A recent article reported that there are now approximately 200 million blogs on the Internet. Other estimates are a bit more conservative, but still weigh in with numbers in the millions as of the end of 2009. With everyone and their dog, seemingly, rushing to jump on the blog bandwagon, is this an avenue that you as a writer should be exploring as well?
First, let's take a look at what a blog is. While blogs can obviously come in many forms, the basic concept of a blog is a "type" of Web site (according to Wikipedia) that is regularly updated by the host. Typically, the most recent post will appear at the top, with earlier posts beneath -- or in some cases archived elsewhere on the site, with a list of archive topics appearing on the main page. Many blogs incorporate images, links to other sites and blogs, and even video clips. Finally, a blog often includes an interactive component: An invitation to readers to respond to and make comments upon the blog.
Many writers make a distinction between a "blog" and a "Web site." Though it is possible to post your own blog under your own domain, the majority of blogs are posted on sites dedicated to blogs (e.g., http://www.blogger.com). Because the general idea of a blog is that it be updated regularly (often several times a week, if not daily), bloggers often refer to ordinary Web sites as "static" -- though there is certainly no reason why one can't post new material to a Web site just as often as to a blog! Many bloggers maintain both blogs and Web sites and cross-promote between them (e.g., a writer may post a full-length article on a Web site and then promote the article in a shorter piece posted to the blog).
While many bloggers will maintain that blog posts should be between 200 and 500 words at most, one will certainly find much longer blogs on the Web. However, many bloggers feel that readers will only read shorter posts -- and also feel that this requirement to "keep it short" helps writers learn to write tightly and concisely.
With 200 million blogs out there, who's actually blogging? Actually, several studies suggest that the total number of blogs being tracked by sites like Technorati (which also operates one of the most popular blog directories) is inflated, as it doesn't take into account "dead" blogs (blogs that are no longer actively maintained) or "splogs" (spam blogs). A 2007 article in BusinessWeek showed that of the 70 million blogs being tracked by Technorati in that year, only 15.5 percent were actively maintained (i.e., had been updated within the last 90 days). A study cited by Caslon Analytics indicated that 60 to 80 percent of blogs are abandoned within one month, many after only a single post.
As for who's blogging and why, Caslon Analytics points out that the vast majority of blogs are personal journals aimed at "nanoaudiences" -- a small circle of family and friends. The Blogging Iceberg, a report by Perseus Development, shows that teenagers create the majority of blogs; more than 90 percent are created by people under age 30, and 50 percent of bloggers are between the ages of 13 and 19. Just over half the blogs in the world are in English, and the U.S. seems to be responsible for most of those; a 2006 survey showed that only 2 percent of UK Internet users posted blogs and only 10 percent viewed blogs as often as once a month.[3[
That still leaves a lot of blogs -- and a lot of writers who host blogs. Many writers host multiple blogs and post material to them several times a week. Should you be one of them? Specifically, will hosting a blog (or three) advance your freelance writing career? Will it, for example, attract more readers to your books? Help you earn writing assignments? Assist you in marketing a writing-related product or service? Or, at the very least, make you a better writer? These were the questions I asked in a survey of writers who run one or more blogs on a regular basis.
The writers who responded to my survey blogged on a wide range of topics -- health, cooking, homeschooling, current events, politics, books, travel, etc. Fewer than one third actually blogged about writing, per se; those who did used their blogs to share tips, markets, experiences, and insights into the writing life. Two or three reported that they used their blog as a personal journal, to write (or "rant") about whatever they felt like at the time, but this seemed to be the exception rather than the rule.
In fact, most respondents emphasized the importance of having a solid, well thought-out reason for having a blog in the first place. "If you are going to blog, decide why you are doing it and what your goals are," says Nanette Croce. Jan Kozlowski concurs: "Spend some time figuring out how you want to present yourself, what the purpose of your blog is and who your audience will be." Alice Wisler advises, "Have some focus. Provide interesting content."
