Pontificating on how to blog

Several people I know have started blogs lately. Conversations with them have reminded me of a few things. I’m far from an A-list blogger, and was never anything more than an E- or F-list guy. At my peak, I got about 2,000 page views per day, but I’m a ways from that now. All I can say now is that I’ve been doing it 11 years. Some people have been blogging longer than me, but not a lot.

Oddly enough, 11 things about blogging came to mind. One for each year?

1. What do you have to say that nobody else is saying? In 1997-98, I had a series of conversations with Bart Larson, a photographer and author who had once worked with the prolific Christian author Josh McDowell. McDowell writes, on average, five books a year.

At the time, Bart hadn’t published anything in years. I asked him why, and his one-sentence answer was some of the best advice I’ll ever get. He simply said he didn’t have anything to say at the time that other people weren’t already saying, and he would write again if and when he did.

I’ve heard more than one person say that nobody cares what they have to say about anything. That matters less than whether anyone else is saying it.

2. Write it down. Some days you have more ideas than time. Some days you have time but no ideas. So record those ideas somewhere, so you can come back to them when writer’s block hits.

3. Save drafts. Even if they’re sketchy, you can come back and fill in the blanks on a slow day. Jot down some fragments, some links, whatever it takes to jog your memory later, and whatever you have the time and energy to do. Don’t worry if your heart’s just not in it now. There will come a time when you have no ideas, and if it’s still a good idea, you’ll be a whole lot more motivated to finish it. I was amused when I read that Rob O’Hara does this same thing. When a method works, multiple people are likely to stumble onto it.

4. Pay attention to your search logs. What people are looking for and what they get when they land on your site can be two different things. WordPress tells you what people are searching for and what they’re actually reading.

Sometimes it’s clear that what you wrote isn’t exactly what they were looking for. If you know something about what they were actually looking for, go write that piece. And I would say the sooner the better, since you know people are looking for it. If people are clicking on something that’s barely relevant, that’s a good sign nobody else is writing about it either. (See point #1.)

Of course, you have to have some existing content before you’ll get any useful Google hits–it could take months or even years–and it’s a well that eventually will run dry, but it’s a good feeling to be writing something that you already know people are interested in.

5. Don’t try to be anyone else. I won’t name names, but I once knew a guy who thought himself a world-class author and he complained to me, fairly frequently, about how inferior his coauthors were. I read some of his coauthors’ unedited manuscripts, and truthfully, they weren’t all that bad. They just didn’t sound like him. And the problem with him was I could tell exactly who his favorite authors were because he stole their pet phrases, and used them more often than his idols did.

We all steal pet phrases and expressions from somewhere: the books we read, the people around us, the music we listen to. Sometimes you can tell where an author grew up based on the expressions they use. When it’s natural, it’s what makes us distinctive. When it’s forced, we just sound like wannabes.

I can say over and over again something is pants, but it won’t sound right. I’m from Missouri, and Missourians don’t talk that way.

6. Leave yourself some topical wiggle room. I write about things today that I never would have imagined myself writing about in 1999 when I started. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not that I’ve really changed all that much, but 11 years is a long time for, at the very least, latent interests to bubble back up.

I can think of some single-topic sites that I used to go out of my way to visit every day, but after a couple of years, they’ve grown a bit stale. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve learned all I’m going to learn from them, or if the author has lost something. Maybe it’s a bit of both.

Being able to change topics up occasionally helps you stay fresh and relevant.

7. Topical organization can be a good thing. An acquaintance recently launched a site about his favorite hobby. After a couple of weeks, he fell into themes for most days. On Fridays, he photographs and writes about one thing. On Sundays, he photographs and writes about something else.

I’m not sure that’s an idea for everyone, but given the nature of his work, I think it will work well for him. It will help him organize his ideas, and he’s been at this a short enough time that right now he probably has more ideas than he knows what to do with.

It could be that in five or six years, his themed days will box him in. But let’s face it. Most people burn out long before then. He can change course if he feels boxed in. In the meantime, this makes it harder for him to lose ideas permanently. Even if he does lose an idea, at some point he’ll remember it when the theme comes back around again. Especially if it’s a good idea.

8. You’re not going to hit it out of the park every time. This is the hardest thing to deal with. Sometimes what resonates with you just doesn’t get very far with everyone else.

But then again, if you don’t try, you’ll never hit any home runs at all.

To carry the baseball cliche even further, Hank Aaron batted 13,940 times and hit 755 home runs. That 5% of the time is what he’s remembered for.

And what if your nickname was “Home Run?” That was Frank Baker’s nickname. He batted 6,660 times in his professional career. He hit 96 home runs. That’s 1.5 percent of the time. I hope you’ll be more like Hank Aaron than Home Run Baker.

