How to build a blog readership

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Despite the recent success of this blog over the past year (250,000 uniques, hundreds of new subscribers, republished in Lifehacker and others) the truth is that I’ve been a failed blogger for far more time than I’ve been a successful one.

The other day I got curious and went back to look through sites I had written on before I started my current blog. I found a two: one primarily written in 2005 called Techcast (I used it to promote my tech podcast) and one written in 2007 called Sanity for Dummies. Side note: I was 14 in 2005.

Go take a look at them. They’re horrible. Nobody read them. Frankly, I don’t even know why I bothered to link them up.

But really I think it’s a good example of how something that looks like a very fast road to a big readership really took a long time to build. If you visit my blog today it looks like I’m some kid who threw up a couple of blog posts on the default Posterous template and started raking in the traffic. In reality though, it took a long time for my writing and my experiences to catch up with my ambitions and begin producing returns.

I get asked a lot to give advice on how to blog. Having gone back and read through my old posts (this one is by far the best – seriously I was a lot funnier when I was younger) I thought this might be a good time formalize a few of my thoughts on how beginners can approach improving their blogging skills. There are a lot of patterns to be found in poor blog posts, and I’ve done my best to formalize a list of them and discuss how they can be avoided. So without further ado here are a few tips for aspiring bloggers.

Don’t blog

Seriously. It’s not for everyone. It’s really, really hard to do well in a consistent fashion. And no one will care about what you write for a long time. If you don’t like it, and you’re doing it because you think it’s good for your “brand” I think it’s unlikely that you’ll stick with it long enough to see results from it.

The primary reason that I blog is simply because I can’t help myself. Writing things down is an instinct for me. Putting them on the internet is learned next step.

But here’s the good news: blogging is just one means to an end; it’s not the only means. All the benefits that you accrue from good blogging, can be accrued from other types of content creation. Maybe you enjoy talking more than writing? Host a podcast. Maybe you’re more effective when people can see your face? Start a video blog.

Do whatever makes the most sense to you. You don’t need to fit into the blogging mold to start creating things that people want to consume.

Stop writing a school report

A lot of the posts that get sent to me, especially by younger writers, are written like school reports. The school report format is this:

1. Do some research on your given topic

2. Pretending to be a subject matter expert, write an impersonal take on the facts you’ve gathered

It’s not your fault you write this way. We’re taught by teachers to write like this because they imagine that by the time we start writing things that someone else will see, we’ll be enough of an authority that this style will be effective. Unfortunately that’s not the case in the real world. And in the real world, writing like this is banal and forgettable.

Good writing has the essence of its author in every sentence. If you’re some kid in Iowa writing about venture capital, you can’t be writing posts in the style of Chris Dixon. If you’re a bootstrapped student in Pittsburgh you can’t write posts like Jason Cohen. Not only is doing so not believable, it’s also boring.

Some people (my younger self included) want their writing to be read devoid of the context of its authorship because they think that their ideas won’t be taken seriously if people know they’re young, or inexperienced. They think that context will hold them back. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Context will set you free. 

If you remove the bland, impersonal filter that we’re all taught to adopt in school and replace it with more of yourself a few things happen.

1. Your writing will gain a personality and a unique perspective

2. It will instantly become more interesting and engaging

If you recognize your limitations, and your inexperience but also show how limited experience (or a different experience) leads to different perspectives, you’ll suddenly have things to say that are just as interesting as someone who has been in business for 20 years. Embracing your context, and framing your writing within who you actually are is the first step to writing interesting things that people want to read.

It’s also a lot more honest.

Decide who you’re writing it for

Are you writing for yourself? Or are you writing to be read?

I meet a lot of people who ask me to critique their writing, and when I point things out like: “Well people aren’t going to believe this” or “This is isn’t expressed clearly enough for someone to follow” I hear a lot of, “Oh, well I mostly wrote it for myself anyway.”

In a lot of cases this is a cop-out. It’s an easy way to excuse mediocre writing. In some cases it’s true though. Some people are genuinely uninterested in writing things that people want to read – as an example try reading some Hegel.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

For me at least, part of my measure for whether my writing is good is whether people want to read it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll write blog posts even if no one reads them and I’ve done it for a long time. But if I can get someone to feel something when I’m writing; if I can get them to learn something, that’s what’s most satisfying to me.

