Blogger University: The 10 Commandments of Blogging


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.

7)  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.

Thanks, friends!


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22 thoughts on “Blogger University: The 10 Commandments of Blogging

  1. Love this. Thanks for sharing from your experience. Personally not “being a slave to my stats” changes the way I blog. Letting go that particular measurement of success was liberating. I still look occasionally – mostly to know what’s drawing attention – but it’s not a post by post obsession.

  2. Thanks for this post, Jon. It’s all good advice.

    For those, like me, who are not daily writers/bloggers, that’s okay too. Write when you are able. There are days when the writing is in my head and I let it swirl around until I can get to the laptop. Don’t give up because you haven’t written anything in a week or two. Sometimes that rest leads to innovation and creativity in writing.

  3. Of the many things I love about your posts, even the few times my views are not in exact alignment with yours, the one thing that impresses me the most is your generosity. Here it is again. I don’t know whether I will ever choose to be a blogger, but these are some truly sage words to refer to time and again for writing in any format/forum. Thank you so much.

  4. Thank you John! You have put clear perspective on a subject I have thought about and now know I better listen to you should I decide to engage in blogging.

  5. #9 resonates in different spaces, not just blogging. I particularly see that coming into play in the political sphere. If a politician believed something in 1992, based upon the best information available at the time, and with current information has revised or reversed their position, there will come great howls of flip-flopping. God forbid that someone would learn and grow! Personally, I would rather support someone who takes the time to think and consider than someone who came out of high school knowing all they need to know, thank you very much.

    • Thanks Patricia, for raising this point (or rather, expounding on John’s). It really bugs me when that charge of “flip-flopping” gets latched onto as a “gotcha!” weapon by political opponents & their followers. And let’s admit that it’s a play both sides of the political spectrum have used on each other. Of COURSE we should want out political leaders to continually grow in wisdom as they grow in years; shouldn’t the same be true for every one of us? Yeah, there certainly can be an element of the politician just cynically gaging which way the wind is blowing, and it can take some real soul-searching on the part of every voter to decide whether, or how much of, it’s that, as opposed to the former noble goal. But well said: “God forbid that someone would learn and grow! Personally, I would rather support someone who takes the time to think and consider than someone who came out of high school knowing all they need to know, thank you very much.”

      One of the biggest examples I recall about Barack Obama, and illustrates one of the reasons I enthusiastically voted for him twice & continue to consider his tenure as one of the better US presidents in several generations, goes back two or three years ago, when he said, in regard to the then-new-issue of gay marriage, was that “he was evolving on it.” That struck me as refreshingly honest. I interpreted that as him publically acknowledging that (like I think it’s safe to say) the overwhelming majority of heterosexual people, who once, just as I did, would’ve considered the concept of two homosexual people getting married as ludicrous, if it’d even been suggested, had the open hearts & open minds to at least consider why maybe our unquestioned assumptions weren’t necessarily the “one, true” answer for both our society and even God’s desires for us.

      A P.S. to all this, though: a wise politician, as well as a wise person in general, will at least make passing acknowledgment to the possibility that “at least based on all I’ve weighed AT THIS POINT, with all the best information I’ve sincerely sought from opposing viewpoints, and my sincerest efforts at looking past my own prejudices, THIS is how I feel about it”, there MAY in fact be other factors that change my mind later, or give me a more nuanced opinion.” That kind of politician is the one who tends to get my vote…..not the dogmatic ones. And I think John shares a similar feeling, and which is why many of us like-minded people gravitate to his blog.

  6. Hey John! Great thoughts, thanks.

    How do you handle the comparison trap? How do you read the blogs of other people, & still be confident not only in your writing but responses to your writing?

  7. Thank you, John. I can see what a trap it can be to get sucked into reading and responding to comments. I fear too many of us fall into the trap that is social media.

  8. Hmm. I have been thinking about dipping my toe into the pond. I will see if I get brave enough a bit down the line here. You have given
    excellent advice. Thank you!

  9. Oh, John, in reading and thinking about your words above, I have been convicted and brought my own blog up to date.

    I read the day’s selection of the Rule of St. Benedict, which is the path that God chose for me, and write Some Thoughts about living out the RB here in the world, not part of a community or order.

    The Sayings of the Desert Fathers is something that deeply fascinates me and I’ve been selecting a Saying, writing Some Thoughts about it and posting them to my FB group, Celebrate What Christians Have in Common. I meant to post them to my bog too and forgot. But now I am reminded.

    Thank you, John.

    Of course, should anyone stumble across my blog, they would instantly see that to computer is an arcane gnosis which mysteries have not been vouchsafed unto me.

    By which I mean my blog has a very boring, bland appearance and I don’t know how to make it attractive.

  10. As an artist I appreciate this list as well. It is equally applicable, especially regarding work ethic, not worrying about what others think, change & growth, knowing every piece isn’t going to be a master and being ok with that, and above all, always being true to your voice as you shape and refine it over time. Thank you!

  11. I tried to start a blog (at a friends encouragement), but I just don’t have the discipline or ideas to write often. Plus, generally, when I DO have an idea for something, it fits in a short Facebook post (my social media outlet of choice), so I don’t stick in on my blog. (though I probably should). Maybe things will change in the future.

    As an aside, it’s too bad you can’t post this very insightful post about blogging to the Christian Bloggers Network group on Facebook now that they’ve banned you for posting “unchristian” material. Their loss, I suppose.

    • Wow. If there an FB group that has banned Pastor John for “unchristian” material, that is probably not a group I want to be a part of.

      Thanks for letting me know.

  12. Thanks to John, my blog is all up to date. Were anyone to look at it, one would see quite easily I’ve no idea what I am doing. I have no idea how to fix the atrocious appearance of my posts.

  13. I am regularly amazed at what people say they love. I sometimes shake my head when something I love gets no feedback.
    One cannot waste time with either. Move on, write the next piece.
    Thanks for all you do, John.

  14. Thanks for this, John. I will take to heart what you have written. I particularly liked no.9, and I am pleased to be able to say that I decided early on that I was always going to leave public what I have already made public, even though I might change my viewpoint later. This, in my case, is to show the evolution of the thought processes. What I believe now will not be the same as I believe in five years’ time, as life changes us. This is the way it should be!

  15. Content. Content. Content. Have a fresh opinion, but one as much supported by facts as possible. Know your reader. Be their friend. And their advocate.

  16. As an occasional blogger, I found your tips very useful.
    I am also concerned about how to be a good blog reader! Yours is the only blog I read with any regularity, and it seems to me that you are writing them more frequently. Is that true? On the other hand, I think they have got shorter.
    My problem is that you are putting out more blogs than I have time to read. I hate to delete them unread, as I may be missing a gem, so they pile up in my inbox more and more, until I bite the bullet and delete a whole bunch. Then I have a guilt trip!
    So my only criticism of your blogs is that they are too frequent, and occasionally too long. No doubt other people think the total opposite. You can’t please everyone. Thanks again for all you do; I often share your blogs with my friends, Christian or not.

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