Advice on how to blog from Arianna Huffington, Om Malik, and more of the Web's best pundits.

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Dec. 18 2008 5:36 PM

How To Blog

Advice from Arianna Huffington, Om Malik, and more of the Web's best pundits.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

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.

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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.

The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging

Add something new. This might seem obvious, but new bloggers tend to forget it: Readers aren't going to stick with you unless you give them something they can't find elsewhere. If all you've got to say about Bernie Madoff is that he's a crook and a bastard, why don't you sit on that egg a little longer? If you're coming to blogging from journalism, think about contributing some reporting. "It's really not very hard to pick up the phone or email someone primary to the story," Singel says. "If you do, you can advance the story and you will stand out." Another tactic is to focus on an aspect of the story that few others have noticed. Did you see that Madoff's golf scores were as suspiciously consistent as his investment returns? Now that's interesting, isn't it?

The American Prospect's Ezra Klein, whose politics and public policy blog carries the blogosphere's best slogan—"Momma said wonk you out"—stresses this idea even more: Aim your blogging energies at a narrow topic, he says. Klein's bailiwick is health care policy, about which he regularly offers deep, technical commentary. "That's not to say you have to create a niche blog," he adds. "The specialized posts mix with the generalized posts—in my case, health wonkery rubs elbows with garden variety political punditry—and the two cross-subsidize each other. The rigor of the more technical work gives you credibility in the reader's mind and adds weight to the generalist posts. The generalist posts broaden the blog's potential audience and create access points that new readers wouldn't have if you let the blog become a repository of technical commentary."

Join the bloggy conversation. And link! The only way people will find your blog is through other blogs—and you'll get other blogs to notice you by responding to what they're writing about. Do this both in your blog and in the comments sections of other blogs. Take other people's ideas seriously: Don't just say you love or hate Ezra Klein's post; say why he's right or wrong. Also, try not to steal other people's scoops. And if you do cite another blog's work, give credit prominently. Live by Felix Salmon's maxim: "Be generous: With links, with email replies, with hat-tips."

Don't expect instant fame. Actually, don't expect any fame.There are better ways than blogging to get rich and famous. (I've been hearing good things about a certain Charles Ponzi.) "It's a rapid and stark realization that you probably won't be so much better a writer or political analyst that your opinions on Barack Obama will muscle their way through the chaos and cacophony of the blogosphere," Klein says, "and that's even truer now, with more blogs and more entrenched voices, than it was in 2003, when I began." Several of the bloggers I contacted manage to support themselves mainly or entirely through blogging, but as Jeff Atwood notes, hoping even for that much is akin to hoping to play in the NBA. It happens to some people, but you can't expect that it'll happen to you.

So why should you blog? Because if you do it well for long enough, people—maybe a few hundred, maybe a few thousand, maybe more—will begin to read you. How long will it take to gain that following? You'll probably have to wait a year or more before anyone starts paying attention. If you can't wait that long, stop now. Also keep in mind there are reasons to stick with blogging even if just a handful of people read your work. Writing regularly will boost your ability to express yourself, a boon in any conceivable task, Atwood says.

A few other tips. Om Malik, whose blogging success spawned an entire network of tech blogs, offers two thoughts: 1) Wait at least 15 minutes before publishing something you've written—this will give you enough distance to edit yourself dispassionately; and 2) write everything as if your mom is reading your work, a good way to maintain civility and keep your work comprehensible.

Felix Salmon adds, "Funny is always a good idea" and "always link to primary sources—you'd be astonished how many bloggers don't do this."

Then, from Ryan Singel: "Pictures. Always. People like pretty pictures and there's a surprising number of free photos on the internet." (Tip: Search Flickr for Creative Commons-licensed photos.)

And finally, here's Mike Masnick, who runs the always insightful Techdirt: "When in doubt, write. When really in doubt, ask your readers for their opinions. Don't beg for traffic. Don't worry about traffic. Just write what you're interested in, communicate with others, and enjoy yourself."

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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