronomy/physics term and sort of in-joke that refers to a rough calculation whose defining characteristic is the use of – often clearly false – simplifying assumptions. This is typically jotted down on any available scrap of paper, such as leftover “scrap” envelopes (hence the name). These types of calculations are more than just guesses but not quite accurate calculations, and are usually meant to give an “order of magnitude”  (or within a factor of 10 or so) approximation. These answers are useful because, although not completely accurate, they usually are in the correct “ballpark” and thus can provide decent conceptual insights. Given this, I thought this was an appropriate name for these posts, both in terms of concept as well as motivation.

"Back of the envelope" calculations are usually used interchangeably with Fermi questions, named after Enrico Fermi. These questions are usually ridiculously general things meant to be solved quickly via approximations and with little access to resources.

“Back of the envelope” calculations are usually associated with Fermi questions, named after Enrico Fermi (above), which are meant to be solved quickly via approximations and with little access to outside resources. Examples include “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” and “How many ant steps would it take to get to the Sun?”.

Discussion

How long do you expect/want to spend reading a blog post (on average)? If you blog, how long does it take you to write up a post (on average)?

Possible Feedback

How’s my posting style working so far? Anything need changing? Does this look like a step in a good direction?

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16 responses to “Back of the Envelope: Inspiration, Compromise, and a Short Introduction

  1. Takes me anywhere from a few hours to an entire afternoon to craft anything that’s 1k+ words.

    When I want to respond to a post, I check back often to the material in question as I write up a comment. Otherwise, I spend very little time reading it. This is not indicative of general behavior, but my personal standards for blog posts is just that your posts need to be interesting enough to stir me into critically reading your words.

    Speaking of which, I have drafts from weeks before that still need finishing. Eh, later.

    • So general consensus (at least among us relatively newer bloggers) seems to be that it takes a significant time investment to write up a blog post, which is good to know. As for reading, I think your standards are something I should keep in mind, focusing on quality rather than spending too much time worrying about length – these shorter posts are not meant to target new audiences (although if they did that’d be cool), but rather to get ideas out faster and encourage participation while trying to keep the same quality of writing. Thanks for the input :)

      Speaking of which, I have drafts from weeks before that still need finishing. Eh, later.

      ‘dem feels.

  2. I’m going through the same issue with my blog too. You’d be amazed by the number of posts I spend hours drafting only to trash them because I lose interest or another blogger covers the same topic.

    I’d agree that your posts are generally very comprehensive which is good, but at the same time it might discourage readers from commenting and further fleshing out your ideas. The easiest solution to this is, as you said, asking questions where you believe your topic of choice can be further developed. If that comes across as too blunt, you can always play the devil’s advocate as I find people are more inclined to comment when arguing against a point as opposed to simply agreeing with it.

    I think that the changes you describe above will naturally lead to shorter posts that are a bit less of a burden on you. That being said, I would suggest you don’t make shortening your posts a priority as I think it would be highly detrimental to the quality of your posts given your writing style.

    Ideal post length is rather arbitrary and can vary wildly , but I think anywhere between 800 and 1,500 words is usually a pretty solid post. I would take a second look at anything under 400 words and anything over 3,500 words.

    The amount of time it takes me to write a post also varies quite a lot. It depends on how solid the idea is to begin with and the number of times I redraft it. If I had to give an estimate, I would probably say 3-4 hours from start to finish.

    And yes, I do believe that this is a step in the right direction. Good luck.

    • I’m going through the same issue with my blog too.

      Glad to know I’m not alone! It was so frustrating to have a half-dozen or more drafts going only to drop them later, so it seems we’re on the same page. (Also, replying to comments in reverse order means that my musings with BokuSatchii might actually hold some water…)

      might discourage readers from commenting and further fleshing out your ideas

      Definitely – the exact issue AceRailgun also brought up and one I think I might have fallen into. I agree that asking questions are always blunt, getting the job done while simultaneously possibly stifling discussion by omission. Playing the devil’s advocate instead is an idea I hadn’t thought of as much, but one I think Flawfinder pulls off to great effect all the time. Maybe I’ll try to start including some of that.

      I would suggest you don’t make shortening your posts a priority as I think it would be highly detrimental to the quality of your posts given your writing style.

