Note from Jane: This post was first published in 2012. I continue to update and expand it so that it remains relevant for today’s author.
This will be a strange way to begin a guide to blogging, but I want to save you time, trouble, and heartache.
The average author does not benefit much from blogging.
Yet blogging continues to interest authors, and be discussed, as a way to market and promote. Why? Because blogging does work, if certain conditions are met. The problem is that few authors meet those conditions. This post will delve into what it means to blog successfully and in a meaningful way for an author’s long-term platform and book marketing efforts.
For clarity: I define “blogging” as publishing material to a site that you own and control—usually your author website. Blogging is sometimes conflated with writing for other websites or blogs, but that’s not what I’m discussing in this post.
Another complication: “Blogging” has become a somewhat dated term. Some people use it to describe a practice that isn’t all that common now: keeping a rather personal “log” or diary of one’s thoughts and experiences. Blogging as discussed here is best described as online writing you do for free, or—better yet—an online content strategy where you create interesting articles, columns, interviews, etc. that get shared on social and discovered through search.
What it takes to become an effective blogger
If you approach blogging as something “lesser than” your book writing or published writing, you’re more likely to fail at it. While blogging can be less formal, less researched, and more geared for online skim-reading or social sharing, to do it well requires the same kind of practice and skill as crafting a novel. You get better at it the more you do it, but I see many authors give up before they’ve put in enough hours to understand the medium.
Furthermore, to stick with blogging long enough for it to pay off, you have to actually enjoy what it means to blog, and how online writing can be different from print.
If you treat the practice seriously, all the content that you generate for your blog can have another life, in another format or within another publication. For example, the best of my blog content is condensed into a book, Publishing 101. That required a lot of editing and reformulation (online writing can’t be dumped into print without a lot of work), but it reflects the value and depth of what appears on my blog.
Blogging is often straightforward for nonfiction writers, less so for novelists
Nonfiction writers and experts have it easy: their subject matter lends itself to blogging, especially if they’re teaching workshops or regularly interacting with their target readers. Such writers probably know off the top of their head the questions that get asked most frequently, the topics that are most popular, and the problems that surface again and again. This is invaluable starting fodder for a successful blog: knowledge of one’s audience.
Fiction writers can have successful blogs as well, especially if they’re able to focus on a specific topic, theme, or subgenre. But it can be most difficult for unpublished novelists to gain traction with a blog; only after the novelist has built a name for herself does a blog readership tend to develop. With nonfiction authors, the opposite is the case: blogging can help build a platform that leads to a book deal.
This is why advice about blogging can be so contradictory and confusing: much depends on what genre you’re writing in and who you’re writing for.
Consistency is critical for effective blogging
There are two types of consistency: frequency and subject matter.
Frequency: To gain any kind of momentum, you should commit to 2-4 posts a week. Some people may be able to get by on one post a week, but it’s a struggle to gain traction without volume. Ideally, starting out, you should shoot for several times per week. The longer you blog, and the more of an audience you build up, the more you can ease back on frequency.
Subject matter: Think about this in terms of your headlines for your blog posts. If you look at a month’s worth of your blog headlines, they should convey a strong message about what you cover on your blog and who it’s for. A potential reader should be able to easily tell if they’re going to benefit from or enjoy reading your posts on an ongoing basis.
Unfortunately, authors have trouble staying focused and disciplined on one topic or subject matter, often because they get bored or they think readers will get bored. But again, it’s hard to gain traction if you’re switching it up all the time and not consistent in what you offer.
If you’re interested in blogging, but worry about the time commitment, then consider creating a multi-contributor blog, where several authors in the same genre (or targeting similar audiences) band together. That helps reduce the burden as well as increase the size of your audience starting out—since more people will be marketing and promoting the blog.
It takes patience to build a readership unless you’re already well-known
It may take people months before they even become aware that your blog exists. This isn’t necessarily through any fault of your own; there’s an incredible amount of noise around us, and enormous demands on everybody’s attention.
But if you make a continual series of impressions over a long period of time on the same topic, then it starts to click: “Oh, this person is blogging, and they’re regularly covering this topic.” Some writers assume, “Oh, everybody knows I’m blogging because I posted about it,” but no. That’s not the case, and that’s why consistency is so important.
