Over the course of this past weekend, the Bestie and I spent a lot of time talking about her new blog, Gourmet and Gourmand. Our conversations brought me back to my early days of blogging, which were, incidentally, exactly two years ago. They also reminded me of a conversation I recently had with Valerie and Katie over a weekday lunch in D.C., wherein we spoke at length about the trials and tribulations of starting, growing, and maintaining a blog.
I’ve always avoided putting blog biz talk on CR—tutorials on getting ad space, mastering social media, and taking perfect DSLR photos just aren’t topics that feel urgent to me. I’ve got too much to say as it is about veganism, body image, health, food love, food hate, and food politics. It’s sort of like exercise: I do it, I love it, and I’ll talk about it if asked, but I’m just not very interested in writing about it. But lately—in part because I’m close to so many people who are starting new blogs—I’ve also given some thought to doing a post on my tips for fledgling bloggers.
New bloggers may think that we veterans (to use a title that’s highly undeserved after two short years, but then the internet is a fast paced world) have forgotten what it’s like to define a new online space, but believe me, we haven’t. We remember our early days of blogging as if they were yesterday. If I could go back in time today and give myself ten pieces of advice based on what I’ve learned in the two years I’ve been writing CR, here’s what I would say:
1) To Thine Own Self Be True
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: do not try to shape your blog around other peoples’ tastes. What are your ten favorite blogs to read? Go through them, one by one. Chances are, each of the writers has a clear and vibrant sensibility, issues he or she cares about, a way of being that’s tried and true. The same things that make people interesting in the real world make bloggers interesting online: passion, confidence, commitment, and individuality.
What doesn’t tend to make a blog interesting is grasping at popularity. If you set out to write a blog that will satisfy this or that market trend—if you start writing posts simply because you think they’ll be popular—your readers will know it. Believe me. We’ve all done it—written posts because we thought there was a demand for them, and not because we wanted to—and we’ve all seen how quickly it backfires with a lackluster response. Readers are discerning, intuitive, and smart: they know when your heart’s not in it. Stay true to a clearly defined personality and point of view: even if your readers don’t always agree, they’ll always respect what you have to say. A year ago, I started writing about animal rights and vegan ethics. I knew I’d lose a few readers, but I also knew that the readers I want would stand by me, even if I had become more outspoken about a cause I’d formerly kept private. It was the right decision, and my blog is so much richer for it.
2) Focus, Focus, Focus
I don’t love the idea that all blogs have to have a “niche”—I find that my own blog straddles a couple of niches, and so do lots of the blogs I love. But I do happen to think that the best blogs have a sense of focus, a core set of interests that they keep returning to. Think back to my comment above, about fitness: I love fitness. I do it everyday. But to be honest, I’ve never had much of a desire to write about it, because there are other things I write about better, and care about more. And the people who do truly live and breathe fitness are probably already writing about it better than I can.
It’s good to go outside of your comfort zone thematically now and then, but it’s even better to know what your core interests as a blogger are, and stick with them.
3) Be a Perfectionist
Dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Learn to distinguish between “your” and “you’re.” Use your spell check, consult a dictionary when you’re not sure of a word, and always, always, always read a post twice before you post it.
In this new internet age of ours, many lovers of the written word still regard blogs as poorly written bits of navel gazing—indulgent at worst, amateurish at best. They’re absolutely wrong, but there are enough blogs out there to confirm their prejudices. Don’t let your blog be one of them. Be careful, be precise, be articulate, and be organized. Tie your blog posts together thematically. Check your grammar and spelling. Edit your photos. Correct formatting issues. Fix broken hyperlinks. Don’t note a mistake in a publish post and think “oh well, it’s already published.” Go back and change it. Blogs are fluid, but they’re also a public record of your voice. Don’t get sloppy.
4) ….But Not Such a Perfectionist that You Lose Your Mind
With all of that said, if I were to bring the same hawk eye I brought to my editorial work at FSG to my blog, I’d never leave my apartment. And I’d certainly never update my blog more than once a week. I’m a perfectionist of the most extreme order: I have been known to laminate notes, re-write things more than five times, and start recipes from scratch if I bungle them even a little. I can’t possibly bring those standards to a piece of text that I update every single day, all while balancing pre-med life and a counseling practice. I have to be realistic, and so do you. You’re going to misspell things sometimes, and you’re going to say things that don’t make sense, and you’re going to blurt out sentiments that make you cringe a year later.
That’s fine. As long as you work on being as professional and polished as you can be 99% of the time, you can forgive yourself the other 1%.
5) Know the Market
It sounds cheesy, but starting a blog really is like starting a business: you need a business plan, and that includes a sense of who your audience is, and what they’re already reading. The best thing you can do as you start to conceptualize a blog is to read other peoples’ blogs. Read lots of them. Figure out which ones you love. Figure out who’s reading them, and find out if they have blogs, too. Identify voices you admire, and return to them whenever you need motivation. Reading, commenting on other people’s blogs, and exploring the blog community will help you to ultimately become a part of it.
6) Reach Out
Blogging isn’t a competition: the nice thing about the food blog world is that we’re all just a bunch of foodies and readers who love to gaze at food photos and hear personal stories. No matter how many times we read about food, we still want to read more. So put aside any worries you have that space is limited: it’s not. We’re all in this together: a community of like minded men and women sharing our passions.