      Thanks – I’ll keep this in mind going forward. :)

      Ideal post length…800 and 1,500 words

      Sweet – these’ll be good rough benchmarks to keep in mind while I write. Artemis also listed similar numbers, which means there probably is something to these.

      Thanks for the input and encouragement. Hope things go well for you as well, and let me know what you end up with – the more ideas the merrier!

  3. The shorter style leaves less room for distraction. It’s difficult to focus long enough to get through your entire post in one sitting, especially since they tend to be quite technical and analytical, which can come off as dry. The new format seems to leave room for a less formal style and as it is shorter, promises to give you less of a headache while writing it. However, as Windy Turnip said and as I’ve discovered in my own blogging, a post will run as long as it needs to and while you can keep length in mind, don’t try too hard to conform a post to a specific standard or you’ll find yourself frustrated (see I just love my run-ons). Just my opinion…

    • which can come off as dry

      One of my largest fears, balancing a lengthy post with engaging writing over long/stuffy/dry academic analysis.

      don’t try too hard to conform a post to a specific standard or you’ll find yourself frustrated

      I try not to conform to any certain standard by rule, but it’s definitely good advice to keep in mind as I continue to essentially do just that, splitting my posts into more and more “series” with targeted formats and topics.

  4. I think it’s a great idea to foster discussion by asking a direct question aimed at the readers in your blog posts. The main reason I always do is because to me, blogging is a two-way thing, and I’m not happy just talking to people – I want to talk with them.
    As to the length of any blog entry, I think that really depends on the topic. Anything below 500 words is generally too short for my own personal liking, and anything over 2000 is usually a bit too long. I think most of my posts tend to be between 800 and 1500 words, but everyone has their own style and preferences.
    You have a nice writing style going here – I think you’ll do very well. :)

    • I’m not happy just talking to people – I want to talk with them.

      I totally empathize. My original goal was just the former, with the blog a place to air my thoughts without regard to readership or discussion, but over the months it has definitely shifted towards the latter. And I think I like it much better that way :).

      Anything below 500 words is generally too short for my own personal liking, and anything over 2000 is usually a bit too long.

      I’ll keep these in mind as rough markers in the future. Thanks for the advice!

  5. Haha, I have spent most of this week brainstorming ideas for shorter posts myself, actually – something to fill in the dead space between my biweekly-to-monthly walls of text, and something to make it easier for me to sit down and actually write something without being intimidated by the time it would take. I feel like I’ve got a lot to say that I just haven’t been saying because I’ve been unable to dedicate the time to flesh every idea out into one of my usual monster posts.

    Sitting down to finally start writing one of these new quickie posts, I pop open my feed reader and find this sitting there. Seems like we’re on the same page with the whole “I write too much and therefore I write nothing” dilemma. Questioning the audience is a good idea for both cutting yourself short and encouraging discussion, but I personally always have, and still feel pretty awkward directly inserting questions into my writing. I’m not too good at the whole “coming up with things to ask” part of it, either. Maybe I’ll be able to take some inspiration from your Back of the Envelope series!

    I enjoy your blogging style quite a bit. It reminds me to some degree of my own, in that it’s a bit on the long side but also very in-depth. You cover a lot of ground and explore your topics quite satisfactorily. I’d be interested to see how smoothly-or-not that translates into this “back of the envelope” style you’re trying to develop; whether you’ll still be able to keep up the same attention to detail in a more concise format. That we both seem to be moving in a similar direction with the shorter posts indicates that I clearly think you’re on the right track, since it’s the one I’m choosing myself.

    When I’m reading a blog post, how long I’m willing to spend is pretty skewed to the extremes. For most posts, I prefer to only spend a few minutes reading – I’m a fan of Draggle’s to-the-point style and the Cart Drivers’ quick wit. But for a show I’m really invested in, or a topic that grabs my attention, I’ll dive in for a half-hour to even an hour if it’s interesting enough – E Minor’s posts, for example, have a tendency to suck me in.

    Writing a post rarely takes me less than three hours, which is why I’m trying to venture into shorter stuff. For something like my beast of an Aku no Hana post, that can push six to eight hours because I do a lot of rewriting and rethinking. List posts, like First Impressions, Season Reviews, etc. are a monstrous pain to write – they’ve all spanned days of writing, rewriting, screencapping, captioning, and coming up with clever tags and tier names, and writing them has been kind of miserable, even if the results are very much to my satisfaction.

