Welcome to Blogger University!
Every day people ask me, “So John, how did you create a successful blog?” My first response is that I’m still never quite sure what successful means, but I thought over the coming months I’d share some hard-learned lessons from the four-year journey I’ve been on, in the hopes that this might offer some encouragement to anyone thinking about doing this as a hobby or their life’s work.
These aren’t about the mechanics of setting up a blog, or some handy “How to Go Viral” secrets. There are tons of great resources out there to help you find blog templates, site hosts, ad companies, etc. This is about how to start and sustain your online writing without losing your mind or your soul.
Let’s go! Here are 10 things you’re going to need to do if you want to blog well:
1) Cultivate your voice. When you’re just beginning, it can be a huge challenge to figure out what your distinct writing voice is; that specific space you’ll occupy in the world among so many competing voices. This is a long process of fits and starts. I don’t think I really landed on mine until a good year or so into the blog. Initially you’ll naturally emulate other bloggers or authors you admire, and sometimes without knowing it you’ll blatantly rip them off. Be patient. Over time, you will gradually shed more and more of other people’s voices as you grow into yours. And once you do, you’ll be amazed it what it sounds like.
2) Trust and tell your story. Most people believe they need to have some dramatic narrative to their lives in order to find an audience or to create work that will resonate, but the truth is it’s in the small things that we really connect with other people. The very unique lens through which you view the world is enough. We’re trying to touch humanity here, and the stuff that sticks is the stuff that’s universal, so find the beauty and poetry in the ordinary and share it. You don’t need a huge story arc or some terrible tragedy to reach people. Real life, carefully viewed and stated with clarity is compelling enough. The only story you can tell is your own, so tell it. People will find themselves in it.
3) Play long ball. I still remember my first blog subscriber. It was validation that someone was actually reading what I was writing. (Thanks, Meghan!) When I had 8 subscribers I was elated. At 50 I thought I’d made it. 100 page views a day would have had me dancing in my living room. The process of building an audience is almost imperceptibly slow. You may have a post that grabs a huge chunk of readers at one time, but usually blogging is about the daily work of creating and sharing the writing, and in trusting that it is reaching those it needs to. But there is no shortcut. You can’t override the process. I started four years ago, and the audience I’ve been blessed with is the sum total of every single one of those days. Do what’s in front of you and know that it is bearing fruit you won’t see for a long time.
4) Believe what you publish. This may sound obvious, but it is one of the greatest challenges bloggers or columnists face. Living with the expectation that we will offer fairly consistent content and that we’ll speak into the issues of the day in real-time can be a heavy burden. Often, the pressure of “having something important to say” can push you to write something that may be interesting or provocative, but isn’t from a place of truth. After you write any post, get away from it a bit before you publish it. When you come back to it, ask yourself “Do I really believe this?” If you don’t—don’t publish it. Defending writing you don’t really internally own is a nightmare, so fight daily to stay authentic. This will help you bear whatever pushback or attention you get from what you do share.
5) Write to be real, not to go viral. There is no secret to getting a post to reach a wider audience. Anyone who tells you this is mistaken or lying—otherwise they’d be continually going viral. I’ve been extremely blessed to have a couple dozen or so pieces reach a really large audience, and a handful that would be considered massive posts. But there’s really no rhyme or reason to their success. They are all on extremely different subjects with very different tones, and so pinpointing why they found a huge audience (or why work I believed in much more, did not) isn’t really possible. Don’t chase the viral experience. It is a waste of energy and compromises your integrity. Write from the truest place you can, and when they audience finds the writing, whatever size that audience is—they will find you waiting there.
6) Write every day. Olympic swimmers don’t only swim when they feel like it or when they’re particularly inspired to swim. The daily grind is the path to excellence. I carve out time every day to write, whether I publish it or not. The act of writing, the process of creating when I don’t feel particularly creative, and the discipline itself all make me a better writer. You can’t always count on your muse to show up, but you can always lean on your work ethic and your craft. There will be days when inspiration comes and a post writes itself or falls from the sky into your computer. Other days you’ll sweat and struggle and agonize over each word. Either process can produce something meaningful. Write and keep writing.