You also hear this sentiment echoed by people other than lowly internet bloggers, like musicians. Here’s an excerpt from a John Mayer interview.

[You have to] define your expectations. Life is so much easier when you do that.

Otherwise you don’t know when you’ve hit the mark…I knew that I wanted to be a listenable artist. I wanted to be the guy that the best guitar players…wanted to hear when all the music in their heads was driving them nuts. I wanted them to come to my room and let me play them a song. That was when I figured out that writing songs was my calling.

I don’t concentrate full-time on my writing – I would call myself more entrepreneur than writer. And I don’t have nearly the same level of skill, talent or depth of experience at writing blog posts as John Mayer does at writing songs but I feel the same way. I want to be read.

And if you make the decision to write to be read, that requires you to take care to express things in simple terms, to put your personality into the piece, and to contextualize everything you’re saying. It’s a lot harder to write things that people want to read. But that’s just part of the challenge.

You only get better by writing more. And reading more.

Apply the Lean Startup to your blog posts

I know a lot of people who have a file of finished blog posts sitting on their hard drives, or that they quietly post on their blog but make sure not to publicize in any way. They spend hours and hours combing through their posts trying to make them as perfect as possible and end up never publishing anything.

If you do this then stop. Please.

A big part of perfectionism is fear of failure. It’s an ego thing. Or it’s fear of being misunderstood. But seriously, no one is going to remember your crappy first few blog posts. Unless you’re an idiot like me, and you relink to them after people start to read what you have to say.

But really, the only way to learn how to be a better writer is to have as many people read what you have to say as possible. Over-editing your work is not helpful at the beginning.

I’ve written over 100 posts on this blog since I started it. I can honestly tell you that every single post on this blog was published in first draft form. Every. Single. One. I read it as I’m writing it, and I give it a once over for errors. Once in a while I’ll send it to someone for a sanity check to make sure what I’m saying isn’t totally dumb. But beyond that I don’t do any real editing.

I’m not advocating that you don’t edit your work. I am advocating that you don’t overedit it. Just get it out there. It’s ok if it’s not perfect.

Don’t pay attention to things that don’t matter

Things like picking just the right template to capture your “feel”. Or finding the perfect blog title and matching domain name. Or getting the right tag line. Or crafting your bio page. Those are nice optimizations to make once you have traffic coming in. And honestly I would probably have a much higher subscriber count if I paid attention to any of it.

Maybe one day I’ll put enough time into this site to take it off of the default Posterous theme and start converting some more of my traffic into sustainable eyeballs. But the first step is to consistently generate high quality content that’s interesting, informative and most of all personal.

If I’ve done my job right, after you read a couple of posts on my blog you’ll feel like you know a little piece of me. And that’s the only way, if you’re writing without an exceptional degree of experience in your subject area, to generate content that’s exciting enough to get people to read it.

Anything else is boring.

If you liked this post you should check out my startup Firefly. We do download-free screensharing for websites. If your company uses GoToMeeting, or cares abut customer support we can help you get better.

2 Oct 2012, 11:24am | 21 comments

  • Hod

    Hi Dan,I must say you are half mistaken.Since my first day at HN community (about 18 months ago) i read lots of blogs and other works and tried to catch up with the industry.From the very first moment you got me, first with your start-up (polish domain or something like this) and later with your wisdom.So Dan, it works easy for you to post blogs because you are a bit exceptional.For me it is much harder (and i guess to most of us), i need to read my post few times, sometimes i ask others to modify and most of the time no one really cares.I tried also to write in Hebrew where it should be easier for me but its not, even harder.Note- I just read the above few times, looked for typos and somehow felt unease with the result but i will publish it anyway 🙂

  • Dan Shipper

    Hi Hod,Thanks for your kind words, but I’m not sure I would just lay this at the feet of being “exceptional”. I’m not advocating for not editing your work – I’m just saying that at the beginning it’s much better to get things out there than continually refine pieces that you’ll never publish. If you really enjoy blogging, keep writing. The traffic will come eventually.

  • Krish Subramanian

    Very true Dan. Overcoming that fear of failure and just blogging without worrying about how people would interpret is the difficult part for me, which I am trying to overcome. Reality is nobody really cares about what you write anyway. And writing is the only to get better.

