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Writing and Creating a Conversation in Your Own Blog

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In this chapter, you explore all the aspects of writing a blog: finding your voice, remaining anonymous, and making your life public or keeping it private. Although there aren't hard and fast rules about how to write a great blog post, there are some things you can do to make your writing more engaging to an online audience.
This chapter is from the book

Chapters 1 and 2 focused on "the easy stuff." As much as it can confound and frustrate, technology is actually pretty easy to grasp. There are always those who can help you with that part if you feel lost. Writing, however, is completely up to you. It's your voice, your words, and your story. I can't tell your story for you, but I can tell you what I've learned about writing and writing for the Web.

What is great, and potentially scary, is that your blog is your own platform to say and write what you want. It's your soapbox in the vast online world. Blogs started off as personal journals, but when comments were added to posts they became conversations. You tell your story, people read it, and sometimes they will add to it, maybe with their own experiences. The result is that you have something more than what you started with.

In this chapter, you explore all the aspects of writing a blog: finding your voice, remaining anonymous, and making your life public or keeping it private. Although there aren't hard and fast rules about how to write a great blog post, there are some things you can do to make your writing more engaging to an online audience.

Let's get into the whole mechanics of writing a blog post.

  • You tell your story, people read it, and sometimes they will add to it, maybe with their own experiences. The result is that you have something more than what you started with.

Turning an Idea for a Blog into Blog Posts

After reading Chapter 1, "Welcome to the Blogosphere: Planning Your First Blog," you should have the general topic for your blog. After reading Chapter 2, "Installing and Setting Up Your First Blog," you should have a blog to start posting content, but you might be stumped for how to get some posts going. This is fine; don't worry because everyone, including me, has moments of "Okay, what am I going to post about today?" This section is going to help you get the post ideas flowing.

No, I'm not going to suggest strange creativity exercises or rituals. I have tried so many of them that I forgot one very important fact—inspiration is like a flock of birds. Sometimes it's a lovely thing to watch and marvel at, and sometimes it's an Alfred Hitchcock movie. You just don't know until you stop and look at it for a while. That's a mixed metaphorical way of saying: Inspiration often just hits you and often at inconvenient times, so the trick is being ready to take advantage of it when it hits you.

Capture Inspiration Whenever and Wherever It Strikes

I get most of my news and information online through RSS feeds and social networks like Twitter. I am extremely lucky to know a lot of gifted, brilliant, off-kilter, funny, silly, and generally nice people. I try to read as much of what they write and produce as I can. Their creativity fuels my creativity, and I hope my creativity doesn't make them run screaming down the street. Because I don't really know when one of my friends is going to say something brilliant online, I have a couple tools to capture those nuggets of brilliance when they come up.

As I've gone through the process of writing this book, I've been testing and trying new software, helpful hints, and other things that fall under the heading of "Research." (They could also fall under "Making Surfing the Net Look Like Work," but I'm not going to talk about that.) Research is something that in the Internet age is a lot different than it was even just a couple of years ago. The scale of information you can have at your fingertips with just a Google search is nothing short of mind blowing. For this reason, some very brilliant folks created note-taking apps or as Shawn Blanc calls them "anything buckets." I use two programs for anything buckets to keep track of quotes, links, pictures, and any other interesting online piece for review later.

The first app that I've been using for about a year to gather notes and track projects is called Evernote (free and paid versions, Mac/Windows/iPhone/BlackBerry/Web). (See Figure 3.1).

Figure 3.1

Figure 3.1 A clipped reference page of Evernote for the Mac.

The second app is called Yojimbo (paid, Mac only) and is one I've come across more recently (see Figure 3.2).

Figure 3.2

Figure 3.2 Yojimbo and Shawn Blanc's anything bucket post.

