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May 31 2008

Greta’s Largely Unsolicited Advice on Blogging

Computer keyboard
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.

So I thought I’d write up my advice on blogging here, so the next time I get one of these inquiries I can just send them the link. This advice isn’t meant to be definitive, btw; it’s just what’s worked for me, and since some people have asked I figured I might as well answer. Other readers — especially other bloggers — please feel free to add your two cents in the comments.
UnderwoodKeyboard
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.)

Calendar
2. Blog regularly.

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.

Computer_monitor
3. Keep it brief.

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.

But whatever the reason is, it’s still true. Even I give up and move on if I see that a blog post or online article is going on for pages and pages. And I should know better. I’m a writer who often likes to write long-format pieces, and recognizes the value of them. And I still groan and hit the Back button if I see that an online piece is very long. So keep it brief. If you want to write a longer piece, consider breaking it up into a multi-part series. (Also, make your paragraphs shorter than you would if you were writing for paper. Long stretches of unbroken text on a computer screen are very daunting.)

Digital_camera
4. Use images.

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.)

Clock
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?

Blogging take time. Blogging well takes more time. If you don’t figure out a way to set aside time for it, you’re going to find yourself either fucking up your life or writing a half-assed blog. Or both. (I personally was going the sleep- deprivation route for a while, and am convinced that it contributed to my getting pneumonia.) If you’re going to blog well, you have to make blogging something of a priority… and that means giving up something else. Think now about what that’s going to be.

Internet_cafe
6. Participate in the blogosphere.

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.

And take part in blog carnivals. Some of them are weak, but the good ones are widely read and are a good way to get your blog on the map.
6a. Do NOT, however, write comments in other blogs that are transparent efforts to draw traffic to yours.

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.

If you really have no better choice but to link to your own blog in other people’s — if, for instance, something you’ve written really is the best illustration of a point you’re making — have the decency to be a little sheepish about it. (When I self-link, I usually write something like, “Sorry about the self-linkage, but it really is relevant.” And I make damn sure that it really is relevant. And I still hardly ever do it.)

And don’t be a comment hog. Other people’s blogs are not all about you.

Duty_calls
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.

But I’ve also more than once let myself get sucked into stupid, pointless arguments with people who weren’t worth arguing with; bigots, sloppy thinkers, people who were just trolling for a fight. It’s hard to let stupidity and injustice go by without responding to it, and it’s easy to fall prey to the “someone is wrong on the Internet” phenomenon. But sometimes you have to bite the bullet.

Here’s the thing. Comment threads are part of the time commitment you make to your blog. But part of your time management involves deciding which threads are worth pursuing and which ones need to be dropped. I’m not a very good role model in this department, so this is sort of a case of “do as I say, not as I do”… but I’m working on it.
Glue
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.

The blogs I like best tend to focus on one or two main themes — science and atheism, for instance, or sex and politics — and explore them in depth. But they also stray into other topics near and dear to the blogger’s heart, like sewing or cephalopods. (I think of my own blog as being primarily about atheism and sex, with a fair smattering of politics and occasional forays into whatever’s on my mind that day.) A primary theme or two offers readers a hook; variations away from those themes keep both you and your readers from getting bored.

Patience
9. Be patient.

When I first started blogging, I was getting, I don’t know, maybe 100 hits a day. Maybe less. I’m not sure, since I didn’t figure out how to check my stats until embarrassingly late in my blogging career… but it was very slim, and for several months I felt like I was whistling into the wind. I got almost no comments, and the ones I got mostly came from my ICFF (Immediate Circle of Family and Friends).

So be patient. Keep plugging away, and give it time. If your blog is good, and you do a decent job of getting it into the blogosphere, people will come. Stick with it, and have fun.

I’m sure there’s more I should be saying. Stuff about Technorati and Digg; stuff about using feeds; advice on giving your blog a snappy name (which I’m clearly not competent to give); pieces of netiquette that should be obvious but often aren’t. But I’m going to take my own “Be brief” advice and leave it at that. If anyone else has anything to add, I’d be very interested to see it.

