Tips and Advice for Starting a Blog
Originally published at markmanson.net on May 26, 2015.
I‘ve been blogging for almost eight years now and have been doing it professionally for four years. People ask me all the time for advice on starting a blog, so I decided to write this article for anyone who’s interested.
First, I think it’s important to be realistic about what blogging is. So let’s start with a few misconceptions people have about blogs:
Most blogs don’t make any money. And if they do, it took them multiple years to get there.
As a business plan, blogs suck. They take years and thousands of hours of work to ramp up to a level where you can monetize them. And in many cases the methods you use to monetize them kill your brand and tarnish your writing’s credibility, making them impossible to turn into money-makers.
I don’t know the real numbers but I would estimate that 99% of blogs out there have no significant readership, and of those blogs that have a significant readership, 99% of those make little or no money.
So now that I’ve dumped ice water all over your world-conquering blogging aspirations, let me just say, there are only two valid reasons to start a blog. Either a) you have some other business and blogging would be a nice way to help promote it. Or b) you just really, really, really enjoy blogging. Outside of those two reasons, there’s no legitimate reason to start one.
(Edit: a commenter pointed out that there is a legitimate third reason, and that is to build a platform to eventually get a book deal and/or to test ideas for a book. This is very true. But even so, you’re looking at a couple years of writing to build a platform large enough to get a publisher’s attention.)
A lot of bloggers, even successful bloggers, are shitty writers.
No offense, but most bloggers can’t write well. Most bloggers are successful not because of their writing but because they found a good niche market to insert themselves into. They’re successful because they’re solving a problem for people and are serving a practical purpose. What I’m saying is, is that most bloggers are successful because they’re good marketers, not because they’re good writers. Take that however you want to.
Writing well is hard. It’s a skill that takes years of conscious effort to develop. And if you’ve gone through the trouble to develop it, chances are you don’t need to be blogging. You’re working at a magazine or writing The Next Great American Novel or something.
With all of that said, I will tell you this. The better your writing is, the better your chances of blogging success are. Good writing never goes out of style. And truly great writing cannot be suppressed. A great article on a great topic written beautifully will be successful no matter where it is or who wrote it. Guaranteed.
Until you’ve written hundreds of thousands of words, you have no clue what you will enjoy writing about or what other people will enjoy reading from you.
Successful blogs exist at the intersection between the passions of the writer and readers. The problem is that everyone, despite thinking they know where those two passions are, don’t actually know either until they’ve put their reps in.
Until you’ve written 100 pages about a topic, you really don’t know how much you enjoy writing about it. And until you’ve published 100 pages about a topic, you have no idea how much people will enjoy reading what you have to say about it.
It takes a lot of writing and experimentation for each person to find their own individual style and voice, what they care about, what others care about, and so on. This is a natural process. But it just so happens that when you blog, you need to go through this process in a very public way. Which is awkward. And kind of embarrassing.
But you need to be able to stomach this. Most people, when they want to start blogging don’t realize how much embarrassment and “I can’t believe I actually published that,” goes into it. So if you can’t handle public embarrassment (not to mention the occasional hate email), then, as the South Park ski instructor once said, “you’re going to have a bad time!”
It’s for the three reasons above that my go-to advice for aspiring bloggers is always, “Write 100 posts and then come back and ask me again.”
Because until you’ve written 100 posts, you generally have no clue what you enjoy writing about or what people enjoy reading from you, you have not developed anything close to decent writing chops, and you have no chance at ever monetizing.
Because until you find that unique voice, and until you get your writing chops up to speed, there’s not much that can be said other than, “Keep writing. Keep experimenting. Keep testing out new ideas and seeing who responds.” Hell, start three blogs. Write a post a week for each one. Write a fan fiction. A tech manual. A sci-fi fantasy novel starring Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. The more creative, the better. Eventually you’ll find something that sticks.
So that’s my go-to answer. But in the meantime, here is some other advice to keep in mind as you join the rest of us in fighting the great tyranny that is the blinking cursor:
- Study branding and basic marketing. Even if you’re a fiction blogger. Even if you have no intention of ever making money off blogging. Even if you’re writing erotica about dwarves and elves. Understanding branding and the basics of marketing (finding a niche, differentiating yourself, unique selling points, etc.) will go further in helping you establish an audience than anything else you can do aside from better writing.
- Writing first, design second. Download a nice-looking free WordPress theme and just run with it until you get a decent-sized audience. Then worry about making your site look beautiful later. Unless you’re blogging to a entrepreneur/professional audience, design really doesn’t matter much. As a blogger, you will live and die by the quality of your writing and the quality of your message. Design is just the cherry on top.
- Read books, not other bloggers. I know I keep saying this, but most bloggers are not good writers. Most of them have built popular blogs off of a brilliant brand or because they are solving a clear problem. I.e., they’re popular because of smart marketing, not smart writing. Definitely read successful bloggers to get ideas about branding and marketing. But when it comes to writing itself, you need to be reading writers. Find the best books in the genre or subject you want to be writing about and then pay attention to how they write. Practice mimicking their style and their tone. Read the classics of your genre. Read the greats like Hemingway, Dickens, Tolstoy. Try to figure out what makes them great. Then practice mimicking them. See how it feels. Steal a few stylistic things. Leave others behind.
- You want quality traffic first, quantity second. That means no spamming, no black hat SEO nonsense, no viral-baiting a million 10-second visitors with a goofy cat video. Do your work. Put it out there. Then wait and see. Traffic is nice, but you’re looking for engagement, for subscribers, for followers, for people who care.
- At first, the only people who will care about your blog will be your friends and family. If even they don’t care, well, then you’re way off-track. Start over. When you finally get something good, not only will your friends and family care, but you’ll start noticing friends of friends, old acquaintances, co-workers, etc. popping up. This is a good sign. The better your blog gets, the more the degrees of separation will expand outward.
- Set a word goal each week and then attempt to keep it for a year. When I started, I promised myself at least 3 posts of 1000 words each week. I kept that up for almost three years. Sure, a lot of those posts were crap, but man, did it pay off. I improved a lot. I got much closer to finding my voice. And I discovered a lot about what people did/didn’t want to read from me.
- Proofread. Multiple times. Typos and bad grammar hurt your credibility and hurt the reader’s experience. Take pride in your work. Be a perfectionist.
- Have fun. At the end of the day, you need to enjoy writing/blogging, otherwise this is just going to be a vanity project that you’ll scrap in a month. Blogging is a very lonely profession in many ways. It can also be stressful in weird ways. Like anything else, you really have to have a natural passion for the work if you’re going to make it. You have to be in it for the right reasons. So try it out for a few months or a year, and if you still aren’t excited to be posting, then perhaps chalk it up as a nice attempt and then go try something else.
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Originally published at markmanson.net on May 26, 2015.