How do these apps work for capturing inspiration? Simple, whatever I'm doing on my computer, I can quickly capture in one of these programs. If I see a great website I'd like to note for later, I don't bookmark it in my browser, I put it in a "post fodder" or "book research" folder in one of these programs. When I'm looking for something to post or for that site when I get to a section of the book, it's right where I can find it: right alongside any other related items I've previously found. For example, in Safari (my browser of choice, not where I'm going on vacation) I can click the Evernote button or the "Archive in Yojimbo" bookmarklet and that page is stored in the appropriate place.

The idea here is that when you see a site, get an email, or whatever else you might come across, you can quickly just jot a note to yourself to save it for later. Evernote wins hands down in the "whenever and wherever" department because there are versions of Evernote for Macs, PCs, phones (the iPhone and BlackBerry versions are quite nice), and the Web; and best of all, they all sync up.

Regardless of the electronic tool, or even pen and paper (I always have a pen and small pad in my pocket), you should be ready to note it because you don't know when an idea or inspiration will strike. I've lost count of the number of potentially great posts that never came to be because I forgot them before I could note them.

Finding Your "Voice"

The hardest, and the most fun, aspect of starting a blog is finding a tone and style that expresses "you" in written form. How do you find your voice? You just have to write and work at it until your comfortable style comes out.

No, this is not English class all over again (write a two-page essay on the role of Google in today's info-centric society...). Just write like you're chatting to a friend or a favorite professor or teacher.

Let me give you a couple of examples from my own writing (not that you don't have a really good idea of what my "voice" is like). The following is a section from my own blog:

  • You combined the persistence of a solid RSS reader with the immediacy of a dashboard or ticker? Have your ginormous list of feeds, but mark a select few as HUD feeds? Feeds that maybe could be pushed to Twitter or tapped into by Hootsuite or Tweetdeck. Like your top 20 "I don't want to miss a single thing" feeds, while in the background the "reader" part is building a relevancy-linked reading list? Find a way to consolidate articles on a topic, meme, headline, or concept into streams of articles. Sure be able to read your feeds like we do now (an interface like FeedDemon or NetNewsWire is good I think), but also have this information stream pulled together.
  • Looking for the day's posts on RSS or Facebook or social media or H1N1? Then they are already consolidated for you. Yes, you can build "smart folders," but you have to know the topic first to do that. Sure you can have a folder with big concepts that you're interested in, but when news breaks, wouldn't it be good to have something like your own Techmeme based on the sources you follow?

The following is from the Media2o Productions blog:

  • Is social media a fad? Yes, using the term social media is a fad. Just like "internet marketing", "new media", "business blogging" were all "fads." The terms fade away, thankfully, but the ideas remain. We still have websites (more and more actually), write (aka blog), and continue to find more and more ways to interact with each other, our customers, clients, and business partners.
  • So while none of these 15 best mindsets are magic bullets to success, if you don't employ them your chances of success are greatly reduced.

Neither of these sections are all that different, but the tone is more corporate or professional in the second, and the first is more informal. My voice is the tone that I use to write with when I write a post (or a document). It's my choice of words (informal or formal), it's my tone (serious, funny, ironic, or sarcastic), and it's my phrasing. All put together, these give you a mental picture, or a feeling, on the post you're reading.

I don't have one voice I use in writing. I change and adapt it to the writing task at hand. You wouldn't write a business proposal like you write an email to your best friend. That said, regardless of the target audience, the best voices I read are all natural; they aren't forced, and that takes practice. Switching voices isn't always easy. You might even notice subtle changes in how I've been writing this book. Each chapter was written (and rewritten and edited) at different times. Maybe one day, I was feeling very serious and philosophical while another day more funny, which will and does come out in your writing. As you're reading the book, keep an "ear" out for how my writing voice changes. Sometimes it was accidental, and sometimes it was on purpose (like when addressing a serious topic), but it's always there.

The only way to develop your voice is to write—a lot. It might help to try to write as another person (say one of your parents). What would your dad sound like if you were trying to portray him in words? Or create a character, maybe your alter ego, someone you want to pretend to be and see how you would make that character come alive.

Your voice will come on its own. You might even think about writing an anonymous blog under a pen name, which might free you to experiment with different styles and topics that you might not be comfortable tackling under your real name. Who knows? Maybe your pen name might become popular.