Only about 10% of your readers (or even fewer) will make themselves known to you or engage with you on your blog, so it takes a while before you reach a tipping point, where there’s a concrete indication of growing activity or interest.
What should you blog about?
The chain of events goes something like this:
- An author’s book nears its publication date (or perhaps the author is attempting to secure a traditional book deal). She knows she needs to market and promote the book and/or build a platform.
- She finds (or hears) advice that blogging is a good way to accomplish #1.
- She wonders: What do I blog about?
My unproven theory: We have many authors blogging poorly because of this series of events.
So how does this answer the question, “What do I blog about?”
Well, if you have to ask, maybe you shouldn’t be blogging. In that, my position is somewhat stubbornly Zen: if the action is too forced or contrived, the blog may be doomed from the start. The best bloggers have rarely been told to go do it. It isn’t an activity authors should be dragged into, kicking and screaming. Nor should you feel like it’s a burden to come up with ideas; ideally, your problem is too many ideas.
However, I don’t want to be totally defeatist here! I want to encourage experimentation. If you can approach blogging because it kind of does sound like fun, then let’s spark your imagination as to what you might blog about.
Here are several models to consider, based on how challenging I think they are (assuming you want your blog to “pay off”).
Easy: The literary citizenship model
If you’re not familiar with literary citizenship, you can read more about my views on it here. It basically means celebrating and bringing attention to authors, writing, and books—the things you presumably love and want to support. This model is ideal for unpublished novelists, memoirists, and poets.
Blogging with the intent to promote literary citizenship opens up a lot of post possibilities, including:
- Informal book recommendations or reviews
- Q&As or interviews with people in the community (usually authors)
- “What I’m Reading Now” types of posts and other “media consumption” lists where you talk about what stuff you’re watching, saving, listening to, collecting, etc.
Key benefits: You’re building a great network of contacts as you build some excellent content at your site. Every author loves to get attention (or find a new fan) for their work.
Where the difficulty lies: Lots of literary citizenship activity exists online, in many forms. To get a large readership will require a unique angle or spin—although this is true of any blogging effort.
Easy-Medium: Write for other writers
This is what I do. Many authors have considerable advice and insight for others in the field—and the audience of aspiring writers and established authors is massive. The downside: Connecting with other writers doesn’t necessarily grow your readership; you end up in an echo chamber with other writers.
Key benefits: If you already teach writing or mentor other writers, you probably have some content you can re-purpose to fuel your early blog posts. Initially, you’ll have no shortage of ideas, and your first readers will share your insightful advice on social media and help you build a traffic base.
Where the difficulty lies: In my experience, burn out. After a few years, it’s tough to keep things fresh and interesting. Your readers, as they advance, may also outgrow your blog.
Easy-Medium: Write in your field of expertise
This is the best option for anyone writing and publishing nonfiction. It works beautifully with how-to or prescriptive nonfiction categories, and it can also work with memoir as well. For example, if you’re writing a memoir about addiction or caring for aging parents, your blog can offer information and advice (and stories) for people going through the same thing.
Key benefits: You’ll likely be intimately aware of your readership’s needs and can quickly come up with content that interests them. If you teach or speak, you’ll also have content that can be readily repurposed for a blog.
Where the difficulty lies: Some categories are fiercely competitive, such as travel and cooking. You may have to do some work in coming up with an angle or voice that stands out.
Medium: Behind the scenes
You can write about the research, news stories, or current events that play a role in the construction of your books or other work. You might also develop competitions and events that focus on reader engagement, such as having readers name your novel’s characters, choose the best cover, etc. Presumably, readers will enjoy knowing more about the context and ideas that affect your writing and being involved in your future work.
Key benefits: For most writers, it feels natural to discuss the things that influence their work, and you will likely uncover and engage your most important fans.
Where the difficulty lies: You may run out of material quickly, or not have a very high frequency of posts. Or you may despise the idea of involving readers in your work. For unpublished novelists, this approach is challenging since people aren’t familiar with your work and may not care about your process (yet).
