Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Notes From Eight Weeks Of Blogging

I started blogging eight weeks ago and I thought I'd share some of what I have learned so far, for the benefit of those who are thinking of starting a blog and for those who, like me, have realized that blogging is a little more complicated then originally anticipated.

I began blogging because I thought I would enjoy having a place to express myself, and I have greatly enjoyed it. I was thinking at the time of what we might call the Althouse rule, expressed here in a post about lefty bloggers:

Actually, I have to admit that I blog for self-expression, not with any expectation of affecting anything. In fact, I strongly favor blogging for the sake of blogging and mistrust bloggers who are tapping the medium because they have a goal that they want to accomplish. I have to think that the monumental talkfest that is blogdom has got to be having some effect. But I quite love the fact that the effect is far beyond the control of the individuals who take up blogging because they want to make something specific happen.

From this passage I got into my head that blogging need not be more than self-expression, and this realization alleviated many of my anxieties about sitting down, starting a blog, and writing out my thoughts. If I didn't have to do more than be true to myself, then I would hardly be risking any failure by blogging.

A second idea I had in mind when starting up this blog was also derived from an Althouse post, in this case a post about the hype surrounding HuffPo's launch:
In fact, I don't like when bloggers make a big thing out of their first day and say "Look at me, I'm launching a new blog!" Why not blog low-profile for a while and get a feel for what your voice is going to be, what makes a good post, how to mix up the subject matter? Then one day when you've got a particularly good post on a subject some prominent blogger would want to link to, send out an email on that post. Then if you get a link and people follow it, they'll see this is some kind of a real blog over here -- there's a whole flow going on -- and that link will have some potential to lead to a regular readership. That's what I did.

I figured if it worked for her, it might work for me. And it suited my nature: I tend to be uncomfortable about forcing myself into a conversation, and the idea of letting this blog grow naturally appealed to me.

So I began a blog with two principles in mind: that it was primarily about expressing myself, and that it would grow into something if it wanted to. I picked a name I thought appropriate for my world view -- Occidentality, a concatenation of "Occidental", or Western, as in Western values, and "mentality" -- and a description for myself that is accurate but bland, such that it would not hem me in.

My initial fear was that once I had created the blog I would have nothing to say, so my first post expressed the hope that it would not also be the last post. But I quickly found subjects on which I had some thought I wanted to develop for whoever happened across the blog, and posts started appearing almost on their own. Since then I've written over 150 posts, and have learned several things that I wish I'd known going in. So for those who might be looking for some advice, here is what I have to offer based on what I've discovered so far:

1) Don't Suck

I know it's obvious, but it bears repeating for many endeavors besides blogging: do whatever you're doing as well as you can. By definition, as well as you can will be only as well as you can imagine, but you'll at least enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that what you've written is as solid as you can make it. If a blog is about self-expression, then that is all that is really needed to profit from blogging.

2) You Probably Have More Original Thoughts Than You Realized, And Therefore More To Say

I have had a Blogger account for a long time, and I've been a member of Free Republic and other such forums for a long time. But I didn't post comments very often because I would decide that my comments offered little that was not already said. This attitude was imbecilic, and I'm sorry I ever indulged it.

When I started blogging I started to pay a little more attention to what I really thought; putting an idea into words transforms it from a few fleeting images into something concrete and solid. I realized that my ideas were very original and I had merely fooled myself into think they were not, and that I fooled myself into thinking that someone had already expressed them. This happened because I would read one site, then another, and another, and so forth, and would think they were all somehow connected, that they all expressed my own ideas as well as I could. But they weren't connected at all -- it was my own mind drawing these sites' disparate parts together. Drawing ideas together was where I found unique thoughts, and unwritten they simply dissolved. Once I started to think about what I really wanted to say, I realized I had a lot to say that no one else had offered. In fact, I realized quite quickly that people I thought I was in agreement with had a vastly different perspective than my own. While surprising, this knowledge has encouraged me to express myself more clearly and treat other people's ideas with more care and respect.

3) Make Every Post About An Original Thought

I ultimately found that my best posts were ones in which those original thoughts were the centerpiece and not the aside. When I started blogging, I would put up a post about whatever I thought was interesting, sometimes highlighting my own opinion, other times highlighting that the writer I was linking to. This made blogging a little tedious. But when I took the time to develop my opinion then it was not only quite interesting for me, but seemed to generate some responses from readers. Though not always positive, the responses were nonetheless satisfying. So now I make every post relate to some original thought of my own, even if only by a reference to a previous post. Blogging is much more fun this way.

4) Traffic Is A Fickle Mistress

I added a stat counter after a few weeks, and at times find myself obsessed by the number of people who came to this site. I'm not too proud to admit that I once put up a quickie post at 11:30 pm knowing that a handful of people would find me through the "Next Blog" link in the Blogger header and that this would put me over 20 unique visitors for the day.

But this is the wrong way to think about traffic. It really develops because a blogger develops a track record of writing about a subject. Early on I wrote some posts about the fentanyl overdoses that have affected Chicago so horribly. I now get a sizeable percentage of hits from people looking for information about this problem.

And there is a more profound reason that developing a track record is so important: it causes you to develop expertise such that even a casual aside on one of your favorite subjects will contain useful insights and information. It is for insight and information that people read bloggers, not random links relating to the topic of the day.

5) Pursue Ideas And Information Aggressively

Part of my work involves teaching people how to take standardized tests, and the principal ingredient of an improvement in test scores is persistence. Persistence is the sole common denominator of people who achieve test scores sufficient for the goals. Knowing this perhaps allowed me to quickly discover that a good blog post required me to pursue an idea thoroughly. It was not enough to provide some facts from a newspaper article and say, "Isn't that interesting"; a good post required me to explain why I thought it was interesting. Not every post needs to be a magnum opus, but each post requires an idea to justify it. You will find that searching for that idea opens up a world of new ideas which can turn a mundane post with a link to someone else into an interesting an original expression.

Also, I believe a blog post has an obligation to explain a factual background, to have some sense of factual history. I recently wrote about an Illinois high school student disciplined for something he wrote on Xanga. The original post on this case would have been mere blather had I not tracked down the kid's Xanga site and, through that site and those of his friends, pieced together the whole back story of the case. Having that back story made the original post into something of which I was quite proud.

6) You Cannot Plan What Your Blog Will Be About

If you are really blogging for blogging's sake, you will find yourself writing about things for which you thought you only ever had a passing interest. I had no idea that the top draws to my site would end up as heroin, fentanyl, and high school Xanga posts, but that's how it's turned out so far. However, a blog has something of a life of its own, so I know that other subjects will be developed as events unfold and my interests take new shapes.

I would seriously advise a new blogger to keep their blog description simple, because it will be hard to stay within that description once the real blogging starts.


If anything ties all these ideas together it is the first principle I mentioned when I started this post. A blog is going to be rewarding provided it is primarily a means of self-expression. It really needn't be more. And if it is primarily about self-expression, it will lead you in directions you probably had not imagined.

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