The Blunt Instrument is a monthly advice column for writers. If you need tough advice for a writing problem, send your question to blunt@electricliterature.com.

Dear Blunt Instrument,

I write fiction, novels mainly, but also some stories and essays. I am late to the party, but I want to start a blog. The advice that I have collected and synthesized suggests that small blog posts do the best to draw commentary, medium-length posts are better if I want them shared over social networks, and that longer posts are better when it comes to search engine indexing and returns. I write long, and, based on the suggested word counts, I thought that a target of 2000 words per post would be the best for me, and I envision posting entries twice per week.

However, in addition to asking your opinion about the above, I’m now even more interested in asking you a question that arose while I was researching ideal blog post lengths. Those who claim expertise in the blog genre write, again and again, that blogs should have a clear purpose and consistent focus that helps the writer’s audience solve their problems. Furthermore, they write that readers don’t want to read about me. And this is the rub.

As a writer, the entire purpose of the blog, in my mind, is to pimp myself and my own writing. I anticipate writing on topics like music, television series, books, some visual art, and the craft of writing and reading, both; but my intention is to do this by writing posts in the creative nonfiction vein (tall tales rooted in small truths) that frame the aforementioned topics within absurd stories about an over-the-top parody of myself. I envision the blog that I would write as way to showcase my writing abilities. I don’t intend to hold myself to the level of posting entries of publishable quality, but I do intend for them to demonstrate my ability to write work of publishable quality.

Is the intended purpose of my blog off-putting? Do I need a more specific focus? And, if I can post about subjects ranging from paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder to a William Gaddis novel to the new album by Neko Case, should I aim for a predictable rotation of the genres that I’ll discuss? Do I need to find a way to “help” my readers solve problems? Do I need to remove the “I” from the subject material? Do I need to write shorter or longer? Am I overthinking this to avoid writing?

Please, tell me all of the things wrong with my intended approach — including whether or not starting a blog at this point in the Internet’s evolution is an asinine idea.

NW

 

Hi NW,

As it happens, my day job is in the SEO and content marketing industry, managing a corporate blog that gets close to a million visits per month. From time to time, marketers and small business owners ask me for advice on getting readers and links to their sites, and I almost always recommend that they blog. There are lots of compelling business reasons to do so. The question is, do you and your writing constitute a business?

In the business world, your blog strategy is determined by your goals. Your stated goal is basically to use the blog as a marketing tool – you want to “pimp” your writing. But I perceive an unstated goal in your letter – I think you want a free place to write. By “free” I mean free of restrictions, word count requirements, hard deadlines, editorial oversight – free of pressures to solve problems and remove the authorial “I.” A blog may allow you to accomplish both, but it could also end up feeling like a burden and a waste of time.

I recently had an enlightening conversation with a woman who is both a pastor and the author of a couple of best-selling memoirs. She said that middle-aged women frequently approach her and say they too want to become pastors. She is far from blanketly encouraging their desires. Instead she draws a distinction between the internal call and the external call. What these women are experiencing is an internal call, but that alone doesn’t mean you should become a pastor. There should also be an external call – in other words, people seek you out for help, wisdom, and guidance. This suggests you would have something unique to offer your congregation (and that there’d be one in the first place).

I think this paradigm applies beautifully to writing. Writers often feel entitled to being published, but getting your work into magazines or a book isn’t a human right. It’s the result of that external call – not only does the writer want to write, readers also want to read that writing.

Sometimes writing is about meeting a demand for your work – see George R.R. Martin’s clamoring fanbase – and sometimes it’s about creating demand for your work. Other times, of course, there is no demand; maybe you’re a genius and “the hoi polloi just can’t roll,” to quote a friend of mine, or maybe your writing is boring, offensive or otherwise awful and therefore nobody wants to read it, in which case, hey, you can always get better.

Now, here’s where I get to the blogging advice, but I need you to do an honest self-assessment on the internal vs. external call up front so you can choose your path:

If there is no external demand for your writing and you don’t care to create one…

Do whatever you want! Write 5000 words about Neko Case’s new album or the word “I” 78 times in a row. It’s your blog and there is certainly pleasure just in the act of writing and the ability to make it public instantly, even if very few people ever see it. It’s possible that you’ll discover people do want to read what you happen to be writing for your own pleasure. That would be awesome, right?

If there is no external demand for your writing, and you DO want to create one…

This is probably where most writers who blog or have toyed with the idea of blogging sit, but they don’t know how to create that demand. If this is where you’re at, you’ll benefit from the same advice I would give to a small business owner like a wedding photographer or a marketer at a software company:

Figure out what your “thing” will be – some unique value you can provide that people want and might not be finding or getting elsewhere.

