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Finding Topics as a New Blogger

One of the serious difficulties about the life of a traveling consultant is avoiding weight gain. While this might sound like such a first world problem as to be 0.5 world problem, it’s actually a serious struggle. Living in a hotel, every meal is a restaurant meal, and restaurants tend not to optimize for low caloric intake. Recently, though, I’ve turned the tide and started to make a pretty successful foray into enemy territory; I’ve lost about 8 pounds over the last few weeks.

As someone who already exercises regularly and is conscious of my caloric intake, I pulled a different sort of lever to make this happen. I eliminated decisions about eating them by making them ahead of time. To wit, I set a rule for myself that until I became about 15 pounds lighter, I would not eat any desserts, drink any alcohol or eat any snacks. This is surprisingly easy to do compared to making decisions like that every time I was out with friends or felt hungry or was offered a cannoli or something. Standing in front of the pantry, it’s a lot easier to say simply, “oh, I don’t have snacks anymore” than “well, I’ll have a few handfuls of popcorn to tide myself over, and one cookie is probably okay…” The former is 0 decisions while the latter is endless decisions in the form of “should I eat this or that?” and “should I stop eating this now?” Life gets easier when you pre-make decisions.

This applies to losing weight and it also applies to writing blog posts. If you find yourself sitting down to write a blog post, looking at a monitor and saying, “what should I write about?” then you’ve already lost because you’re about to spend 45 minutes on twitter and then go pay your bills, resolving to try again tomorrow. The key is to separate the decision of what to write about from the decision to write (and I would recommend setting aside specific time each week to write). So how do you go about choosing your topics? I’ll cover that here, offering suggestions and my own approach.

There is one common thread that I’ll offer, though. You should get into the habit of having a way to record ideas quickly. Carry around a notebook, use your phone, whatever. The important thing is that any time a potential post pops into your head you capture it immediately before you forget about it. These ideas won’t occur to you when you try to force them at your desk, but they will pop into your head at the least opportune times. You need to be ready.

LotsLeftToDo

Seek Indignation

One of the most ready sources of blog posts is indignation. I’m talking specifically about the sort of indignation that occurs when you have no voice or a disproportionately small voice. Are you a junior developer on a project and being forced to do something that you think of as stupid? Already voiced your opinions, been overruled, and told to shut up? Reach out to the internet with your side of the story in a blog post and get back up (and catharsis). This doesn’t need to be about something that happened recently, either. It could be any time that your opinion has been stifled and for whatever reason.

Or perhaps you’ve seen a popular post from a well known figure and you really disagree. Don’t waste your words and views ranting in the comments — take it to your own blog. You can even seek this sort of thing out. Spend time looking for posts/tweets/whatever that irritate you or that you think do the community a disservice and respond to them. I’ve found for myself and observed in others that few things cure writers’ block more quickly than indignation. Your problem will be “I need to copy-edit this rant” much more than it will be “what should I say?”

Analogies are Like Rigged Slot Machines

Another way to come up with post ideas pretty easily is free-form association mental exercises. In the technical world, this approach is particularly valuable given the relative inscrutable nature of what we do for most and the value provided by clarifying. If you want a concrete example, consider the “technical debt” metaphor that has captured the imaginations of millions and spawned endless discussion of just how much writing software is like capital generation schemes.

You probably won’t coin something that becomes part of standard industry vernacular, but you probably will get people (and yourself) to think. Look for similarities in dissimilar things adn then make a blog post out of drawing those parallels. It need not be particularly long or in-depth, but the aim is to get people thinking.

Post Series Are Your Friends

If thinking of post ideas is hard for you, it might be in your best interests to economize and think of ideas for a whole bunch of posts at once. For instance, if you had the idea to do a historical treatment of the C# language, including what was new and interesting about each version, you would just have had an idea for six posts. Keeping with the theme of avoiding decision making at writing time, this is perfect. You know exactly what you’re going to do each time you sit down and write, so it’s now just a question of doing the research and typing the words.

It’s really not a whole lot harder to think of a series than of an individual post, so this approach has a lot of upside. And, one thing that I’ve found is that you can interweave your series with other posts, which allows variety for both you and the readership. In this fashion, the series of posts serve as back-up plans for when you don’t know what else to write about. It’s always nice to have a stand-by.

Start with a Title

This is advice that I don’t see as often, but I think is pretty good for some people, at least. Think up a catchy or provocative title and turn it into a post. “Javascript Considered Harmful” might be an example of what you dream up. Maybe you don’t consider Javascript harmful, but it’s a title that’s likely to get clicks, and it provides constraints for your writing. One of the surprising things that I’ve found about writing and creativity is that it tends to be easier to work in constrained fashion than with a blank canvas.

Good titles are ones that are provocative and even better titles are ones that allude to famous things or make subtle jokes. One of my most popular posts ever was called, “The 7 Habits of Highly Overrated People” and was a play on the title of a popular book. It is entirely possible to think of the title first and then make a post from there, even if that seems counter-intuitive.

Lessons You Learned and Things that Sucked

Early on, I did a lot of posts that amounted to, “here’s how to set X up” or “here’s how to fix problem Y.” These aren’t necessarily the most exciting posts, but they do offer a number of benefits. First, and most obviously, you have a record of how you did something if you need to do it again. Secondly, your readers now do as well, and they may well have learned something.

