How to blog


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I was invited to give a talk at Washington & Jefferson College about careers in blogging. Clearly, this would entail explaining why everything they'd heard about blogging was completely wrong.

A good crowd turned up and it was a fairly casual affair, but I got in some good tips. Having removed my stupidest remarks from this transcript, I present to you the fourth-best article about blogging published this week.

Writing career advice sucks, and writers are terrible at giving advice. We're single-minded, obsessive, and most of all, opinionated. We think our experiences are of universal use to other people. These are characteristics that make for a good writer, of course ... but that's just my opinion.

My name is Rob Beschizza and I'm the managing editor of a blog called Boing Boing. It's been online for more than a decade and gets 5 million unique visitors in a good month. According to Wikipedia, our common themes include technology, futurism, and science.

Ours is a small organization, with a few editors: Mark, Cory, David, Xeni, Maggie and myself; a publisher, Jason; and a handful of part-time support staff including comment moderators, tech wizards and gentlemen who enjoy taking care of baseless legal threats.

Now, as anyone who reads the internet knows, editor is a fancy word for blogger. In my case, the managing part means I get to do more traditional editorial stuff like assigning stories to freelancers and editing submissions. There's no office or headquarters. The outfit is online. Two of us live in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco. One lives in London, and another in Minneapolis. And here I am in Pittsburgh.

So I'm here today to talk about exactly what the hell we do for a living.

WHAT IS BLOGGING?

There are few things you need to understand about blogging.

The first thing, the thing you must accept to make a career in writing, is that your work has value and that you will get paid for it. When you work for yourself, you're investing in your future. But when you work for others, they're investing in you. Get paid.

The second thing is that the word "blogging" is a shopworn thing. These days, it covers everything from status updates to traditional newswriting. Twitter provides an express route for the short stuff, while Tumblr and WordPress makes it easier than ever for non-technical authors to publish long-form writing. All you have to do is sign up and get cracking.

The third is that you have to be good at the craft of writing—and you must have something good to write about. It's hard to define the mix of obsessive consumption and production that you need to master, but newcomers who stand out have no trouble bouncing from deep thinking on their specialist subject to timely tid-bits on Twitter. And all the while, they're building an audience of friends and colleagues on social networks. And breaking news or making something cool every day, to ensure a steady supply of inbound links. Easy, right?

The last thing is that careers are built on tough economic realities. Even if you're committed to your subject, get the mix right, know how to pick up a telephone and get the scoops, it might not be enough to make a living as a freelancer. There's a lot of competition out there. You might have to trade independence for a good old-fashioned job. Even if you're a solo hit, there's the grind of dealing with advertisers -- a drain of time and energy, to say the least. But that's how you get paid, so drain you will.

SERIOUSLY, WHAT IS BLOGGING?

It's a funny word for writing online. This question persists because getting noticed in "blogging" is widely perceived as the gateway to a career in writing and journalism. And for all its challenges, journalism is fun if you pick the right subject. It's a cool job.

A few years ago, blogging was a new, controversial and even disreputable form. Established, credentialled, school-indebted journalists faced barbarians at the gate: barbarians in pajamas. Writers with their own websites, no boundaries, and only a fleeting interest in the trade's ethical traditions. The readers wanted a less mediated connection to the news, something more personal than the AP style guide offered, and bloggers delivered it.

As time went by, though, the business of selling words accomodated itself to it. Journalists became bloggers, and bloggers got hired by magazines and newspapers. And here we all are.

Now, the impression this standard story leaves is that you still perform some specific work which introduces you to a labor market -- working for a college or smalltown newspaper in the olden days, and getting a domain name and a blog nowadays. Then, the story goes, you either get hired to a proper job, or do well enough as a freelancer to make ends meet.

But something happened to blogging that still hasn't quite sunk in: social networking. This means that everyone is blogging, all the time! No-one has gaps in their writing resumé any more. People share their thoughts and adventures, and it's mostly dull. It's mostly trivia. But they say smart things, too. They break news. And they share it.

That's a lot of competition for someone who wants to make a career of it.

So you'll need to focus, write constantly about your obsession, and do it better than anyone else.

Don't listen to people who tell you that journalists need to hide their opinions and not engage socially with readers; instead, figure out how to be less foolish in public. Develop a sixth sense for when something you're about to say could hurt you, or someone who doesn't deserve to be hurt. Build relationships with the curious people you'll be feeding with your insightful, knowledgeable writing about your shared interests.

The bad news is that this new market for attention rewards extroverts more than ever before. There's less money in it for everyone, and we're losing the cultivating environment that the traditional gatekeepers provided. If you want to write about laborious or time-consuming subjects, being unknown and unheralded means that you have no income while you do it.

The good news is that you've never had such a direct line to the readers. And the readers are getting better-equipped to filter out voices that aren't yours.

GENERAL ADVICE

Be focused, dedicated and hard-working. Avoid getting snarled up in things which don't serve your readers. If this stuff sounds obvious, it's because it is. There's nothing about the basics I can tell you that you can't find on Google. Don't plagiarize! Learn the law. Learn the social norms of linking, quoting and aggregating. Know what libel is. Know what to do when you are threatened by lawyers.

