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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Blogging Tips

I have been blocking for a few months now.  Given that I expected nothing in return for my scribbling, I have been rewarded with a small readership and a growing number of repeat readers.  My bounce rate is improving and I am getting traffic from referring sites.  This is great, but I blog because writing relaxes me, I love what I do, and I believe in giving back to my community. 

In learning about blogging and in reading blogs for a number of years, I have developed sort of an internal checklist of concepts and practices that I think help me in blogging.  What follows is a summary of the key points.

Find Your Niche

Determine what your talent, specialization, or particular passion is and write about it.  You may find yourself out on a tangent or you may feel the need to rant, but try to return to just a few core subjects.   The world is highly specialized.  Most people will arrive at your blog by way of search engines.  That means they are looking for something specific.  Use your talents and passions to full a demand and people will read you. 

Know Your Audience

First, expect the world as your audience--not because you are important or a brilliant writer (maybe you are), but because that is just how the web works.  Since May, my blog has seen visitors from 76 countries.  Many of these readers come to the site with English as a second language.  I try to refrain from using American slang, academic prose, or any language construct that might obscure my intentions.  Think of Strunk and White's Elements of Style.

Second, based on the first point about finding your niche, figure out who you are talking to.  In my case, I am speaking to software developers who are using Microsoft technologies to build solutions around Microsoft Project.  I also write about more general C# and .NET topics.  The blog, therefore, is not likely to be interesting to a great many people.  I am okay with that. 

Don't Try to Be Right

I read blogs where the writer is trying to convince me of of something.  This is okay for political blogs, but less appealing in a technology blog.  If you want to convince people that something is more correct than something else, demonstrate it rather than proselytize. 

Be Selfless

This tip may not be for everybody, but I make an effort to remain in the background.  I think the problems I am trying to solve and the process I go through to solve them are more interesting than what movie I saw last weekend or what my dog did in the backyard last night.  I am attracted to blogs that state clearly in the blog title what the subject is, followed by a deep dive into the meat of the topic.  Guys like Chris Brumme, Eric Lippert, and Joe Duffy follow this pattern nicely.  If you are writing about your work but frequently subject your readers to accounts of your weekends out on the town, consider having a separate personal blog.

Give Credit

It is a fact that in software development we borrow from each other all the time.  I don't mean the way Microsoft and Apply borrowed from PARC, I am referring to the daily borrowing of interesting code and concepts from those that went before us.  When I am working, I spend just as much time writing code as I do reading about how others have solved similar problems.  When I borrow something directly, I try to give credit to those responsible--this goes as far as adding a link to a blog post or article in comments.  It certainly extends to blogging.  If I use somebody else's work, I try to give them credit for it.

Check Your Stats

There are a number of analytics packages available which give you interesting data about how readers arrive at your site, what they do when they get there, as well as technical demographics, regional demographics, and other analytic features.  I like Google Analytics.  I check my statistics daily to see what the hot posts are, where people are coming from, and how long they are staying on the site.  In the early days, I was seeing a high bounce rate--readers would sweep in for 30-40 seconds and then exist the site.  I did some research and compared my writing style to other, more successful blogs, and made some changes.  Use these tools to reach more people.

Moderate Your Comments

I see blogs with have open comments policies with links to stuff I expect is illegal and certainly offensive, or I see blogs where readers have posed questions to the author who seems to never return to answer.  You have a responsibility to your readers to tend to their comments and questions.

Don't Ask For Donations

Unless you are unemployed, writing for a non-profit, or want to solicit funds for a worthy cause (this does not include your personal income or coffee fund), don't ask for donations.  If you want to make money off your blog, do it through ads (and  

Be Persistent

In the beginning, blogging can feel like yelling into a vacuum.  Be persistent.  Eventually, if you write about something people need or if you are interesting enough, you will start to be rewarded.   The number of bloggers out there is astounding.  If you hook up Google Analytics and see just a few people a day spending ten minutes reading one of your posts, be thankful.  Don't expect this to happen overnight.  In fact, the best bet is to expect it will never happen and be pleasantly surprised when it does.

Write Because You Like...No, Love It!

I close with the most important tip:  write because you like it.  I come across blogs that read like the author was straining to write or straining for something to say just to get in their daily post.  Other blogs are written like press releases or academic treatments on a subject.  These styles come across as though the author is trying to impress somebody or trying to meet a quota.  Write because your passion for your work drives you to share it with others.  Write for all of those times you have read other blogs and got that little piece of information that set you free from a hard problem.  Write because you love it.

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