Blogosphere

How to blog every day

Recently someone asked me how I manage to post every day. (It’s really six days a week.) I’ve built up a lot of blogging speed since I started in 2007, and I thought you might like to know how I did it.

Foremost, I’ve committed to it. This is something I do; it is not optional. At least that’s the attitude I take toward it. There are exceptions, such as the one-week break I took last October, and a few days missed due to extenuating life events. But I make those choices deliberately. Six-day-a-week blogging is my default.

I give my morning breakfast time to blogging. I’m either writing or processing photographs while I sip my coffee and eat my eggs. I give it 45 minutes to an hour every weekday and Sunday morning, and on Saturday I spend all morning at it except for doing laundry and other minor chores. Sometimes I work on the blog during my lunch hour, too, and I even do minor edits to posts on my phone when I have ten minutes to kill.

I work very hard to keep 2-3 weeks of posts queued and ready at all times. Sometimes life gets hard, as it did in June when I had so much awful insomnia, and I can’t manage my morning ritual. Queued posts help keep the blog going during those times.

Me
Even taking photographs is working on the blog. Why won’t this camera fire? -oh.

I didn’t start at six days a week — that’d be like running a marathon at a 5K pace, never having trained. I built up to this frequency and have kept it for about five years now. Before this I posted three days a week, and before that 4-6 times a month.

Each time I increased my posting frequency, my pageviews and comments went way up. And all the writing practice keeps improving my skills. I like both; they reinforce my choice to do this.

Still, to post six days a week and still hold down a full-time job and raise my children meant I had to learn how to write faster. I’m pleased to say that I spend about as much time now posting six days a week as I used to spend posting three days a week.

To do this, I learned a great technique of freewriting on a topic for 15-30 minutes, without editing, and then stopping. I go back later, usually on another day, for 15-30 more minutes and edit it into shape.

In freewriting I just let the words come however they may. I sometimes surprise myself with the things I write! If during freewriting I find my ideas don’t flow naturally I let myself rearrange sentences and paragraphs a little until they do.

In editing I worry about which words to use, how to spell them, what order to use them in, and where to punctuate them. If I do this during freewriting I bog myself right down, and every post takes five times longer to create.

Using this technique means I often have many posts in progress at once: some in freewriting and some in editing. As my 15-30 minute block ends I wrap up loose ends as best I can and maybe leave myself some notes for what I still want to do with the post, but then leave the post for a later session.

Another key to my frequent posting is that I have some easy post types. My Saturday Recommended Reading post is easy: I just add to it all week as I find interesting articles to share. I barely edit those posts because they’re all about the links.

My “single frame” posts are also fast to write. I look for a photo that makes me want to tell a story or make a point. I freewrite two to six paragraphs about it in one session, and then edit the paragraphs in another.

Another fast post to write is “here are a bunch of photos about a subject.” My travel posts often fall into this category. I write a couple introductory paragraphs and then just write to the photos: here’s what you see, here’s some interesting stuff I can think of about it.

At the end of my recent bout of insomnia I found myself with almost no posts in the queue. I needed five easy posts to build a week’s cushion, so I shared the series of photos I took of the same subjects, e.g., the Wrecks Inc. sign and the sunsets through my back door. Those took 30 minutes each to put together. Because I post so often I find my creative muscle is strong, letting me generate ideas like this quickly.

My camera and film review posts have fallen into a format that makes them faster to write, but especially the camera reviews can take several hours to finish. They often need a lot of research about history and usage, which I try to do in 15-30 minute sessions just like freewriting and editing. I write my research into the post as rough notes, and build the opening paragraphs around it. Then I share a bunch of photographs I made with the camera, and write about my experience with the camera as I made those photos.

I write ideas for more substantive posts, such as my essays and personal stories, on sticky notes and leave them around my desk. As I think of things I want to say in those posts, I create the draft post if I haven’t already and record my notes there. These posts take real time to write, so I tend to work on them only when I have 2-3 weeks of posts queued. I work on them bit by bit over weeks and, sometimes, months.

I write about whatever I want — it’s a personal blog after all. Anything is subject fodder. I write about photography and cameras a lot because it’s a lifelong interest and I’ve found my largest, most engaged audience there. Yes, I pander shamelessly to you film photographers!

If you blog, what tips do you have for keeping it going?

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Essay, Photography

Few people make real money following their passions, and you probably won’t be one of them

(Originally published 7/26/2016) I’ve been asked a few times if I’ve ever thought about making photography my living.

A portrait of the artist
Nikon D3200, 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX Nikkor, 2016. Margaret Grey photo.

It sure sounds wonderful to spend my days driving old roads or looking at historic architecture, making photographs as I go — and getting paid for it!

The other question I get asked, a lot, is whether I’ve ever thought about making writing my living.

