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Becoming Yourself and Growing Your Blog
Did you recently start a blog and feel like you have no idea what you're doing? Do you feel like your blog will always suck and you're never going to get any readers? Or do you just feel lost and want to give up?
Here's a secret: your favorite bloggers felt the same way when they started. Very, very few of them actually had any idea that they'd end up where they are now, writing in the voice they now have about the topics that now fascinate them. Simply put, they grew with their blogs, and got better through a lot of practice.
Ali recently wrote "Every Blogger Starts From Zero" over at Problogger that tells much of the same story and gives some good practical suggestions for how to improve your blogging. It's a great post, and she ought to know, for she's one of those bloggers to watch out for.
But today, I'm not going to do a lot of telling; I'm going to do a lot of showing. We'll take a look at a few blogs that are typically regarded as awesome blogs, check out their 10th (or so) post, and compare that to their current posts. In every case, you'll see improvements in writing quality or a distinct voice or scope that wasn't there before - and though you can kind of see the bloggers in there in the earlier posts, you'll see that they're hiding, too.
Let's start with this blog, though.
(Editorial note, 2/15/2020: Unfortunately, some of the posts I've referenced below link to the saved Wayback Machine version because the original content isn't available, but you can still read the content. I've annotated these with WBM so you know.)
The Flourishing Part of Productive Flourishing
I'll put this out there first: I'm not really comfortable including my blog as an awesome blog, but it's the one I know the most about. This knowledge lets me show you the evolutionary path to a degree that I can't for others.
I got on this kick today because I noticed that a newsletter subscriber subscribed after seeing what was perhaps the worst post on this blog. After reading it and cringing, I quickly started editing it. I considered deleting it, were it not for the last paragraph. The irony was that the post was about why I quit blogging and the changes that I would make. Run and check out: "Why I Quit Blogging" circa February 2008. Note: in a sense of fairness and transparency, I reverted the post back to the awful version it started out as.
Are you kidding me? There's this thing called proofreading, and apparently the editor was out for lunch. And a double-listed post? What was I thinking?
Beneath the many typos and lack of thought about how the post would look like to a reader, you can clearly see me in there. What you don't see, however, is any sense that an actual reader is part of the conversation. To my credit, though, I had 9 readers at the time, so there really wasn't anyone reading.
But I persisted and got better. Through time, my writing became less academic and more approachable, and I figured out that I was actually talking to someone. After crashing and burning by trying to write like a blogger, I started writing how I wanted to and how I talk and think, and every post was written to particular people or to problems that people were having.
I'll include a list of links so you can see the progression, if you wish:
10th post - Falling Off of The Horse and GTD, August 3, 2007
30th post - What Type of Boss Do You Have?, February 26, 2008
50th post - Why Academics Have a Hard Time Writing to Non-academics, March 10, 2008
100th post - ToDo Lists, Technology, and Simplicity, July 29, 2008
150th post - Create, Connect, and Consume, January 27, 2009
200th post - Your Art is For You, May 14, 2009
250th post - How to Mindmap Your Way Through Stuckness, August 17th, 2009
I've finessed the numbers a little bit because drafts change post counts and I wanted to pick something close to that post count that was representative of my writing style, but you can still see a progression. There wasn't a clear road from "Why I Quit Blogging" to "What We Gave Up When We Gained Abundance" - but there was one writer who kept writing.
The Rise of Leo of ZenHabits
Everybody writes about Leo's rise in the blogosphere and how fast it was, and for good reason: the guy came out of nowhere. For four or five months, you couldn't read a blog without seeing Leo's name pop up. Clearly, a guy that prolific needed to write a productivity blog.
But if you paid closer attention, you could see a maturation in his writing, which is striking because he came into blogging from journalism - he was already a good writer, yet his voice and style changed, too.
Check out "How I became an Early Riser" and compare that to one of his latest - "The Slow Secret: How to Make Lasting Changes In Your Life." Both are undeniably Leo, and he's one of those guys that makes blog-friendly writing seem natural.
Look closer, though: in his most recent article, there's no hesitation to his writing. It's crisp - he doesn't have to hedge what he's talking about any more. The scope is bigger, as he's synthesizing Taichi with productivity. And, lastly, the last post is full of you, not him.
You can read Zen Habits nowadays and forget that you're reading about simple productivity, and that's all because of Leo's voice, style, and credibility. One of the best feats any non-fiction writer can pull off is writing in such a way that you don't care what you're reading - you're just happy to be reading. Leo does this in spades.