    Heck, even commenting on someone’s blog takes me about an hour, because they end up being super-long and turn into mini-blog-posts in and of themselves. You know, kind of like this one. I’ll shut up now.

    • Seems like we’re on the same page with the whole “I write too much and therefore I write nothing” dilemma.

      What a coincidence! Or maybe not – maybe this is a common problem among bloggers in general and a reason why many fizzle out. I haven’t done enough digging to see whether our parallels can actually be extrapolated, but it’d be interesting if it was true. Regardless, it’s great to hear that I’m not not alone here and that both of us are trying to come up with ways to continue to get our thoughts out. I’d love to hear/read what you end up driving towards, since I’m sure there are a multitude of solutions that we can all draw inspiration from. Because I don’t think us spending 3+ hours on every post seems to be a completely feasible/comfortable blogging style.

      feel pretty awkward directly inserting questions into my writing

      I’ve actually been talking about this type of thing with other people, and we hit upon another possible solution, which would be to try and imply topics of discussion throughout the post. So not just post a shorter, more concise summary of stuff, but actually craft sentences/paragraphs in such a way that they essentially “beg the question.” I might try this as well, but I’m ultimately not sure how either will work in the long run.

      I enjoy your blogging style quite a bit.

      The sense I’m getting from the comments is that people (or at least you guys) actually enjoy my longer posts, and while I wasn’t planning on throwing them out entirely, I’ll definitely make sure not to try and change things up in general too much if my natural style actually works.

      how long I’m willing to spend is pretty skewed to the extremes

      I’m the same, so I can understand definitely understand this, and all the examples you gave are pretty much the same I would probably give.

      Heck, even commenting on someone’s blog takes me about an hour

      And responding to them takes about just as long haha. Thanks for the advice, and best of luck to you as well!

  6. 1) I love your blogging style, and I love your walls of text. It can be a bit forbidding occasionally in terms of reading the whole thing or commenting, but I’d hate to see all of the tl;dr go.

    2) I suppose the main things that can be done for making shorter posts would be to edit out some of the more laborious parts (preserving the main ideas and impact at the expense of some of the argumentation), focusing mainly on the parts of the posts that are really interesting and meaty and tossing some of the less interesting appendages, and splitting up your essays across multiple posts. To clarify that last one somewhat, I’m not just talking about making them come in installments. Rather, it often seems to be the case that a particularly long essay will, on close inspection, have a number of different main ideas that get stitched together and interrelated. With a bit of work (not too much, really), these can sometimes be isolated and presented as individual, independent, shorter posts; with the connective tissue gone, the overall product can be a bit shorter and less involved. Granted, I tend to find the weird webs of connections between ideas to be absolutely fascinating, but we were talking about concision, weren’t we?

    Speaking of whi—

    • I’d hate to see all of the tl;dr go.

      Thanks! I’m not planning on throwing out my long posts (although I might start tweaking them slightly), so rest assured the walls of text shall remain!

      splitting up your essays across multiple posts

      Your qualification of this is actually a pretty cool one. I think I started driving in that direction by pure chance in my Japanese Fandom posts, but I hadn’t really thought about making it a possible thing. I’m not sure if I’ll end up doing it though – like you, I also love “the weird web of connections between ideas,” and like to keep anything like that decently consolidated unless it is by far too lengthy to expect anyone to read in one sitting.

      As for concision in general, I think what you described earlier, focusing on the main ideas at the expense of argumentation, will be the main goal for these shorter posts.

      Speaking of whi—

      Clever clever! ;)

  7. I’d say you are doing well so far. Your posts are much longer then what I’m used to so posing a question or being “unsure” about facts leaves room for a reader to comment if that’s what your after.

    What I mean by being unsure is that you don’t necessarily confirm facts so much as stating opinions. This lets everyone else get a word in without feeling like they are disagreeing with you.

    For the longer posts you are limiting your audience slightly as less people are going to read a long post like your Kino’s Journey post but long posts like that give so much for a reader to discuss with you. Shorter posts need a question or an openness to encourage discussion.