To Anonymously Blog Or Not: The Line Between Public and Private

This has nothing to do with the length of your post. It has to do with depth. How much information about yourself do you put out there for public consumption? Family? Pets? Your hometown? Spouse? Love life?

These are difficult questions, huh? I know you're thinking that you would not talk about your spouse on your blog or about the date you had last night. Yes, all bloggers think that, too, but as you become more comfortable blogging and as you build an audience for your words, it gets easier and easier to let personal details slip; details you might not otherwise want to share. Sometimes it just happens and sometimes that's okay. Other times, it can blow up in your face.

Although it is assumed that most people blog as themselves, and use their real names, some of the best and most famous blogs are written anonymously. Washingtonienne and Belle de Jour were both written by women who chronicled their sexual escapades online and became very famous for it. Washingtonienne was revealed to be an aide to a U.S. Senator, and Belle has recently revealed herself and is a highly respected researcher. Belle's anonymity didn't stop several books and a TV series based from being created based on her blog. Although names were never revealed by either blogger, the writing experiences were very much real. There was a blog penned by "Fake Steve Jobs," who wrote as if he were Steve Jobs, but in a mock parody of all that is Apple. It was witty, biting, and damn good stuff. People loved it and in the tech world, the discussions about who Fake Steve Jobs really was were almost as good as Fake Steve's writing.

It was an interesting day, almost anti-climatic when Fake Steve revealed himself to be Daniel Lyons of Newsweek Magazine. All the speculation was over—no more guessing who might be behind the satirical and funny posts. Sadly I was never considered to be one of the possible people behind the blog.

Washingtonienne and Belle de Jour might be two extreme examples, but they aren't alone. People pen blogs for many reasons (and books and articles) anonymously. Maybe they don't want their friends to know they write; maybe the topic clashes with their public persona. Maybe, like Fake Steve Jobs, they wanted to write some parody or satire that could only be done behind the safety of a pen name. Whatever the reason, nine times out of ten, it's a good one.

What can happen if you blog publicly or if you blog anonymously and you're outed? I've seen friends I've known for years fired from their jobs. There have been court battles where blog posts have been used as evidence against parents in custody fights. That doesn't even start to cover the standard libel suits that have been filed (and some have been successful).

Now, what about you? Are you going to write as you or under a pen name? Before you decide, you don't actually have to decide. I'll tell you right now that I have a couple anonymous blogs out there. I have anonymous blogs to explore different sides of my writing. Writing about different topics stretches my creativity. Stretching and pushing yourself is a critical aspect of being a writer.

When you're deciding whether or not to be anonymous, think about whether you would mind someone from your job, church, or local watering hole reading your posts and knowing that you wrote them. None of that should necessarily stop you from writing about what you want, but it just might stop you from writing about these things so openly. You might also not want the whole Internet to know exactly who you are, where you live, or the names of your family members. Although I do blog as myself, my children don't choose to (my daughter has a private blog), so they are only mentioned by initials and I don't post their pictures publicly. The same goes for other people in my life. They didn't ask to be drug into the wide-open land of the Internet, so I keep a lot private. I also make a lot public.

I've taken strong stands on mental illness, education, learning disabilities, my own health, and sometimes politics. I take those stands because sometimes it's the right thing to do; sometimes individuals need that chorus of voices calling for change. I feel I've been given a tremendous responsibility by having an audience. Even if it isn't a huge audience, I know it's a far-reaching one. So, I take a stand. Sometimes it isn't popular; sometimes I cringe as I select "Publish," but I haven't had many posts that I regretted posting. If nothing else, anonymous or not, always write from your heart, be proud of what you write, and stand by your words.

  • If nothing else, anonymous or not, always write from your heart, be proud of what you write, and stand by your words.

