Getting Started as a Blogger: A Contract with Your Readers
This post has been a draft without words for a long time, evoking images of a jar of pickles that’s been in the fridge for 15 months. Someone says to me something like “man, I really want to start blogging but __________” and I say, “Don’t let that stop you — tell you what, I’ll write some tips and tricks.” The first time this happened was me buying the pickles and putting them in the fridge. Each subsequent time, I stick my head in and say, “yep, still have pickles and I’m totally going to eat them one of these nights.” Well, today is pickle-eating day.
This post is aimed at someone who either has no blog or someone whose blog consists of a few posts described by the metaphor in the last paragraph. You have a blog or don’t, but you’re interested, rather than having a blog, in being a blogger. This is an important, but subtle distinction since it flips the matter from achievement to identity — you can move a “make a blog” or “make a post” card into another column in Trello, but not so much with “be a blogger.”
Also, caveat emptor. What I’m telling you here essentially amounts to, “here’s what I’ve learned through some reading and collaborating and a whole lot of trial and error.” I have a pretty decent reader base and sometimes I even get paid to write (and, recently, to help others get better at writing), but I am not Lifehacker or some kind of blogging empire. I’m a guy that’s been treating the world to two or three rants per week for a number of years.
Blog As If No One is Reading (Because They Aren’t)
Let’s get the depressing part out of the way quickly. Also, a bit of meta for those keeping track at home — what I’m about to do is a blogging anti-pattern wherein I write something that causes 2/3rds of the audience to click away. No one is going to read your blog for a painfully long time. Even when you ask them to. Even your mother. Even people that report to you. Make peace with that fact. Become zen. And only blog if that’s okay with you.
Still here? At peace? Good deal. We’ve arrived at the Fight Club moment where Tyler Durden explains, “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” If you go to blogger or WordPress, start an account, queue up a heaping helping of wisdom to show the internet, and expect to light Hacker News on fire, you’re going to be sorely disappointed by the crickets. But if you’re expecting crickets, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when readers start to trickle in here and there and your readership eventually starts to gain steam.
The main thing here is not to allow yourself to be turned off to blogging by having unreasonable expectations for gaining notoriety. If you want to goose your blog’s traffic into high gear, I recommend this course from John Sonmez, which is oriented around building a blog as a career accelerator and thus a better source than me for how to gain traffic quickly. I was more a disciple of the “even the blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut” approach.
Stop Obsessing About Hosting, Platform Themes, Etc
Most of the people that read this blog are software developers, so I completely understand the desire to whip out the gigantic tool cabinet and pick out everything that you’re going to need for this project. But before you figure out which version of Angular you’re going to be using as you lovingly hand-craft this baby from scratch, remember that (1) no one is reading it and (2) you can get a blog going in under a minute. If you’re thinking about all of this technical stuff, what you’re really doing is procrastinating by wringing your hands over minutiae about what you know (programming) instead of trying something new and unfamiliar (writing blog posts). If your readers complain about how your theme sucks, then throw yourself a little party because it means that you have readers. I didn’t have any of those for like a year. Seriously. That’s barely an exaggeration.
Want to know what I did? I spent a bunch of time researching hosting options where SSH access to a Linux box was non-negotiable. I installed WordPress (good idea), but then hand modified the PHP for my theme and even for WordPress itself (horrible idea). I laid out all kinds of elaborate menu structures and verbiage to make it seem like the site was some slick consulting firm instead of me in a spare bedroom, “We offer a suite of consulting blah blah blah” and the whole nine yards. I set up an automated deployment scheme to suck all the source off of the server, source control it on my home server, and then re-deploy it on change. It even included database syncing for MySQL. It was a good thing I did all of that because my 0 readers were super pumped and it would have been a real disaster had I lost some data, like the 0 times that’s happened since 2010.
Slow Down There, Tiger
Another thing that I seem to recall doing early on, and that I’ve definitely seen other new bloggers do, is to go into hero mode. “Well, that first post didn’t get any readers, and the second one also didn’t, so I’ll just rip off a post an hour until one of these bad boys starts trending on twitter.” Or, perhaps it’s just that someone who has been meaning to start blogging for a while has a lot of posts in the queue and gets excited to start dispatching them. Whatever the case may be, this tends to really kick the flame bright and burn out blogging cycle into overdrive. Make 12 posts in 10 days and not a peep in the comments section? Screw this.
If your cup runneth over, save those posts in your draft folder. There are going to be days or perhaps weeks where you really don’t have time to blog or you don’t have anything to say. If you run a surprlus during idea boom times, you’ll even out a lot better in the end and you’ll have posts in your back pocket. Those are valuable when the will to blog goes away, and that will happen at times. It’s a lot easier not to fall off the wagon if all you have to do is log into your blogging software and click “publish” once a week.
This is short but sweet. Remember your advanced beginner days, when you thought you were really good at programming because you slammed your first mess into production? You’re doing that right now with your first blog posts. Keep at it, and you’ll look back in some years and wince because you will get a lot better at writing. Sure, there may be slight aptitude differences, but the main difference between awesome or professional writers and you is practice.
