Sunday, November 18, 2012

How to Succeed at Blogging

In this post I provide five rules for successful blogging.  This is not a post about how to be a wildly popular blogger, or a successful writer.  I don’t know how to do those things.

Rule #1 – Define success carefully

Consider the following Motivational Poster.

When’s the last time you encountered an unsuccessful housecat?  And if you decide a housecat is unsuccessful, you think that cat cares?  Have you ever encountered a depressed housecat?  Of course not.  (“Wait,” you may protest.  “My cat sleeps all the time—isn’t that a sign of depression?”  No, your cat is not sleeping because she’s depressed.  She’s sleeping because she’s a cat.)

My definition of a successful blog is one that shows up for work:  that is, a blog that’s updated regularly.  This might sound easy, but it’s obviously not.  My Blogger dashboard is like the damn obituaries.  To paraphrase Woody Allen, a blog is like a shark:  it has to move forward constantly or it’ll die … and what we got here is a lot of dead sharks.  Here’s a list of how long it’s been, for five of the blogs I follow, since the last post:  1 year ago, 9 months ago, 1 year ago, 10 months ago, 1 year ago.  Unfulfilled good intentions might not be the saddest thing on Earth, but it’s on the list.

Using this definition of success, my best advice is to set a goal for number of posts in a month, and commit to it.  No matter how much you have to reach for that next post, get it done and your blog won’t wither on the vine.  Of course, this is no easy feat, which is where the other rules come in.

Rule #2 – Know what you want

I’m guessing that most moribund blogs are the result of their creators getting discouraged.  I can’t blame them.  It can feel like you’re blogging into a void.  People don’t comment very often; about half of my 179 posts haven’t received a single comment.  But lack of comments doesn’t mean nobody is reading your stuff.  Lots of people are shy, and lots more struggle with typing in the unreadable codes that Blogger challenges them to type in (which is to keep robot spammers from taking over).  I get half of one percent as many comments as pageviews, and not all the comments are positive.  (One commenter wrote, below my Cowboy Sam post, “You have ruined all my wonderful childhood memories. Thanks.”  This may have been tongue-in-cheek, but the next comment, voicing agreement, certainly wasn’t.)

My point is this:  you shouldn’t look for any encouragement from your readers, if you even have any.  Who do you think you are, a writer?  Of course not.  If you were a writer, you wouldn’t be a blogger.

Okay, now I’ve hurt some feelings.  I didn’t mean to.  Let’s take a moment to define what a writer is, vs. a blogger, and situate you properly.  That might really help when it comes to fighting off discouragement.

A writer, for the purposes of this discussion, is somebody who writes for a living.  For him, writing is not just a hobby; it literally pays the bills (unless he has some crappy minimal job that lets him write all night and/or gives him material).  By definition, a writer is willing to make sacrifices.  He will tolerate poverty; will forego time with his family (or having one at all); will face the fear of total failure of his dream and his livelihood; and will humbly make changes to his stories or articles to please his editor or his market.  (Yes, I’m aware many writers are women.  I tried to do “he or she” and “his or her” but that became even more cumbersome than this parenthetical aside.)

A blogger, in this context, is somebody who wants to write but isn’t trying to make a career of it, and is unwilling to make the sacrifices a writer will make.  (I guess there are paid bloggers too but as I see it, they’re basically writers.)

Consider this schematic:

I believe that covers everybody:  all of humanity falls into category A, B, C, or D above.  Here are the categories:

A – Great writer and/or miserable failure
B – Hack or failed hack
C – Person who doesn’t write and is completely fine with that
D – Blogger

You might be surprised by my assertion that category B exists.  Isn’t somebody who wants to be a writer also somebody who wants to write?  By definition?

Well, not my definition.  I hold the sacred act of writing to a higher standard.  To me, wanting to write means writing well, which means reading constantly and widely, studying how great writers write, reading like a writer, loving language, working really hard to get the words just right, and always striving to satisfy that burning desire to produce the most honest rendition of your idea you can. 

It’s not hard to find examples of fairly successful writers who have no use for reading widely, writing well, and/or pursuing truth.  Within these pages I’ve criticized three such writers:  herehere, and here.  I disagree not just with what these three have written, but with how they approach their work.  They’re being sensational and shocking, without seeking the greater truth that, they may well realize, might tamp down their articles and make them seem less bold.