Less obviously, these types of posts are actually the ones that tend to draw people in via google searches and those people may come back or even subscribe. There are two main ways that blogs (at least mine) draw traffic, omitting the occasional post that goes viral: regular followers and search engine traffic. Most of what I’ve talked about so far caters to regular readers and followers, but this one more caters to search engine traffic.

If you’re going to write posts like this, however, I strongly suggest that you prop them up with at least a blurb about why your readers should care. If you just post, “here’s how a work-around for when you’re using the SQL Server Enterprise Manager and you get Error 0x9AF33B,” every one of your readers will say to themselves, “that’s not something that’s happening to me, so buh-bye.” Tell them a story about how this error made you hurl one of your monitors at the wall. Convince them that this error might happen to them at any time. Explain how this error message is a teachable moment in that the designers of the tool made a subtle mistake. Whatever. Just make sure it at least has a fighting chance of interesting your readers.

Give Away Your Ideas

This sounds not only weird, but stupid. I mean, ideas are the things that you guard jealously because your one good one is going to be your ticket to a million dollar pay-day. Right? Right!? Yeah, not so much. As I’ve discussed before, ideas are cheap and it’s really execution that matters. You have a couple of awesome ideas for apps that you’re never going to have time to write. So, let ’em go. Release them into the wild and see if someone else runs with them and implements them. You know what? You might even get credit. You might even get offered a cut. You’d be surprised to find that, by and large, people are pretty fair and generous.

But there’s something even more subtle that happens, at least in my experience. I give away ideas all of the time because ideas are cheap and I have no impulse to guard them. And I firmly believe that this results in me having a lot more ideas than the average person. If you spend your energy and creativity scheming about how to get patents and how to keep other people’s grubby paws off of your ideas, you’re not going to be spending your energy and creativity thinking up new ideas. And, what’s the worst case scenario? You blog about billion dollar idea X and someone else takes it and makes a billion dollars with it? Well, good on them, and you know what? You’re now known as the guy or gal that had billion dollar idea X! Don’t you think that might have some appreciable upside for you down the road if you’re, say, trying to secure venture capital?

Reviews

It can be a little on the lame side, but reviews of things are always sort of a solid backup. What do you think of a popular book, a new framework, or a language you’ve recently tried out? As with the “how-to” posts, if you’re going to do something like this, I think it’s important to ask yourself the question “why should people care what I think of this” and endeavor to answer it as you post.

Anything Else?

I know that there are non-bloggers, new bloggers, and experienced bloggers alike that read here. Feel free to chime in via comments below if you have other suggestions for people reading. Also, feel free to contact me whenever to discuss this topic in more detail. I’m working on a series of workshops about blogging, so I’ll be chiming in more on this front in the coming months.

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DJ Daugherty
Guest

very nicely put… I personally keep a separate location of just blog post ideas… as they come to me… I write (type) them down and then later come back and actually finish the idea. Great post !

Erik Dietrich
Guest

Thanks! Glad you liked, and I share your strategy. The medium has varied over the years, but lately I’ve settled on Trello for keeping the ideas until I can turn them into drafts and then posts. (I kind of use Trello for everything now)

Geoff Mazeroff
Guest
I wish I would have had someone explain these things much earlier; I probably would have started blogging sooner. The notion of having a low-friction way of jotting down ideas is important. You never know when you’ll think of something you’d like to share. I have a Trello board with columns for the types of posts (e.g., career, software/tech); these make a great place to park notes or links. Something I’m trying just to get a regular cadence is a weekly link collection of articles/videos I’ve read that pertain to my career. It publishes every Monday and thus gives my… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest

That’s a good point about a link collection. There are some extremely low hanging fruit types of posts that can be made, with that being one. You can also, in a pinch, do “here are my favorite podcasts” or “here are my favorite books.” There are probably plenty more to keep in one’s back pocket as well.

Mark Holtman
Guest

The part about drawing parallels and analogies resonates with me at this particular time. I constantly struggle with how to combine my hobby and my work so that ideas flow more freely between them. This blog post will help.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

Glad if it helps! Looking forward to seeing some literary-device themed posts 🙂

Geoff Mazeroff
Guest

Something else I forgot to add (which you’ve mentioned in one of your site pages) is it helps to have someone proofread your posts. My wife catches all kinds of silly mistakes (missing linking words or clumsy phrases) that my proofreading passes had missed. This is also a great way to see if a potential reader got the essence of what you were trying to communicate.

I suspect getting some help with this isn’t terribly difficult. Usually people are eager to be helpful and it makes them feel like part of the process.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

My fiancee used to copy-edit my posts, though that’s not common anymore because she’s too busy these days. Frankly, I operate without a safety net now and most of my posts are one pass to write and a quick read. Mostly works, sometimes doesn’t. 🙂

Tony Johnson
Guest
I’ve been a reader of blogs (including this one) for a few years now and have been tempted more and more to start my own. I like the ideas you present here (especially seek indignation), but the one thing I find still holding me back is I’m struggling to motivate myself to write something that nobody will read. I know it’s the sort of thing that needs to grow organically, but “nobody’s reading this so what’s the point” keeps popping into my head. How did you find starting out with no established reader-base and do you have any advice to… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest

I do have some thoughts, but it’s a bit long for a comment. I’ve added a draft to my drafts folder, so stay tuned for a post on the subject in the next few weeks.