Several writers launched blogs specifically to promote their writing. Roberta Roberti uses her cooking blog to promote her cookbooks and food-related writing. UK author Helen Gazeley writes, "I started partly because I thought I should know something about blogging, partly because I could direct people to my writing, partly with an idea that I might eventually hire myself out as a professional blogger, and partly in the hope that the blog might make some money." Fiction writer Michael Bracken uses his blog to chronicle his writing life and give writing advice; Jan Kozlowski's "But She Keeps a Nice Lawn" promotes her horror writing. Carol Alexander, who blogs on homesteading and homeschooling, hopes to create an audience for books she plans to write on these topics. Alice Wisler expected to stop blogging once her own book came out and she developed a Web site, but, as she put it, "Surprise!"
"I have links to a selection of my print and online published articles," says Anne Goldberg, who found it easier to set up a blog than a Web site. "I always give a link to the blog when I write queries. I also decided to set one up in case I applied for writing jobs." Leslie Dinaberg uses her blog to enhance her weekly slice-of-life/humor columns: "Either to promote them, to solicit information from readers about topics of interest, or to write about things I find compelling but that may not be quite right for my columns."
Nanette Croce uses her blog to advertise her editing business. Ronica Stromberg uses a blog to share her experiences as a children's writer. "I had spoken at a conference for children's writers, and several in the audience had expressed a desire... to see what my day-to-day life as a children's author looks like. My blog is an attempt to meet that need. I also visit schools frequently as an author, and use my blog as a Web site where teachers, librarians and conference coordinators can learn more about me, check out my credentials and the types of presentations I do, and my publications."
Many respondents, however, chose to launch a blog not to promote their writing, but to inform and entertain their readers. "I have written two books that I promote on my blogs, but the purpose is more to entertain and to form a community," says Keetha Mosley. Carol Alexander notes, "I try to make it a service-oriented blog... a place to find out how to do things or encouragement to keep on doing what we feel called to do when the going gets tough."
Amy Minchak launched a blog "to discuss the books I was reading that I wasn't doing reviews for. It was a way for me to share my passion for books and find new books by reaching out to other bloggers. The main reason behind my blog was to share book titles and information." Jan Kozlowski writes of her first blog, "I wanted to provide information and links to our members about children's writing." Her next blog was launched "partially to support my other freelance and fiction writing and partially to have a place to share thoughts, information, and other things I feel passionate about."
Yet another reason to launch a blog was the freedom the venue provides to publish whatever one wishes. "I found I missed the freedom of writing on subjects of my own choice, and not having to wait for editors to choose to publish what I wrote," says Nanette Croce. Dory Adams was "getting frustrated with the slow process of submitting work to literary journals, and I longed to connect with readers rather than feel that I was writing alone in a vacuum." She uses her blog to get shorter essays "into the world of readers," as does Vivian Unger, who sought "an outlet for my urge to write personal essays without having to go through the tedium of finding a publisher."
Leona Wisoker found blogging less threatening than seeking "regular" publication. "I hate writing articles, and wanted to learn how. The notion of submitting an article to a publisher scares me silly, so I got around it by writing for myself. And I decided that since I'm writing all these articles for myself, I may as well share them so that other writers can skip all the research I went through... and posting on my own blog didn't scare me a bit, so I started doing that. I still need to learn to cut the word count down, as I didn't realize that blog posts were only supposed to be about two or three hundred words! I moved all the really long articles to my Web site and tried to keep the blog stuff short, and since then the hits -- and the comments -- have gone up dramatically."
If one's goal is to attract a following and reach out to readers, how effective is a blog in achieving that goal? One problem with blogging is that there are a wide range of methods of tracking visitors -- including regular "followers," page views, subscribers to RSS feeds, e-mail subscribers and more.
Many respondents didn't track visitor rates at all. Of those who did, numbers varied from nine page views per day to several hundred page views per month. One respondent reported three "official" followers and 50 e-mail readers; another reported "four followers and five other people who check it out from time to time." Dory Adams reported 200 hits per week; Leona Wisoker, 100 to 300 hits per month; Nanette Croce, 800 to 1000 page views per month.
