This past weekend, I was honored to be one of the presenters at the Women Who Write conference. My topic was “Blogging … with Purpose.” I don’t know if a single soul got anything useful out of my talk, but no one fell asleep or walked out midway through, so as far as I am concerned, it was a success.
Now, I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert on blogging. I was very up front with the organizers about that little detail, and they still wanted me to impart what I know.
This post is intended to be a summary of what I shared.
I don’t make a living with this little blog. You may have noticed that I don’t sell any advertising on it. I have no objection to doing that, but I cannot imagine who would want to buy it, and I don’t have the time or inclination to find out.
I’ve been blogging once a week for almost two years in this space, as an extension of my professional website. I also ghostblog (lookie there, I just made up a new word!) for several clients.
(Side note: my audience this weekend was other writers, most of whom have never blogged, so I focused my presentation on tips that would help them launch their craft in an online forum. Blogging for business is a little bit different animal.)
One of the main reasons I wanted to have a blog component to my website was because I missed writing my newspaper column, “I’m Just Saying.” From 2000-2007, I told random stories from my life and tied them into business lessons every week for Business First. The point was to share my perspective as a professional under age 40. At nearly 42 now, that shipped has sailed.
In this space, I have tried to recreate that column, with a few exceptions. I no longer am under any obligation to tie my stories to business (although I still do that sometimes). My overarching theme falls under “life lessons” today.
I also have the freedom to swear like a sailor, which was a big no-no in a conservative business journal. And by dammit, I often do. Profanity is punctuation for my generation, for better or worse. But, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I don’t want to go too far off the chain because my blog serves as a current writing sample and marketing tool for my business.
These days, you can find a blog on just about anything. I heard a comedian say the other day that the Internet is so big now that even if you accidentally misspell the name of a website, you are still going to end up on a real website. Try it.
You’ve got your mommy bloggers, cooking sites, entertainment and gossip blogs. There are folks sharing their opinions on sports, technology, fashion, animals, politics — you name it, it’s out there.
Some of the most compelling blogs I’ve read in recent years are what I call “illness journals,” sites that chronicle a person’s journey as he/she faces cancer, a stroke or another life-threatening issue.
Most of the blogs I visit again and again are written in first-person, recount deeply personal stories and are very conversational. The writing is engaging, and I feel connected to the bloggers. I want to sit down with them over a cup of coffee and chat like old friends.
There are also plenty of blogs that are written in more of a third-person, reporting style. We have several in Louisville, including GetOutLouisville and New2Lou, both of which offer up cool stuff to do in the city. In them, there is a distinct voice and style to the writing, but you are not getting to know a single human. This gives the blog "publisher" the freedom to use a cadre of writers instead of just one.
Another interesting approach is LocalView, which tends to publish lists instead of narrative blogs, i.e.: “8 Things to Do This Weekend,” “10 Louisville Pinners to Follow on Pinterest,” “Top 5 Places to Watch the World Cup.” These are quick-hit, easy reads, and they get a lot of traffic.
Anyhoo, in my how-to presentation about getting started with a new blog, I broke it down into a few steps: Choose a platform, decide your purpose, determine your audience, chose a general area of focus, find your voice and figure out a manageable posting frequency.
As for platforms, there are plenty of choices. From the super basic to the most sophisticated, even a novice at technology can find an online software that meets their needs.
My blog is just one page on a drag-and-drop website I built myself through StartLogic.com. It has its limitations (no search function, for one thing). But two years ago when I needed to throw together a website on a dime, I was too overwhelmed with all the steps to starting a business to take on anything more complicated. If I were to build one from scratch today, I would probably use Wordpress because its possibilities are endless.
A lot of people like Blogger, Blogspot, Tumblr or Typepad. My advice to the writers at the workshop this weekend was to explore several options and see which one is the best fit. For those who want to keep their blog private, choose an option that will allow you to lock down your site with user names and passwords. I personally don’t see the point of blogging if you don’t want anyone to read it, but what the hell. I mean, srsly … blogging is a form of social media, and the whole point of it is to start a conversation.
