Recently I’ve been seeing some discussion in the book blogosphere about the usefulness of blogging advice, with some bloggers taking the stance it’s unhelpful, overbearing, and possibly inaccurate. The only real rule: Blog however makes you happy. I have a lot of respect for these bloggers, and I think their disinterest in blogging advice is probably coming from a great place; they’re satisfied with how they blog and believe in freedom of expression. However, I also think there is a place for blogging advice in our community. First, a lot of bloggers are deeply interested in it. If you publish a post about how to blog, people will read it. Second, I’ve come to realize that blogging is a genre, with certain conventions and expectations. As with any other genre of writing, it’s helpful to know the basic “rules” before you decide to break them.
How I Learned to Write and Then How to Blog
Some lovely commenters have mentioned they really enjoy my and Krysta’s writing, so it may come as a surprise that in some ways I’ve had very little formal writing instruction in life. I had the same literature teacher for most of high school, and his most memorable advice was to introduce all essays with a quote or fun fact (which, in retrospect, is actually not great advice). I don’t believe he even strongly focused on the five-paragraph essay structure that’s so pervasively taught in American high schools. I just wrote what I wanted for his classes, and I got good grades. When I went to college, my school did not have any writing focused classes, no Freshman Composition 101 or the like. Students were just expected to write across all classes, but the feedback I received from most instructors was about my content and ideas, not about my writing itself. I improved my writing basically by reading and writing a lot. I intuitively became better through practice.
I had a similar journey learning how to blog. As I discuss in this post about our blogging journey and 5 years of stats at Pages Unbound, I essentially had no idea what I was doing when we first founded Pages Unbound. I was simply doing my own thing in my own corner of the Internet. While I was having a lot of fun, and there’s something to be said for really writing for yourself, there’s also something to be said for having an audience. However, without reading a lot of articles about how to blog or blog “better,” it took me years of writing this blog and reading other book blogs to, again, intuitively begin to understand what could make my blog more interesting for others to read.
But learning to improve your writing or your blog doesn’t have to take years of guesswork.
Save Yourself Time by Learning from Others’ Experiences
The number one way reading blogging advice will help you as a blogger is that it allows you to learn in matter of minutes what it could otherwise take you years of observation to learn. I wrote this complete guide to starting a book blog after five years of blogging, watching others blog, and reading about what book bloggers wish they had known when they first started. If you start out with a solid understanding of what readers might be looking for in a blog, you’ll establish yourself in the community faster than if you tried to learn everything on your own. You’ll gain followers and comments faster than if you blindly experimented.
Why You Should Write For Your Audience
Some bloggers seem to believe that actively trying to acquire an audience is a bit mercenary, that the true joy of blogging is doing things 100% your own way. I don’t necessarily disagree. You should always enjoy what you write and be proud of what you produce. Your blog should be a place where you can be you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have an audience. Writing, after all, is as much about communication with others as it is about self-expression, so good writers will often consider how their words will come across to their intended audience.
Blogging as Genre
If you think about a blog as a genre–just as a letter, a recipe, an academic research paper, or short story is a genre–then it makes sense that blogging has conventions, things readers are expecting to see you doing. When someone writes me a letter I expect it to open with a greeting like “Dear Briana” and then have an introductory paragraph telling me who the writer is (if I don’t know them) and why they’re writing to me. If someone hands me a recipe, I expect it to have an ingredient list and step-by-step cooking instructions. Likewise, when readers go to a blog, they often expect it to function in a specific way. They probably expect an “About the Author” page and a “Review Archive” page on a book blog, for instance.
When the conventions of a genre are missing, people can get confused. I don’t want to read a whole recipe that doesn’t have an ingredient list because it’s going to take me a while to go through the step-by-step instructions to figure out what the ingredients are I need to buy. Similarly, people might not be easily able to navigate your book blog if it’s missing components they’re expecting to see. In a worst-case scenario, people can assume you’re incompetent or not authoritative if you don’t follow the conventions of a genre. Would you trust the expertise of a chemist who handed you a lab report that didn’t follow conventions?
Knowing what people are expecting to see on your book blog–and why they like to see it, what purpose it serves them–is valuable information. If you know this, you can make an informed decision whether you want to abide by the basic conventions or not.
Thinking about Reader Experience
Genre conventions are also important because they tell people how to read. A standard Western academic research paper, for instance, will have an introduction paragraph that ends with a clear thesis statement, body paragraphs that each begin with a focused topic sentence, and then a conclusion paragraph. People who read many academic papers know this and use the standard structure to read through papers quickly. (Because, let’s face it, people primarily read academic papers to cull them for information for their own academic papers. They’re reading quickly and selectively.) The same is true for blogs. Many readers follow a large number of blogs, so they want the blogs to function in a manner that makes them easy to read through quickly. Following blogging conventions or supposed “best practices” can help you help your readers have a good and productive experience visiting your blog. That means they’ll want to come back.
Of course, blogging should always be about doing what bring you joy. Being happy with your own blogging process is key to staying motivated, and you should never feel as though you “have” to do something to get readers or be successful or be a “real” blogger. After all, there are tons of popular bloggers who have extremely different approaches to blogging; there isn’t necessarily a secret formula.
However, knowing what the basic blogging conventions are and why they’re conventions (what purpose they serve in conveying your content to readers) can be extremely useful for your blogging process. If you don’t have a review archive or don’t include any pictures on your blog, it should be because you have a thoughtful reason for why you don’t want or need these things in your space–not because you didn’t even realize these were things your readers might find helpful. There are no real writing or blogging “rules,” but there are conventions and foundational guidelines, and being aware of them is essential to knowing when and how to break them. You don’t have to do everything a blogging advice article suggests that you do, but you might want to read a few articles anyway.