Sunday, 27 December 2009

Things I've learned about blogging

With Speculative Horizons gradually growing more popular, I've started to receive more and more emails asking for advice about blogging. I therefore thought that I'd share some of the lessons I've learned about blogging in the two years since I started this blog.

Before I start, let me just point out that I'm no expert and that there is no secret formula to blogging success - blogging is not an exact science. Following the below points will not guarantee success or popularity, while ignoring them will not necessarily result in failure. So just take this advice for what it is - a series of tips that hopefully will help out aspiring bloggers (this advice is aimed primarily at book review blogs, though many of the basic principles will apply to other types of blog as well).

With the above in mind, here we go. 

1) Do your homework

Don't just plunge straight in. Take time to study the more popular blogs in your chosen genre/area of interest and try and figure out what makes them a hit with readers. Look at them from an aesthetic point of view - what colours and template style do they use? (you'll probably notice that most blogs use a light background with dark text - this is generally considered to be easier to read). What sort of posts seem the most popular? What sort of style does the blogger write in? How often do they post entries? Try and figure out what these successful blogs have in common, as there will always be certain things they do that are similar. 

2) Make your blog striking and distinctive

I'm talking in aesthetic terms here. Basically, try and make your blog as eye-catching as possible - try to avoid using a bog-standard template. Develop a strong colour scheme and, if you can, develop a personalised banner to go at the top of your blog. Don't go over the top, as too many bells and whistles can make a blog unwieldy, but do what you can to make your blog stand out from the crowd. Appearance will never be as important as quality content, but it can certainly help if done well.

3) Blog regularly

This is absolutely crucial for new blogs. It's imperative when starting out that you blog as often as you can, as you need to give people a reason to come back. For example, I've visited new blogs before and when I've checked back a week later, there's been no new content. I've then deleted them from my bookmarks. Readers want regular content, and that is a rule that can be applied to all blogs out there regardless of how long they've been around. Once you've established your blog you can afford to ease off the pace a little - you've built your core readership, and they aren't going to abandon you if you don't blog for a week. The same is not true of new blogs - if readers don't think you're blogging often enough, they probably won't stick around. So blog as much as possible to show readers you're serious, and that it's worth them coming back. In my first year of blogging I aimed for a new post every two days at the minimum, and that's still my basic target today.  

That said, don't go overboard. You're better off publishing one post a day for four days than publishing four posts in one day and then nothing for the following days. It's all about momentum.

4) Be honest

A crucial factor if you want to be taken seriously as a reviewer. Contrary to the opinion of some, publishers will not put you in their Black Book of Doom for giving one of their books a bad review. They know perfectly well that everyone has different tastes and that not everyone will like their book. More importantly, they expect to get some bad reviews for any book they release. So don't be afraid to be totally honest when giving your opinion, as publishers will appreciate it and will respect you more in the long run. Avoid at all costs a situation where you give false impressions of books to avoid upsetting people - this helps no one. Honesty is a key component towards building a solid reputation. 

5) Be fair

While honesty is hugely important, it's vital that you remain fair at the same time. If you hated a book, that's no problem - as long as you explain why. Always explain the rationale behind your opinions when reviewing a book. Saying "I thought this book was crap" without qualifying and explaining that statement is both unhelpful to the author and the sign of a poor reviewer. If you give your honest opinion and clearly state why you hold that opinion, you shouldn't encounter too many problems. In addition, review the book and not the author, and remember that personal attacks are a big no-no (unless the author is Terry Goodkind). 

6) Develop your own voice

Easier said than done. This is the advice that was given to me by other bloggers when I first joined their ranks, and it's good advice. Basically, try and inject some personality into your blogging. Behind every blog is a person, and the best blogs are usually the ones where that person's style and personality are allowed to infuse the writing. Don't hold back - dreary writing is a turn-off. Let your emotions and passions break free and give your writing a life of its own. Furthermore, be accessible. By that I mean try and promote debate and respond to comments posted on your blog. If readers like your blog, it's likely that they'd like to interact with you as well. Have a visible email address as well, so readers can email you (from a blogger's perspective, this is a great way of obtaining feedback). 

7) Don't be afraid to be controversial

Readers like a bit of controversy. I've published my fair share of rants, and most of them attracted a fair amount of publicity and generated some interesting debate. So don't be afraid to get up on your soap-box from time to time. That said, don't be controversial for the sake of it - readers can see through that.

8) Promote debate and discussion

This is the lifeblood of the online genre community, so as a genre blogger you should try and tap into this. Write posts that promote discussion, that challenge conventions. Not only does this get people talking (which let's face it, is what we do best!) but it brings the added bonus of other websites and blogs linking to your own posts. If someone else has written a post that you have a strong opinion on, then write your own take on it and in your post link to the original argument. This facilitates the flow of information, helps the debate to grow and also does everyone a favour in terms of user traffic. 

9) Avoid regurgitation

One of my pet hates. Try to avoid having an endless succession of posts that have a similar nature or purpose - it makes for dull reading. You also run the risk of your blog becoming a conveyor belt. Try to mix things up a little. Even better, try to come up with ideas for posts that no one else has done. 

10) Introduce yourself to other bloggers

Sending a quick, polite email to established bloggers that introduces you and your blog is important. There is a definite blogging community within the online genre community, and it's a very good idea to say hello before you get down to serious business. This can help in a variety of ways - for example, your blog may get added to the blogrolls of more established blogs, which will drive traffic your way. It's also just basically a polite thing to do. I did it when I started out, and received a very warm response which made me feel very welcome (as well as some useful advice and so on). So go on, we don't bite!