The above poster doesn’t reflect deep searching and the greatest heights of the craft of writing.  In fact, it’s pretty sensational.  But it was penned by my daughter when she was only five.  Let’s cut her some slack.

Moving on to category D:  yes, it is true that although I want to write, I don’t want to be a writer.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to be a writer, if somebody came to me and said, “I’d like to pay you big money to write whatever you want, and I’ll make sure it gets widely promoted, and if things go well you’ll soon have your own staff of gofers and cooks and geishas.”  But when push comes to shove, I’m just not willing to make the sacrifices real writers make.  So I blog.

Because blogging doesn’t pay anything, we bloggers are the literary equivalent of street mimes or graffiti artists.  Except that we don’t disturb the peace.  Imagine if a big city set aside certain small quiet neighborhoods for these mimes and graffitists to discreetly do their thing.  Well, that’s the blogosphere.  It’s a place to do our work, taking advantage of the infinite Internet.  Sure, we don’t have a huge subscriber base, but the flip side of this obscurity is that we don’t have to force-fit our big square posts into the tiny round holes that an editor and a market would give us.

(I guess there’s a related category: people who don’t want to write, and yet want to reach an audience.  They do Facebook and/or send off-the-cuff tweets like “Check out this TwitPic of me sitting here tweeting!” and “Just got off the toilet … am reminded of @FatBastard when he says, ‘Wait!  I didn’t eat any corn!’”)

Perhaps if you see your blogging in this context, and have modest goals like getting more practice writing, and having a free offsite server on which to store backups of your work, you’ll more easily accept the fact you’re not famous yet, and won’t be as liable to ask, “What the hell’s the point, anyway?”  Go easy on yourself, and hang in there!

(That poster has confused some people.  It’s a photo I shot by accident while crashing my bike.  The point of the picture is that, despite the fact that my bike is pointing at the sky, I’m still holding on to the bars with the non-camera hand as if I could save it.  No, I didn’t manage to, but it wasn’t a bad crash.  I was climbing a 14-percent grade, at walking speed, when it happened.)

Rule #3:  Know your audience

One of the great things about being a blogger is not having to answer to anybody (see above), and not having to “deliver an audience” (i.e., write something that will please a target group selected by advertisers).  The downside of this is that is that you get no guidance, and have no idea who is reading your blog, and what he or she thinks of it.

That’s where friends come in.  Advice from friends has given me my blogging manta:  screw the reader.  For once I think it makes sense to only listen to what you want to hear.  (Remember, we’re trying not to get discouraged.)  In my case, input of the non-praise variety usually takes the form of an apology:  “I tried to read your post but it was too long.”  To the last guy who said that, I replied, “You might try Ritalin for that.”  There’s this idea that the Internet reader has a shorter attention span than traditional readers.  Well, that may be, but I’m not going to cater to such intellectual frailty.

I once got even more pointed advice, when a writers’ group, comprising journalists and recovering journalists, let me attend one of their meetings.  At least one or two of them didn’t manage to have anything written for the meeting.  Most of them didn’t read my submission to the end; it was about four pages, single-spaced.  One of the writers ostentatiously waved my printout in my face and said, “Don’t give us this”—here he ripped the last two pages off and dropped them to the floor—“give us this!”  I didn’t know what to say.  I was stunned, thinking, “Who are you?  What are you?”

I was reminded of when I submitted the first installment of my senior thesis to my college advisor.  We met in his office to discuss it.  He waved the pages in my face and said, “Look, you’ve got a good close reading of the text.  Don’t ruin it with this.”  Did I blow him off, too?  Of course not—my grade was on the line.  If he’d told me to write about Maxine Hong Kingston (with whom he was having a feud) instead of Vladimir Nabokov, I’d have done it.  If he told me to change my topic to “Why Ms. Kingston is the self-appointed pope of PC and her paycheck is rightfully mine,” I’d have obeyed, even if the resulting paper went completely against my own beliefs.  But that was college.  As a blogger, I don’t have to take that kind of “advice.”

That said, I can’t blame those professional writers for finding my work self-indulgent and verbose.  Expanding on my previous analogy, I was like a street mime crashing an aerobics class.  Journalistic training teaches you to get to the point in the first few sentences, and keep everything nice and short.  That’s fine if the main purpose of your piece is to inform rather than enlighten.  (I might not have this exactly right; I suspect the main purpose is actually to create a body of print that can be stuffed with ads.)

