Five Lessons Learned Blogging

What I’ve occasionally written in the past still holds—even though my readership continues to grow, it is relatively small. That’s not easy to pull off, the secret is to start with a really small readership. There are millions of bloggers in better position than me to teach others how to build a readership. Instead of a roadmap to the blog big-time, these are the modest reflections of a small-time blogger after five years and 712 posts.

1. Visuals matter. Clutter hurts, interesting high resolution pictures help. I don’t apply this insight. When it comes to “visuals”, I’d assign PressingPause a “D”. A “C” for the “WordPress in a box” template and an “F” for pictures. For pete’s sake, I’m using a default WordPress picture of a pinecone in my header. Every “D” student excels in excuses. Mine? I gave someone in my family my camera and I’ve been real slow to replace it. I’ll try to do better.

2. Good content matters even more. Ask big-time bloggers the key to their success and they’ll almost always say good content. Which means lesson one isn’t a panacea. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your layout is if your content sucks. And vice-versa, some bloggers, like John Gruber, provide such great content that excellent visuals are unnecessary. Same with Bill McBride. Minimalist templates, few if any pictures, and millions of visitors monthly.

3. Sex sells. I learned this when I included a picture of two bikini-clad snowboarders in a post that became my all-time most read. I’ve since deleted the post because it was skewing my statistics. Although the Huffington Post isn’t a blog, it’s an online newspaper that mostly rebundles hard news from traditional papers, it knows this lesson especially well. A large part of its success can be found halfway down the righthand column. It unapologetically applies the “sex sells” lesson. Here are some of the righthand column headlines from Wednesday, February 13, 2012.

  • What I have Risked for the Best Sex of My Life.
  • Listen: Graphic Jodi Arias Sex Tape Played to Jury.
  • ‘Naughty’ Librarian.
  • Beckham’s Bum.
  • Beyonce Tries the ‘Boob Window Thing.
  • Eva’s Biggest Turn On.

This stuff works! Right now I’m wondering if Eva’s biggest turn on is Beckham’s bum or Beyonce’s boob window. The use of ‘boob window’ is a significant turning point in HuffPost’s short history. To this point they’ve used “side boob” almost exclusively. “Under boob” headlines are also starting to appear. “Over boob” can’t be too far behind.

4. Passion matters. In writing as in sports, the arts, teaching, damn near everything. I was reminded of this watching Mumford and Sons on the Grammy’s. Give this example from a Colorado “Red Rocks” concert a listen. Total effort. Mesmerizing.

People appear more interested in what I have to say when I’m fired up. Angry even. But the anger can’t be finessed, it has to be authentic. And remember my recent post about being tired? These days it takes a lot more to get me to throw a punch. I would like to write angry more often, but it can’t be forced. I can’t get angry twice a week, or even weekly. So that’s a challenge.

Related to this, my most widely read, most opinionated pieces are the result of my subconscience working overtime. An acquaintance of mine, a very successful writer, once shared a memorable writing insight with me. He said if your writing project isn’t the first thing you think about when you wake up it’s not working hard enough. Ironically, my most widely read posts are ones that I pound out more quickly than average. Because I’ve been writing them for days, weeks, or months in my head.

5. Vulnerability matters. Maybe not if you’re writing exclusively about technology (Gruber), or real estate (McBride) or Economics (Cowen). Two positive examples of this are Penelope Trunk (extreme at times) and Mr. Money Mustache. This is another insight I haven’t figured out how to apply. The reason being, I don’t know how to be more vulnerable without compromising my family’s and friends’ privacy. That takes precedence. Maybe someday I’ll spill my guts in a semi-autobiographical novel.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

p.s. Be sure to return early next week for a post featuring vulnerability, sex (well, at least allusions to it), and pictures, oh my.

Home Schooling Is Hip. . .and Selfish

Two recently recommended bloggers with ginormous audiences have written they are going to start home schooling their kids (Penelope Trunk) or wish they had the time to home school their kids (James Altucher).

If public schooling was a stock, everyone would be selling. I get it. Schools adapt to change far too slowly. Most are painfully out of date. Far too often, learning isn’t engaging or relevant enough. But the homeschoolers fail to realize that there has never been a Golden Age of riveting, transformative learning.

T&A (Trunk and Altucher) are the new home schoolers. The traditional home schoolers are religious stalwarts who can’t stomach subjecting their children to multiculturalism, gay rights, evolution, environmental ethics, and the sort.

The new home schoolers believe public schooling will make their largely secular children less curious, less distinctive, less intelligent, less likely to succeed in our 21st Century economy.