Difficult: Personal essay or daily life
Some writers are successful with informal missives that comment on what’s happening day to day or that reflect on their personal life. This could also involve regular posting of specific media, such as photos or videos.
Key benefits: It can be a good creative outlet or practice, especially if you’re committed to blogging on a schedule. Fans of your work may enjoy the intimacy (though some authors prefer to have an air of mystery).
Where the difficulty lies: Not everyone can write entertainingly about themselves (and some don’t want to). For writers who aren’t yet known, it will be hard (if not impossible) to interest other people in the details of your personal life, unless you’re a superlative writer.
This is not an exhaustive list of what you could blog about, but it gives you an idea of the most common options.
Do think through how can you bring your own voice or perspective to a topic, theme, or subject matter without repeating what’s already out there. This is easier said than done. It took me 18 months to find the right angle—to realize I do best when I focus on business advice and digital media topics for authors.
The most successful blogs have a very focused angle and appeal to a very specific audience. This makes it easier to attract attention and build a community around common interests or perspectives.
No one should blog in a vacuum
Before you start a blog, identify the other key people already blogging in your area—the influencers. Start reading and sharing their content, and comment at their blog. Eventually, if possible, you should guest blog for them. See the other bloggers not as competitors, but as community members who may eventually become supporters of your work. If your blog is high-quality, and generates conversation, they’ll be likely to recommend you or send you traffic. So identify the notable community players, or the people who you’ll want to build relationships with over time.
Choose the right blogging platform
The best platform to use is whatever you use for your author website—do not be tempted to build your blog somewhere else. You want everything under the same umbrella for search engine optimization and long-term marketing strategy. So, for example, if you have an author website on SquareSpace, then start your blog there; don’t start one over at WordPress or Blogspot.
If your website platform does not support blogging, then it may be time to switch platforms. I talk about the basics of author websites here.
If you don’t have an author website, or if you’re doing a multi-contributor blog, then I recommend using WordPress. It’s well-supported, continually developed, and runs about 20% of all websites today. Here’s my step-by-step guide to hosting your own website or blog, which doesn’t take longer than 10-15 minutes.
Before you launch the blog
Before you start, consider the following.
- Blog title and tagline. There are no hard-and-fast rules here, but it should be clear to new visitors what your blog is about and what they’re going to get from it. If your blog title is metaphorical, clever, or not clear about the blog’s subject matter (or if it’s just under your name), add a tagline that tells and sells the angle. Even Michael Hyatt, who is very well-known at this point, has a tagline: “Your Leadership Mentor.”
- Readability. If your blog is meant to primarily be read, then don’t hamper readability by making the text too small, too tight or (worst of the worst) white type on a black background. Be aware that ads or a hard-to-navigate layout can also hamper readability and drive readers elsewhere.
- About page or bio. If your blog content is interesting, people will want to know more about the person behind it. Don’t make them search for this. Create a separate page, and be sure to include a way to contact you.
- Comments. You should develop a policy for how you’ll handle or moderate discussions. Will you approve every comment before it goes live? Will comments be automatically published if they’re not spam? An open commenting policy that doesn’t require sign-in helps you get more comments, but you’ll want to make sure you’re receiving email alerts when new comments are posted, just in case you need to delete anything spammy or inappropriate that gets through. Fortunately, major blog platforms (like WordPress) help you streamline your comment system to automatically eliminate spam activity. If you have any trouble, then install Akismet, the industry-standard plugin to eliminate spammy comments.
How to craft quality posts that get read and shared
Quality can be a squishy term; much depends on what your audience or readership considers “quality” or what kind of content is engaging to them. The better you know your audience, the better your posts will be.
However, here’s how to ensure that your posts are more likely to be engaged with and shared.
- Don’t be afraid of length. For some strange reason, people started thinking that ideal blog posts are 500 words, even less. That’s simply not true. In fact, when it comes to search ranking, Google looks at the substantive nature of the content and will rank your content lower if it appears shallow. Social media is typically better for quick shares, brief commentary, or short statements—or anything that doesn’t merit more than a few hundred words. The most successful posts at this site are regularly longer than 2,000 words. However, the longer the content, the more readable it needs to be, which brings us to the next point.