As you begin blogging, I can’t encourage you enough to reach out to your fellow bloggers. Send out an email introducing yourself and sharing a link. Send a blogger you love a little fan email, and tell her how much you were inspired by her work. Get to know other bloggers by leaving comments on their blogs. If you run across a glitch or tech question, don’t be afraid to gchat a blogger you know with an SOS message (I can’t tell you how often I do this). The food blog world is, by and large, friendly, open, and caring. Consider your fellow bloggers friends, colleagues, and an invaluable resource as you begin the blogging journey.
7) Work Hard
Success as a blogger is like any other kind of success: it demands hard work, patience, and discipline. Blogs may be more informal and spontaneous than other kinds of writing, but that doesn’t mean that they’re easy to write. I spend at least an hour on any average post; sometimes it’s much less, but sometimes it’s more. And that doesn’t include the hours I spend responding to emails and comments, photographing food, coming up with recipes, planning my posts, and so on. Blogging can feel like a tremendous burden at times—especially if it’s not your full time job.
Then again, the payoff is wonderful. You can spark conversations; you can make friends that last a lifetime; you can incite thoughtfulness about issues you care about; you can sort through thoughts, vent feelings, come to conclusions, and reflect upon experience. The more you give, the more you get. Sometimes this means blogging at 9 p.m. after a long day, when you’d rather watch TV; sometimes it means canceling a walk because you’ve got to finish up a post; sometimes it means cooking something “special” when you’d rather eat salad out of the box the mesclun greens came in. But, as with any other pursuit, your hard work and sacrifice will yield huge rewards.
8 ) Promote Yourself…
(NB: This tip is more for bloggers who want to turn their blogs into businesses than bloggers who blog purely for personal expression.)
Given that we’re all children of the “me” era and the internet age, you’d think we’d all be comfortable hocking our wares. But you’d be wrong. I can’t tell you how often friends who want to start smart, potentially successful blogs tell me that they won’t, because they’re not comfortable “putting themselves out there.” Or how often fellow bloggers tell me that they want to reach bigger audiences, but are scared of “self-promoting.”
Guess what? If you write a blog, you’re out there already. So it’s time to self-promote.
Look, no one likes to look pushy, and I think we all have an intuitive sense of what’s obnoxious and what isn’t (if you’re not sure, see point #9 for examples). But if you want your blog to be at all business-driven—even a little—you’re going to have to share your work widely. Don’t treat your blog like a guilty secret. Show it to your friends, family, and colleagues; tweet your posts with pride; mention a post you love or a recipe you shared with someone—a stranger, even—who might love it. Self-promotion doesn’t have to mean horrifyingly overpopulated twitter feeds, constant facebook updates, or other activities that reek of narcissism. It simply means taking pride in your work, and presenting it to the world with confidence.
9) …But Don’t Promote Yourself Too Much
Now that I’ve told you to put yourself out there, keep this in mind: it’s not all about you. Don’t use other peoples’ comments section as a chalkboard on which to talk about yourself, or list twenty links back to your own work. You do want to mention it if that person’s post reminded you of something personally relevant, but you don’t want to use his or her blog as ad space. Don’t bombard your twitter followers with 839382 of the same tweets about a giveaway. Don’t overwhelm your friends or family with nudges about how they should spend more time reading your blog. Put yourself out there, and let people come to you. If you write well, and you write with passion, it’s only a matter of time.
10) Don’t Compare
One of my favorite new bloggers, Katie, recently wrote a post in which she talked about self-doubt and self-comparison as a blogger. It’s easy to do: we’re a small community of very passionate writers who talk about a lot of the same stuff. How could we not occasionally feel compelled to glance over our shoulders and compare our blogs, our food, and our lives to other peoples’?
Don’t. Really. What’s nice about the blogosphere is that we’re all so remarkably different, and we can appreciate each other’s amazing marks of individuality. I love Melissa’s healthy brand of fitness enthusiasm and Mama Pea’s wit; I love Kath’s organization and sense of aesthetics; I love Bitt’s tough-minded, yet compassionate views on animal rights; I love Anne’s enthusiasm and Elise’s sly humor, Gina’s cheery attitude and Ange’s meticulous hard work, Ashley’s photos and Kristen’s recipes; I love Evan’s wit and Matt’s commitment and Heather’s honesty. Lord knows I love Laura’s outrageousness.
I love and respect these qualities in my friends, but I wouldn’t dream of trying to strategically emulate them, or sigh over why I can’t have them myself. How could I? They’re unique. In the meantime, I feel confident that I have strengths of my own. When I sit down to write every night, I’m only focused on what I have to give, and how I can give it. The rest of my time as a blogger is spent in happy appreciation of my place in a diverse community, in which we all have gifts to share, and the capacity to receive.
You’ll notice that I didn’t put anything on this list that actually sounds like business advice: no tips about getting ads or affiliate programs, or setting up online stores, or editing photos, or using Stumbleupon and Facebook. Why? Because I’m terrible at all of that stuff. But I also don’t really believe that it’s essential to success as a blogger. Social media and advertising can certainly help you reach new heights as a blogger, once a firm foundation is in place. But they can’t define a quality blog. What can—at least in my opinion—is solid writing, hard work, a clearly defined point of view, and the capacity to interact joyfully with fellow bloggers. That’s what it’s all about.
As I wrap up, I thought I would spotlight some of the blogs I’ve discovered in the last year. Not all are new, but they were/are newish to me, and some I have yet to explore. I can’t wait!
And a word to all of the new bloggers who have visited CR and shared your thoughts with me: I can’t always comment, but you should know that, if you’ve found me, I’ve probably found you, too. Keep doing what you’re doing. The blog world welcomes you!
With a big cheer for new and soon-to-be bloggers everywhere, I bid you good night.