    That’s just my two cents, best of luck with the blogging. Don’t force yourself to change your style too much just write what you want and the like-minded readers will come.

    • The point about writing a long post to craft a well-informed opinion rather than trying to prove facts is a good one, and I think it’s something I should keep in mind going forward. I don’t want to stifle discussion by making people feel that by disagreeing with me they are wrong or ill-informed. As you said, “long posts like that give so much for a reader to discuss with you,” and that’s what I’m trying to strive for. I don’t mind limiting some of my audience with longer posts (such is the nature of a blog, right?), but I definitely don’t want to limit possible discussion about my ideas among any of my readers.

      Thanks for the advice!

  8. Not sure if you’re still looking for comments here but I thought I’d add my own two cents:

    I write quickly. I finish my posts within three hours, tops. (Kind of an opposite approach to you, eh?) I also don’t edit, except to skim for typos. Some might call this lazy – I call it intuitive. I think it’s pretty close to what blogging is in its rawest form: a collection of personal thoughts written out for all the world to see.

    I do, however, spend a lot of my time thinking about what I would like to write and what I think other people would like to read. What I end up writing is usually something I think falls into both spheres. I follow a clear vision and I try to keep digressions to a minimum. I don’t try to say everything I know about a topic in one post.

    If you’re ever worried about posts going on too long, you can narrow your focus and put your other interesting ideas away for another post. Personally, I don’t really have a problem with your style. Feels like I’m listening in to a university lecture; even if not all of it is relevant, the content flows and feels connected to a bigger picture. I also feel like I get to know the writer better if they ramble here and there – helps if you’ve got a very natural-sounding writing voice.

    As for encouraging discussion, asking questions directly is sometimes effective and sometimes it feels intrusive. From what I know about human nature, people like to speak up if:

    a) it’s something related to a personal experience or opinion that requires no expertise or hard thinking on their part (like what is your favourite anime?)

    b) they want to correct you

    c) the other comments do not address something they’re thinking about

    But yeah, in the end, there’s no “right” way to blog. Everyone has a different approach that suits them. Personally, I’m itching to see some of your post ideas come to fruition. Best of luck to your endeavours!

    • More input is always welcome – my blogging is a constantly evolving thing (as I’m sure you can tell if you look back on some of my earliest posts *cringe*).

      (Kind of an opposite approach to you, eh?)

      I’m getting there! While I still on average take more than three hours to come up with a normal post, I’m starting to push it down to around the 3-hour mark. It’s really just been practice – learning how to more quickly put what’s in my head down onto the page in a way that I want. I used to spend inordinate amounts of time editing to get there, and now I tend to spend more time simply organizing and skimming for typos/weird phrasings.

      a collection of personal thoughts written out for all the world to see

      The problem with me is that the transition from personal thoughts to understandable blog posts was quite difficult. In fact, since I didn’t really participate in much “intellectual” discussion back in high school, I didn’t really learn how to really articulate my thoughts very well until I got to college. I owe my roommate a lot of thanks and many hours for helping me develop that skill.

      I do, however, spend a lot of my time thinking about what I would like to write and what I think other people would like to read.

      We somewhat differ here. While I do keep my audience in mind, I am definitely biased towards writing for myself. In fact, the reason I started a blog was not for readership or discussion (although that’s now a large part of why I keep doing it), but simply as a place to finally get out some of the ideas that had been stirring around in my head. I’ve started to move towards a more balanced approach over time, but for now I’m still quite the egotist.

      If you’re ever worried about posts going on too long, you can narrow your focus and put your other interesting ideas away for another post.

      I’ve definitely started doing this, but hearing confirmation from another source that this is a valid idea is reassuring.

      As for encouraging discussion, asking questions directly is sometimes effective and sometimes it feels intrusive.

      I discovered this a little bit of the hard way when most of my questions were completely ignored. Artemis somehow always manages to hit a) and encourage the reader to try c), but I think my questions come across on more of the intrusive side. At this point I feel like trying to include possible discussion points in my posts will work better, and that’s what I’m trying at the moment.

      Personally, I’m itching to see some of your post ideas come to fruition.

      Thanks! I’m actually thinking of dumping some of my older ideas into a post at some point because they’re wasting away at the moment. And I still have over a dozen drafts sitting around… X_X

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