Many respondents also took little or no action to promote their blogs, which may account for the low volume of hits. Others recommended an array of promotional techniques, including:
Several writers felt that the effort of promoting a blog wasn't worthwhile, however. "I wouldn't want to write for no one," says Nanette Croce, "but as long as someone is reading, I don't care if it's ten people or a thousand. It's the ability to write about subjects I enjoy that keeps me going." Croce also points out that "the time you spend promoting your blog could go directly into promoting your work. Unless you can really, really make your blog stand out, it is hardly going to make a great promotion tool."
A number of respondents have sought to earn money from their blogs using Google AdSense and Amazon.com associate programs, with varying results. Tiffany Jansen uses both, and "while they don't pull in a significant amount of money, it is a nice little bonus!" Tom Botts writes, "The only direct money I receive from blogging has been Google AdSense. It hasn't been all that lucrative, but that may be because I don't have that many people following the blog, or those that do just don't click on the ads." Nanette Croce felt that "Google AdSense is a big dud." She uses Amazon.com Associates on her book review blog, noting, "It seemed like a natural, but that has turned into a big zero as well."
Other writers have been reluctant to attempt to "monetize" their blogs for fear of alienating readers. "I would like to eventually incorporate some sort of advertising but would prefer it to be minimal, since I myself find it distracting and don't want to distract readers coming to the blog," says Amy Minchak. "I also don't want to look like my opinions are swayed by any form of advertising revenue. I don't know how others feel about this, but if a blog is heavily promoting a book, author, etc., and I see ads, I sometimes wonder. With the new FTC rules, this is not supposed to happen, or at least as a reader you are supposed to be told whether or not money was involved, but it still crosses my mind." (In 2010, the FTC imposed regulations requiring bloggers to disclose whether they received any "compensation" for reviews of products or books, including receipt of a free review copy or product sample.)
Jan Kozlowski agrees. "Frankly, I don't like reading blogs with ads on them. They turn me completely off, so why risk others feeling that way for the pennies you usually end up with? I tend to think of blogs as career support and a labor of love, not an income stream." Dory Adams also feels "it would be nice to be able to earn some compensation for my time, but I don't want to clutter up the design with ads. It's extremely important to me that the blog be visually appealing and that ads not detract from the images on the posts. For now, my purpose is to attract a loyal audience and not blast them with ads."
One downside of blogging cited by several writers was the amount of time it consumed. "I spend a minimum of two hours on each entry, often longer," says Roberta Roberti. "This involves not just writing the blog, but research on the subject, copying and pasting passages or quotes, and finding the right artwork." She also finds it time-consuming to monitor for trojans and spammers. Ronica Stromberg notes, "It's work without a paycheck attached. The time spent on it might have been used to write a paid article or book." Leslie Dinaberg agrees: "Since I am a professional writer, it's always tough to balance the things I get paid to do versus the projects that are purely mine."
"Readers expect new material pretty frequently," says Tiffany Jansen. "A blog becomes your very own column, and as we all know, columns are not easy to come by. Caring for your blog can become an obsession. I try to spend no more than 1-1/2 to 2 hours per day blogging, through that doesn't always happen. Another trick is to use blog posts to direct traffic to your other writing. For example, as soon as a new article or interview of mine is published, I write a blog post linking to the newly published material. Those posts take about five minutes and my new article gets instant hits."
Ronica Stromberg and Leona Wisoker, however, have found ways to make their blogs serve double duty. "I often field questions from beginning writers, and I can sometimes refer questioners to my blog or Web site for answers instead of having to respond with an extensive e-mail every time," says Stromberg. "I also don't blog every day. If I don't have anything particularly useful to say, I'm not going to waste my time." Wisoker writes "the same bit for my bimonthly writer's group newsletter and the blog, with a few modifications to suit the different audiences. It saves me a ton of time and effort." Also, she notes, "committing to a biweekly post forces me to settle for 'good enough' instead of perfection."