25 comments

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  1. 1
    David Harmon

    My #10 would be: If you allow comments, you need to moderate them, or the trolls will shit all over you and your blog.
    My paragon here is Teresa Nielsen Hayden, best known for Making Light, but lately also a moderator at Boing Boing. (Since there’s no links allowed, I refer readers to Google. You (Greta) already know her.) Some things I’ve learned from watching her:
    Each comment thread is almost a new forum. Topic drift isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it can sharply change the character of your blog, and if you want to avoid it, you need to respond to it.
    More of a problem are both “drive-by” and “regular” trolls, who specifically want to change the topic to them, and generally abuse the forums. Even your normally well-behaved regulars can sometimes get out of hand, especially if their personal buttons are pushed (often by a troll).
    Gentle chidings can do a lot, but if you really want to keep things on topic, you’ll need to outright squelch some comments, even from regulars, and you can’t be afraid to ban major offenders. For that matter, you need to do that if you just want the discussion to stay civil!
    Teresa’s big invention for moderators is “disemvowelling”, which defuses abusive or out-of-line comments without making them disappear entirely. That’s a quite valuable tool for delivering a “whack upside the head” without actually banning someone — so don’t be afraid to do it to a regular’s comment, if they’re off the rails!
    On the other hand, longtime repeat offenders, sock-puppeteers, and outright trolls in general should be banned, and if they sneak back under another name, you ban their IP address. If you don’t, they’ll just keep coming back with sharper knives….

  2. 2
    Erin M

    This is all very good advice for the budding blogger (sounds like a zoology exhibit, doesn’t it?). Thanks for taking the time to share your experience.

  3. 3
    cl

    You provided ideas on a few things for me here.
    Images – I was initially against them on my blogs. The original reason was I thought for the most part, they can detract from the argument at hand, and even worse, if we’re not careful, our use of images can lend itself to caricature. On the other hand, a well-placed diagram in a post about cosmic microwave background radiation might be helpful, and as you say images provide welcome respite from long pieces. My problem was that I loved argumentation-type pieces and did not want to detract from them, but, the right image could also add to an argument as well. I also wanted to include my photography and friends’ art in posts, or even some random, funny scrap of paper I might find in the TL.
    I recently handled this by splitting into two blogs. Originally, the first blog’s focus was on my creative writing and lighter stuff, along with some arguments pertaining to religion, science and society – but these began to overrun its theme. A piece about sangria-cide might sound out of place between critiques of ontological arguments, and since I’m also (if not primarily) a creative writer, to me the split was necessary. If you have any positives or negatives to add about if and when to split a blog, that would be helpful.
    Also, related to etiquette, is it rude to politely and professionally critique another blogger’s argument (but obviously not the blogger themselves) in a post of your own? Should you name them, link to them or leave them anonymous and just cite their words? If you do critique their argument, should you tell them so they might offer a response?
    Great post btw.

  4. 4
    TheBrummell

    This is good stuff. Thanks for putting it up.
    Under images…
    “But honestly, I don’t know why more bloggers don’t do this.”
    I don’t know about typepad, but Blogger is much more difficult about images than it should be. Putting images into a post is relatively easy; putting them in the post exactly where you want them, without mangling the formatting everywhere else in the post is rather difficult. It’s a software engineering problem. As a bit of an aside: do you write your posts in some other program (MS Word, for example) then copy them into your blog? Or do you write directly on-line?

  5. 5
    Ebonmuse

    I just want to emphasize Greta’s first point, because I think it’s so important. A great deal of blogging advice can be distilled down to just this:
    Regardless of whether you participate in social bookmarking sites or link exchanges, or liven up your site with whiz-bang themes or flashy bells and whistles, content is still king. If you have something unique and interesting to say, you will find an audience. If you write informative, well-thought-out, well-written posts, and if you do so on at least a semi-regular basis, you will get noticed. It takes time and dedication, but it will happen.
    Of course, there are some things you can do to speed up the process. Participating in carnivals, leaving thoughtful comments on other blogs, sending trackbacks, e-mailing popular bloggers when you’ve written things you think they might be interested in – these things are part of being a good citizen of the blogosphere, and they do help get your name out there. But personally, I find that one of the most reliable sources of traffic is people doing Google searches and coming across something relevant I’ve written. In that respect, the more you write, the higher your stats will be, since you’ll have a greater corpus of work that’s likely to snag someone who’s interested in a particular topic, and hopefully that person will take a look around, find other things on your site that they like and become a regular reader. It goes back to the whole “time and dedication” thing.
    cl: I don’t think it’s at all rude to criticize another’s argument in a post of your own. If anything, I find it’s usually better to spin the debate off into a post on your own site rather than wage it in the initial comment thread. And by all means, link to the miscreant! The HTTP format makes linking back very easy, and we should take advantage of that. Give your readers the option to find the initial post so they can read it in the author’s own words and decide who makes more sense. To my mind, criticizing someone without naming them or linking to them is a kind of cowardice; it implies that you don’t want people to see the original because they might find it persuasive. Much better to show that you have nothing to hide from a fair comparison.

