At this rate no one is ever going to take the blogosphere seriously. And it’s all Justin Taylor and Abraham Piper’s fault.* Well, I guess it’s not really their fault, but I think they’ve got some things wrong. Yesterday Abraham, guest-posting on Justin’s site, wrote an article entitled “Tips for Better Blog Writing.” Earlier this year Abraham was thrust into the role of being Desiring God’s primary blogger and in this post he reflects on the things he has learned.
As I scoured the internet for advice on better blogging, I discovered that blog-writing principles are pretty much the same as they are for regular writing. The difference, I think, is that there is less leeway given to bloggers by their readers than to most other kinds of authors.
Blog readers, I discovered, simply don’t have time for me to write any old way I feel like. They’re understandably impatient–but that doesn’t mean they’re uninterested. They want content–but they want it quick and easy.
He lays out six principles: Be yourself, Write less, Write to be scanned, Use common keywords, Link a lot, Don’t tease with titles, and Allow exceptions. These principles are drawn from the writing of a handful of bloggers but are pretty typical for what you’ll find when you go searching for tips on how to blog effectively. The problem I have with these principles is this: put together they seem to say, “Blogs aren’t serious; bloggers aren’t serious; blog readers aren’t serious. Bloggers have nothing serious to say and no one really wants to read what they write anyways.” The blogosphere is suffering from having the reputation as an unbearably light and non-serious form of communication. It has the reputation of being outside the realm of serious ideas and well inside the realm of entertainment or amusement. These principles will not help in this crisis of confidence. Maybe it is already too late but I continue to hold out hope that the blogosphere can be a good and useful tool for communicating serious ideas.
I want to look at each one Abraham’s points briefly. I’ll grant that I will look at these from the perspective of a person who blogs as a hobby and who really couldn’t care less how many people read this site! Obviously people who blog on behalf of a corporation (or a ministry) have to see things from a completely different perspective. I just write because I love to write and blog because I love to blog. Whether 1,000 people read it or only 1, the joy is in the writing, not in being read. My site is also different from the Desiring God site and Justin’s site in that I tend to write articles while they tend more towards posting links and information. So we do come from somewhat different perspectives. I can afford to be more carefree than can Desiring God.
And on the basis of that handful of disclaimers, here we go.
Be yourself. Abraham got off to a good start as I tend to agree with this one. The personal touch is one of main factors that differentiates a blog from any other kind of writing. Write about the things you enjoy and write in a way that allows your personality to shine through. When you go walking at night and walk past a brightly-lit house with the curtains wide open, you find yourself strangely drawn to take just a quick peek as you walk by. Or is that just me? I think the blogosphere is kind of the same. People are drawn to look into the posts because of the personal nature and the soul-baring that tends to happen.
Write less. Now here is where I begin to disagree, or at least to disagree with some of what this point suggests. If writing less simply means that we are to take care with each word, as we should do with any writing, whether writing a blog, a book or a grocery list, I tend to agree. But if this means that there is something about blogs that demand short posts I disagree and do so with some passion. Do note that high-regarded blogger Problogger, in a 379-word post, suggests no more than 250 words and that Abraham takes almost 700 words to suggest the same. As I said, blogs have, quite deservedly in some ways, gained the reputation as an almost unbearably light form of communication. There is only so much that can be said in 250 words (or 2500 words, for that). It seems clear to me that we need to make word counts subservient to having good content. I try to write about 1000 words a day. Rarely do I post any less than that. And I haven’t seen much negative fallout from posting four times the recommended limit.
If we stick with a word count of 250, we are necessarily and severely limiting what we can say. There is only so much that can be said or taught in 250 words. If we heed this rule, it means that we are simply contributing to the blogosphere’s problem, not contributing to a solution.
Write to be scanned.
I agree and disagree. If people are going to scan like they might scan a chapter of a book, to organize the content in their minds before reading it, then this is a good idea. If people are going to scan because they can’t be bothered reading a whole 250 words, then we are once again just feeding the problem. Why do we need to cater to people’s desire to see the blogosphere as entertainment rather than as something more serious?
Use common keywords.
Google is killing us. Because we care so much about getting people to read our sites, we cater to the tyrannical Google, using common words that are likely to gain more attention with search engines. This doesn’t work awfully well in the realm of theology which has a vocabulary all its own, and a vocabulary we need to hold on to. So say what you mean, not what Google wants you to say. Don’t let Google tell you what to do.
Link a lot.
I agree with this one, though it can certainly be taken too far. I find few things more distracting than a post that is laden with a hundred links. Certainly linking contextually as Abraham suggested is a worthwhile pursuit, but it does tend to make posts look strange and difficult to read.
Don’t tease with titles.
Newspapers tease with titles all the time. I’ll assume this is another concession for the search engines. See “use common keywords” above.
That sounds about right. Abraham had to make an exception just to tell us to make an exception since he had long since exhausted his word count. I know there is a vast difference between blogging for business or blogging for pleasure (or blogging for God, for that matter). I know that Abraham’s perspective in representing a ministry is far different from mine. But I’m here to say that you can be a blogger who enjoys this hobby and who sees success in terms of readers and other measures of success even while forsaking most of these rules. What’s more, Al Mohler breaks these rules every day and I’m glad he does. Jollyblogger breaks these rules and I’m glad he does. In fact, almost all of my favorite bloggers break the rules. And I’m glad they do. In fact, they are probably my favorites precisely because they understand blogging to be a useful and serious form of communication.
Abraham pointed to an article at Frugal Marketing that I found even more troubling. It was titled “How to Write Killer Blog Posts and More Compelling Comments.” Here are a handful of the tips shared there: Short, declarative sentences are best; Write less; Aim at keeping your posts at about 250 words; Keep sentences and paragraphs short; Don’t take yourself too seriously; Use the simplest possible word and sentence structure; Use bulleted points whenever you can; Use subheads every few paragraphs, even in a 300 word post; Make sure your posts are easy to scan. To these people I want to say, Stop treating your readers like infants! I see no problem with making people who read your site stretch themselves. Speaking only in short words, short sentences and short articles is hardly going to cause people to learn and to grow. Not every blog has to be a “For Dummies” look at the world.
Now I’m going to grant that Justin’s blog is one of the best out there. The Desiring God blog is also very well done and Abraham has done an excellent job in creating a Desiring God presence in the blogosphere. But I don’t know that the principles for what has made that blog a success, and what has brought success to various commercial blogs, is necessarily transferable to every other blog. So my challenge is this: focus more on good content, than content this is pithy, short, and of sound-bite quality. That’s what I’ve tried to do and what I intend to continue doing. I’m not going to accommodate myself to readers who want it quick and easy and to search engines and RSS readers that care only for certain key words. So far this approach has worked out just fine for me.
* A question for the grammar experts: should there be an “‘s” after “Taylor” in this sentence?