Blogging is a Contract with Your Readers
This paragraph is taking the advice from 101 to 201, and is probably a good place to wrap up the detailed advice for fear of this turning into more of an extended treatise than I intended. But I might argue that this is the most important piece of advice here to grok. To do blogging well and to engage with and build a reader base, you’re entering into an agreement with them. What you’re asking of them is quite a thing and why I am consistently and eternally grateful to my readers.
You’re asking that they invest their time — valuable time that could be spent doing an unbounded number of other things — in listening to a silent monologue in which you hold court. That’s a huge ask. Think of how many meetings you’re in where some blowhward treats everyone to a monologue that makes you want to shoot yourself. Now you’re going to treat everyone to a monologue and ask them not only to stick around for the whole thing, but to come back. So you need to offer them something real and something compelling.
Now, there are obvious things that you can offer them. How-to posts or “tips and tricks” posts offer obvious benefit in the form of practical knowledge. Book reviews, link collections, and “have you seen this awesome thing” posts offer to put them in touch with other content that may improve their lives. Op-ed pieces may engage them on a personal level (positively or negatively). But done well, what any and all of those things do is offer them participation alongside you in some kind of story, and that’s where things get a bit more interesting. You can understand readers and start to offer them things like sympathy, calls to action, amusement, camaraderie, commiseration, and even catharsis. It can’t just be “here’s how you do something” or “here’s an opinion dump of what I think of something” — you have to tack on an implied, “and this is why I think you should care.”
But even once you’ve spent some time with a post, whipping it into shape and dutifully answering the question, “why should people spend their time reading this,” you have to make it clear to would-be readers that this wasn’t just a unique event. You need to make it clear that, if they check back in a week, you’ll have another good faith request for their time waiting in the form of your next post. And the week after that, and the week after that, and the week after that, ad infinitum. Every. Single. Week.
This is the crux of why no one engages with new blogs, blogs that have few, if any, followers, and blogs that have one post from March of 2009, another from December of 2012, fifteen in April of 2014, and one from three days ago. Those blogs have not proven that they’re going to live up to their end of the contract. Why would a reader bother to add it to a feed reader or check back again? The overwhelming likelihood is that this would be a waste of time. But if you’ve thrown up a post every week for the last 135 weeks, you’re a pretty safe bet. You need a regular cadence and you need some history, and your cadence and history have to be full of stories that persuade the reader to care. If you look at sites like the Daily WTF or well followed blogs by some of the titans of the software industry, you’ll see long histories and regular posting. That’s going to be your single biggest determining factor for success.
Other Miscellaneous Things To Put On Your Radar
Here are a few other rapid-fire things to consider when you’re blogging. If this post draws real interest and anyone wants me to make a “part 2” or expand on some of these items in detail, please ping me on twitter, via email, or wherever you happen to find me, and I’ll queue up a draft. Also, have a laugh at my expense as I parenthetically tell you how long it took me to figure these things out.
- Be careful with just showing random images you find on the internet in your post. There are non-trivial legal concerns that could come back to bite you if your blog starts to get traffic. (1.5 years or so)
- When you write a post on your blog, announce it on all of your social media (1 year, and this is what prompted me to join twitter, where I also promptly sucked for a long time)
- Allow comments. (Immediately)
- Make sure you have some mechanism for filtering out comment SPAM, but preferably not Captchas because the last thing you want to do is introduce barriers to people engaging you (6 months)
- When you publish a post, announce it 12 hours later on your social media so that you have a better chance of attracting the interest of people around the globe. (1.5 years)
- Install google analytics and figure out what your readers like (1 year)
- Add social media buttons to let your readers give you love (1 year, I think).
- But don’t fret if they don’t give you love. Something like 1 in 100 readers will engage this way, even on well-received posts (2 Years)
- Make sure that your blog can be picked up by RSS readers (1 year)
- Get on the radar, if you can, of link collection blogs (e.g. The Morning Brew, Morning Dew, Baeldung, Regular Geek) (2 years)
- Don’t censor disagreement, and be nice to your readers — even ones that seem to be flaming you. You’d be surprised that it’s not terribly hard to turn a first time detractor into someone who checks back with your blog (Immediate)
- Having series of posts is a good way to increase engagement (Not sure)
- No walls of text. Break your post into headings and, most importantly, use images. Images make your post a lot more attractive in feed readers and on social media when linked. (1.5 years or so, I think)
- Re-purpose your content. If you give talks, make presentations, etc, use this for blog posts when you’re short on fresh ideas. (Pretty quick)
- Publish at predictable times or don’t. For instance, don’t publish in scattershot fashion when you feel like it. Publish every Monday night, unless you don’t have a post, in which case, wait for next Monday night. (2 years)
And, that’s about it. I’d end with something cheesy like, “happy blogging,” but I think the better take might be “happy story-telling.”