I have been asked to gently introduce the FWA New Tampa / Wesley Chapel (NTWC) writers group to using and creating blogs at the June 4th meeting. Of course that meant blogging the content I was going to present. This is an article series on Blogging for Writers.
We now know how to read, subscribe, and produce blogs, but how do we make it a high quality blog. In this post I present what I consider to be the discipline of blogging as I see it. This is highly opinionated and based on what I have observed as high quality in blogs I read.
The Discipline of Blogging
Blogging is a form of writing. As such, it requires much of the same discipline. I would like to share some of what I have learned, some of the rules I use when blogging, and some of the things I know I should be doing, but don’t.
First, here are my golden rules. These are the maxims that I believe all successful bloggers need to understand. They are not the only ones, but the ones I have prioritized as the big three.
Rule 1: Blogging is Writing! So Blog, Blog Often, and Blog on Schedule!
This is the rule I break most often. I tend to have bursts and pauses, but a serious blogger like a serious writer will blog frequently. Blogging does give you a benefit over writing in that you can schedule a blog for publishing, so you can write seven posts on a weekend, and schedule each one of them to publish on a different day. This gives the appearance of blogging every day.
So I probably scared you into thinking you have to blog every day, well you don’t have. You just need a schedule you adhere to so your readers have and expect consistency from you. The more consistent you are, the easier to retain your readership.
The key here is treat blogging professionally, like it is your writing – because it is! Your blog posts reflect upon you as an author, and you want to ensure the highest quality content. That high quality comes from practice (and a really good editor). That means write often.
Rule 2: The New York Times Rule
This is the rule you must fully internalize. You must accept that anything and everything you put on the web may end up on the front page of the New York Times. Do not assume you have full control over your work once it is on the web. If you write an inflammatory post belittling that editor that just sent you your eight rejection letter, you can be sure he will eventually read it.
Why is this true? Because the web is all about links and connections between content on the web. Someone will read your post, link to it, and then someone else will find it, and link to it, and so on. It is like the Six Degrees of Separation. It does not take long for something to be linked to a web site or blog that you did not expect. This linkage is what allows your readers to find your blog, but it also means less friendly audiences, like that editor that rejected you, will also find it.
Bottom line, always – always assume your work will be on the front page of the New York Times. If you treat everything you post on the web that way, you will often temper the most inflammatory things you say, and ensure you properly edit those sloppy scribbling’s before they are seen online.
Rule 3: The Web Remembers All
This rule goes hand and hand with rule 2. The web never forgets. It is the ethereal elephant with superb memory. Even if you delete your post right after you put it up, it is possible a copy was made somewhere, and you no longer have control. I am being deliberately dishonest by saying the web remembers all. It really isn’t that big-brotherish (yet), but once something is up there, you no longer know if a copy is made. Therefore you have to assume a copy is made as soon as you put it up.
Alright, it is time to move past the golden rules, and onto the actual discipline.
Plan it out
This seems pretty obvious, but too often it is ignored (I know I do all too often). Blogging is much like a periodical. It requires a certain structure based on the audience you are targeting and content you are providing. I am going to identify some of the core concepts that should be addressed in your blog plan.
Decide up front how often you want a post to show up. Will your blog be a daily, weekly, monthly, or annual? This will help you define the scheduling for your posts. You can write them all up front, or the night before, but you should schedule them to be delivered at some regular interval. If you publish too much at one time, you may overwhelm you readers, and they leave. If you take too long between posts, they may forget all about you and unsubscribe since they no longer remember why they read your blog.
This is like your literary voice. Find you style of blogging. Will you be conversational, lecturing, or questioning? Will you be narrowly focused or rambling? All of these together or apart are equally valid. However, it is jarring for a reader to have different posts being in a different style. Imagine if in the latest issue of Newsweek, half the articles was written in the style of Manga? It would be (weird, unsettling, just plain wrong?) something that the reader would not expect, and would most likely not be comfortable with. All that being said, it is possible to define you style as being a mash-up of vastly different styles, but your readers will expect that style once you have defined and demonstrated it.
Just as your style sets expectations for your readers, so does your average post length. Will you be writing 500 words per post, or a few thousand? Will each post be a random exploration in how long or short you can make it based on your mood? Try to find your consistent average length, and target for that with your posts. This is much less important than style, but should still be considered. As with most things with blogging, this is not a rule, but more of a guideline you can bend to your will as you see fit.
