So, I’ve been writing this blog for two years now, and I thought it was about time I shared with you all a few of the unexpected things I’ve learned during the course of it. There have been some real eye-openers! To wit:
- Big numbers don’t always mean quality readers
This is called the quantity-vs.quality debate, and online community managers already know a lot about it.
Some time in early December one of my posts, 10 Things to Do to Become a Better Writer in 10 Days, suddenly and rather unexpectedly hit the StumbleUpon Big Time. I got 10,000 hits in two days, and since then I’ve gotten close to 80,000 hits on that one post alone. Now it’s finally starting to leak over into other posts, while that one is still climbing.
Of those tens of thousands of readers, though, almost none either comment or subscribe. Mostly what I’ve picked up from the exposure is marketers. I get a lot more pitches to sell things like washing machines and ski equipment these days.
You who are reading this right now—whether you came through StumbleUpon or elsewhere—are the quality readers I’m looking for. You guys are here because you care.
- Readers tend to make more negative comments on blogs they never intend to re-visit
I do get the occasional interesting comment through StumbleUpon, like the long, rambling, argumentative, self-promoting one from Christopher Moore that made it clear he’d only skimmed the list items and not read the post itself.
As it happens, I know a little about Christopher Moore, who lived in San Luis Obispo at the same time I did back in the early ’90s. I had an intensely pretty and giggly young roommate who used to come home from her job at a coffee kiosk in a theater lobby talking about some guy who hung out there all the time hitting on her and asking people what it would take to sell a book for a million dollars. Apparently, he finally did sell a book to Disney for a million dollars, so she told me his name.
“Huh,” I said. “Are you going to go out with him?”
She was not.
I left his argumentative comment up for awhile, but I finally removed it because pointlessly negative comments discourage other readers from making positive comments, and that brings down the tone of the whole blog. But I thought it was funny that he had nothing better to do than troll the Internet looking for places to brag about his best sellerdom. I guess my pretty young roommate pretty much had him nailed.
It’s the positive comments—especially the ones sharing your own experiences—that make all us feel like this is a safe place where we belong.
- There’s no law that says you have to accommodate trolls
For a long time, there was a lot of debate about whether or not it’s okay to take down those pointlessly negative comments. Online community managers tend to wait for their communities to respond before they become draconian.
But this blog isn’t a community, because you guys don’t have the capacity to contribute other than comments, so it’s my responsibility to keep the tone friendly and welcoming to everyone. Don’t like a post? That’s okay. Don’t read it! If you feel compelled to rain on our parade, though, I will feel compelled to remove your little black cloud.
Interestingly enough, one of the things I recommend on 10 Things to Do to Become a Better Writer in 10 Days is trolling and then apologizing. I said this rather snidely at the time, aiming to embarrass trolls by pointing the spotlight on them. But it’s true that apology is excellent for your writing skills, as well as your overall constitution.
The funniest thing about the trolls is that that particular list item inspired the most indefatigable to include a disclaimer: “This isn’t following your instructions.”
There is a priceless moment at which the pointlessness of a pointless cycle becomes transparently absurd.
- Humor is a precious commodity
So you know what gains me readers? Saying things that make people laugh.
I’ve gotten emails for 6 Personality Types Who Will Fail as Writers about people falling on the floor laughing and crying at the same time. I got the same kind of hysterical laughter for 10 Lies Agents and Editors Tell You. And Why. And those are pretty snarky posts!
Readers love seeing all our communal foibles reflected as funny rather than terrifying. It makes life in general so much easier to bear. And those who read more than one of my posts know that behind the snark is always undying compassion for all of us lunatics who elect to paddle around in this lifeboat of writing together.
The blogosphere is valuable precisely because it gives readers an outlet from dreary, rote jobs alone in veal-fattening pens and a bond with others they can’t get from corporate life, where 50+ hour weeks leave almost no time for socializing and city life can be secretly mighty damn lonely. The rise of the blogosphere has brought back tribal life to millions of us conditioned over the past thirty years to simple hopelessness.
And laughter is the basis of all great tribal life. Readers who laugh come back. Humor is loyalty glue.
Readers want to learn what they’re doing wrong
You know what else gains me readers? Solid, reliable information. The plethora of writing advice out there is phenomenal—really, quite painful—and when writers know they can come here time and time again to get in-depth discussion of their concerns. . .yes, they keep coming back.
Oddly, what people love most is information on what they’re doing wrong. Three posts—5 Things a Writer Always Overlooks, 8 Lessons to Learn from Screwing Up Your Manuscript, 6 Ways to Shoot Yourself in the Foot—are still getting retweeted all these months after I wrote them.
Apparently there are an awful lot of aspiring writers out there in desperate need of some relief from constantly looking over their shoulders. They get all the helpful hints and timely tips they can take, but they still have the sneaking suspicion there’s something secret going on behind the scenes.
“For the love of Mike, just TELL US!”
- Writers want to pay to learn
You’d think my Advice Column would be the most active part of my whole site, wouldn’t you? Freebie advice answering specific questions from specific writers about the problems they’re having with specific manuscripts?
Actually—not. The more readers I get, the more work I get, but very few writers indeed make use of the freebie help.
This is why I charge for the Magazine: so readers will value it. And when I do get a new subscriber, the first thing I invariably hear from them is, “Wow!” While on the subject of the similar-but-free advice column they remain rather quiet.
- Consistent voice and topic is the lifeblood of both blogging and writing
Truly, the most helpful thing to writers about blogging is that it trains you into a consistent voice. When you let go of the internal censor and learn to say what you mean to say the way you mean to say it, week in and week out, your language gets stronger and simpler, and writing just gets easier.
And if there’s one thing readers of all types of writing are looking for it’s consistent voice.
But the best thing about blogging is tribe. You people are friends. You’re friends to me and to each other. You’re taking turns at the oars, keeping this little lifeboat afloat, while I yell through a bullhorn from the prow and gesture wildly over my head. I can show you the way, but it’s all of you who are going to get us there.
And you know you can count on this blog to be heading where you want to go. The only thing you’re ever going to get from me here is a discussion of the art and craft of writing. Everything else that goes on in my life (and it’s a pretty exciting life) is almost invisible in the blogosphere. I don’t need to tell you guys my childrearing adventures or housebuilding travails or bafflement over my own personal, idiosyncratic mental challenges. Are there actually seven of me living inside my head? Who cares?
This is a blog about one thing only, and what all of us in this tribe have in common is our overwhelming love for it: