Ribbonfarm Longform Blogging Course: Nov 10 – 22

Over the past three years, as long-time readers will have noted, ribbonfarm has gradually transitioned into a multi-author site. To date, we’ve hosted 13 blogging residents who have completed/are completing 4-6 posts each, on a broadly defined theme. We’ve also hosted 8 one-off guests who have contributed 1-2 posts each. I’m pretty proud that in both 2015 and 2016 (so far), the most popular posts were not by me or contributing editor Sarah Perry, yet embodied the Tao of Refactoring in the best possible sense.

So far, our approach to finding contributors has been pretty much ad hoc, based on random acts of talent scouting by Sarah and me. Now we want to level up, so we will be co-teaching the first ever ribbonfarm longform blogging course, aimed primarily at beefing up our own pipeline of potential contributors. Our goal isn’t so much to help you “improve” (in fact we hope many who sign up are already better writers than either of us), but to help you grok what we’re trying to do here, why it’s valuable/interesting/fun, what we look for as editors, and why you might want to try this approach to writing.


There will be 4 online video sessions of about 90 minutes on Thu Nov 10, Tue Nov 15, Thu Nov 17 and Tue Nov 22, between 5:30 – 7:00 PM Pacific.

Check out the syllabus below, then head on over to the eventbrite page to buy a ticket if interested. To repeat, this is primarily a scouting course, and the main purpose is to beef up our own pipeline of NEW contributors. If you’ve already written for us before, please don’t register; contact one of us for a free alumni/Friends of Ribbonfarm ticket.

There are 10 regular spots, which have a requirement that you complete an essay with one of us editing, with an option for us to publish (which means hey, you turn a profit). There are also 5 audit spots for those who want to take the course for their own nefarious purposes, but not write the essay.



You must provide at least ONE link of a longform analytical/thinkpiece style essay, preferably similar in style to ribbonfarm, from your own blog or other online venue. This is NOT a beginning blogging/writing course.

We expect you to have basics like grammar and structure down (modulo interesting ESL types), and at least something like a sense of your own voice/style. And perhaps most importantly, a sense of whether or not you have the stamina for longform. Ideally, you are already a better writer than Sarah or me. Assess yourself objectively. Modesty is not necessarily a virtue here.

This is not a writing course in the literary sense, designed to improve your sense of language and style, though that might happen as a side effect. It is more of an intermediate writing-to-think-a-certain-way course.

Completion Requirements

Regular course participants will be required to write a longform blog post of at least 2500 words (with either Sarah or Venkat playing editor), in a loosely ribbonfarmesque style that will be due by December 6. Ribbonfarm will have the right of first refusal to publish this post under our usual terms.

Course Materials: There will be one core reading per session, listed below. We will also provide other suggested readings along the way.

Course Structure: Each session will be a videoconference (on Zoom.us) and structured as an example-heavy mini-lecture on a key topic, followed by live exercises and open discussion. Sarah and Venkat will both be present at all 4 sessions, and take turns leading.

Schedule (all sessions will be 5:30 – 7:00 Pacific Time)

Session 1, Nov 10: Fuck SEO (led by Sarah)

Pre-read: Murray Davis, That’s Interesting

Theme: If we don’t stop writing headlines for bots, how will they ever learn? We’ll unpack what makes for a good headline that gets at the soul of your piece, and seduces readers into the mystery of it. This is how we evolved types do clickbait. Of the sort that actually delivers what it promises.

Session 2, Nov 15: Awakening Cthulhu (led by Venkat)

Pre-read: Karl Weick, What Theory is Not, Theorizing Is

Theme: The job of your first draft is to find and awaken a sleeping demon. The job of your last draft is to rein in its unbridled energy. This is blogging: there is such a thing as “published,” but there is really no such thing as “finished.” Ideally, in a ribbonfarm post, you end up with so much to say, the hard part is deciding what to leave out to get below a reasonable maximum size rather than what to put in to get up to the minimum size. We’ll talk about how to find and tap rich veins, tread on rattlers, catch tigers by tails, uncoil the kundalini of a theme, awaken Cthulhu… pick your favorite metaphor.

Session 3, Nov 17: Clowns on Fire (Sarah)

Pre-read: Juergen Schmidhuber, Driven by Compression Progress

One of our frenemy blogs, Slatestarcodex, introduced the convention of labeling each post with an “epistemic status” such as “fairly certain” or “speculative.” As Sarah correctly observed a few months ago, the epistemic status of all ribbonfarm posts is “clown on fire jumping out of a helicopter.” In this session, we’ll dig deeper and try and understand the epistemic structure of “refactoring” of the sort we attempt around here. How do you mix reason and unreason, aesthetics and ugliness, normal and weird, solid citations and conspiracy theories, potty humor and heartbreaking schmalz, into something that deserves the label “insight porn” (another Sarah term)?

Session 4, Nov 22: Step into my parlour (Venkat)

Pre-read: Venkat, Portals and Flags

“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I’ve a many curious things to show when you are there.”

The Spider and The Fly, Mary Howitt, 1829

The one thing ribbonfarm-style longform shares with other publications is the problem of unburying the lede, a problem that plagues experienced writers as much as beginners, and one for which there is no general solution. There are only some tricks for dowsing it out from wherever it is hiding, and dragging it to the front.

Unburying the lede is about more than leading with whatever tempts the reader into reading on. It’s about understanding what you’ve written well enough that you can surface the core of the seductive potential of a piece. A good lede pulls together an effective headline, a source of demonic energy, and a taste of the epistemic structure, into something that transforms headline-intrigue into a must-read intention within a paragraph or two.

Sometimes this means a provocative claim or question. Sometimes it means the right picture or quote. Sometimes it means an anecdote or joke. Sometimes it means of sucker punch of annoying and incomprehensible gobbledygook.

Sometimes bloggers must even resort to that laziest of lazy old-media lede formulas: the New Yorker style dated lede.

Whatever the form the lede takes, it is the final integration test of your piece before you deploy to production. Only longformers of unwavering purpose and virtue true manage, on rare occasions, to produce such ledes. We hope to find a few of them.

So if you think you’ve got what it takes, go on ahead and register.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I don’t qualify for this(can’t really write long form), but as I’ve identified, it comes down to doing badly(if at all) at re-writes. So my request/suggestion is please plan a more basic course too some time later.

  2. Sidney Carton says

    I hope you offer this course again. Reading the pre-reads meantime.

  3. Interested post, thank you, check this out for new writing tips, enjoy.