There are degrees of anonymity. You can blog as Jane Smith, but just not tell all about where you live, or blog as Bob the Delivery Guy and be a pen name. It's your choice. One of my friends is a "Daddy Blogger" and blogs under the name "Genuine." His family members are Mrs. Genuine, Genuine Girl, Genuine Boy 1, and so on. There is a layer between the world at large and his family. Is he anonymous? Nope. His name is Jim Turner. He and I were business partners in a company together. Oddly enough, he's far more famous as Genuine than as Jim (at conferences he writes "Genuine" below his real name). Go figure. Just mull that over for a minute, because now you're getting to the really fun stuff.

So the question is "Where does your public life end and private life start?"This isn't a question I can answer for you. Bloggers usually find out by crossing the line. In doing so, you'll learn from experience what topics you want to keep off limits.

Write Until You've Said Your Piece

One of the most common questions I'm asked is "How long should a blog post be?" I often give a rather impish answer of "as long as it takes for you to say what you have to say," but that is a cop-out answer. Generally a blog post is short, about 200 words or so. I think it became that way because geeks have notoriously short attention spans. That's not to say that people, including myself, don't write longer pieces. It's just in general, blog posts are short. The short-form post is something that seems to fit in well with today's fast-paced society; however, there is a huge drawback to it: People often just regurgitate the same ideas and links without adding anything to the conversation. Trying to squeeze some original analysis into 200 words isn't the easiest thing to do, but it is worth it when you really pull it off.

I've read great posts that are around 6–10 words long (a single sentence) as well as epics of thousands of words. One isn't better than the other. When you're writing a post, just write it out. Don't worry if it's too short or too long. Say what you want to say and when you're done, see what it looks like. You might want to split a longer post into a part 1 and part 2 (or 3, 4 ...); series posts are great ways to keep readers coming back (don't forget the age-old cliffhanger!).

If You Post It, They Will Come: Posting Frequency Answered

How often should I post? This might be the number one question people ask about blogging, along with "How do I post links and images?" The honest answer is that it's up to you, but if you are trying to build traffic and a profile for a professional or business blog, you need to post at least three times a week, and not all in one day. Honestly, a post a day should be your goal if you want to build a readership and traffic. Yes, that might seem difficult at first and it does require a significant time commitment, but once you get going you might not be able to shut up.

If you feel like you have to post more than once a day, I suggest spreading the posts out over the day. You can do this two ways: One is to just hold off on posting, and the other is to use the post to the future feature available in most blog engines (see Figure 3.3). I recommend the latter, because it gets the post out of your system.

Figure 3.3

Figure 3.3 Part of the WordPress post editor showing the time-date adjustment panel.

In addition to gaining readers by posting every day, search engines index your blog more frequently, if you post frequently. Each post ties into the previous ones and strengthens the associate between your blog and the keywords you use. After a solid month of posting five times per week (or more), your ranking in the search engines will increase significantly.

Your First Post

So your first post. The "Hello world, here I am. Time to listen up" statement.

Uh huh.

Right.

Chances are your first post will suck. Oh yeah, it is pretty much guaranteed that you're going to look at it in month or so and die a little inside. You'll want to delete it. Expunge this dreck from the world.

Don't.

Your first post is something of a birthday statement. It's what you're going to look back on and smile after your blog has been around for a year or so. But, yeah, it will still suck and really that's okay. Just get the first post out there and out of the way. No, you don't have to write some great expressive post about what your blog is about; just a "Hi, yeah this is the first post, I'm going to talk about [insert topic], hope you enjoy it..." is great. Don't worry or stress about post number one.

This Is Practice

As you're writing, remember that these posts are practice. You might hesitate to post them. You might want to read and edit them over and over again. You might think that they aren't good enough. Well, they are good enough and you should post them. Sure, check for spelling and grammatical errors, but don't go and edit the post over and over. Don't try to work and rework your post for just the right turn of phrase. It isn't worth it. I've said it before and I'm going to repeat it again, ready? Listen. No, seriously, this is important.

Your first post will suck, and that's okay because all first posts suck.