Herein lies one of the hidden benefits of blogging, according to several writers. Far from being a hindrance to their writing time and careers, they feel that blogging has made them better writers. "It's difficult to introduce a topic and come to a worthwhile point in under 500 words," says Jack Dunigan. "Blogging forces you to be a tight writer and to edit brutally." Maureen Anderson agrees: "It takes discipline to come up with something as fun to read as it is useful, and to do that four times a week." Michael Bracken notes, "Blogging has allowed me to more closely examine my own productivity and methods of writing. The need to post on a regular basis... prevents me from slacking off."
Amy Minchak feels that blogging has improved her writing discipline. "I feel it has given me a reason to write because I now have a schedule to follow. In the past, I would put off writing since it was only for me and no one else. Now that I have an audience, I have a reason and a want to sit down and put words on paper." Peter Buckton feels that "it is an ongoing process that is good for my writing experience and practice. The more I write, the better I get at the craft. The practice of writing for your blog is a great writing discipline." Pina Belperio feels her writing has "greatly improved because I am writing on a weekly basis." Cathy Hall believes that blogging "can make you a better, tighter writer, improving your skills in the long run. And it will make you a more disciplined writer, getting you in the habit of writing regularly."
In short, as several respondents pointed out, blogging is writing. "It obviously isn't fiction writing," says Penny Ehrenkranz, "but there have been times when my blog posts have sparked an idea for a writing-related article." Keetha Mosley feels that "blogging seems to be a warm-up for writing on my novel and working on pieces for the newsletter."
There may not be precisely 200 million blogs on the Web -- but there are enough to make it difficult for a new blog to stand out amongst the crowd. If you're considering launching a blog, here are some tips to keep in mind before (and after) you begin:
"Make sure you have a clear idea of what you want to talk about. I don't think you should start a blog if you don't have a deep interest in your topic. Otherwise you'll be bored trying to find things to write about, and it will show. Also, let your personality show. I spent a few weeks blogging and felt like I was missing something, and one day I realized what was missing was me. You need to let yourself show in your posts. You don't have any other way to draw people in. All they see is your words. You need to make them count. You need to make them interesting." --Amy Minchak
"Don't forget the passion factor. Readers know when you're just blogging to sell something, or to further your brand or for some other asinine obligatory reason. Blogging is writing and the best writing comes from the heart, not the head. Have fun and your readers will too and reward you with their time, attention and support." --Jan Kozlowski
"Make a list of topics you want to cover and write about ten posts before you ever launch. That way you know how much you can say in 300 words or less, you have some time to parcel out posts, you can adjust based on audience reaction, and you're not panicking for stuff to say over the first few weeks." --Leona Wisoker
"Keep posts around 200-300 words. People won't take time to read anything longer. Read everything you can online to educate yourself about blogging, about building a blog, and about attracting followers, before beginning. Post regularly. You want to keep your name in front of people." --Carol Alexander
"Make it easy to find. Update it regularly; if you don't, people will stop coming to it. Make it visually interesting, but don't overload the page too much. Write well. Just because it's a blog doesn't mean it's OK to have bad spelling, incorrect grammar, incomplete sentences and dumbed-down language. People will assume that if you write like that on your blog, you write like that elsewhere. And who wants to read bad writing?" --Roberta Roberti
"It's very important to remember that a blog is not going to make you instantly famous. Nor is it going to guarantee your success as a writer. Ever since Julie Powell got a publishing contract for her blog (which then became a movie), writers think that all they have to do is launch a blog and fans and publishers will come to them. That's not the way it works for most people. You should blog because you love the topic you're writing about. Don't have major expectations because you will be sorely disappointed." --Roberta Roberti
"Don't post in haste, especially if you're in a bad mood when you write something. If there's any concern that what you're writing might be offensive or might simply make you look like a dork, sleep on it first. You might go back and remove it later, but by then it could already be cached, in which case it's there forever." --Carol Penn-Romine
"You have to keep it fun and remember that you're doing it for fun. If it becomes one more thing on your to-do list, that zaps all the fun out of it. Remember why you began to blog." --Keetha Mosley
"Remember, you run your blog; don't let the blog run you." --Dana King
Find Out More...
There are a host of tools online for the beginning blogger; here's a sampling of some sites that can be helpful: