The analytic side of my brain craves tangible explanations. It wants to understand everything in the most empirical sense, with graphs and charts and logical conclusions. When a concept can’t be quantified, or remains elusive and stays just on the periphery of what I can comprehend, it vexes me. It gets forced into the other part of my brain; the part that houses superstition and mystery, where I dance around, hitting ideas with sticks and yelling at them, trying to wrap my caveman brain around all that non-scientific spiritual voodoo.
Blogging, in the abstract, lives in this part of my brain. I get the whole, “write good posts about interesting stuff” part, but all of the other magic – SEO, trends, virality – might as well be written in a dead language. And locked inside an ancient, skin-bound tome. That only opens once every 7 years.
Sure, I can study it, even understand the principles in a rudimentary kind of way, but I never seem to be able to put them into practice. Every time I think I’ve unlocked some secret, found a key to the many-locked door of successful blogging, it slides into the tumbler but refuses to turn. The few times I’ve tried to force it, the key has snapped off in the lock.
The posts I think are going to be great, that are going to get tons of attention and catapult me into guest posts and interviews and all that fun stuff, sputter out like fireworks that got damp from sitting in the basement for a year. The posts I pay little attention to, that flow from brain to arms to fingers to keyboard almost automatically, bring tons of hits and lively comments sections. And sometimes, for no reason, the complete opposite is true.
I truly do not understand how any of this works. I am convinced it is a kind of sorcery that I have not yet mastered and fear I never will.
No one can expect the unexpected, so stop trying to tell me to
I’m not sure who read my post, “The 10 Types of Craft Beer Drinkers,” but I’d like to thank everyone who did. All 31,441 of you. Yea, that’s not a typo. One post accounts for one third of all my traffic over the past three years.
I jokingly called this a “fluff” post, as it was something that came up in a Gmail conversation and was written and published in probably an hour. I full well expected this list to get a comment or two and then just die a quiet death in the back of the digital library stacks like a good blog post.
I did not expect it to explode.
And I freaked out when it did.
I think a lot of bloggers secretly hope they’ll wake up one day to find a piece of their writing has gained internet sentience. We’re all writing to the general public. Such a desire is natural. If you didn’t want to be noticed, didn’t want more and more readers, you’d be scribbling in a journal, not on a website.
Those wishes, be careful of them
But when it actually happens, and it’s no longer a day-dreamed “what-if” that keeps you sane during your workday, it’s a bit overwhelming. The glowing pride of climbing hit counters dissipates quickly as you realize you did not edit the post very well and it is riddled with silly proofreading errors, clumsy grammar, and sweeping generalizations. It’s mortifying to have new, smart readers point out glaring misspellings or malapropisms – things you know but didn’t catch in your half-assed self-edit – on their very first trip to your blog. And then you start reading comments from other people in other places where your post has found a home. Any pride you had becomes a deep, profound sadness because everyone hates you and your writing and you might as well give up now.
As excited as you are to have so many visitors, a part of you is paralyzed by the unprepared for popularity. You suddenly feel like the bar has been raised to a height you cannot possibly reach, and every post you write from now on that falls short of clearing the bar is not worthy.
Going viral totally messes with your brain.
So what did we learn?
1. You can’t decide what goes viral – It may sound obvious (as “viral” implies “virus” which by definition is random and propagates as it will) but you cannot intentionally make something go viral. You can try to write to trends or do things people seem to like, but there are no guarantees. You can study what headlines get the most reads, or how to structure a post, but really, unless you get lucky and hit a trifecta of good timing, good content, and an untapped niche, it won’t really matter.
2. Always do your best to proofread and edit your work – I am guilty of throwing my word-babies out into the harsh world before they are ready, but this experience taught me that I need to be more careful, because I never know how many people (and possibly important people) are going to read it. Always take time to fully review what you’ve written. A single rookie mistake can make your look like…well…a rookie.
3. Blogging (and writing) is a smoldering-burn, not a raging inferno – You may think you want to be a big-time blogger with tens of thousands of followers, or become an internet sensation overnight. But as Jeff Gibbard of True Voice Media points out, once you’ve gotten all that, you have to rise to the challenge. Deal with all the new email inquiries, create bigger and better content, maintain the loyalty of your readers by constantly producing. It is better to naturally grow – one reader at a time – slowly getting better and better. An artificial jump creates unrealistic expectations, and disappointment when you can’t meet them.
4. Don’t read comments – I repeat: don’t read comments. All comments do is introduce doubt about your ability where there need be none. Listen to feedback from the people you trust and respect; those opinions are the ones that matter. Some random internet troll who has lost the ability to be positive about anything has no credibility, doesn’t know you, and is judging you based on one ~500 word sample. Anonymity makes people mean, and the internet is a wretched hive of scum and villainy. One more time: don’t read comments. (An exception to this is comments on the original blog post, if the blog belongs to you. Don’t ignore your nice readers who stopped by to say hi.)
5. Because of #1, write whatever you want – You have so many choices of what to write about. Probably an infinite number if you tried to count them all. Choose whatever speaks to you. Write about something you know and love, even if it doesn’t seem popular. Write in a way that is comfortable to you, without worrying about how you sound to others. It’s your blog, so do what you want. As long as you’re not being wildly offensive for no reason, you pretty much can’t go wrong. Try new things. Write lists, or stories, or poems, or news articles, or reviews. If you’re doing what you love and not trying to follow some trend, chances are people will want to read it. You can’t choose what is going to be successful, but you can choose to write something fun and engaging.