I think my first post, which I wish I could share, but I lost it in a blog move, was something like this:

Here's a cool thing I found today. I think this collaboration tool is cool. [Link]

This is a riveting piece of writing, isn't it? This is a post full of passion and depth, inspiring you to think in a whole new way about collaboration tools. Yeah, not so much. This is why you just keep writing. It gets easier and eventually you find a voice to write in that expresses who you are. Experiment with short posts, long posts, lists, reviews, a brain dump of links, and so on.

  • Your first post will suck, and that's okay because all first posts suck.

At the beginning, writing and posting might seem like a struggle, especially if you're not used to writing on a regular basis. It does get easier—I promise. When I talk about sources of inspiration, you'll see that I don't just pull ideas out of thin air. Nor do I think my writing needs no improvement. I appreciate the feedback I get on my posts, and especially this book, because often a gentle critical look can help bring out the great writer that you are.

Before you get worried or excited about the content of your blog posts, always remember that blogging isn't rocket science. There aren't rules that you must follow to make a good blog post. When my friends and colleagues ask me "Is this an okay post?" I generally say that it's fine. Sure I might help them fix a link or move a picture around, but generally that's it. Why? Because it's their story not mine. Yes, if it's a post trying to make a point, I'll read and offer suggestions for clarity, but that isn't often.

I hope that you are more inspired and think that I'm dead wrong about writing. Stop shaking your head because it's absolutely true. I want to get you thinking about your voice and story, and if you don't agree with me about my take on writing, that's great. It's your blog, not mine.

Writing Your First Post

Let's get into the nuts and bolts of posting. The following examples use WordPress' post editor, but many blog engines use the same components and icons in their editors so it shouldn't be too difficult to make the transition.

The post/page editor in WordPress should look familiar to you if you've used a web-based email service like Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, or Gmail (see Figure 3.4). All of these online writing tools share similar icon sets and even sometimes background technology!

Figure 3.4

Figure 3.4 The post editor in WordPress, which is similar to other online writing tools.

The layout should be pretty easy to follow. The title goes in the skinny bar at the top, the post itself goes in the larger box below the formatting buttons, and the tags go to the right in their own box. Categories are also set on the right, chosen with check boxes (or created ad hoc by clicking the Add New Category link).

When you are ready to post, click the Publish button, and you are done! If you are worried about losing your work, or want to finish a post later, click the Save Draft button. The draft post shows up in the post list noted with "Draft" next to the title. WordPress has a handy autosave feature that stores a copy of the post as you write it. The default is to save every five minutes, so if you accidentally close your browser tab or window (that has happened to me more times than I like to remember), your browser crashes, or your whole computer crashes, WordPress will have a version (the last saved one) for you. I, however, don't trust autosave functions. I still proactively click Save Draft if I'm working in the browser, and you should too.

Let's pull this all together now. There is a button, located in the upper right corner of the WordPress dashboard, called New Post (refer to Figure 2.11). When you click this button, you get a blank post. If you fast forward in your mind, once you've written something to post, it will look something like Figure 3.5.

Figure 3.5

Figure 3.5 Post in WordPress' post editor ready to be published.

This post is ready to go. The title is there, the post is all there, and I have tags set (right side) and categories chosen (right side, below tags). I skipped putting an image into this post because for your first post, just write and get something out there. If you are confident enough to include an image, go for it. The only thing left to do is click the Publish button and make the post live on the Internet as shown in Figure 3.6.

Figure 3.6

Figure 3.6 The post now published and live on the Internet.

If you look carefully at Figures 3.5 and 3.6, you'll notice that the body of the post in the editor looks like it's in Times New Roman font (it is actually). In the post, it's in a different font (Lucida Grand, for the fontahoics like me). This is all part of the magic of blog themes and style sheets. Often people tell me they want to change the font in the post editor, because they want it to look like that when it's published. Sure, you can do that, but you shouldn't do that because this is what your theme's style sheet does. If you don't like the font your theme uses, changing it isn't difficult, but that's a little advanced for right now.

That's it, really. Keep your first post simple, don't over think it, and just do it. It is as simple, and as hard, as that.

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