  6. 6
    cl

    @ Ebonmuse,
    “To my mind, criticizing someone without naming them or linking to them is a kind of cowardice; it implies that you don’t want people to see the original because they might find it persuasive. Much better to show that you have nothing to hide from a fair comparison.”
    I agree. I did in fact link to the person. But since I’ve had some touchy comment issues with the person before, I was also concerned about being labeled an instigator, when the reality of the issue is that I simply disagree on rational grounds.
    I guess my real question is, if you link to the person whose point your debating, is there a protocol that says whether you should tell that person, thus affording them the fair compliment of response?

  7. 7
    Eclectic

    David Harmon: Links are allowed. Just type in the URL.
    cl: Of course it’s reasonable to disagree on your own blog! There is such a thing as just being bitchy and posting things that would never survive moderation in a comment thread, but if you have put together an actual essay, go right ahead.
    In fact, by doing so, you’re implicitly *promoting* the blog you’re responding to by telling your readers that it’s a significant argument that deserves a significant response.
    As for telling the original author, many blogs have a “trackback” feature that provides automatic notice of links to postings, so explicit notice of is actually often superfluous and comments to that effect must be carefully done or it tends to look like a violation of 6a.
    (This is all assumes that the original blog owner is interested in dialogue. Some folks police their comments with inquisatorial zeal to stamp out heresy, in which case you have no alternative to commenting elsewhere.)

  8. 8
    cl

    @ Eclectic,
    Thanks for your thoughts! LOL at your last line..

  9. 9
    Eclectic

    Now, Greta, a question about point #1: Where does that advice to do many revisions come from? I find my writing is best when I do as FEW revisions as possible!
    I’ve learned that if I don’t write it in one pass, what comes out is hard to READ in one pass!
    Really, my rules for producing decent writing are:
    1. Think it over for a while.
    2. Bang it out in one pass. If I have to back up a bit, use the delete key and write forward again.
    3. Second pass for minor polish: punctuation, spelling, word choice. Maybe rewrite a sentence or two, but don’t attempt structural change.
    4. If it’s not good enough, throw it out and go back to step 1 for a few days.
    5. In general, the less often I have to do this, the better the quality of the final result.
    Whenever I try to rearrange the order of presentation, or go back and insert additional material, I end up making a tangled mess of my argument. The orderly progression gets lost and it degenerates into rambling.
    In other words, I used to spend a fair bit of time revising, only to realize that what I had was getting worse, not better, so I’ve learned stop wasting time and jump straight to throwing it out.
    When I’m writing straight through, it’s easy to remember what I just said and what I have not said yet. When I’m sticking material into the middle, I have two problems: first, it’s hard to keep track of what I have and have not said at that point in the presentation, and more significantly, I can never seem to make it join neatly with what follows.
    Having said that, it’s a difficulty that obviously keeps me from writing anything long, as rewrites get more likely and more time-consuming.
    Do other people have this problem, too? Are there any sources of advice on the subject?

