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Dec 28 2012

Some random thoughts on blogging

A bit of a brag here: this blog just passed the million hits mark at FTB (technically, I got a million cumulative hits a few months back), and insofar as that makes this a “successful blog” or something, this advice may be helpful.

Freethought blogs has just gone through its third round of a formal screening and recruitment process, a process that I have had a role in designing and implementing. One of the common questions I see asked when we’ve announced that this blog or that blog has been invited to join us is a (usually friendly) inquiry into how blogs get chosen. This usually takes the form of “I sure would have liked to be selected. What do you have to do to get the attention of _________?” I have fielded a couple of times, and I know other people get this more often, questions from people who want to know how to make their blog successful or how to ‘get hits’ or whatever. What follows is a handful of opinions on blogging that I’ve developed over the past couple of years.

Before I start, I want to caution anyone looking to cite me as an expert that I am, in fact, no such thing. I have run two blogs in my life, only one of which went anywhere outside of my immediate circle of friends. The one that ‘made it’ (insofar as being on FTB is ‘making it’, which is arguable) is still not anything like a runaway success. Even within the small pool of FTBers, I am hardly the top when it comes to traffic or name recognition. However, having talked to other bloggers who are more well-trafficked and having listened to what they say, I don’t think my advice is too far outside the apparent consensus.

Okay…

1 – Write the kind of blog you’d want to read

Why are you reading this blog? I mean that sincerely – what is it about The Crommunist Manifesto that makes you come back more than once? Some of you are regular readers/commenters, and I presume there’s a reason for that. I’m not going to bother speculating on what that is, but what I will say is that whatever makes this blog worth your time is something that you’re going to want to make a feature of your own blogging.

So if you like the subject matter, then focus on that. If you like the post length, emulate it. If you think the tone works, use it. And if you think the writing has a certain quality, then…

2 – Steal, Steal, Steal

There’s a famous saying among writers: “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal outright”. I don’t know who said it, but it doesn’t matter. You know what? Fuck it. I said it (or at least I followed the advice well enough to steal it outright). The point is that it takes time, effort, and practice to develop your unique voice as a writer. This is also true for bloggers, but since we’re bloggers, this means we don’t have the time or effort or discipline to become real writers. So you should find a writer you like, and you should steal from them. Preferably, find 3 or 4, and then ape their style – they way they put together sentences, the way they use punctuation, the way they lay out their ideas, their humour, whatever it is you like about them. Over time, you will learn to develop your own cadence, but until that happens, there’s always larceny.

3 – Frequency

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve come across a blog post that I really liked by an author who hasn’t written anything else for a month on either side of it. There are a number of blogs I used to follow that I just gave up on because their posting was too infrequent and irregular. Yes, I know about the existence of RSS feeds, but that’s not the point. I want to engage with a blogger’s ideas, I want to be able to see their thought process, and yes, I want to know when I can expect to hear from them again. Frankly, if you don’t show me that you care about your ideas enough to put something out at least once a week… meh.

4 – Distinctiveness

This one is… debatable. There are a lot of topics out there that people have written a lot about. That being said, if you’re passionate about something – astronomy, alt-med, cats, whatever – then your passion is going to show in your writing. Plus, there are lots of things out there that you may have heard a lot about, but others haven’t. Astrology is a good example, or psychics – it’s not necessarily widely-known how exploitative and ridiculous some of the scammers out there are. Talking about them, even though others have already, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

That being said, if your goal is to ‘get noticed’, then you have to do something that separates you from the pack. Being ‘a good writer’*, frankly, isn’t enough. You have to have something interesting and innovative to say. Your voice either has to be one that is largely under-represented, or you have to find a new way to explain an old idea. Bonus points of course go to those who can manage both.

5 – Find an Audience of One

This is not so much its own point as it is the summary of the previous four. Starting and maintaining a blog is thankless work. It’s always going to require too much effort, and yield too few rewards. There will never be enough traffic, you will never get well-known enough, and the accolades will never be sufficient. You have to be blogging because you have to, not because you want to (because believe you me, sometimes you really won’t want to). Accordingly, you’ve got to make sure that you are satisfied with what what you’re saying and doing. Write for yourself, and ignore both those who insult and those who flatter. Be satisfied with what you’re writing – everything else is just a distraction.

So in other words, there is no way to guarantee you will get noticed, but there are a lot of ways to make sure you get overlooked.

*I personally don’t think this exists. There is effective writing and ineffective writing, but the rest is just personal taste.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Anthony K

    Yeah, it’s the nuggets like this:

    There’s a famous saying among writers: “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal outright”. I don’t know who said it, but it doesn’t matter. You know what? Fuck it. I said it (or at least I followed the advice well enough to steal it outright).

    …that keep me coming back here.

    Lucid, thoughtful, plus funny gets me every time.

  2. 2
    Adam Lee

    Since this is a meta-post, I hope it’s OK to leave a meta-comment!

  3. 3
    Adam Lee

    OK, that last one was a test, let me try something more substantive.

    To follow up on point #3 above, one of the better ways to get noticed is to build a well-organized, well-tagged corpus of work, and when you write a new post, link to something relevant you’ve said previously on the topic. It gives your writing more depth, and makes it easier for new readers who find you to get a sense of what your blog is about by wandering from link to link. For the same reason, I also favor having an easily accessible list of “favorite” posts on your sidebar.

  4. 4
    jose

    I’m pretty sure it was Stravinsky who said the stealing thing. But nobody before you said it regarding blogs :D

    Agree on everything except the frequency part. I have this and this on Firefox’s live bookmarks. The authors are irregular but whenever there’s a new post up, it’s like a special treat. Of course you need to be very good and very unique to get to do that. But bloggers should try to be so, right?

  5. 5
    grumpyoldfart

    I’ve been writing an atheist blog since February 2012 and so far my 171 posts have had 1,400 hits – almost all of them from Search Engine web crawlers. At this rate I should clock up one million hits in about 700 years from now

    :)

  6. 6
    Jacques Rousseau

    Regarding point 2, above, the advice is often attributed to this:

    “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” – T.S. Eliot, 1920, from his essay entitled “Philip Massinger”.

  7. 7
    noelplum99

    Well done on hitting a million hits.

    i don’t write a blog but this seems a reasonable list.
    Ofc there is probably always something extra that can be done if your only goal is traffic but I think then you lose the joy of any milestones that you do manage to achieve. Definitely there is something nice to have gotten somewhere on the back of talking about what it is you actually have an interest in which appears to be where you are at so good job!

    Jim

  8. 8
    julian

    Frankly, if you don’t show me that you care about your ideas enough to put something out at least once a week… meh.

    I dunno. That’s never been a big thing to me. I follow webcomics that update maybe once a month and bloggers that blog once every new moon. And I’m cool with that. Sometimes you don’t wanna write, sometimes you can’t do it justice quite yet. I’m ok with that. I’d rather read 5000 words straight through than 10 posts of 500 each. The longer post puts everything in the same tab for me :)

  9. 9
    Anonymous Atheist

    grumpyoldfart – If you’d link to your blog using the ‘website’ field when you post comments on other people’s blogs, maybe you could build a bit larger audience. :)

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