- Improve scannability. Most people skim online content and make a very quick judgment call as to whether it merits closer attention. If so, your content may be saved for later, or readers will slow down and read the content from beginning to end. To make your content easily scanned, add subheads, plenty of paragraph breaks (one-line paragraphs are acceptable), bulleted lists or numbered lists, bold lead-ins—whatever it takes to make your posts more easy to grasp and see if it’s valuable.
- Add at least one image. You’ll notice that I always begin posts with an image. Psychologically, this typically improves the perceived value of the post—plus these images get pulled and used when the post is shared on social media. It’s OK if the image isn’t directly related to the content; it can be metaphorical, as long as it’s attention-grabbing or colorful. Blending in is the opposite of what you want. (You can find plenty of free-to-use images at VisualHunt.)
- Ask a question at the end. If you want to get people active in the comments, you’ll do better if you end the post on a question, where you ask people to share something specific about their knowledge or experience. Active comments are generally seen as a good thing because it increases the time people spend on your content, which is a signal of engagement for search engines and thus contributes to better search ranking for your blog.
Your post headlines are critical
If people saw only your post headline (e.g., on Twitter), would they feel compelled to click on it? Remember, the headline is often the only thing people see when they’re surfing online and looking at search results, so it’s one of the biggest factors in whether your post gets read. Here are a few considerations:
- Is the headline specific and clear? There’s very little room to be clever, cute, or abstract with blog post headlines. Plus, for search engine optimization, you need to be thinking of keywords that belong in that headline that will help people find your post.
- Is the headline intriguing or provocative? I’m not advocating clickbait headlines, but it doesn’t hurt to create mystery, intrigue, or play on people’s curiosity. You cross the line into clickbait when the headline doesn’t deliver on the promise made, or if the headline is overly sensationalized to get clicks.
- Does the headline offer a benefit? All of us have limited time and energy to consume content online, so we’re always thinking WIIFM? (What’s in it for me?)
Here are some actual blog post headlines that I helped an author improve, to be more specific and attuned to keyword search.
- Original headline: Total Randomness, Mostly Related To Books That Aren’t Mine
- Improved headline: My Summer Reading List: Books I’ve Loved (and Books Still Waiting)
- Original headline: Turn, Turn, Turn
- Improved headline: What If You’re Dreading the Change of Seasons?
- Original headline: Wanna Have Coffee?
- Improved headline: Overcoming the Obstacles That Prevent You From Meditating
Create cornerstone content
Cornerstone content refers to any article, post, or page at your site that draws new readers to your blog consistently, usually through search or by referral from other sites. Cornerstone content often is a comprehensive, definitive piece that tackles a frequently asked question, issue, or problem—or features a very popular author or thing in popular culture that is searched for often.
The cornerstone content on this blog can be seen right under “Most Popular Posts”—each one points to my 101 posts on how to get published.
Sometimes, cornerstone content might be a manifesto or download in PDF form. Chris Guillebeau is well-known for 279 Days to Overnight Success that drew thousands (if not millions) to learn about his blog and his message.
If you’re a nonfiction writer, then this probably comes naturally: Put together a 101 guide, FAQ, or tutorial related to your topic or expertise—something people often ask you about. (My most visited resource on this site is Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published.)
If you’re a novelist, this strategy may take some creative thinking. Consider the following:
- If your book is strongly regional, create an insider’s guide or travel guide to that particular region. Or think about other themes in your work that could inspire something fun: a collection of recipes; a character’s favorite books, movies, or music; or what research and resources were essential for completing your work.
- Create a list of favorite reads by genre/category, by mood, or by occasion. Tie into current events or “look-alike” media whenever you can; for example, if you write romance and you know your readers love The Bachelor, create a list of books that fans of the show would enjoy reading.
- If you have a strong avocational pursuit (or past profession) that influences your novels, create FAQs or guides for the curious.
Having even one piece of cornerstone content greatly reduces your burden to attract readers to your site through brand-new content. If it does its job, the cornerstone piece will bring a steady stream of new readers over a period of weeks and months, some of whom will become loyal followers.
If you’re very serious and strategic about this, I recommend reading How to Increase Website Traffic.