  10. 10
    cl

    I agree with you that cut and paste can indeed be dangerous. My technique, unless purposely doing what I call a ‘freewrite’ in which I don’t even allow delete, is barf out immediate reactions, then think for a while. Then I check back to see if I still agree with my initial reactions. It is at this point I further try to clarity and better organize them, finally going over one last time for spelling and brevity concerns. I think really the differences are methodological, which means neither is right or wrong but each have distinct, but not necessarily different purposes.
    Then again, I just noted that I typed this entire reply to you in exactly the method you describe: I thought about your comment for a bit, then hammered away. I haven’t gone back or cut anything out here, so I guess this comment was written in the ‘freewrite’ tradition.
    But when composing a post I hope to be cohesive, I spend lots of time rearranging and messing with structure. But I also screenwrite where that is encouraged, so it’s all hard to say.

  11. 11
    David Harmon

    Eclectic: Yeah, I know, but my links had been stripped, I was in a bit of a hurry (posting before rushing off), and I suspect Teresa is pretty well-known to this crowd — the lauding of her virtues was mostly by way of introducing the advice on moderation.
    If anyone’s really stuck, her personal page (with hubby Patrick) is http://nielsenhayden.com/, Making Light is http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight, and Boing Boing is http://www.boingboing.net/.

  12. 12
    Oz Atheist

    Some good points Greta, I particularly like 2a.
    I often have problems with 6a, especially if I have already covered the topic, or provided and answer, some while back on my own blog. It’s so tempting to just say ‘go look at my blog’ but blog etiquette tells me not to. There needs to be more leeway on this.
    4. I’m still coming to terms with images, I tend to stick with just one, or two if it’s a long post. I actually find lots of images distracting sometimes.
    Thanks for the tips and the links to the images

  13. 13
    Benjamin

    I’d like to thank you, Greta. Not only for this valuable advice to the nascent blogger that I have become, but I wouldn’t have started it at all if it hadn’t been for you!
    I must politely disagree with your point regarding graphic images, however. While I agree that a large running column of images is a trademark of yours, I find it distracting and too much of a space eater when I read to want to incorporate it myself.
    Granted, I’m not opposed to an image or two per blog post, but no more than that.

  14. 14
    Mephit

    I’d agree with Benjamin re. the images. I think too many can make a blog cluttered and difficult to follow.
    It works for you, but it’s easy to go overboard with the bells and whistles and make a blog too vexing for the eyes.

  15. 15
    David Moisan

    I want to say something about focus. From the moment I first saw blogs (all political), I came to hate the ones that were one person ranting about everything, or one person repeating the noise machine of their choice. I’m oppositional like that.
    When I started to blog a few years ago, I had a focus. I blog about my town, and I have another blog for IT (computers, my field). They are not for national politics or what Hilary did today, or even what my mayor did, but I talk about transportation, development and disability issues that affect me. The IT blog is about specific technical stuff in my field and not necessarily about, say, “Linux vs. Windows” or “Vista blows”. I get enough hot air from the other blogs and the trade mags.
    For that reason, I don’t believe in long blogrolls. Pick your five favorites and be done with them. My Salem blogroll is other Salem sites. Sure there are many many many other things in my RSS reader but I don’t have to share them all on one webpage.
    Last suggestion: I once wanted to be a technical writer when I got out of college 20 years ago. I’ve found my IT blog to be an excellent venue for, and a real test of, my technical writing. You don’t only have to blog about politics or puppies.

  16. 16
    Brad

    Greta,
    This is merely as constructive criticism, so please don’t be offended:
    You could probably do better for yourself by taking your advice on rule #3.
    I was first attracted to this blog from your anger post that I came across through Digg. I figured it was a one-off long rant among more-reasonble-length blog posts. Though I have not unsubscribed, I usually scroll right through your posts in my reader; your posts being twice as long as any other blog amongst my 200 subscriptions, on average.
    For this reason, I’d recommend you read “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath. They advocate — and I think it’s much more important in blogs than newspapers — “don’t bury the lead.” Enticing people with a topical opener is the biggest key for posts of any length.

