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Grammar Is Sexy

Study the Masters Part 1: Brain Pickings

The greatest education in the world is watching the masters at work.

– Michael Jackson

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to break down the writing approach of several popular blogs that I frequently read, and then I’m going to explain how you can apply some of these techniques to your own writing.

Today’s blog is Brain Pickings. Instead of trying to explain what this blog is about, I’ll just quote the site’s creator, Maria Popova:

Brain Pickings — which remains ad-free and supported by readers — is a cross-disciplinary LEGO treasure chest, full of pieces spanning art, science, psychology, design, philosophy, history, politics, anthropology, and more; pieces that enrich our mental pool of resources and empower combinatorial ideas that are stronger, smarter, richer, deeper and more impactful. Above all, it’s about how these different disciplines illuminate one another to glean some insight, directly or indirectly, into that grand question of how to live, and how to live well.

Basically, it’s a blog about human culture and knowledge, focusing mainly on books but covering visual art, film, and music as well (though I suppose that still makes it about books, since there are books on every one of those subjects). Imagine a publication that combines the best of NPR’s culture, arts, and music reporting but removes the political speculation and obsession with the present moment. That’s sort of what Brain Pickings is like.

I’m not here to describe what the site is about, though. You’re better off reading it for yourself to find that out. I’m here to analyze just what makes the writing of Brain Pickings so appealing and effective.

Visual Impressions

If you just glance at the site, you’ll immediately notice its elegant, reader-focused design. It’s beautiful. The left sidebar contains your standard site navigation, title, subscription, donation, and “popular post” buttons (though Maria calls them “must-reads”). Nothing out of the ordinary here, although all are unobtrusive and beautifully designed.

The right sidebar, however, is completely empty. The focus is clearly on the content, which is given ample space while still being easily readable. If you scroll through a typical post, you’ll notice plenty of beautiful images of either the book in question (especially if it’s a picture or art book) or related objects, scenes, or people.

Finally, at the bottom of each post is an unobtrusive “Subscribe” call to action that reads:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Attractively designed and noticeable to someone who reads the whole article (the sort of person you want to subscribe), this box is present but less obvious than the massive boxes you see on many other popular blogs. Food for thought.

Enough about the design, however. Let’s turn to the heart of the matter: the writing.

Words on The Page

The first thing I notice when reading a Brain Pickings post is the proliferation of quotes. There are some posts that are almost all quotes, containing little of Maria’s own writing. This is evidence that you don’t have to write “original” content to have a successful blog. Presenting the work of others is quite acceptable, so long as you do it tastefully.

Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all.

– Abraham Lincoln

And tastefully she does it. As with most impressive acts or creations, the majority of the work is invisible. The hard work here happens behind the scenes, in that Maria has to read these books, find the best quotes, put them on her site, and then make her characteristically insightful connections. You can’t just slap a bunch of quotes up on a page and then watch the traffic flow in.

You must be selective, even when it’s just in presenting someone else’s words.


I mentioned Maria’s characteristically insightful connections, but this aspect of Brain Pickings deserves a detailed look. Without a doubt, this is the reason people keep coming back to Brain Pickings. While in a way the blog is a collection of the best cultural productions in existence, what sets it apart from your average “cool stuff” aggregation sites are the connections Maria makes among all the things she’s read, seen, and heard.

(This also makes it one of the biggest rabbit holes in the Internet. In writing this post, I got distracted several times just browsing everything that the most recent article links to. Brain Pickings will expand your mind, but it will cripple your productivity.)

This goes beyond writing, of course (you have to have a vast knowledge to draw these connections to begin with). Even those of us who are still building our knowledge, however, can learn from this process. Much of the best work is not that which creates completely original ideas, but rather that which draws insightful connections among existing ones.

Become a connector for your audience. Show them intersections they would never have considered.

What connections can you create? Share in the comments.

And if you want more advice on online writing, enter your email address and click the button below to get my free e-book, Ten Steps to Exceptional Online Writing.


Featured image: Anton Muller Die Kunststudentin via Wikimedia Commons

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