Do you have a blog yet?
If you're one of those writers who says, "What the heck is a blog?" it's time to catch up. The word blog is short for weblog, essentially an online journal in which a writer can write anything he wants, publish it on the Internet and invite readers to comment. In short, it's an interactive website. A truly 21st-century phenomenon, blogs have taken off faster than the last Harry Potter book
In The New Influencers, a book about blogs, Paul Gillin writes that as of mid-2006 the number of bloggers was up to 50 million and climbing.
What does this mean for writers? A lot, especially for those who want to write for newspapers. Blogs can help us get published and paid in three major ways:
You can start a blog today and publish whatever you want to share with the world. Many people who are not professional writers use blogs to talk about their travels, their hobbies, or their opinions. Companies use blogs to plug their products. As a writer, you can use a blog to publish your thoughts, share links to other sites, explore interest in books or articles you want to write, or provide samples of your work. You can put clips on your blog, posting either the entire article or the first few paragraphs with a link to the complete published article.
Blogs can lead to publication in newspapers and other media. In the midst of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, for example, bloggers on the scene became one of the best news sources, quoted by other media. Some papers have begun using "citizen bloggers" to report local activities their staff writers can't get to.
Occasionally a popular blog can lead to paid publication. In a recent Mediabistro column, Natalie Bovis-Nelson described how her blog about cocktails, The Liquid Muse, took off. "I crafted a 'weekend of wine' pitch for Northern Virginia Magazine and used my blog as a clip. After seeing the body of work I had amassed on the subject of alcoholic libations, an editor at the magazine offered me a monthly cocktail column, which a year later I still write." Bovis-Nelson says her blog has become the "cornerstone" of her freelance career.
Blogging does not necessarily earn money, although there are writers who are paid to ghost-blog for organizations and corporations. It is also possible to publish advertising on your blog. In fact, some blogs have become so popular that sponsors have come to the bloggers asking for space on their sites. However, the main goals of blogging are self-expression and calling attention to your work.
Writing a blog shares many of the same characteristics of writing for other Internet venues. Blog entries are generally short. They incorporate links to other sites, often trading links to bring in more readers. They frequently include graphics and sound.
The quality of blogs is often judged by how many people read and comment on the postings. A successful blogger picks a niche and sticks with it. You can't build an audience if you keep changing topics. But you can start separate blogs on different topics. Making use of keywords that get your blog listed on the major search engines will help bring readers in.
The best bloggers write with a distinctive voice. Enjoy the freedom of blogging to let your true self out, whether it's wise, warm or witty. Think of it as a letter to a friend--or 50 million of them.
Avoid making the whole blog about yourself. Offer content of value to readers. You may need to do some research and interviews to keep the material fresh. As with other media, attribute any quotes you use to their sources and don't use images or articles without permission.
It's important to post often. The most popular bloggers write something new every day and invite comments, keeping the conversation going. For writers, blogging can be a good exercise to start the day, and it's also a nice way to beat the rejection blues.
Offering editors a link to your blog could entice them to offer you paying assignments, especially if the reader comments show people are interested in the subject. There's no guarantee, but blogging may be a way to speed up the query-and-wait process, especially if you're covering a niche no one else is writing about. Blogging soldiers from Iraq have become correspondents, and experts on specialized topics have been invited to submit articles, columns and book proposals by editors who read their blogs.
Along with the advantages come some cautions:
Trolling the blogs can provide leads to stories that you might pitch to a newspaper or other publication. They can also help you keep up to date on the "beat" you cover and provide information you need for your articles.
Although most blogs are unedited and you have no proof of their accuracy, they offer links to other resources, names of experts, book and product reviews, and more. You might even find the perfect source in the comments section.
The interactive quality of blogs means you can start a discussion with the blogger, which may lead to more information. If the blogger appears to be worth interviewing, you can then arrange to talk. As with any other source, don't quote blog posts without attribution, and ask permission if you plan to use more than a few lines. Also, keep track of blog addresses and posting dates in case you or your editor needs to verify what you write.
Fortunately you don't need to search through millions of blogs for your research. Google Alerts, Technorati, Blogrankings and Bloglines are among the sites that will locate blogs for you on the subjects you're researching.
These days editors and reporters from most major daily newspapers and many smaller papers publish blogs. Why? They blog for the same reason they developed web pages and started putting stories online: to compete with broadcast and Internet media that offer instant information. Blogging gives them a way to provide the latest developments on breaking news, to publish topics that don't fit into the newspaper, and to give their writers space to tell the stories behind the articles they write. It also encourages reader participation.
One writer on a terrific site called Blue Plate Special, published by the New York University journalism department, compared reporters' blogs to the extras you find on a movie DVD. In 2006, the Blue Plate Special team surveyed the top blogging newspapers and published a list of The Best Blogging Newspapers in the U.S. Their list includes links to the newspapers' blogs, so you can see exactly what they're talking about.
Reporters who are asked to blog without additional pay may not be happy about the extra work, but newspaper blogs are a gold mine for freelance writers. In reading about the decisions behind the stories, writers learn what editors are looking for. For example, when a reader complained recently about a show not being reviewed, the Oregonian arts editor explained in his blog how he chooses what exhibits and performances to review. His answer was much more personal and explicit than the dry guidelines offered on the newspaper's website.
With some newspapers, you can search their websites for guidelines until you're blind, but a newspaper's blog opens the window to the newsroom and let's you eavesdrop on discussions that can help you present exactly the stories they're looking for. Not only can you listen in, but you can comment and perhaps provide a link to your own blog on that very subject.
Blogs are immediate, personal and interactive, but stop and think before you blog. Will it boost your career or just polish your ego? Will it steal valuable time away from your other writing projects?
As an author with a new book to promote, I agreed with my publisher that I should use a blog as part of the publicity campaign for Freelancing for Newspapers. I enjoy being able to talk about my freelance work and having a venue to offer tips and links to other writers. I love it when readers write back. Blogging takes time, but it's worth it to me.
It's easy to start a blog. Many companies offer free blogging templates. All you have to do is fill in the blanks, and you can be blogging within an hour. Popular hosts include The Diary, Squarespace, Blogthing, and Blogger. Find other sites by searching for "free blog hosting services." Also check your internet service provider and your website hosts to see if they offer a blogging option.
Even if you decide you'd rather not write a blog, start reading them. Otherwise, you're missing a gigantic worldwide conversation and a chance to boost your freelance writing career.
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