9 Lessons for Would-be Bloggers

A few lessons learned in 7 years of blogging.

I attended the Writing, Better panel here at SXSW. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, both because I wanted the conversation to go on for a few more hours and because so many people here are bloggers that blogging comes up every few minutes or so. Here are some lessons that I’ve learned about blogging…hopefully they can be of help to others.

It’s only an initial fear

The problem with blogging isn’t just the writing part. It’s also the putting-myself-on-public-display part. Many would-be bloggers that I’ve met don’t blog because they’re not comfortable with throwing themselves to the wolves…putting their ideas out into the world for all to see. Once you do that, of course, you open yourself up for criticism, and goodness knows that you’ll get some! But you’ll also get encouragement, and some people will really groove on what you say. Once you get a little practice under your belt, you’ll find that it’s only an initial fear…it gets easier as you go along to share your ideas.

You have something valuable to say

One of the biggest problems is that some people don’t think they have anything useful to say. They think: look at all the incredible amount of writing out there already…what can I add to it? Ironically, its those people who probably have the most to say, but they’re concerned that they won’t say it well or in the right way. Those are the people who care about what they say and know that words have tremendous power. They consider the act of writing as an act of conversation, as opposed to others who see it as a way to make money or a way to promote something. We need those people to recognize that they do have something valuable to say, and that the blogosphere would be better, not worse, with them contributing.

I remember meeting Paul Rademacher, creator of HousingMaps (before Google had an API!) and hearing this story from him. He didn’t think he had anything to add. I couldn’t believe it! Here’s a guy who created an amazingly-cool web application in his spare time while working as an animation engineer for Dreamworks!, and he didn’t think that anybody would want to hear what he had to say. Well, it’s that sort of different thinking that we need! After I met him, I kept wondering how many other folks are like him that are silent in the blogosphere.

When in doubt, post.

I keep telling the same story to would-be bloggers. A couple weeks ago I was working on a post for Bokardo and it wasn’t going well…I couldn’t get to what I wanted to say. So I looked around, realized that I hadn’t posted the 5 Principles to Design By from my about page, and just posted that. It has now become the post that many people recognize my blog from, because in some way one of the five principles touched a nerve with them. I did not predict this, and don’t think I could have. So when it doubt…post. You can always un-publish it if you need to.

Use the comments for refining your point

Lots of times I’ll post and my point won’t be crystal clear. Someone will read it and leave a comment saying so. When someone does this, when they take time out of their busy day to read what you’ve said and respond to it, TAKE IT AS A GIFT. Always remember that these people are right! They’re your readers, and so if something isn’t clear to them then it’s probably not clear to the others who who haven’t read it yet or don’t have the time to leave comments. So you have to take the time to go back and make your point clear. Whatever you do, don’t argue with them, don’t say that they didn’t understand the point. Let them know you’re hearing them and try to clarify what you mean. And, if its a relatively big change, make sure to go back and change your original post to reflect that, so readers coming in get your most up-to-date thinking.

Everything is beta

My theory for Bokardo is that everything is beta. That lets me stop worrying about publishing end-all, be-all pieces that set the world on fire. If my blog is my beta (the blog itself is not beta…it’s the thoughts that are beta), then it becomes a place for trying out ideas and refining them. After I do that, I’ll republish the best ideas somewhere else…in a talk I give or in a UIEtips article or an article in an online magazine. Some posts will rise to the top and have lasting power, like my piece on the Del.icio.us Lesson, but the vast majority don’t. So don’t worry if your writing is beta…that’s perfectly OK.

Have a schtick

I write about lots of things here on Bokardo, but my schtick is that I write about social design. I even have the words explained on every page on this site. Why is this? Well, it helps me keep a focus for the blog…to keep the posts moving in a general direction. This vastly improves my ability to figure out what to write about, because I’ve got a flag to fly. Before I had a clear focus I used to flounder when I couldn’t decide what to write about…I ended up with a much less focused blog and poorer posts because of it.

One caveat, though. You have to really believe in your schtick…you have to think that the topic is important and have to have passion for it. You can still deviate from the topic, as I’m doing with this post, and that’s OK. It’s a lot easier to write exceptions to the rule than it is to not have a rule in the first place. So plant your flag…have a schtick…it not only makes writing easier but you’ll also get other people thinking about your blog in terms of it. It’s kind of like a brand in this way.

Correct English be-damned

People don’t care very much whether you write in complete sentences, use correct grammar, or are copy-edited. It’s much more visceral and fast. They care about ideas…are you adding good ideas to the idea-pool? Are you telling them something they knew but haven’t articulated or haven’t thought about yet? If you spend a lot of time blogging, make sure that you spend it on clarity…that every word is understandable and your ideas are clear. Notice that in this post I’m being very-straightforward…it’s clear what I’m talking about. This isn’t always easy…and it takes practice and time. Don’t let the simple posts fool you…that’s the goal.

Show your greatest hits

A tactical lesson I learned from Brian Clark, who writes highly-recommended CopyBlogger. Create a greatest hits module for your blog and display it on all pages. This will be an instant target for new readers, who will be funneled into your best content. It will also help remind regular readers what you’ve said in the past, and help them think about your blog in those terms. And if you’re just starting out, put all of your posts in it. You can easily take them out as new greatest hits emerge.

People are listening

For every person who posts a comment on your blog, you have 10 (or 100) readers who won’t. Always remember that! Even if you don’t get the 100 comments that you were hoping for doesn’t mean that people didn’t like the post or that they didn’t consider it…it just means that they didn’t have anything to initially say or couldn’t at the time. This is a hard problem…because if you don’t travel a lot then you might never know that there are people who are reading and just not saying much. If you do travel, make sure you let people know who you are and what your blog is, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how many readers you have.

Got lessons of your own? Share them in the comments or write your own post and let me know so that I can link to you.

Update: Also read 9 More Lessons for Would-be Bloggers

Translations: Español | Hungarian

Published: March 11th, 2007