Make it easy to browse and share your posts
Some blogs have such a minimal design that it’s difficult to see the bigger picture of what the blog offers. Even though there are benefits to a minimalist design, I get more engagement by having a sidebar that offers tools to navigate the history of my blog and the hundreds of posts that live here.
- Calendar/archive. People new to your blog may want to dig around in your older posts. Make it easy for them to do so by offering a post calendar or archive.
- Category search. Blog content should be organized into 5-10 different categories that are of high interest to your audience. For example, if people read an interview or book review on your site that interests them, they may want to browse all previous interviews or book reviews. Make this easy by categorizing the posts correctly and making the categories visible with posts.
- Most popular posts. For new readers of your blog, it’s helpful to have a consistent box or sidebar that tells readers what your most popular posts are.
- Sharing functionality. Make it easy for people to share your posts on Facebook, Twitter (or just about anywhere else) by adding sharing buttons to the bottom of your posts. This functionality is usually built-in to most blogs.
Improve your content’s discoverability through search engines (SEO)
Search engine optimization really requires its own post. However, you’ll be doing a good job with your SEO if:
- You use WordPress or Squarespace, which are already optimized for search.
- You make sure each post is categorized and tagged appropriately.
- You think about how readers would search for your content, and incorporate those search keywords into your post headline, post subheads, and more. If your site is self-hosted, then install WordPress SEO by Yoast, which will give you both the tools and education you need to optimize your content for search.
If your site is self-hosted, then you should have Google Analytics installed. If not, get started today—it’s a free service and easy to set up. After Google Analytics has collected at least 1 month of data, take a look at the following:
- How do people find your blog? Through search? Through your social media presence? Through other websites that link to you?
- What search words bring people to your site?
- What pages or posts are most popular on your site?
By knowing the answers to these questions, you can better decide which social media networks are worth your investment of time and energy (at least as far as blog promotion is concerned), who else on the web might be a good partner for you (who is sending you traffic and why?), and what content on your site is worth your time to continue developing (what content will bring you visitors over the long run?).
Create lists or round-ups on a regular basis
A very popular way to make people aware of your blog is to link to others’ blogs. If you can do this in a helpful way, it’s a win for you, for your readers, and for the sites you send traffic to.
In the writing and publishing community, weekly link round-ups are very common. (See Joel Friedlander and Elizabeth Craig.) You can create such lists or round-ups on any theme or category that interests you enough to remain dedicated, enthusiastic, and consistent for the long haul—at least six months to a year, if you want to see a tangible benefit.
Run regular interviews with people who fascinate you
Believe it or not, it’s rare to come across an informed, thoughtful, and careful interviewer and interview series.
Think about themes, hooks, or angles for an interview series on your site, and run them on a regular basis—but only as frequently as you have time to invest in a well-researched and quality interview. Such series also offer you an excellent way to build your network and community relationships, which has a way of paying off in the long run.
Be a guest on other sites
Whenever you guest or appear on other websites, that’s an opportunity to have multiple links back to your own site and social network accounts.
A meaningful guest post means pitching sites that have a bigger audience than you, but they should also have a readership that’s a good match for your work. If you need a strong introduction to guest posting how-to, visit this excellent Copyblogger post. If you’re not the type to write guest posts, then consider proactively offering yourself up to be interviewed as part of other bloggers’ interview series.
Whenever you make an appearance on another site, always promote the interview on your own social networks and create a permanent link to it from your own website.
Above all: You need patience
Here’s what my blog traffic looked like in its early years.
- December 2009. This is when I started using WordPress on this domain. I posted 3-4 times per month.
- Mid-2010. This is when my traffic reached about 100 visits a day.
- January 2011: I began a weekly series at my site, unrelated to writing and publishing, that featured mother-daughter interviews.
- July 2011: This is when I began regularly blogging about writing and publishing at JaneFriedman.com (rather than at Writer’s Digest).
After about two years of consistency, I reached about 60,000 visits per month.
Most people I meet who blog either aren’t committed, or give up too soon, before gaining momentum that builds on itself. However, some writers should give up, because they don’t have the time or commitment to produce the right content or the best content for an online readership.