Writing’s a lot like baseball in that regard, though the money usually isn’t nearly as good. Which leads me to…

9. You’re not going to get rich doing this. Most professional authors don’t make any more writing than they would make working a desk job like most other people. They write because they’d rather do that than work a structured desk job.

The difference between working online and working on paper is mostly overhead.

I know of a guy who writes a lot about selling digital media. You know, e-books and the like. From reading his web pages, you’d get the impression he has a license to print money, and if you act now and buy his e-books about making e-books, he’ll let you in on it too.

Since I know some people who know him, I know the rest of the story. He has a day job. He makes a few dollars a day off his digital products. It’s strictly a side gig for him.

So don’t buy the hype. Write for enjoyment. Write to promote the things you enjoy. Write for a bit of pocket money. But don’t expect to retire off it. Don’t even expect to write your way into a house or a car.

And in the case of the people who have gone pro and who pull in enough to make a decent living, it seems to me that sometimes the need to pull in revenue to pay the bills gets in the way. Maybe they’re writing what they think will pay the bills more than what they really want to write. Maybe it’s something else.

As for those guys who claim to be making 6-figure incomes off blogging? They’re either lying, or doing a lot of shady stuff. There’s no easy way into a six-figure income.

10. Read this book. All it takes to be a good writer is to have something to say, and to follow the rules. You have to come up with something to say, but rules can be taught.

The best book ever written about writing is a slim volume called The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. The 4th edition is 105 pages. It’s not a bad idea to read it once a year, and refer to it when you have questions.

Jerry Pournelle has said time and again that after you write a million words, you know enough to throw some rules out the window. And no two great authors break the rules in exactly the same way. That’s what makes them distinctive. And that goes back to #5. But don’t try to cheat your way to get there. In case you’re wondering, my best estimate is that I’ve written an average of 100,000 words per year since age 18. Some ended up in print, some ended up here, and some are lost forever.

11. And above all else, just write. If you’re serious, you should write pretty much every day. That doesn’t mean you necessarily need to post every day.

If what you write on a given day seems like junk, save it as a draft, sleep on it, and come back to see if it’s salvageable. If not, toss it.

And sometimes you just need to go in depth a bit. Given the choice between spending one day’s worth of writing on a mediocre piece and two or three days doing a better job, you’re usually better off spending the extra time. After all, it’s going to sit out there for years, and in five years, nobody’s going to care how much time it took to write and post it. They’re just going to care about whether you answered their question. If the answer is yes, there’s a small chance you’ve gained a reader. If the answer is no, there’s a much smaller chance of you gaining one.

Back when I was first starting out, I faced tremendous pressure to post something every day. That wasn’t exactly realistic. And out of curiosity, recently I checked on those people who used to complain if I didn’t post every day. None of them are posting every day anymore either. Some haven’t posted a single thing in years.  I guess they eventually figured it out too.

Lately, I have been posting on a daily basis. I’ll ride that wave while it lasts. I don’t expect it to last forever, and that’s OK.

4 thoughts on “Pontificating on how to blog

  • November 22, 2010 at 9:08 pm
    Permalink

    Great list. It echoes some of my thoughts. (That’s not what makes it great – it’s great on its own, and overlaps with some of my thinking).

    Two things on #10:

    s/these this/this/ (unless you were intentionally posting a “Don’t do this” title)

    And I’m glad you’re still reading (or at least referencing) JerryP. I think I originally found you through a DayNotes site that he had linked to. I enjoy his writing (blog and books) and thinking. Yours, too. It seems like getting the new WordPress system unleashed a flood of posts – and that’s a good thing.

  • November 22, 2010 at 10:20 pm
    Permalink

    Thanks. As for the correction, there was a second book I was going to recommend, but it’s become crazy expensive. I didn’t completely edit it out right, as you saw.

    I could have cited any number of famous authors who’ve written about writing–Kurt Vonnegut’s short 1982 essay, “How to Write With Style,” is priceless–but Pournelle’s advice about a million words, as arbitrary as it may seem, is probably the most practical I’ve ever seen. I don’t read him as much as I used to because the topics he covers don’t overlap much with my 9-to-5 job anymore. But he’s an influence.

    And I just searched on that Vonnegut essay, and I sure echoed him a lot in here too–particularly #5, though I didn’t cite him directly.

    WordPress has certainly made things easier. Posting content and formatting it well is much easier now, and its Dashboard makes it easy to see what people are reading, which makes finding inspiration much easier on those days that inspiration doesn’t find you. I think it’s usually best when inspiration finds you, but knowing where to find it keeps things going in the meantime.

  • November 23, 2010 at 12:48 am
    Permalink

    Regarding #9, that wouldn’t be Francis Hamit, by any chance? 🙂

    • November 23, 2010 at 6:46 pm
      Permalink

      Nope, I don’t know that name. There do seem to be several people selling that kind of thing though, using mostly the same formula, inside whatever particular niche they know about.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this:
WordPress Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux