Why blog (and how do you do it)?

I get asked occasionally about my blogging and the two most common questions are (1) why do you blog; (2) how do you [get started | choose a platform | get your blog noticed]? Yesterday, someone from one of my writers’ groups asked me a combination of both of these questions. The questions come at a time when I have been making an effort to improve my blog content (and pick up some more readers). And it comes at a time when I have a new blogging gig that I will be talking about in a future post. Since I am asked these questions with increasing frequency, I thought I’d provide my version of the answers here. I say “my version” because everyone has a different reason for starting a blog and a different measure of success maintaining it.

I started blogging in late 2005 and my reason was one of convenience. I had kept a diary since 1996. The diary was a yearly, hardbound traditional-looking thing, red, plain. Since my diary was mostly a dry record of the day–a reference book–and not something that I wrote secrets in, I saw no reason in doing away with the traditional form and moving it only to where some of my friends could follow along. When I started, I was using LiveJournal (and I still have a permanent account).

Writing blog posts everyday was not a problem for me. At the time I started, I had nearly 10 years of experience jotting down notes in my diary. In fact, blogging was often faster and easier because I could type much faster than I could write by hand. There were other conveniences, like tagging and searching. I blogged prolifically but no more than a few people at best cared much about what I was saying because it was all me talking about, well, me. However…

In 2007, after I sold my first science fiction story, I began to change my blogging content. Slowly, I moved away from the all-personal, all-the-time, to posts that were writing-related, or science fiction-related. I eventually switched platforms from LiveJournal to a self-installed and managed version of WordPress. Things slowed down for a while but in late 2010 they started picking up again. I returned to regular blogging and at the end of 2010 as part of my writing goals for 2011, I redefined my purpose in blogging. As a professional science fiction writer, virtually the only promotion I have is my own. So I decided to use my blog to promote science fiction generally, to try to become more recognized as both a science fiction writer and a fan of science fiction. To my astonishment, it seems to be working.

So today, if you ask me why I blog, I will give you four reasons:

  1. Because it is fun
  2. Because it gives me an outlet for writing about science fiction
  3. Because it provides a platform with connecting with other writers and fans
  4. Because I can occasionally promote my own writing

How I do it is a different matter. When people ask me this, I sometimes (but not always) get the feeling that what they really want to ask is: How can I start a blog that will have 10,000 hits a day, top the list of Google searches, and win lots of awards? The answer to that specific question is: be John Scalzi.

Instead, what I can speak to are the things that I have learned that has made my blog a very minor success. Minor being defined by the fact that it has some small amount of recognition within the small world of science fiction. Measures of success are very abstract. You could say that increased traffic to your blog is a measure of success, and indeed, since the beginning of 2011, traffic to this little corner of the web has tripled. Measures of recognition are a little more concrete. You find your posts picked up by various science fiction news sites. You find your posts linked to from other writer’s blogs. You get requests to reprint your posts. You get requests to participate in various projects related to something you’ve posted on. You get asked to be a guest blogger. All of these things have happened to me in the first two months of 2011, so in that sense, I consider this venture a minor success.

So: How Did I Do It? Well, like I said, the road is different for everyone and I did it by being persistent and figuring things out as I went along. I never read any kind of how-to book for blogging. It evolved over time and I learned in the course of 6 years what I might have learned in 6 hours if I had read one of those books. If I had to boil it down to some bullet points, they would be:

  1. Find a niche. For me, it was science fiction and becoming a science fiction writer.
  2. Write about something to distinguish yourself in your niche. For me that’s things like my Vacation in the Golden Age posts.
  3. Be consistent. Always have content ready to go out. I keep a list of topics in Evernote, and as I write a post one of the topics, I pull it from the list. Even so, at this very moment that list contains 12 items on it and it usually never falls below 5 or 6.
  4. Get the posts out early in the day so that they can be picked up by various sources. I write my posts the night before, usually 2-3 for each day, and then schedule them to be posted the next day, beginning at 7am, 1 post every 2 hours or so.
  5. Link back to your posts. Provide pathways to topics you’ve discussed before. You’ll notice I’ve done that quite a bit on this post.
  6. Get your posts out to the social networks. Mine go to Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and many other places.
  7. Pimp your blog. Get it in your sig file. Link back to it when posting comments on other people’s blogs.
  8. Interact with your readers. Comments are the best part of blogging.
  9. Set realistic goals and follow up on them obsessively. I set goals for 2011 to attract more readers to my blog and I am obsessively checking my blog stats daily to see if I am hitting my mark. When I’m not, I try to adjust, adding a post ad hoc, tweeting about something I posted earlier.
  10. Have patience.

The last point is key. Over the course of 6 years, those 4,000 posts I’ve written are paying dividends. On any given day–especially a day where a post of mine is not picked up by an SF news site or on someone else’s blog, half of the visitors that come to my blog are visiting old posts. In fact, given the increase in traffic this year, if I skipped a day and didn’t write a post, I’d still get plenty of hits thanks to that backlist of posts that just sits out there, waiting for a search engine hit.

Getting to this point–especially this year–has taken a lot of effort. I’ve put in at least as much time on my blog as I have my fiction writing, but I expect this to pay off in the long run. More people will know who I am and maybe that means more people will read the stories that I write. And the stories that get published will attract more people to the blog in an almost self-sustaining cycle.

When it comes right down to it, there probably is no right or wrong way, just your way. Going back to that first list of why I do it: because for me it is fun, even the obsessive parts, and fun is probably the number one criteria for success. If you have fun blogging and you have some amount of skill to convey that fun in your writing, you are bound to have some amount of success.