Read and reply to your comments. Okay, this one is a bit controversial and lots of people will disagree with me, but while I read blog comments, I do so quickly, and I personally respond to individuals very sparingly. This is largely self-care in two distinct forms. Initially I read and replied to every blog and social media comment, until it nearly swallowed me up from both a time and emotional bandwidth standpoint. As your platform grows, the sheer volume of communication can overwhelm you; multiple blog posts, multiple social media platforms, personal messages about the writing. Long ago I decided that my most pressing job was to start conversations by producing meaningful pieces. The other stuff was gravy. From a practical standpoint, it’s difficult to engage 4 or 5 people in productive conversation or extended debate each day, let alone hundreds of them. Part of retaining physical, emotional, and spiritual health doing this work is being able to get distance from the fray. Largely I publish the writing and allow it do what it is going to do in people’s hearts, letting it create discussion for them in their circles of influence. You have a family, a life, a finite set of hours, and a limited capacity for stress. You don’t need to be author, moderator, debater, and commentator.
8) Toughen your skin and don’t work for kudos. Hear me now: You are going to get the snot beat of out you if you write anything. No matter how benign or coherent or thoughtful a work you create, there will be those who line up to tell you what a moron you are, how uninformed your perspective is, how pedestrian your writing is, and why you probably had a lousy childhood. They will follow you on social media just to publicly share how much they hate you and your work. You cannot wear the criticism you will take or it will kill you. Some people will oppose you from a pure place and others will troll you for sport, but either way you can’t let their words define you. This cuts both ways. You can’t do what you do to earn the praise of people who agree with you and you can’t lose heart when the people who disagree with you attack you. Write because you have to and want to—not for your cheerleaders or your critics.
9) Celebrate your inconsistency. One of the inherent downsides of blogging is that you are regularly speaking into the world in a very public and very permanent way. Your opinions are preserved indefinitely, which can put you in the precarious and disorienting position of arguing with your former self in front of other people. Some of them will be more than happy to bring those inconsistencies up; quoting you against yourself and shaming you for the duplicity. Resist the temptation to feel bad about this. Personal growth often looks like vacillation from a distance. You’d better be a different person today than you were five years ago, and if at either of those times you wrote from a place of honesty, there will be a difference in what you say. Celebrate this.
10) Don’t be a slave to your stats. Success is seductive. When a single post finds a large audience or when you begin to reach more people on a daily basis, that can easily become a trap you can’t get out of. If you’re not careful you can find yourself chasing past success or living and dying by your monthly, daily, even hourly analytics. This is a sure way to lose your mind and lose your way. Remember, like long-term financial investing this is a process, and it’s not about today as an isolated event. Create the best piece you can, realize it is part of a far greater body of work, and trust it to find the people it needs to. Whenever someone finds your work meaningful—that is success. If it is important enough for them to read and share, you’ve down something no stat can capture.
Bonus: 11) Remember the Beatles. Blogging regularly or writing a daily column can be an exhausting grind. It can also create a completely unrealistic expectation to produce excellent work all the time. Of course, you’re shooting for that any time you create, but you’re also generating content at a rate that few writers in any capacity ever have to. Heck, all Lennon and McCartney had to provide were a dozen songs a year between the two of them—and not all of those were Hey Jude or Revolution. Do your best to craft interesting, powerful, insightful, pieces, but cut yourself some slack when you don’t quite hit a home run.
In the coming weeks we’ll talk about the how to come up with compelling subject matter, how to avoid burnout, how to deal with criticism, and we’ll look at deadly mistakes you can make when success comes.
Blogger and writers, I’d love to hear what you’re learning.