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.


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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


  1. Along with avoid snark you could probably include don’t make every post title a pun.

    1. Wasn’t there some groaning from the ol’ “newspapers” years ago bemoaning the death of the pun-headline? In a nutshell, online news abandoned them to move their stories up in google ranks?

      Also, nice article Rob – very thoughtful as usual.

  2. I’m having trouble parsing this sentence, is there a word missing, or is my brain fuzzy?

    “Relatedly, people who demand that you publish their comments are asking for the freedom of your speech, not theirs.”

    Besides that, very good tips, thank you!! I can sure use them right now. I’ve been working pretty hard on my own blog about awesome, obscure tourist attractions in Poland, and it takes up a lot more time and effort than I might have imagined. It’s hard to focus, hard to write constantly (real life does demand attention) and especially hard not to throw my hands up in the air and cry ‘I’ll never be the best! I’ll never have more than a hundred readers, and they probably don’t read anyway! Why bother!’

    It’s at times like those that I start thinking- maybe I should be snarkier? Maybe I should throw in vulgarities? People don’t want to hear about awesome things, they want to hear about FUCKING AWESOME things.

    Except that’s just not my style. I don’t want to use crude language while writing about something fascinating and beautiful. So, thanks for mentioning that snark and rudeness aren’t the golden rule. It should be obvious, but it’s one of those things you just gotta hear from someone more experienced to believe it :)

        1. The fact that it’s a key concept in my job probably has me primed to understand it immediately.

  3. Great tips here! Love this gold nugget here “Find something close to your heart that no-one else is as interested in as you are.” That was a huge tip for me. Haven’t started my blog yet but that just hit home for when I do, Thanks again! Awesome post Rob

  4.   “Find something close to your heart that no-one else is as interested in as you are.”

    Of course, that’s at odds with the advice not to blog about one’s self :)

  5. And the answer is: “Careers in Blogging”…
    What are the 3 scariest words a parent can hear, Alex?

  6. Good advice. My blog is a adjunct to my work and a second priority, but at times I think of doing more with it and perhaps making it a first priority. At the same time, I am much more active on Twitter. I find I can condense many of my would-be blog posts to 140 characters. Is it bad to cannibalize what would be more-developed blog content for the sake of a quicker and easier (for both me and the reader) tweet? 

  7. Excellent writeup! I’d have said the same things (but not as well) …except in the instances where you used the word “journalist,” I would have said “entertainer.” but that’s the difference in one blog and the next.

  8. Good advice, especially the bit about not assuming that the comments reflect the more general readership.

    On the “don’t stop doing what brought them to you” point, some of these young writers might have multiple competing interests that shift over time… is the friction between those themes likely to add depth or to alienate readers, or how does one balance them? Better yet, how does a young writer find the voice that lifts them to the next level?

    And what about self-scheduling some longer, more thorough pieces to move from just producing comment and curation to producing original content? I’d think the distinction with original content might look different from years of experience in the evolving medium than it might to writers entering the field as it is today. Even better, what’s next?

    1. Finding a voice is an unavoidable symptom of writing all the time!

      Robin Sloan wrote the best article about balancing aggregation and original meaty stuff:

      1. Interesting link… it really clicked when he took the stock/flow analogy and applied it to Wes Anderson. Instead of a balance within blogging, of two different types of posts, the different types of posts might be pegs on which hang creative output of many types…

        It puts me in mind of Peter Jackson feeding the endless appetite of the fans for updates and behind-the-scenes details when making the LOTR films, then repackaging and polishing much of the material to include on the extra disks.

  9. Great post, full of specific info. But maybe I missed the part about how much blogging pays. What does it pay?

    1. It’s like anything in freelancing: it could be a lot or a little, and quantifiable factors like traffic are not the best measure for guessing. Your subject matter makes a huge difference to the kind of advertising you can attract, for example.

      Blogging about tech, biz and entertainment are traditional high CPM areas, but it’s also where the strongest competition is. Politics will be good for the rest of this year, too, but will fall off a cliff in november.