The Cussing, World-Saving, Marketing Maven known as Naomi Dunford
I talk to a lot of smart people on a daily basis, and Naomi is definitely in the top 5 in this category. For what it's worth, at the top, it's hardest to say who's better, and really, the time spent trying to figure it out is better spent just appreciating their talents.
But people aren't drawn to Naomi solely because she's smart; they're drawn to her because she tells great stories. If there were ever a natural infotainer, it's her. Her stories make you forget that you're learning - so much so that she's now figured out that she has to give people homework if she actually wants them to apply her insights. True story.
Yes, some of her stories are not safe for work, too. And thankfully so, for there are all too many stuffy business people that do more to help people fall asleep than to help them build their businesses.
But it took her a while to develop her writing style, too - even though she started with plenty of writing under her belt. For exhibit A, check out "Technical Difficulties: 5 Ways To Cope (WBM)," and for Exhibit B, "An Itemized List of All The Shit You Don't Know (WBM)."
Both are stories that include Jamie as a counterpoint. But there's nothing in the first story that rings of Naomi's attention to comedic/storytelling detail. The first one also doesn't feature a blasphemous, F-bomb dropping toddler, and even if Jack was around and talking at the time, it's quite clear that the rendition of the first story wouldn't be as literal; it would read like something you'd read at a boring blog like this one.
Besides the detail, though, watch how she's violating the "rules" of the English language to tell the story. For instance:
When I have tried to use my father's razors, my legs look like they've been through the rough edge of a grater. It's hideous. And painful. And hideous. And painful.
A lesser writer would have butchered that paragraph by shaving off the repetition and applying silky smooth punctuations and transitions. But her paragraph conveys the way her legs felt and thus serves the story better than a cleaner version. (I get the image of a shorn Wookiee with acne, but maybe that's just me.)
She'll probably show up here and rant about how she hates writing blog posts, but the fact of the matter is that she's better at what she does because she's been writing blog posts. Deal with it, Naomi.
Steve Spalding: Splitting Atoms, One Story At A Time
Simply put, Steve is one of those guys you should know and follow. Not only is he both compassionate and brilliant, he's one of those guys on the leading edge of what's happening. I'm thankful that he's serving as a conduit for the stuff that's moving and shaking, although I wish I could get him to agree with me that a computer desk is not an appropriate place to fall asleep.
What you might not know about Steve is that he's a trained engineer. As in, he actually went-to-a university-and-got-a-degree type of engineer. He thinks like one, too, but he doesn't talk or tell stories like one.
At least, he doesn't nowadays. But check out "How To Learn Linux (WBM)" and you'll see an engineer writing. Yes, it's Steve the tinkerer there, but the Steve of "80% of People Quietly Despise Their Lives (WBM)" is rather different. He's still breaking things down and trying to put them about together, but again, look at the scope change.
Furthermore, though his first post is full of "you's," they're more like place holders in that one. It's awkward in a post like the first one to not use "you," but notice that the "you" in the later post really is you, like you're sitting they're talking to him. He's anticipating what you will say throughout the conversation - he's talking to someone, not everybody.
Given his involvement in 93 Studios, I suspect that his stories will only get richer and more interesting - not at all what you'd expect from an engineer writing about learning Linux.
When Jonathan Wasn't Unconventional
While Jonathan's ascent wasn't nearly as quick as Leo's, it's still remarkable. Since launching Illuminated Mind in March 2008, he's grown it to about 10,000 readers. Given that he's part of the third wave of productivity/personal development bloggers, that's no small feat.
Jonathan's writing makes people positively uncomfortable in a way that's conducive for personal growth. He brings out the itch you've been trying to ignore for a long time - and his style and voice go along way towards getting people to at least think about issues of authenticity and personal liberation.
I've known Jonathan for a good while now, and, though he's always been a rebel, his earlier writing didn't indicate as much. I think a lot of this came from the regular contributions he wrote for Zen Habits early on, but as he defined himself, his posts there changed, as well.
Let's take a look at the early days of Illuminated Mind, though, by looking at "How to Boost Your Energy. (WBM)" You see the classic blog post here, and it's something that would fit well on ZenHabits or 90% of other productivity/personal development blogs. I'm not saying that it's a bad post - but it's not a post where you see Jonathan.
Contrast that with "Your Comfort Is Not Important (WBM)." In it, you see Jonathan's style of taking conventional or common beliefs and showing how they go against what many of us care about. Notice the lack of a list; he has developed a relationship with his readers such that he knows they'll read what he writes, even if it isn't in an easily digestible listed format. At the end, he introduces the term "artful ignorance," which is him making novel contributions to the conversation.