And my answer is not only yes, but I’ve done it. For many years early in my career, I traded my written words for my supper. There I learned a crucial truth:

The kind of work you do for yourself is very different from the kind of work that pays.

I hadn’t dreamed of being a writer when I landed my first writing job. I wanted to be a software developer. But the country was in a recession then and jobs were scarce. I was willing to do any job I could get in the software field. I wound up writing manuals, and it turned out that I really enjoyed the work. I did it for more than a decade. I even contributed to a few published books on popular software products. It’s a rush to see your name on a book’s spine!

In that field I met a lot of talented people who had dreamed of being writers. They came with degrees in English and poetry and journalism, and extensive portfolios filled with great work. Yet they wound up writing and editing books about software — not remotely their dream. For the kinds of writing they wanted to do, the supply of talent far outstripped demand. And then they found that the software industry paid well. Few of them loved the work, but they were grateful to be writing something, anything for good pay.

It’s much the same in photography. Many of us who shoot probably dream of creating great art and making a living through sales, or maybe patronage if that’s even a thing anymore. But most working photographers shoot things like weddings or consumer products. My first wife is a talented photographer, but when I met her she made her living in the United States Air Force shooting portraits of officers seeking promotions.

Photographers can find this kind of work rewarding, just as I truly enjoyed writing software instructions. But who dreams as children of being technical writers or wedding photographers? We back into these jobs because they leverage our skills and pay our bills.

438933770007_ proc.jpg
Nikon F3, 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Foma Fomapan 200, 2016

Those jobs pay because they create clear value. This blog creates value, too — you wouldn’t keep coming back if you didn’t find my words and images to be valuable in some way. But the amount of value that captures your attention is much lower than the amount of value that opens your wallet.

If I were to charge even a nominal fee to read my posts and see my photographs, most, if not all, of you would quit visiting. What I do here isn’t that kind of valuable. Even the big players struggle to make online content pay.

There was a golden time when personal blogging could be lucrative: approximately 2004. Several talented early bloggers found large followings and made good money with online ads.

But in about 2011 online ad revenue dropped off a cliff. The bloggers that didn’t have to find day jobs again created other revenue sources: writing sponsored posts (where the blogger writes an ad and tries to make it sound like it’s about them or their interests), creating product lines, and offering services such as personal coaching and workshops in an area of skill or expertise they have.

These are great, legitimate ways to make money. But notice how these things aren’t personal blogging. They’re not the passion that made the blogger start blogging.

If your passion is something like managing hedge funds or starting tech companies, and there are really people with passions like that, well heck yes those passions can pay, and handsomely. But for most of us, we just want to make something that represents us or showcases our talents, and put it out into the world and hope people come to see.

Is that you? That’s me. And so I persist. I’m very happy that my work creates enough value to keep capturing your attention. I’ve dabbled in ways to generate a little passive income and hope to pay this blog’s costs and maybe some of my photography. But I have no delusions that this will ever let me quit my day job. The same almost certainly goes for you.

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Blogosphere

Through the magic of networked computers you will find your people

Back in Feburary on this blog’s 12th anniversary, I wrung my hands here over feeling dissatisfied that this blog hasn’t been more popular.

tl;dr: I like to think that I’m doing this for my pleasure, and for the pleasure of people like you. But during this blog’s life I’ve watched other film-photography blogs launch, greatly surpass mine in pageviews, and become darlings of the film-photography community. It bugs me. A lot. I’m more competitive than I like to admit.

When I was a kid my dad took up golf. He liked it, he said, because no matter who he shot with he always felt like he was competing primarily with himself. Could he better his last game today?

I want to be happy for the other film-photo bloggers in their achievements, but keep improving my own game because I enjoy it.

It’s also important that I understand what game I’m playing and measure the right things about it. Pageviews are not the right measure. They’re a little depressing this year anyway, as at the current rate I’ll end up with about 25,000 fewer pageviews than last year.

Search just isn’t driving as many views my way as in 2015-2018. Posts of mine that used to be a top-five search result aren’t anymore, because competing posts on more popular blogs have knocked them down. This post about the Kodak Pony 135 camera, for example, used to be ranked third at Google. Now it’s not even on the first page of results. It has been pushed aside by an avalanche of Kodak Pony 135 reviews that didn’t used to exist.

Here’s a measure that shows what’s really happening at Down the Road: comments. If you keep commenting at the rate you have been this year, this blog will gather about 1,100 more comments than last year.

About half of those comments are mine, as it’s my pleasure to respond to nearly every comment. I’m realizing it’s why I blog: to find and cultivate the community of people who share these interests.

When I was a kid with boxes full of old cameras, I had nobody to talk to about it. I would have been thrilled for just one friend who shared this interest even a little. As I rode my bike to yard sales all over town hunting for camera treasure, I would have loved to have had a companion.