      A nice five-figure income should be easy to come by for someone with a million page views a month, but it could go a lot lower if you relied on something like adsense and you write about something with no advertising market — but a lot higher if you put a lot of effort into selling ads directly and your readers are all 40 year-old gay doctors. And it’s not a linear thing: people don’t seem to earn much of anything until they get to a certain threshhold of traffic in the first place … and I’d hate to have to get to millions, or even hundreds of thousands of unique readers a month, from scratch.

    2. Even if it doesn’t pay directly, perhaps it could lead to other paydays. I don’t know if this is true, but there are a lot of anecdotes out there about books and screenplays getting sold on the strength of the writer’s established social media influence. I’d bet other kinds of commissioned creativity could benefit from active participation in the community.

  10. I believe the distinction is that blogging, while it may be inspired by yourself, things that have happened, ideas that have occurred, stuff you’ve dealt with, you write it in the third person as issue(s) of interest.  No one wants to know if your car died on the freeway, but everyone is interested in how often it happens, and what to do (and not do).

  11. What is it that got you the job at Wired? I’ve seen you explain your rise to power before (zero to boing boing in two years) but I think the key there is that you got a job at Wired, not necessarily the other steps.

    Or are you saying that it was it the strength of your comments and forum discussions that got you that job?

    I think the reason people are hung up on the “blogging A-list” is that to an outsider it seems like sheer luck that most people become successful at blogging. Or it seems that you need a “big break” (such as a job at Wired) to get in on it rather than being able to build up an audience slowly as you suggest.


      Luck is a part of it, sure. But I was a news reporter with a background in design, and an amateur coder: just the right mix of things to have spend a few thousand hours doing when the blogging world was growing. Getting lucky has prerequisites.

      The opportunity this created got me hired right into the thick of things, allowing me to skip building an audience completely from scratch: Wired’s gadget blog had maybe 100k page views a month at the time. That’s not much, but was a great headstart.

  12.  “What is blogging?” Now I think about it, I can’t find a single definite description for it! Perhaps it’s because it has gone into a very complex mechanism of advertising, informing, and adding more value into the lives of others. It’s not just a personal electronic diary but a smorgasbord of functions: sounding board, virtual bulletin board for updates, ranting page, press release area–you name it.

    As for your tips, they’re fantastic, especially the last one. Spot-on. I am tired of the many “gurus” who achieved only mild success in their career. Some don’t even take the time to blog anymore because they’re busy hawking their new applications or e-books.

    1. Some don’t even take the time to blog anymore because they’re busy hawking their new applications or e-books.

      Chances are, if you looked at their histories, you’d discover that they had previous careers selling magical fruit juice, inverse tachyon healing bracelets and Amway. It’s the Ponzi gene.

  13. I have a question for Rob (maybe more like an open question) – if one has been blogging about oneself (i.e. your work or your personality are part of what you blog/preach/sell) do you find that with the rise of status updates, tweets, instagram photos and the like, that pieces of information that warrant full on blog posts has diminished? 

    That has been my experience; I find that I post less frequently, waiting until there is something a bit more juicy than say, I just made some new stickers and ate some spaghetti. Obviously this doesn’t apply to a case such as BB, Wired, etc. but it does seem to drive the more “personal” blogger toward quality over quantity – hopefully not at the expense of readers.

  14. A great resource I have found for assistance and information about blogging is  You can download their free ebooks to help with all sorts of angles regarding learning how to blog and blogging for business. I found it to be  very helpful information. 

  15. “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. ”

    So, I guess I should ignore HubSpot, Mashable, and Social Media Today?

      1. Ahhh, yeah. Those are three sites that I usually follow since I know their advice is legit. I do worry about all those people going around calling themselves gurus, though.

  16. As a relatively new blogger on technology, some of the best advice I received was to write what you wanted to hear about.  I try to fill a gap with what I looked and provide some relevant news related to my area of technology.  I hope to see my regular readers increase while I continue to stay true to the content I provide.  This article has confirmed to stick to my focus and do it well.  At worst, I can find the information when I need it.

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