  • Wim Leers

    I just blog whenever I have something interesting to share. I don’t blog for the sake of readership. I blog for the sake of sharing useful things. If people are interested in what you write, however infrequent it is, they will get in touch with you.That’s enough for me, because readership is not a goal on its own for me.

  • Bryan Lee

    I like the part on “Don’t pay attention to things that don’t matter”that’s so true, I been wasting my time thinking what blogging platform should I use, comparing platform on their SEO & themes. I could have used the time to write more articles and make my future writing better.Thanks for sharing.

  • Michael Mahemoff

    “Apply the Lean Startup to your blog posts”Another aspect of this (aside from drafts) is taste-testing via status updates and comments elsewhere. I usually know a topic is worth expanding on if it gets a few retweets or replies.

  • Riaz Rizvi

    Hi DanI have found it difficult to share ideas with people because I talk in an objective, impersonal voice as if I’m some kind of authority. I can see people switching off, and likewise I find it incredibly tiresome when someone talks to me in this way. I have been struggling with how to change this, with suggestions like ‘be humble’, ‘earn respect by listening’, ‘limit the number of points you argue on’ etc. However your phrase ‘Contextualize everything you’re saying’ resonates as the best approach. Thanks!Riaz

  • Brandon

    I have the exact problem you describe – I have a tough time releasing anything that I haven’t proofread about 100 times. Maybe it is my education, or my job (engineering) but I’ve been trained that way.I’ve been making an attempt on my blog (pretty new – have a look!) to get over this fear and just write.We’ll see how it goes.

  • aurooba

    Hey Dan,I found your blog a week ago, and I love your writing! You are an inspiration to me because you’re still in university! I just wanted to say hi, because I’ve basically combed through a significant portion of your archives wanting to read more and more. :)Thanks for the great thoughts!

  • Sam Jackson

    I’d say all of that is true, BUT, the single thing that I would emphasize to people is the importance of ‘community’ and networks when it comes to blogging and any other medium online that you want to have social engagement. When you are starting out, if you want to build an audience, the quickest way is to connect with people who are potential promoters, readers, or friends. This is aligned with most purposes of having a blog, anyway. Do you want to make new connections? OK, well, reach out to them. Refine your understanding of a subject? Discuss it with others. Promote your opinion? Goes without saying.This means participating in communities, discussing things in comments, etc…. admittedly most readers of most pages won’t bother to investigate the comments, but that’s just one avenue of many.This is something that I found very important when, like you, I was a high school student trying to blog about something I felt important (at the time, college admissions). Reaching out and connecting with people even got me to present at conferences and operate on a first-name basis with lots of the people who I wanted to admit me to colleges, so, yeah, it worked well…

  • Luvvie

    GREAT post, Dan! You made some very necessary points, like the part about “don’t blog.” Everyone isn’t meant to and that’s perfectly fine.

  • Unmana

    I’ve been blogging in some form or other for over six years now, and I agree with everything you say! But I think this is the most important, especially for business bloggers: “Embracing your context, and framing your writing within who you actually are is the first step to writing interesting things that people want to read.”

  • SAB

    Like you said, the most important thing is to decide are you writing for readers or for yourself. I always loved the blogs with practical experiences from IT industry and they are always saved in my bookmarks.

  • Max Ischenko

    All good points but I’d absolutely add “distribution”.I mean, we all write to be read and you have to think how do you reach out to your audience. Standalone blog is fine, but you still probably want to be on Facebook, Youtube, Tumblr and/or other big platforms where your readers are.

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  • Developer Art

    I vouch for the personality thing with my both hands. I always enjoy most those blogs which reflect something of the personality of their author. And I get tremendously bored when it’s a formal impersonal style like documentation or a term paper.

    Indeed academia tries to teach us how to write papers, with an abstract, sections and references. That’s the kind of material nobody outside of academia wants to read. I hated every paper I had to write.

    This has poisoned my blog writings in the beginning. It was crashing me trying to write in a formal style. I almost abandoned my blog but then I realized I was doing it against my nature. Papers, documentation and tutorials are not my style, but sharing my thought and sharing my personality is. Since then I rediscovered joy at blogging.

    Seriously, stay personal and casual. It rocks!

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