I’d like to send a message to that young man: hang on, through the magic of networked computers you will find your people.

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Blogosphere

Three tips to increase engagement with your blog

As a veteran blogger and a veteran reader of blogs, I want to share some key things I’ve learned about how to encourage readers to keep coming back.

Your readers have only so much attention to give. Your blog is part of a wide stream of information swishing past everyone you hope will read your writing. They, too, quickly decide what to read and what to pass by.

Here are three things you can do now to help readers not pass your posts by.

Write descriptive titles and strong opening paragraphs. This lets everyone know why your post is awesome, and gives them a good reason to keep reading.

I used to write clever or obscure titles and then ramble in early paragraphs. I thought I was a witty raconteur but in reality readers didn’t track with me. When I started writing simple, declarative titles and got to the point in my first or second paragraph, pageviews and comments began to grow.

Doing this well takes practice. I don’t always succeed! But I keep working at it. You can too. For good examples by other bloggers, check out this post and this post.

Share complete posts, not just excerpts, in your feed. I buck conventional wisdom with this recommendation.

Before I explain, here’s some background. Readers can find out if you’ve published in several ways. They can always just come to your blog. Or they can follow you on social media if you share new posts there. Or they can subscribe to your blog and get an email every time you publish.

They can also follow you in a feed reader like Feedly or Bloglovin’ or NewsBlur. These services work by picking up your blog’s feed, a technical name for the way your blog alerts these services of new posts.

WordPress, and I assume most other blogging platforms, give you an option to share only the first paragraph or so of your posts in your feed. The idea is that this entices readers to click through to your blog to read the rest.

If your excerpt doesn’t strongly communicate why your post is interesting, most readers won’t click through. (Unless you’re a celebrity and people hang off your every word.)

If you get good at writing compelling titles and opening paragraphs (or custom excerpts, a WordPress feature; more here), you should improve your clickthrough rate.

But so many people read on their phones now. If they subscribe via email or feed reader, the phone opens your posts instantly. But if you make them click through they have to wait a few seconds for the post to load in the phone’s browser. I think this is a strong deterrent. I know it deters me. I think it’s better to not throw up this barrier.

To turn off excerpts in WordPress, click My Sites in the upper-left corner of your blog and choose Settings. Click the Writing tab and scroll down to Feed Settings. Click the slider next to “Limit feed to excerpt only” until the white dot moves to the left and the control turns gray. Click the Save Settings button.

Enable, and reply to, comments. Comments are the last key to engagement with your blog. Once they’ve read your post, let them respond.

Yes, readers still have to click through. But just as most of us are faster to speak than to listen, a reader’s desire to have a say is likely to hurtle them right over that barrier.

Several blogs I follow don’t allow comments. It’s super frustrating when they write a good post and I want to offer a perspective or praise! I assume they disable comments because so many comment sections are cesspools, full of pointless arguments and nasty insults.

Yours doesn’t have to be this way. You get to decide the the tone of your comment section. Just delete anything that crosses your line. You don’t even have to warn an erring commenter if you don’t want to.

My blog generates little controversy. But trolls, jerks, and people having bad days do show up from time to time and say unkind things. When it’s a regular commenter, I ask them to tone it down. Otherwise, I just delete the comment and move on. If you do the same, you’ll shape a pleasant comment community — one that your readers will be glad to join.

Respond to at least some of the comments you get. Readers will see that you’re willing to engage, and it will encourage them to come back.

To enable comments on your WordPress blog, click My Sites and choose Settings. Click the Discussion tab. In the Default Article Settings area, click the slider next to “Allow people to post comments on new articles” until the white dot moves to the left and the control turns gray.


Do you have any other thoughts about how to increase engagement with your blog? If so, share in the comments!

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Blogosphere

I probably shouldn’t be so discontent on this blog’s twelfth anniversary

Twelve years ago today I published my first post here at Down the Road!

Down the Road, v. 1.0

This didn’t start as a photography blog, but it’s surely become one. More accurately, it’s a personal blog that’s mostly about my film-photography hobby, flavored with some of my other arcane interests: old roads, old buildings, and old cars.

I’ve been pleased with how popular my blog has become. Over the last four years, it’s averaged about a quarter million visits a year.

However, in recent years other film-photography blogs have started, grown — and surpassed mine in popularity and notoriety. I admit to feeling envy.

I would love for this blog to become extremely popular, for me to become a well-known figure in the film-photography community, and for my work to generate a healthy side income. I admire EMULSIVE, Casual Photophile, 35mmc, and Kosmo Foto and their founders for accomplishing some or all of these things.