The problem though is home schooling is separatism on steriods. A vibrant democracy depends upon children learning to get along with other children different than them.

But who besides Penelope Trunk is more motivated to provide her children an excellent education than Penelope Trunk? I manage my own money because I learned very early on that the guy I paid to do it didn’t care if my assets grew nearly as much as me. No financial planner is as motivated as me. Is there an Adam Smith homeschooling parallel, that if each family pursues it’s best interests, society more generally will benefit in the end?

I suppose, but what percentage of children have a college educated parent or two that have the time and inclination to educate them better than the teachers at their local public school? An infinitesimal one. I want to applaud parents for taking responsibility for educating their own children, but I’m concerned it stems from a deep-seated selfishness. Do the new home schoolers care about other children? About the legions of children who didn’t fare as well as their own in the lottery of life?

There’s zero evidence of social consciousness in T’s and A’s anti-public schooling screeds. They’re not saying we want this society, this economy, and this democracy to thrive. I suspect what they want is for their five or six children to have an upperhand in the inevitable survival of the fittest competition that awaits them.

If people mindlessly congratulate Penelope Trunk and James Altucher for in essence thinking exclusively about their own children’s well-being, and the new home schooling movement grows, the achievement gap will widen, further weakening social relations, our economy, and our democracy.

How Autobiographical?

Awhile back, I started out a fitness update with a passing reference to an encouraging sibling of mine who once told me “no one cares” about my swimming, cycling, and running.

That begs a larger question. What type of writing do readers, blog readers more specifically, find most interesting?

I’m not entirely sure, but I have some hypotheses. Think of the blogosphere in terms of a continuum with writers either off the stage altogether, on the stage’s edge, or center stage. Put differently, there are blogs focused almost exclusively on impersonal specialized content of some sort; other blogs that focus on the sometimes personal application of relatively impersonal specialized content, and blogs whose content is in essence the personal details of the author’s life.

I don’t read a lot of blogs, but here are a few that I do that represent fairly well the different points on the continuum. Each is wildly successfully at least measured by readership. Also interesting, Cowen and Trunk self identify as having Aspergers.

Example one, Marginal Revolution by Tyler Cowen, an economist. Written primarily for other economists, the content is sometimes a reach for me, which is nice. Cowen is scarily prolific posting several times a day. The main thing to note about his blog is he’s mostly off-stage. Sure he’ll ask for restaurant suggestions for where ever he’s traveling next, and he’ll summarize what he’s reading every few weeks (also scary, seemingly a book a day), but don’t look for him to write about whether he’s getting along with his wife or daughter or his non-academic interests.

Example two, DC Rainmaker by Ray Maker, a triathlete. I highlighted Ray’s blog recently. Written primarily for other triathletes, the content tends towards the science of triathlon training. His reviews of triathlon related electronics are the clearest, most detailed, and intelligently written up on the internet. He’s also an outstanding photog who sprinkles twenty or so pics in his three or four posts a week. Ray is my “stage’s edge” example. Two-thirds of the time he focuses in on all things triathlon. The other third, you learn about his worldwide travels (I’m guessing he does IT for the State Department), his fascination with sharks, his love of cooking and food, and “The Girl” who he was recently engaged to.

Example three, Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist. Penelope is the undisputed “center stage” champion. She’s successful I suspect for the same reasons the authors my writing students and I are reading—Esme Cadell, Sherman Alexie, and Frank McCourt—are: 1) She understands that not every moment in every day and not every day in every week is equally interesting. She’s skilled at teasing out from the details of her life “critical incidents” that encapsulate the most interesting elements of her life that also resonate with other people. 2) When describing and exploring the meaning of the critical incidents of her life she grabs readers by the collar by providing intimate details even when they are not flattering. Scratch that, especially when they’re not flattering. And there-in lies the third reason. 3) She doesn’t self-censure herself, instead she opts for authenticity, transparency, the unvarnished truth, pick your phrase(s). In the same literary vein, Tina Fey’s or Liz Lemon’s self-deprecation on “30 Rock” is pure genius.

So in essence, my sib didn’t go far enough. If I self-censure myself and churn out safe, vague, self-conscious descriptions of the personal aspects of my life no one will care for any parts of my personal life story let alone the swimming, cycling, and running chapters of it.

And in all honesty, three years in and I still haven’t figured out yet how to follow Trunk’s, Cadell’s, Alexie’s, and McCourt’s examples in this format. For example, I’ve consciously chosen not to write about the most personally significant thing that has happened to me this year. I’m not quitting though and I suppose this post is another step in the process of figuring where I want to sit on the continuum and exactly what type of blogger I want to be.