An Anatomy of a Blog Post

When I sat down last night to write yesterday’s blog post, it was one of those days where nothing had come to me during the day as an idea to write about. That meant I had to implement my Plan B method for coming up with a topic.

And once I had come up with a topic, and started doing some basic research on it, and then began writing it, I thought it might be fun to record the process I went through from start to finish. So here we go.

As I said at the start, yesterday was one of those days where I didn’t have a clear idea of what it might be about when I sat down to write it. That meant I had to start searching for some ideas, and I turned to my usual sources – the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Good Morning Silicon Valley (in particular its Off Topic section), and the HuffPost (especially the Before You Go topics). Many of these sources are delivered to me on a daily basis through my email.

So yesterday while I was reading through my HuffPost email, I came across this blurb: “A 23-year-old college student in Rennes, France, reportedly called in a fake bomb threat for an EasyJet flight to stop his parents from visiting him.”

It sounded intriguing enough, so I clicked on it, read it, and decided that it was blog-worthy. I just had to spend some time thinking about what I could add to the story besides just copying what I found in the news story.

I thought about what could drive a young man to do something like that; why did he not want his parents to visit him; were there other things he could have done besides calling in a bomb threat?

I thought of my own three sons, the thousands of college students I have taught, and my own time in college, and all the dumb things I have done and seen guys do over the years and write it from that angle. But the bomb hoax was just way beyond anything I had ever heard of or even thought of, so there was nothing there.

So I settled on trying to come up with alternative ideas/excuses the student could have come up with that would not have been as drastic as what he actually chose. I also thought the potential for jail and a substantial fine would add to the story.

Now that I had a topic, and a rough idea of what I wanted to say about it, I was almost ready to start writing the blog.

But before I did so, I tried to come up with a clever headline to catch a potential reader’s attention.

Here are some of the ones that came to mind:

  • I Wonder If This College Student Will Want His Parents to Visit Him in Jail
  • Perhaps This Student Needs to Take a Course in Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place
  • Caught Between Scylla and Charybdis
  • A Classic Hobson’s Choice
  • This Student Came to a (Morton’s) Fork in the Road

The last four items on the list (as well as the one I eventually settled on – “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire”), all came from searching for Google what the phrase was when someone was stuck trying to decide between two lousy choices. I thought there was a special phrase for such a situation, but I couldn’t remember it.

So I typed “choosing between two bad choices” into Google, and as you might imagine, came up with over a billion results. Fortunately, one of the first results was quite useful, containing my last three headline choices above as well as the one I actually chose.

It was on this site that I learned that Hobson’s choice did not apply to the situation at hand. Hobson’s choice is a “false choice”, where only one option is really given, the other being to do nothing, rather than having a legitimate second option. For my blog, I wanted to write it from the angle that the student was making a choice between having his parents visit and the risk of going to jail and being fined as a result of his bomb threat.

I had never heard of  Scylla and Charybdis (related image at top of post). According to Wikipedia, Scylla and Charybdis were mythical sea monsters noted by Homer; Greek mythology sited them on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Scylla was rationalized as a rock shoal (described as a six-headed sea monster) on the Italian side of the strait and Charybdis was a whirlpool off the coast of Sicily. They were regarded as maritime hazards located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to passing sailors; avoiding Charybdis meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa. According to Homer, Odysseus was forced to choose which monster to confront while passing through the strait; he opted to pass by Scylla and lose only a few sailors, rather than risk the loss of his entire ship in the whirlpool. Certainly, a tough decision to make, as did this student.

I had also never heard of Morton’s Fork. A Morton’s fork is a type of false dilemma in which contradictory observations lead to the same conclusion. It is said to have originated with the collecting of taxes by John Morton. Under Henry VII, John Morton was made archbishop of Canterbury in 1486 and Lord Chancellor in 1487. He raised taxation funds for his king by holding that someone living modestly must be saving money and, therefore, could afford taxes, whereas someone living extravagantly obviously was rich and, therefore, could afford taxes. In other words, everyone could afford taxes. Another example is the following: asserting that a person suspected of a crime who is acting nervously must have something to feel guilty about, while a person who acts calmly and confidently must be practiced or skilled at hiding guilt. Either observation, therefore, has little, if any, value as evidence, as each could equally be evidence for the opposite conclusion.

I then came across the phrase from the frying pan into the fire. It was a term I had heard before, but I always thought it went the other way, since that is how Stephen Bishop used it in his class song, “On and On” (25 seconds in)”

I decided I liked the frying pan phrase the best for a headline, and then I decided I would look for an image to go with the headline and/or the story. So I typed the headline into Google, and lo and behold there were some pictures that depicted going from a frying pan into a fire, and so I picked what I thought was the best one (i.e., the one that woud most likely capture a reader’s attention).

So now, I was ready to write; that’s usually the easy part. But by now, over an hour had passed since I sat down to start writing my blog, and it would certainly take me at least another half an hour to put my thoughts “down on paper”.

Soon enough, the blog was completed, posted, and publicized. And even though it was just slightly over 400 words, it had taken the better part of an evening to put it together. A similar process is repeated multiple days of the week.

And while there may not be much to show for such efforts, I usually learn a few things with each post I write. In this case, I learned about Hobson’s Choice, Morton’s Fork, and Scylla and Charybdis, and none of those things even made it into the original blog post.

I also learned that I could write a nearly 1300 word blog post about a blog post that was only 400 words…

*image from EuroScientist


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