  17. 17
    Greta Christina

    Thanks to everyone who offered feedback and constructive criticism. I’ll definitely pay attention to these issues in the future.
    As to the discussion about critiquing someone’s blog post in your own: yes, I think that’s fine. I definitely think it’s a far better alternative than hijacking comment threads and using someone else’s blog as a place to grind your own axes. (I’m always especially suspicious when people with less-trafficked blogs spend an inordinate amount of time commenting, and getting into long involved discussions, in a blog with higher traffic. It’s like they’re piggybacking on the other blog’s popularity, essentially shoehorning their own blog into somebody else’s.)
    And I always appreciate someone dropping me a line to let me know that they’re posting about my blog on their own. (Then again, I don’t use Trackbacks.)
    To answer Eclectic: In my experience, rewriting is a HUGE part of writing well. I often catch mistakes, fuzzy ideas, poor syntax, awkward phrasing, etc. on multiple passes through a piece. (Reading a piece aloud is an important part of this — I’m actually kicking myself for not mentioning it in my original post.) And knowing that I’m going to rewrite keeps me from getting paralyzed about getting it right the first time.
    I think this is a common experience for many writers: it’s certainly an idea that’s often seen in advice on writing. But of course, your mileage may vary, and you should keep doing whatever works for you.
    And to answer TheBrummell’s question: I usually write my posts in MS Word and copy them into my blogging software. As sucky as Word is, I still find it more congenial for writing. And if, Loki forbid, something should happen to my blog or to Typepad, I still have a copy of what I wrote in Word.

  18. 18
    mandrellian

    Spot on Greta C., especially with the “keep it brief” advice – that’s the one I have the most trouble with :)

  19. 19
    C. L. Hanson

    Re: “Obvious self-linkage is like spending an entire party handing out business cards”
    A more apt metaphor would be to say that it’s like going to a party and handing out invitations to another party…
    I’ve always held that one of the greatest strengths of blogspace is the chorus of different perspectives. I follow hundreds of blogs all over the political and belief spectrum, and I make extensive notes (mental and electronic) of interesting points I find on various blogs. Then, as I’m writing a blog entry, one of the steps is usually to highlight (and link to) points on other blogs that I think would interest my readers. When I comment, I do the same thing: in addition to my immediate comment, I usually link to some related discussion (on my blog or on someone else’s). Some bloggers consider this sort of thing to be a positive contribution to the discussion, but apparently there’s some difference of opinion on the matter. I’ll make a note of your comment/linking preferences.

  20. 20
    T.D.E.

    Well hell Greta, I’ve been reading yours for about six months, and you empowered me. I went out, set it up on blogger and I am ready to go.
    Now I just need to get people to read it, and figure out that HTML stuff that I forgot from high school.
    Thanks for the empowering boost, sometimes it’s all we need to get off our butts.

  21. 21
    Cath the Canberra Cook

    Thanks for the tips! My food blog is less than a year old, but it’s already brought me some interesting new directions.
    I do keep wondering if I should write about other stuff, too. I like reading science and feminism and atheism and skepticism. There’s a lot of woo around diets and superfoods and GMO and organics – I’ve thought perhaps I could start writing about that, but I suspect that I couldn’t handle the trolls very well. I’d get too angry. How do you manage to stay calm when the idiots are abusing you?

  22. 22
    Jim Cherry

    Hi Greta!
    Very good and commonsense advice, I’m planning on implementing as much as possible. I also see I’ve fallen into your master plan!
    Jim

  23. 23
    Azkyroth

    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 think it’s largely the fact that unlike a magazine article, a webpage isn’t broken up into discrete “pages,” which seems to make it seem longer and also makes it harder to pick up where you left off.

  24. 24
    Serena Dante

    Great points. I feel like the thing I have the hardest time with is keeping my blogs brief, lol. But I blog on Xanga, and I tend to have thoughts that go against the mainstream there, which means a lot of drama caused by many of my blogs. So I want to explain very clearly what I mean by the things I say, so that I don’t have to reply to comments constantly… But that causes mile-long blog posts. What a paradox!

  25. 25
    Kevin Zimmerman

    Thanks Greta. Your post inspires me to write a bit more often. I was writing every day, but I began to resent the time that it was taking. Just as you had noted in your post about anger that you are angry that you have to know more about people’s religions than they do, I was angry that I had to spend my time countering the nonsense that my children are being taught in church each Sunday. But I’ve had lots of recent noteworthy events to write about recently, particularly associated with the American Atheist convention in Des Moines, so it’s time to get back on it. I’m just waiting on IRB approval for my dissertation study anyway… so might as well, right?
    Cheers!
    Kevin

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