The former post is something that many writers could write if they did the research and the brainstorming. The latter post is something that very few could or would write. That makes all the difference between a post that gets read and a post that gets filtered, but it's not like Jonathan knew 18 months ago that he'd be where he is now with his idiosyncratic style.
The Remarkable Sonia
Sonia is another one of those really smart people, being fluent in multiple languages and one of the best copywriters I know. Brian Clark knew what he was doing when he snatched her up, for she's one of those people that both *gets* copywriting and can teach it in the way that we mere mortals can understand.
Sonia's also another showcase of someone who was already talented who is still growing and developing her own voice. You'd think that after the many posts on Copyblogger, she'd have her shtick down, but it turns out not to be that way.
Compare her "How to Tell A Story" to "How to Quit Being a Badass." Ask yourself who she's writing to in the first one. Notice how long her paragraphs are in the first one compared to the second. See how she puts ideas together and how her headers are now more informative.
It's hard to have the confidence to write a one-sentence paragraph, yet her later post has 5 of them and a bunch of punchy, two-sentence paragraphs. The first post is telling you how to write a story, whereas the second post is showing you how to write a story.
The later post is not an aberration: scroll through her five most recent post, and you'll see that this brilliant punchiness is now the way she writes. But you'll also pick up on her warmth and compassion - which is exactly what she radiates in person: warmth, compassion, and quiet but powerful intelligence. You only only see one shade of her in her earlier posts, but now, we get Sonia.
How can I know what I think until I say it? - E. M. Forster
Throughout this post, I've tried to show you that influential bloggers didn't start out that way. We - if I may humbly add myself to the list for ease of discussion - started out hesitant and bland and we hid behind our words. Every post we wrote inched us ever closer to who you now read, and I guarantee that every blogger I mentioned will cringe when they go back and read their earlier posts. Hey, there are a lot of reasons why we hide our archives.
What I couldn't show you is how our designs changed with us. Many of us started with the same crappy, free themes, then moved to less crappy themes, then paid for a theme, and, finally, got a theme designed for us. We couldn't have designed the themes we now have because we didn't know what we'd like. And, while blog designs are important, they're secondary to your development as a blogger. Let me be very clear here: fiddling with plugins and themes has very little payoff when you're starting out - your fiddling is probably more of a sign of procrastination versus a legitimate concern for the usability and presentation of your blog. We've all been there.
So, if you're worried about where your blog is going, join the club. Frustrated about your lack of readers? Yep, been there, too.
But you don't grow a blog by thinking about growing a blog or trying to figure out what you should be writing about - you grow a blog by writing, posting, receiving feedback, integrating feedback...and writing, publishing, posting, integrating feedback...and writing, publishing, and integrating feedback.
You will feel like you're writing in the dark with no one listening, but that will change - only if you keep at it. You will write masterpieces and you will write crap - but you only get the masterpieces if you're willing to write the crap; the crap will sink to the bottom and remain hidden in your archives, whereas the masterpieces will rise to the top. Your blog will grow, and you will grow with it - but only if you learn to sit down, write, post, and keep yourself open to new opportunities.
The blogging world is different now than it was 2 years ago. You can build a community on Twitter and launch a blog, which is much different than when some of us started and there really wasn't anyone on the other end of the conversation. The tools are now easier to use and blogging is no longer some weird hobby that you keep in the closet.
It's also harder now because so many more people are doing it. You have to compete for readers' attention to a degree that veteran bloggers didn't have to. For instance, when I started blogging, there were about 5 big blogs in this niche - ZenHabits, Steve Pavlina, Lifehacker, Lifehack, and 43 Folders. If you want to start a blog in this niche today, you have a few hundred to worry about, and you're not going to rise above the rest doing the same thing everybody else is doing.
Despite all of the changes, though, content is still king. However, content is no longer informational content, but style, tone, voice, and the rest. You're not Wikipedia, and you also have to rise above the post templates you find on Problogger because everybody else is using those same templates, too. You'll have to learn to reach through the screen to connect with your readers, and if you don't, they will move on to someone else who will.
To connect with your readers, you'll have to develop the voice and style that is unmistakably you. And you probably won't know who that person is unless you start writing; living is not about being - it's about becoming. Between where you are now and where you want to go stands a lot of writing. Not thinking about writing. Not worrying about writing. Not figuring out what you're going to write. But writing.
I hope this post helps you when the path is hard - we've been there, too, and we're still figuring out where we're going. Now, go become yourself and grow your blog...one post at a time.