11) Politeness is king

Be polite and professional in all your dealings with authors and industry folk. Authors and publishers tend to be very approachable and accommodating - so make sure you are polite in your correspondence. It takes a long time to build a reputation, but seconds to ruin one. 

12) Enjoy it!

If you're not enjoying blogging, then why bother? It's massively important to enjoy what you do, otherwise it's just like work - and who wants to do work outside of working hours? That said, sometimes blogging can be a bit of a grind. Stick with it though, as the rewards can be most satisfying. 

Right, hope those tips are of use! Feel more than welcome to add your own in the comments section.  Oh, and while I think of it - author Mark Charan Newton wrote a good piece about what he thinks makes a good genre blogger. Well worth a read, some good points there. 

11 comments:

Val said...

Somehow I think number twelve should top the list :P Or at least above blog regularly. There is nothing wrong with a bit of drive but if it becomes an obligation rather than fun you may as well quit.

K.A. Denby said...

Great tips all around, James. Some of the things you suggested to me were not only helpful from an advice standpoint, but they also forced me to look harder at why I'm doing this. I had to answer a few simple questions of myself, and your thoughts/comments helped illuminate the fact that those questions needed to be asked.

This article just reinforced those earlier thoughts and suggestions.

I read something recently that suggested that having a broad range of topics is a bad idea in blogging, and that writing posts about oneself is almost always a no-no. What do you think about that? This advice seemed to be speaking to me directly, as I typically blog about whatever I'm feeling like for that day. I never questioned it before because I was using the blog as a means to practice, without regard to readership. Recently, though, I've wondered if I am alienating people who don't care about the occasional political rant, or personal diatribe. Or perhaps some people are alienated by genre movies and books, and care more about the personal stuff. Who knows? I think it would be difficult for me to find just one thing to focus on, but perhaps I need to pare things down a bit.

Anyway, keep up the good work, and congrats once again on the success. May it be doubled in the new year.

James said...

Val - I should have pointed out that the tips were in no specific order. You're right about 12 though, and also right that if it becomes an obligation then you need to decide whether to continue.

Kristopher - I'm glad the brief advice I've given both here and in my email has been useful. As for a broad range of topics being a bad idea, I don't see why that has to be true. As long as you never lose focus of what your blog is about, I don't see why you can't be diverse. Familiarity breeds contempt. As for never blogging about yourself, that depends. If you're wittering on about your day, then yeah it could get very boring. But if you just make the odd personal post, no problem. Ultimately there are no rules, and as I said blogging is far from an exact science. The best thing to do is blog about what YOU want to blog about, and see where it takes you.

Chris said...

Hi James, that's some great advice there. Blogging should be fun, well maintained with a bit of variety thrown in.

I've just started my own little blog, just something to keep me occupied while at uni and to keep me in the habit of reading regularly. I've never done reviewing before so it should be an interesting learning experience! I've added a few of the regular blogs and sites I visit including yours. Hopefully I can develop my own voice over time. :)

Harry Markov said...

Where were you to mentor me, when I came up on the scene? *grin*

Amazing advice. It would have helped me immensely, when I started and did everything very randomly.

I think that there should be a number 13 in the mix that says don't try too hard or else nothing good will come out of it.

Mihai (Dark Wolf) said...

I believe that we cannpt achieve anything without passion, so I also think that point 12 is very important. I was lucky to have a few advices when I started from Robert (Fantasy Book Critic) and Chris (The Book Swede), but I also learned many things on my own. And your wonderful post still makes me think about some things :)

James said...

Chris - hope the tips are of some help! Best of luck with your own blog, it would be great to have a genre blog done from an Aussie perspective! Can't think of any others.

Harry - absolutely agree with you, a new blogger must not try too hard and expect too much too soon. Good advice.

Mihai - totally agree, passion is probably the most important point of all.

ediFanoB said...

Even I'm a contributor only, I find your advice helpful. I write one weekly post - regularity - and additional posts including reviews when I find time to do it. I must admit that I'm neither controversial nor do I promote discussions. Mainly I write about things which I really like. I post because I enjoy it and of course as a compensation for my work.

Keep up your good work.

Elfy said...

Thanks for that James. I started a blog some months ago. I think I've managed to break nearly every one of your 'rules' :). If there's a difficult way of doing things friends are generally agreed that I'll find it! My blog is essentially a reread of Dave Sim's epic graphic novel Cerebus, chapter by chapter, so it's about as obscure as you can get, but I've started throwing off topic posts in there as well. These generally concern fantasy literature. I've decided to start putting reviews up as I read things this year. By the way I'm also an Aussie, so we're around and blogging.

Seak said...

Thanks, that was really helpful. I recently started my own at seaks.blogspot.com and it's been really fun. I really just need to build up a lot more content.

Thanks again,
Seak (Bryce)

Joe Sherry said...

I'm with you except #10. I think posting comments on others blogs and linking to others is a better introduction than the random e-mail saying "hi, here's my blog, please link me".

Being part of the conversation, I think, is key.

Now, if there's a particular question to ask in the e-mail - or something that doesn't fit in a blog comment that you want to mention to the blogger - I think that's fantastic.

Maybe I'm just a curmudgeon, though. It's been suggested before, and you'll probably find me in a few years yelling at kids to get off my lawn. :) So, take that with a grain of salt.

Otherwise - I agree - especially with the blog often (unless each weekly post is a tome of massive consequence, but I'm not capable of that) and most definitely with "enjoy it". This has to be fun, otherwise what's the point?