The most important thing to do BEFORE you start a blog is to decide why you want to do it. Do you simply want a place to "practice" and hone your craft? Do you want to start writing chapters for your book? Do you want others in your writers’ group to edit your stuff or give you feedback?
Do you want to start an online journal for personal essays, like I did? What about a family newsletter? A travel log for your trip to Peru? A place to explore your hobby (cycling, fostering animals, gardening)? Do you aspire to write fan fiction? Do you want to review restaurants or the newest techie products? Do you want to promote your services? (Maybe you’re trying to make some money on the side selling Avon, I don’t know.) Regardless, I think you need to be clear on your purpose from the get-go, or else you'll stall out before even getting started. At least I would.
Next, who do you want to read your blog? Just you or your family (limited access)? Other cyclists or gardeners? Other liberals/conservatives? Potential clients? Whatever the case, you need to keep your ideal readers in mind when you write. Find a way to connect with them on a deeper level, so they'll keep coming back.
Oh, and be prepared for surprises. Who you want to read your blog might turn out to be different than who actually reads it. If it’s public, anyone with a computer and Internet connection can see it, and there are some real jackwagons out in cyberspace. You also might find (as I have) that the posts you are most proud of that you think will get a great response are largely ignored, while ones you threw online hastily get the best response.
Be prepared for negative comments, because you are bound to piss some people off. Not everyone is going to like you, so toughen up, buttercup. Also, don't take yourself too seriously. You're not The Huffington Post. At least not yet.
Once you have figured out why you want to blog, settle on a general focus area. Don’t post a fictional short story one week, then write a first-person account of your bad experience with the Maytag repair man the next. Be consistent. You will alienate your readers if you're too schizophrenic.
As far as style and voice, I recommend you write in first person, and write like you talk. A blog is an opportunity for the interwebs to get to know YOU, and for you to establish a reputation. Blog readers want to get to know the person behind the words.
If you choose to be more of a reporter and leave yourself out of it, keep the tone the same from week to week. Don’t sound like Martha Stewart in one post, and Cracked.com the next.
Next, if you want to build an audience, you need to be consistent with the frequency of your posts. I recommend once a week, but plan to blog no less than twice a month.
With all the competition out there, not to mention today’s culture of short attention spans, if you don’t stay in front of readers, they will forget about you. Also, be predictable with the days and times you post, so readers will become conditioned to expect your latest installment.
Put yourself on a deadline schedule, create a rough editorial calendar of topics or book chapter outline. Keep a running tickler file of ideas. Watch the news, and be an observer — there is a ton of great material out there if you’re paying attention. But also be flexible ... have a plan, but be willing to deviate from it when it makes sense.
Try to write engaging headlines to draw readers in. A headline should be a teaser and not give too much away. I make an effort to do that myself, though I don’t always succeed. I am also no photographer, but I think it’s important to use photos and other visuals to break up your copy. Try to stick to under 1,000 words per post. Any longer and you lose people (that short-attention-span thing).
And finally, proofread! You are your own editor, and I find that if I set a post aside for a day or two, I am more likely to catch errors. Typos still sneak in, but I don’t beat myself up about them. In fact, I am grateful when readers point them out. (If you see any in this post, please let me know!) Nobody's perfect, and I certainly don't pretend to be.
I ended my talk at the writer’s conference with a few comments about marketing. Writing a blog is all fine and dandy, but if you not are actively promoting it to potential readers, you’re missing the boat.
I post links to my blog on all my social media channels: my personal Facebook profile and my FB business page, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn. I’ve also got social media buttons on my site, plus an RSS feed. I always include a link to my website and blog in my e-mail signature.
To sum up, I’m branding myself and my blog in nearly all my interactions online. It’s no longer “build it, and they will come.” It’s more like, “put myself out there, and people will gradually follow,” or something like that.
Anyhoo, that's my two cents on blogging for budding writers. Again, I’m no expert, so I can only share my own experience and opinions.
To blog or not to blog … that’s totally up to you.
As for me, I’ll be posting every Monday, just like always.
About Amy Higgs
A former newspaper columnist, Amy takes her random, slice-of-life stories to the web. After 10 years, she's still just saying.