How To Blog
Advice from Arianna Huffington, Om Malik, and more of the Web's best pundits.
The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, a new manifesto put together by editors and writers of the most-linked-to blog on the Web, is more than a little self-righteous. Bloggers, here, are the civic superheroes of our age, standing against the tyrannies of the Bush administration and its lumbering, deaf-mute enablers in the Old Media. If you've forgotten about how blogs brought down Trent Lott and how they delivered us from scammy journos like Judy Miller—well, turn here to relive the glory. "Blogging has been the greatest breakthrough in popular journalism since Tom Paine," Arianna Huffington, HuffPo's founder, writes in her introduction. The blogosphere, she adds, is the "most vital news source in the country."
Ordinarily all this bloggy good cheer would be a bit too much to take. But buried in the middle of the Complete Guide is, surprise, a complete guide—and a pretty good one, too. Tens of thousands of people start new blogs every day. I'd guess that most don't go into blogging to gain a huge audience, but those who do aim to be the next Kos quickly find disappointment. That's likely because blogging is difficult (I know this from personal experience; my last job was as a blogger), and there are few places that offer tips on how to do it well.
The only trouble with HuffPo's guide is that it's printed on dead trees. So I set out to rectify that problem. I called and e-mailed a half-dozen of my favorite bloggers to ask how they blog so well, and I combined their ideas with the best advice from HuffPo. Behold—my own complete guide to blogging.
Set a schedule. Blog often. Jeff Atwood, who runs the fantastic programming blog Coding Horror, told me that the key to his early success was sticking to a realistic target of six posts a week. HuffPo's editors echo this advice: "If you're serious about blogging, commit to posting at least two to three times a week for thirty days," they say. Posting with such regularity will be tough; you've got other things to do, and writing is a daunting task for most people. But blogging, like exercise, gets easier with practice. The more often you do it, the less onerous it'll feel, and at some point you may even grow to like it.
Don't worry if your posts suck a little. Unless you're Jeffrey Goldberg, your first blog post is unlikely to be perfect. Indeed, a lot of your posts aren't going to be as great as they could be if you spent many hours on them—and that's OK. Felix Salmon, who writes Portfolio's excellent finance blog Market Movers, puts it this way: "Quantity is more important than quality. Don't be scared of being wrong, or inelegant; you have much less of an idea what your readers are going to like than you possibly imagine. So jump right in, put yourself out there." Nearly every blogger I spoke to agreed with this sentiment. If you're trying to gain an audience, you can't afford to worry over every sentence as if it were ... see, I was going to spend 15 minutes thinking of a hilarious and deeply insightful simile there, but, damn it, I'm in blogging mode and need to move on.
Write casually but clearly. This one flows from the last two—the best way to stick to a blogging schedule is to write quickly, and a good way to write quickly is to write as if you're talking to a friend. Marc Ambinder, the political-news maven at the Atlantic, told me, "I've found that I tend to write the way I speak. Short, staccato sentences, lots of parentheticals. That annoys purists, but it's uniquely my own voice, and I think it helps to build a connection with the reader." Also remember that your readers want you to get to the point. "Be clear, not cryptic," Salmon says. "Blog readers have neither the time nor the inclination to read between the lines; blogs aren't literature."
Ryan Singel, who writes about security and privacy at Wired.com's Threat Level, offers a great tip on how to accomplish this:
Start every post with a good first sentence that describes the story you are going to tell. Assume your reader won't get past the first paragraph. Never start with anything like "Sometimes when I hear about stupid things in the news, I just want to hit the wall," or "I haven't written about this in a long time, but today there was a story ..."
And one more thing on the writing: Don't be too wordy. HuffPo says that 800 words is the outer-length limit for a blog post; anything longer will turn people off.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.