First, a little anecdote about why I started blogging. Please feel free to skip this part and go on to the practical advice if you prefer, as point number five is that you shouldn’t bore your audience.
I was at a publishing seminar in Dublin a couple of years ago, and one of the panel discussions was between Patricia Deevy, editorial director of Penguin Ireland, and Faith O’Grady, an agent with the Lisa Richards Agency. They were discussing the point at which the decision is made to accept a debut writer’s novel. One of the first things they do is check the person’s social media presence. If they don’t use Twitter, Facebook and blogging, the publisher will set them up with accounts as using social media is an essential part of being an author nowadays.
Someone in the audience asked what happens if a writer has written a wonderful book but “wouldn’t be into that kind of thing?” Patricia Deevy said that writers have to be prepared to play a part in the marketing of their work. So unless the manuscript was something really special, she’d probably have to pass.
There was a ripple through the crowd at this, many of us clearly being the types who prefer to keep our thoughts to ourselves, thanks very much. But Deevy was just stating the facts – this is the reality of publishing in the 21st century. I came away thinking I’d better find out if I could handle this before wasting time writing books no one would consider if I wasn’t on Instagram (an exaggeration, but you get my drift).
I recently blogged about using Twitter, admitting that I only know what a year’s use has taught me. With blogging, I found myself in somewhat more familiar territory. I come from a publishing background and hoped that I could transfer my skills as an editor and writer to produce something reasonable. It was still daunting, however, as I didn’t particularly like the idea of writing about myself and certainly didn’t have enough experience behind me as a writer of fiction to be any kind of authority on it. The solution was to write about what I encountered along my way to – hopefully – improving as a writer.
I did have the benefit of a husband who has a lot of social media know-how. For his work (and sometimes just for fun because he’s a bit nuts that way), Roger does podcasts, makes videos and leads workshops on social media-related topics. He’s also had several blogs, one of which is a former Irish Blog Awards winner. His main piece of advice was, “Add value.” By that, he meant to focus on sharing things that would be of use to readers rather than using the blog only as a glorified press release, every post starting, “I’m delighted to announce that I…” What’s in it for the reader with that kind of blog? This doesn’t mean you can’t ever mention yourself, particularly if the whole point is of the blog is to promote your work, but as in real life, it is advisable to rein in news of your fabulousness.
So here then are a few of the things I’ve learned, which I hope will help you create the kind of blog you want:
1. Decide what you want to blog about before you start. This may seem obvious, but many people seem to set up blogs and then don’t know how to fill them. This leads to intermittent posts that start with, “I must try to blog more often…” I’m guilty of doing this myself, but readers aren’t really interested in excuses. “Blog or blog not, there is no try,” as I believe Yoda once said.
One way I dealt with trying to come up with fresh content was to start a regular news round-up. Called The Unweekly Herding (because ‘Weekly’ proved to be a massive lie), I write about anything that catches my eye in the publishing world, as well as upcoming competitions and journals open for submissions. It has the double advantage of shaming me into at least trying to make it look like a regular effort.
2. Research other blogs. Before embarking on anything, look at how other writers present themselves and what on earth they find to write about. You’ll come across a real mixture, and you can learn from all for both good and bad reasons. Knowing for example that writers are obligated to use social media whether they want to or not, you can see the signs of where this is being done under duress rather than with enthusiasm. As a result, copy tends to be anything but sparkling. But if your blog is your showroom, dry, bland posts will hardly cause a stampede over to Amazon to buy your work.
3. Keep it light. Or not, it’s up to you, naturally. When I started blogging, I kept a few keywords in mind. I wanted my blog to be informative but readable, with a light touch and humour wherever possible. However, that may not fit with your personality, and that’s also important – your blog should convey something of you. But be warned that people tend not to wade through lengthy, weighty material online, so keep asking yourself if there’s anything you can do to lift your writing.
This may help…
4. Put a bit of effort into the look of your blog. There are so many great free templates out there that there’s no excuse for something that looks like it’s advertising an accountancy firm from the 80s (if only blogs had been around back then – imagine the fun we could have laughing at them now). Don’t forget about the importance of first impressions – your home page is a shop window so it should look inviting.
On the topic of visuals, there are a few sub-points I’d like to make:
- If you aren’t a very visual person, get outside opinions: is your blog easy to navigate? Does it look appealing? Is it cluttered? (my particular bugbear) Does it fit with the image you’re trying to project? A romance writer wouldn’t want the same style blog as a military history expert, for example.
- Don’t have dense blocks of text because readers don’t like that, it makes them think they’ll need a lie down after wading through your posts and they’ll quickly lose interest. The hard return is your friend and it’s better to have lots of short paras than, say, two immense ones.
- Break things up further with pictures or illustrations. There are lots of stock libraries out there that offer free images (incidentally, image use is an area where you need to exercise caution because of copyright rules. Do your research on that, too, before you start lobbing photos into your work). I use a free stock library called StockSnap.io, but there are many others with varying terms and possible charges.
5. Don’t bore your audience. Impatient readers will have gotten to this part quicker by skipping my anecdote at the start. It’s just a shame they’ll have missed that shocking bit about the shark attack and the nudity.
This point is self-explanatory really, isn’t it? Would you go back to a blog that doesn’t hold your interest? The only reason would be if the quality of the information was exceptional and there was nowhere more entertaining on t’internet to find it. It’s easy to say don’t be boring, but it can be difficult to judge your own work. The best advice I can offer is to keep trying to put yourself in your readers’ shoes (or imagine addressing a specific individual or group if that helps). And if you find yourself wading through something you’ve written, chances are a reader will too.
6. Be brief. Ironically, I’ve broken my own rule with this very lengthy yet possibly life-saving blog post, but generally I try to keep posts to a maximum of around 500 words. People are busy, things to do, box sets to watch. They don’t want to do the kind of reading more typical of the Sunday papers over a coffee, so try to distill your many interesting observations down to the core points. Then add a joke or two and throw in a Yoda picture if at all poss – readers love that.
I hope some of the above is useful. If you’ve read all the way to the end, then I’ll have done this blogging thing correctly and proved some of my own points. If you haven’t, well then you’ll never see this bit where I tell you that you have the attention span of a yak (part two of this series will start with a very important rule about not offending your audience).
Good luck and happy blogging!