In business speak this is the “value proposition” of your “content.” And it sounds like you already have a niche carved out in your mind – a take on art/entertainment reviews, but couched within absurd self-parodic tall tales. Without seeing an example I can’t tell you how appealing this concept would be to the masses, but it’s certainly better as an elevator pitch for a blog than just “music reviews.”

If you want to get a sense of whether anyone is interested in this stuff before you bother to create a blog and commit to doing it biweekly, you could write one or two and try to place them on a site that already has a built-in audience. (More on this later.)

Use SEO (search engine optimization) as a way to connect your writing with its intended audience.

Solving problems is an excellent use case for blogs, but it makes more sense if you’re trying to use your blog to “generate leads” (i.e. get people to sign up for your writing classes or consulting services or whatnot); it’s a way to demonstrate expertise in your work area and make more people aware of what you offer. Since you just want more readers of your creative writing, I’m not sure there’s a huge benefit in answering questions like, say: “How do I find an agent for my novel?”

Regardless, you can do keyword research to help you find topics to blog about that people would actually be searching for. Keyword tools can show if anyone is searching for “Brueghel reviews” or “essays on Neko Case.” Pro-tip: With a brand new blog, you’re better off targeting niche, long-tail (i.e. more specific) search phrases than something competitive like “Star Wars reviews” where you have to compete with the New York Times and Buzzfeed and everyone else. As an example, one of the most popular posts of all time on my mostly defunct blog answered the question “Was Mary on Downton Abbey date-raped?” (She was.) Another was called “Why I don’t want to get married.” (I did anyway.)

Of course, SEO for blogs is a gigantic topic of its own, so I won’t get into too much detail here (though I welcome follow-up questions). But to speak to your comment about post length – I don’t really agree with the advice you’ve received about short vs. medium vs. long posts. There are a lot of other factors at play. It depends to some extent on your niche. (People don’t expect album reviews to be super long.) Stuff like the quality of your headlines and images could make more of a difference than word count for both rankings and how likely people are to share them.

And while I’m disagreeing with the advice you’ve found: I don’t think it’s necessarily true that people don’t want to read about you on your blog. There’s a writer named Molly Laich who blogs about her own life – sad-funny, kind of confessional anecdote-essay things. I’ve never met her, but I really love them. It’s like when people say, “I’d listen to her sing the dictionary.” If there’s a writer whose voice I truly love, I’d read them writing the dictionary.

Promote what you write.

Aside from making sure people can find your blog through search, social media is the best way to get readers for what you write. If you don’t have a big following on any social networks, you can try to get amplification through people and sites that have bigger networks than you. For example, if you wrote a review of a painting by a living artist, you’d want to tag them on Twitter/Facebook/etc. so they’d be sure to see it, and hopefully promote it in turn. Letting a few targeted people know about a new post by email isn’t amiss either.

Pay attention to what does well.

One cool thing about blogs is that they come with data. You can easily see how many people are reading what you post and where they’re coming from. If you try something that really resonates (i.e. gets a lot of traffic, links, comments, and shares) that’s the “external call” telling you to do more of that.

If there IS an external demand for your writing…

There’s no big mystery to figuring this out: People will come right out and ask you. Where can I read more of your writing? When is your book coming out? When will you blog again? Please blog again! If that’s already happening, congrats! You can probably do whatever you want and get readers anyway. (But to maximize your audience, you should still look for ways to promote your work through social media and SEO.)

But wait – is blogging a totally asinine idea?

The glory days of the personal blog may be past us, but I don’t think they’re completely dead; I can think of a few writers off the top of my head that have popular Tumblr’s. There are, however, some pretty clear advantages to contributing to an existing site rather than starting your own blog. You don’t have to create an audience from scratch or manage the whole infrastructure yourself. So unless you’re highly motivated to own the whole shebang and enjoy complete creative freedom, consider looking around for existing sites/markets that might publish the type of thing you want to write.

In other words, why “demonstrate your ability to write work of publishable quality” when you could just cut out the middle man, write some work of publishable quality and get it published? Blogs are a nice option when you want to talk about something without doing the work of writing a publishable essay (these days, I use Twitter for that), but I question the validity of using unpublishable writing as an advertisement for publishable writing that your readers won’t have access to. Writing two 2000-word blog posts a week is a time-consuming way to avoid writing.

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