That said, there are plenty of other pitfalls waiting for you, mistakes that I've made and see others repeating. So here's some specific advice that I'd give my younger self.

IGNORE MOST CRITICS

Even if you have thriving, dedicated, civil, reasonable, no-nonsense commenters, they'll still be a tiny fraction of your readership. It's true that they're an important constituency; they build upon your work and buy your t-shirts. But losing sight of the 99.95 percent of readers who never talk to you is a bad idea--a bad idea that grows with your readership.

How do you serve people who aren't in the habit of giving feedback? The answer's simple: don't stop doing whatever it is that brought them to you.

A habitual mistake of successful bloggers is to react to criticism from commenters and peers. First, we write about something in a certain way that builds an audience. Then the audience reaches a threshold at which criticism loudly presents itself. Then we make the critical mistake of thinking the critic represents the audience.

It's hard to figure out how to respect a largely invisible readership, but the first step is respecting whatever you did to earn it.

In fact, you shouldn't bother hosting comments on your own site at all if you're starting out now. Times have moved on: the web itself is the comment form. Everyone has their own venue, so you don't need the hassle of providing and maintaining one for them.

(A related point: People who demand that you publish their comments on free speech grounds are asking for the freedom of your speech, not theirs. When you become the publisher of other people's submissions, you become the shepherd of their entitlements.)

DON'T GET SNARLED UP IN TECHNOLOGY

The chances are you're not a web designer, typographer, or developer. These are things you need to take care of once, when you start out, and then only rarely.

Getting snared by technology-tweaking, especially design, is the fastest and easiest way to waste time to no good end as an indie blogger type. There's only one thing that brings in readers, and marketing people call it "content". Writing. Artwork. Games. Whatever it is that you do that other people care about.

The confusion between the technology of blogging and the art of it is natural, because we're still close to the dawn of the medium. The people who built it were the first people to use it, and they're still around, telling everyone what for.

If you're in any doubt at all, just go with Tumblr. Pay a few bucks for a rarely-seen premium theme appropriate for your work, and get right to the business of making it.

AVOID SNARK

Snark in blogging isn't a writing style. It's a device. The purpose is to establish critical distance between the writer and the press release he's rewriting. I'm not saying that snark is a bad thing, just that it's out there for reasons you might not share. It puts you in a certain position relative to your subject and your audience. And the harder you try to occupy a certain position, the more distracting it will be. This goes double when it involves trying to be funny, and you aren't.

DON'T BE AN ARSEHOLE

When you direct grief at a person instead of what they write, it carries a high risk of you being an arsehole.

There was a time when being one was de rigueur, because the Internet was full of resentful beta males self-programmed to respect it. But that market is saturated. The time has passed where you can expect to be rewarded for mean-spiritedness rather than ignored. Unless you're a brilliant wit, aim it at things, impersonal institutions and ideas ... not at people.

The last two tips don't mean you have to be nice all the time, or that you have to sugarcoat criticism. It doesn't mean that you should avoid being hated, either—that's often a sign that you're doing everything right. It just means that molding your online persona around certain traditional columnist archetypes -- the curmudgeon, the mocker, the outrage-peddler -- puts you at the end of a long line of other people who've being working the beat for years.

DON'T BLOG ABOUT YOURSELF, UNLESS YOU'RE DOING WHAT YOU BLOG ABOUT

If ever blogging was for merely blathering on about oneself, it isn't any more. Social networking created a better venue for personal sharing. But what some people don't realize is that successful bloggers never did this to begin with.

You're only as interesting as the things you do, find or say. Even if you're a fantastically gifted writer, if you make your work solely about you, you won't just bore your readers: you'll eventually get bored of yourself and give up.

Establish a distance between yourself and your work, so you can retreat into it when you need to.

Some bloggers who tried to emulate Boing Boing quit because they thought it was about posting dozens of times a day, about anything that caught their interest. Feeding the postcount beast. It's not. It's about having a plan—even a vague one—to serve the needs of your readers.

Understanding and respecting and exploiting the little differences between you and people like you—that's a sign of a good writer.

IGNORE WHAT UNSUCCESSFUL BLOGGERS SAY ABOUT BLOGGING

Harsh, but true. Ignore bloggers, SEO experts, marketing gurus and other people who have figured out a traffic trick or two, but who have never built a large audience of daily readers.

A lot of people have a fixed idea of what a blog is: it's something like Boing Boing, Gawker, or TechCrunch as they were years ago. A smattering of news, thoughts, links, opinions, random stuff. But you need to run where the ball is headed, not where it was in 2005.

At Boing Boing, we now pay experienced freelancers for original features on extremely obscure subjects. Long before becoming part of AOL, TechCrunch had a full-time staff of reporters who knew what was going on in Silicon Valley before anyone else. Gawker now occupies two floors in Manhattan, and has video monitors informing dozens of writers how their stories are performing.

Instead of trying to repeat others' success, find something that no-one else is doing right. Find something close to your heart that no-one else is as interested in as you are.

Finally, stay away from cynics who see success in writing as a closed circle. I didn't do a day of blogging before I got hired by Wired a few years ago; I posted comments on other people's posts, on forums. People whining about the inaccessibility of the so-called blogging elite can safely be ignored. They always were a bore.

Be good at what you do, make friends with people who know a thing or two, and always be posting.

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