Every now and then, I get an email from someone who’s starting a blog, or is considering starting a blog, and wants advice from me on how to go about it. I’m not quite sure why — my blog is moderately successful, but there are many others that are much more so. But asking advice is the sincerest form of flattery, and I’m always happy to be flattered.
1. Be a good writer.
You’d be amazed at how many bloggers skip this step. But it’s essential. You can hustle and plug your blog all you want, but if you’re not a good writer, people won’t come back. (Quick and dirty advice on how to be a good writer: Write as often as you can; don’t worry too much about the wording on the first draft, just spew it out and come back later to polish it; do as many revisions and rewrites as you can stand; trust your instincts but also get feedback from people whose opinions you respect.)
You don’t have to blog every day, or even almost every day. Many of my favorite bloggers only blog once or twice a week. But you do need a semi-regular schedule, and you need to stick to it unless you’re sick or traveling or dealing with an emergency or just need to take a break. (And if you are taking a break, say so on your blog.) Personally, if a blogger isn’t posting something new every week, I don’t visit very often; if a blogger hasn’t posted something in over a month, I assume that the blog is dead.
2a. On the other hand, don’t just blog for the sake of blogging.
I’d much rather visit a blog with something thoughtful and funny and insightful once or twice a week, than a blog with something thoughtful and funny and insightful once or twice a week and a bunch of pointless filler three times a day. If you don’t have anything to say, don’t say it.
It’s a shame, but people simply do not have the same patience to stick with a long piece online that they’d have with a book or a magazine article. There are different theories about why this is: some people say it’s the light from the computer screen; others say it’s the lower resolution of a screen as compared to the printed page; others say it’s just a different set of expectations that people have about the speed of the electronic world.
I’m a bit reluctant to share this piece of advice. The extensive use of images has become one of my blog’s distinctive signatures, and if everyone started doing it I’d lose my edge. But honestly, I don’t know why more bloggers don’t do this. Especially the bloggers who are writing longer pieces (see #3 above). You don’t have to go as crazy with the pictures as I do… but the use of images can liven up a text-heavy medium and keep people reading. And this is especially true in a longer piece. With a long piece of online writing, images make it much easier on the eyes, and much easier to stick with it to the end. (You can get copyright- free images from Wikimedia Commons and Stock Exchange.)
5. Be prepared for it to take time.
I guess this is just another way of saying what I said in #2. But what I’m really trying to say here is: Make a plan for how you’re going to find the time to blog. Think about what you’re doing in your life that you can drop. Do you really need to read the whole Sports section every day? Watch “Law and Order” reruns? Go shoe-shopping? Get eight hours of sleep every night? See your friends and family?
Your best source of readers, other than your immediate circle of friends and family, is (a) other bloggers, and (b) people who are already reading blogs. So visit other blogs and comment on them. Mention other blogs in your own blog posts, and link to them. Keep a blogroll, and keep it up to date. The number one way that I drew traffic to my blog in the early days was simply to go into other blogs and write comments. (I wasn’t doing it on purpose to draw traffic, btw; it just turned out that way.) Most blogs give you the option of including your URL with your comment, and if people like your comments, they’ll come check you out.
This is a big breach of blog etiquette, and will turn people off very quickly. Your comments in other blogs should really be about, you know, whatever’s being discussed in that blog. Obvious self-linkage is like spending an entire party handing out business cards: you won’t have much fun at the party, and everyone’s going to think you’re a jerk.
7. Be willing to engage in conversations with commenters… but also be willing to drop pointless arguments with trolls.
I have a very hard time with this one. Engaging in discussions and debates with readers is one of the great joys of blogging. It gives you a direct relationship with your readers that few other formats offer you as a writer. And more than once I’ve found myself clarifying my thinking or changing my mind based on conversations and arguments with commenters.
8. Have a theme — but don’t stick to it like glue.
This is probably less important than my other pieces of advice. But personally, I’m not a big fan of the “What Pat thinks about everything in the world” mish-mash sort of blog. Unless Pat is an astonishingly good writer, that is (or a friend or family member I just personally want to keep up with). I can come up with my own thoughts and feelings about everything in the world, thank you very much. I don’t have much motivation to read someone else’s random musings.
On the other hand, if a blog is too focused on just one topic — just atheism, just sex, just politics — that can get a little repetitive. So mix it up a little. Even largely single-topic blogs like Daylight Atheism and Friendly Atheist get into side topics: politics, pop culture, philosophy, life in general. Some blogs get away with a very single-minded focus — Cute Overload, for instance, does great with “just photos and videos of cute animals” — but in general, a little variety is very helpful.