Pages vs. Posts
You should identify how you plan to use posts and pages. Posts are typically the more dynamic area of your blog, and contain your serialized articles over time. However, creative use of pages can be used to augment and reinforce a group of posts
A blog is a presentation, primarily, of the written word. You need to define the format in which those words are displayed. Traditional press will call this their style guide, and you will need either a formally define one, or at least a set of rules you will follow. Your goal is consistency, so make one or adopt one, and just stick to it.
Tags and Categories
Tags and categories are how blogs structure your content to allow your readers to find what they are interested in. This analogous to the index and table of contents in traditional publishing. Learn how to use them, and as always, use them consistently.
Moving past the discipline, we get in to one of the most overlooked issue with blogging, and that is post types. There are many standard types of posts, and they each follow certain guidelines. As you grow your knowledge of the post types, you want to ensure that remain consistent in its usage over time. It will help your readers move from post to post and focus on the content instead of the structure.
Here are a few of the most common post types you will probably use.
This is the classic multi-part article or just a loosely related set of posts. The more tightly related the posts are, the more you should make an effort to link these articles to each other.
This is a common blogging practice where once every set period of time (week, month, quarter, or year), you review the blogs you have written in a blog post. This is very helpful for new readers to find older content.
This is the classic answer to bloggers block. Just identify a list of something, such as Ten Things to do Instead of Writing the Next Chapter.
Over time, you may find that you have just finished a four part series identifying great characters for mysteries. Do you just let the last post end? No! Nada! Nyet! You need a closer or a summary post that pulls together the content of the previous posts and summarizes it to give your reader a nice clean conclusion.
Blogging Encourages Multi-Media
Moving past the act of writing blog posts, you will realize that raw text on the screen can be boring. A good visual every so often does wonders to jolt the reader and help focus their attention.
Images, Art, and Photos
You may be an artist, or have some great photos to reinforce your post, or you may decide to use the millions (possibly billions) of freely available content on the web. A quick image search on Google or Bing may yield that perfect addition to your post. Do not hesitate to use imagery. Users of the web, and your readers will expect it and be used to it.
Podcasts are the classic use case for audio in posts, but you could just as easily embed some spooky music to play while your reader reads your latest installment of Daytime Ghost Stories for the Faint of Heart.
We cannot forget our good friend video. What blog about historical fiction would be complete without a video of the authors visit to the battlefield setting of the last 9 books?
CAUTION: Watch that license
You just finished writing the perfect blog post, added the perfect images, audio and video, and posted it for the entire world to marvel at. Noon the next day a messenger appears from a law firm to deliver a cease and desist letter, and a notice of intent to sue for damages due to your use of an image that was licensed. Don’t let this happen to you – check the license of all material you use in your posts.
Know what Creative Commons Is and Respect it
Since this is the web, this will be more difficult than it might seem. There are many different licenses for the content on the web. To help solve this problem, a group of licenses were created under the Creative Commons. This organization has made it easy to understand your usage rights for anything using a Creative Commons license, and just as easy for you control your content by selecting the appropriate license. The Creative Commons license is designed for content on the Internet and is globally recognized.
Authors Note: I am not a lawyer. Never even played one on TV. So my advice on legal issues is absolutely worthless, and if you use it without checking with your own REAL lawyer, then it is not my fault – IT IS YOURS! Understand? Good!
A Blog’s Medium is the Web
A blog is a product of the web. Leverage that fact. Link to content from other sites or blogs on the web that are relevant to what is in your post. Don’t copy the content, link to it when possible. These links between sites is what defines and reinforces the web. As the links into and out of your blog grow, you will be more deeply entrenched into the fabric of the web. This is a very rough approximation of what search engines look for in returning results. The more relevant you are, the higher up the search rankings you will be, and the easier for your readers to find you. The more content you produce for the web, the more other blogs cite your work, the more relevant you are to the web. It is that simple. One of the first maxims of blogging I ever learned was ‘Content is King!’ I am not sure who originally coined it, but it is true. Unless you plan to spend a lot of time optimizing for search, don’t focus on concept such as Search Engine Optimization too much. Just produce quality content, frequently, and develop links in and out of your blog. That should be enough for you develop a solid presence on the web that is easily found by your target audience.