There is a great deal of pressure for writers to blog, for themselves and for others. Typically, whoever’s asking you has the presence of mind to be a little ashamed: “We can’t really pay you for this, but you’ll get your name out there.” This of course is disheartening for people like myself. I worked as a waiter while finishing my first novel, and being paid nothing for what I write is only going to send me back there.
Still, I’ve been blogging for six years now and during that time have watched while many writers who were print stars see their fortunes decline for not having at least a site, much less a blog presence, while blog stars get signed to books and given preference in the surviving print mags. I’ve even been paid for online content (!). I’ve also seen many badly done blogs, people who, it was clear, were blogging because someone told them to do it, and not because they wanted to, and that is, of course, the wrong kind of getting your name out there.
I began blogging to get over burnout after the publication of my first novel. I had debut author fatigue and had lost a sense of writing as being fun in any possible way, and this was alienating to me. Also, I had many former students and was tired of answering their questions via email one by one, and the blog seemed like a good place to put the answers to the FAQ. I shut down that first blog and opened this one a few years ago, and what I have learned is that keeping a blog has helped me more than it has hurt me. It’s helped me get teaching jobs, kept me in touch with people and introduced me to new people I would never have met, people I wanted to meet. Also, it’s helped me drive traffic to online sites posting my work. All the same, there were many times I thought of just shutting it down in exasperation, like when I printed my first blog after closing it and discovered it was 723 pages long (one friend even said it had a narrative arc).
The first and most basic lesson I’ve learned is that in the current market, you can take some control over your fortunes via a well-made blog and website. Jennifer Egan is getting a lot of attention this week for her excellent website, for example. Tayari Jones’ site is warm and brings you in to the variety of interests she has, and her readers have come to feel like she’s their friend. The love is mutual. In the case of a writer like Tayari (she’s a friend, I can call her that) one thing her blog does is give her a way to give back to her fans, in appreciation for their support. As Emily Gould has said, the internet is basically what you think it is, whatever you think it is. It can be amazing or horrible, depending on how you treat it.
The basic thing you need to keep in mind is that a site should take a moment’s interest in you—whatever it is that made them google you or click a link with your name—and quicken it into a lasting interest. And it should make it easy to do so. Here are what I think of as the basic 8 things to keep in mind.
- Be sincere. If you are designing a blog right now at the bidding of a publicist who thought it would be a good idea, pause. Take a look around. Do something you would really want to do past the launch of your book, too. Scott Heim, for example, has been music blogging. In some other life, he might have been a musician, or a music critic, but for now he’s doing it because he loves it and his fans love it too. Miranda July’s site for herself and for her debut collection No One Belongs Here More Than You is a great example of how to be an author, have a site and not compromise yourself as an artist. It’s funny, informative and the bland professionalism I see everywhere is absent.
- It is not a diary. In the early giddy days of the internet, people would anonymously write diaries and put them online and sometimes they might get a book deal. If you are an author already, this is not your future and typically not your past. And all of them had to learn the hard way that employers do not like you to publish your complaints about them, and loved ones do not like it either—the lesson of any of the ages for writers. Also: it is boring. DO NOT blog your daily life unless it is attached to a moment of insight. However, writers journals have a long literary tradition, as has the commonplace book.
- Set limits. If you are asked to write for free for someone else on a blog or online mag that is not yours, go to Alexa. Check the traffic of the site. If it is unrated, this is not a good sign, say no. Also: Only write for free for others a few times a year or you will become rageful and bitter about the internet, and this is not the point of any of this.
- Set even more limits. One thing that is hard for me about all of this is that I am known for some carefully crafted prose. This is hard to pull off on a blog. And yet I will be judged by any number of people in any number of capacities for the content here. Yes, dilemma. I can’t spend all day on blog posts. So I set a time limit: I can spend no more than an hour per day on the blog. Once the hour is up, if the post is not finished, it waits for the next day to be done. Also, I try to post once a week.
- Blog your process. Write posts related to reading you might be doing or research on your novel, and tease future work appearing before you announce it fully, and when you do this, link to previous related posts—so, if working on a story. This gives your readers a deeper sense of connection to you without making you feel overexposed to them.
- Don’t be afraid to be a traffic whore. Yes, I said that. For example, my deeply cynical post on the Lost finale, entitled “In Which I Explain the Lost Finale” also won me a lot of traffic, plus I enjoyed writing it. But also, if asked to write for free, make sure your post at that high-traffic site you choose has a link to your blog. There are several reasons for this: 1.) a live link at the bottom of the post is an invitation for them to click through, 2.) You want that reader who found you there to then find you everywhere—to click through to your blog, to find your page of links to your work elsewhere, and to come back to your blog so that when you do publish something next you can drive traffic to the place you are publishing. This is of value to your potential publishers. It is part of what they mean when they say “platform”. Weirdly, they are not talking about a place where you get a medal, a sash and a bouquet.
- Take posts and turn them into longer pieces you then sell for money. If the post is just getting longer, keep in mind that on the average, you don’t want to write something longer than 800 words for a blog post. And if you’ve devoted that much time to it, it’s time to get paid. Also, periodically take down your archives and go through them. Is there something that is the germ of a longer essay or story? That is the best possible outcome.
- Don’t be afraid to take a break. Maud Newton, for example, who’s literally made an art of blogging, recently did a beautiful post to explain that she’s working on her novel and grieving the death of her father-in-law, and thus won’t be posting as regularly. Her fans will wait for her because a.) they want that book and b.) at this point, they love her, and will respect the silence. When she returns, she’ll be more popular than ever. And the book will be even more beloved by them.
And now we’re way past 800 words and the hour is up. Good luck with your blog!
Up now, the author/site thing, examined…also, in the comments, please leave links to any author sites you admire.