I think you should consider your blog’s audience to be the kind of person who reads what you want to write.  If you love really short stuff, write it.  If you love fiction, write that.  If you like a lot of pictures, include them.  Look, you can’t bend over backwards for a reader you’ll never meet, so you might as well please yourself. 

I’ve written things I didn’t expect a living soul to read, such as How to Write a Sonnet.  That post had a completely over-the-top 500-word introduction which I thought about shortening, before deciding that the long intro wouldn’t put off the kind of nerd who might actually have the patience to learn how to write in iambic pentameter.  I didn’t let it bother me that this hypothetical audience might consist of somewhere between zero and five people.  And as it turned out, it’s become my second most popular post ever, and (despite being over two years old) got more hits last week than any other post.

One caveat to this “audience of you” principle:  don’t pull a reverse-Woody.  I’m coining a term here based on the Woody Allen quip, “The good thing about being bisexual is that it doubles your chance of a date on a Saturday night.”  A reverse-Woody is when you alienate half your potential audience by being overtly political, or sexist, or otherwise bigoted.

Rule #4 – Develop a system for your writing

Getting back to the main characteristic of a successful blog—consistency—let’s spend a moment on how to ensure you’ll make the time to write.  To some degree this is just a matter of priorities—after all, people seem to find plenty of time for TV.  But I think part of the struggle is that unlike simpler forms of expression like Facebook, texting, and tweeting, real writing requires large chunks of time, without distractions.

I can’t recommend a specific system because everybody’s life is different.  But I’ll describe my technique as an example.  I try to brainstorm ideas all the time, whenever I have unoccupied moments, by pondering things.  (Obviously it helps if you’re not always pitching yourself face-first into TV, smartphone games, “Us” magazine, crosswords, or Sudokus.)  Once I have an idea, I do a lot of pre-writing work by popping a No-Doz and going for a good hard bike ride with lots of steep climbs I can zone out on.  Between the adrenaline, endorphins, increased circulation, and caffeine, I get a whole lot of ideas for the essay.  No idea, under these expansive circumstances, seems weak or stupid or lame; the overactive critic in my writer brain can’t get a word in edgewise.  Meanwhile, I have zero distractions (other than the descents, when I repurpose my brain for the matter at hand).

But I don’t start writing once I get home.  It’s not a great idea to write while jacked up on caffeine (or adrenaline).  (I refer you to the study of spiders on caffeine:  their spinning output was great but their webs sucked.)  Of the ideas that seemed great during the ride, at least half look pretty stupid to the calm, sober mind and have to be jettisoned.  But the other ideas, which often include a basic outline and even some fully formed sentences, can be put to use.

Exactly when to carve out time to actually write the post is a more complicated matter.  Staying up late, skipping a weekend bike ride, or skipping an episode of “Modern Family” (actually, skipping the whole series, and all other shows) also helps.  A final strategy:  I don’t ask anybody to critique the essay before I post it.  That would surely improve it, but just takes too much time.  Similarly, I don’t slave to perfect my posts; at some point I have to decide they’re good enough.  It’s just a blog, after all.

Rule #5 – Let’s be careful out there

No matter how well-maintained a blog is, it’s not a success if it violates anybody’s privacy (including the blogger’s own), embarrasses an innocent party, or in any way causes the blogger to regret what he’s posted.  (Needless to say, it’s impossible to completely remove a post; anything put on the Internet is like a tattoo.)

Here are some good questions to ask yourself before posting:  is there anybody on the planet I wouldn’t want to see this?  Could my career be affected by my boss reading this?  Could my mom be offended by it?  Have I committed any reverse-Woodies?  If I ever ran for public office, would anything on my blog lend itself to compelling attack ads by political opponents?

This doesn’t mean your post needs to be defanged—you should just be aware of what you’re getting into.  Consider my post on Doping Journalists, and “Un-Boosting,” in which I suggest that the writer Andrew Tillin is an out-of-touch, self-absorbed jerk.  When I sent a link to that post to a friend of mine, who is well-connected in journalistic circles, he replied, “I sent that to Tillin!!”  Whether he was joking or not (I suspect he wasn’t), I didn’t gasp in horror.  I’d already considered the prospect of Tillin googling himself and finding my article, and if I hadn’t accepted the idea of going toe-to-toe with him I’d have toned down the piece before posting it.

Don’t want to blog?

Fine, don’t.  There are plenty of us out here already, and besides, all the best writing is found in books anyway.

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