Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Secrets of a (Semi-) Professional Blogger

Next month I will reach a goal that I never thought I would accomplish writing this blog – I'm actually going to get paid money for my efforts. I won't say exactly how or how much because I don't want to violate any Terms of Service, but if you know anything about Google or Wordpress, you know how the process.

Making money at blogging was never my top goal, and the amount I'm getting isn't anything that’s going to let me quit my day job, but I couldn't be more satisfied, because this means I'm officially a "professional" blogger, if you accept the definition of a professional as someone who gets paid for doing something. It took me six years of posting to get to this point – I did a couple of things right, and a bunch of things wrong. Here are some things about blogging I learned along the way:

Blogging isn’t trendy anymore, and that’s good. How many millions of abandoned blogs are out there, now that people have realized no one is interested in what they had for breakfast? That means there's more room for people who are serious about doing it. Blogging is the ultimate in self-publishing, and a great way to practice writing. To think that anyone with a computer has the same reach as any newspaper or magazine, it’s no wonder corporate media outlets have spent so much time turning their noses up at the medium.

If there’s one “law” of blogging I’ve found, it’s that The Internet wants ORIGINAL CONTENT, that is, your own unique thoughts, opinions, explanations, or references to stuff that's not already being commented on by the other ten million Web outlets. Don’t waste your time being a “repeater” whose blog posts mainly consist of links to other posts. I tried it. It doesn’t work.

Some bloggers can get away with it. For example, Barry Ritholz and popular blog The Big Picture, which basically recycles other articles from across the Web. His method works because he has a narrow focus (business issues) and a group of staff and guest contributors working with and for him so that he can post 8-10 times a day. He’s also written a book, and is a recognized expert in his field, which allows him to offer valuable insight into the articles he posts. If you're not in the same position, you should focus on creating original content that other people will find and link to.

“If you’re so smart, why did it take you so long to get paid?” you may be asking. The short answer: because I wasn't consistent in my blogging, and frequency of posting doesn’t matter nearly as much as quality and consistency. Sometimes I would take months off between posts, then follow it by posting a dozen one sentence "Hey, this is cool!" type posts about something that caught my attention. I wasn’t consistent and produced poor quality work, and the results showed in the (lack of) page views.

The best way to keep at blogging is to pick a subject you're interested in writing about and write about that. There are no magic subjects that will guarantee page views, except maybe sex, and writing about that will probably get you kicked off of most blog services. You’re much more likely to stick to writing if you are personally interested in the subject matter.

That being said, make sure to write about things other people give a crap about. Very few people reading blogs care what you just ate for lunch, how cute your cat looks, or that you really liked the latest episode of Mad Men (that is, unless you're prepared to go into depth about it). In my experience writing and reading blog posts, I've found the most popular ones are persistent in creating posts that do one of two things – they answer "why" or "how." They're either arguing a point about something, or they explain to the reader how to do something, which is why most people go to the Web in the first place.

When you write, write with strangers in mind. Having your own voice and point of view is more than fine, but make sure your posts would make sense to someone who has never met you and never will. You should also aim for creating “long-term” posts. Write posts that will make sense and be of interest to readers not just when it gets posted, but next week, next month, or next year. That's what blogs do better than other kinds of writing on the Web. Want to scribble a blurb about something that just happened to you or point out a cool article you just read? That's what Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Google+ and photo sites like Pinterest are for.

Some critics may feel differently, but I think lists are great. They may be too simplistic for some tastes, but that's the point. People don't read blog posts the way they read novels, newspapers, or magazines. You want your readers to be able to immediately catch the points of your argument, and skim through your writing if they want. Writing in a semi-outline form also makes it easier for you to keep your writing focused and concise.

Make sure your blog looks nice. That means you should correct grammar, spelling, or factual errors you make in your text. And keep a clean layout. Nothing turns off readers more than a blog with dozens of ads everywhere, pop-ups, pop-unders, garish colors, and weird fonts.

And that's about it. Follow these guidelines, and you too can blog for fun while actually running the risk of having people read your stuff.

When I recently analyzed where my page hits were coming from, I came across a really interesting fact: although I've been blogging for over six years and have written over 1,000 posts, 81% of all of my page hits have come from THREE posts – this one, this one, and this one. 66% of all of my page hits have come from ONE POST. These posts all follow the guidelines I listed above. Far, far too many of my other posts didn't, and the lack of attention given to them is, in retrospect, inevitable and appropriate. So learn from my mistakes, and remember most of all to have fun with your writing – if you can't do that, what's the point?

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