Not only do I envy their success, but I worry that the evolving online world is rendering my blog, and blogs in general, slowly obsolete. I feel uncertain, discontent on this twelfth blogiversary. Yet I persist, as creating this blog, both words and pictures, is a great joy.

Getting lots of pageviews

All-time views as of 2/6/19.

Casual Photophile founder James Tocchio admitted in his year-in-review post on Patreon that his blog got 2 million views last year. Wow! In 12 years my blog has cleared just 1.5 million views.

Casual Photophile has earned its pageviews through a combination of hard work, good luck, and deliberately and relentlessly targeting an audience.

Targeting an audience involves deciding exactly who you are writing for and publishing articles that appeal to them. If I were to do that here, I would figure out what gear the broad film-photography audience is interested in, buy it, try it, and write about it. I’d work hard to report film and camera news in realtime, to be a trusted source of valuable information.

That doesn’t sound too bad until you realize that all blogs that do that wind up writing about Leica other luxury gear, because that’s where the money is. Unfortunately, high-end gear doesn’t light my fire. I don’t care to ever own any. I’d rather shoot an old box or an obscure rangefinder. I don’t want to give that up in the name of growing my audience.

Frankly, I’m not willing to give up writing about all of the things that interest me. I want to just be fully myself here, in all my quirky glory. But this eclectic mix of topics fragments the audience. If you come here for film-camera reviews, for example, you probably don’t enjoy my histories of old highway alignments. On any random day, a new visitor to this blog will struggle to know exactly what it is about.

Generating side income

But to get two million visits a year! I fantasize that would make me happier. I’m not sure it’s true, but it’s a nice fantasy. That many visits would dramatically increase advertising income, though. Octuple it, probably.

I can afford the costs associated with the blog and with my photography. But deep down, I feel like what I do has value in the world. If I can find ways of capitalizing on that value, I want to do it. Ways that are reasonably simple for me, and minimally annoying for you, anyway.

It’s why you see ads at the end of every post. They generated $299.25 for me last year. That pays for my jimgrey.net domain, Flickr Pro, and the WordPress.com Premium package each year with a little left over, which paid for some film and processing. It’d be very nice to find ways to cover all of my film and processing so this hobby supports itself.

I’ve considered soliciting patronage through Patreon. But to do Patreon well is a lot of work that would reduce the time I can spend creating this blog. Besides, I don’t want it to feel like I’m constantly rattling my donation cup at you. I think it grates pretty quickly.

I’ve considered shifting off WordPress.com to self-hosted WordPress so I can use more lucrative advertising networks. But that would be a big project, and then I’d have to do my own site maintenance. It’s so nice to just trust the fine people at WordPress.com to keep this thing running well.

I have other fundraising ideas. I’ve published two books of my photographs, in part to put my work into your hands and in part to help fund my photography. The books didn’t sell well, though, I think in part because they cost too much. I need to figure out how to publish at lower cost. I’m also considering learning basic camera repair so I can keep reviewing gear here, but sell the cameras I won’t keep at modest profits. I’ve had good luck selling cameras through my blog.

Hobby vs. business

Some of the best-known film-photography blogs (and their associated businesses) are making a run at being at least a side hustle and maybe even a primary means of supporting their founders. You can see it in how hard they work to promote themselves on social media, create communities around their brands, and/or create a product or service and have a storefront.

I don’t want this to be a full-time job. I have a fulfilling career and don’t want to step away from it. But if I did want it, I’d have to lean a lot harder into promoting my blog.

I like making photographs and writing far more than I like promotion.

Living room
My father built my coffee table, as well as that high chair, which served my sons.

I feel like my father. When he was about my age he had been building and selling bespoke wood furniture on the side for several years. The extra money was nice but not life changing. He loved building his skill and knowledge in joinery, and enjoyed the respect and admiration he gathered from the wealthy people who could afford his furniture.

Demand increased enough that he quit his job to do it full time. But he didn’t realize how much promotion and sales he’d have to do to grow his business enough to pay the bills. He just wanted to build furniture and hoped word of mouth would carry him. It didn’t. After a few frighteningly lean years he went back to a regular job.

I feel a pull, similar to what my dad must have, to lean harder into this and make it into something bigger. But I’m just like my dad: far more interested in making the thing than selling it. My promotional efforts have been thin at best.

I expect there are no easy ways to promote this blog that will generate big results. Selling anything is real work. However, I am willing to put a little extra effort into it. I’m not sure everyone who would enjoy this blog is reading it, and I’d like to find more interested souls. I’ve spoken with other photo bloggers who have found some promotional success and am trying what they suggest.

Beyond that, I commit to keeping this blog a hobby, to enjoying the process of making it, and enjoying the response I get from you.

The changing online media landscape

Because we’re in the post-blog era, however, it’s a lot of work to build a blog audience, no matter how intentional you are about it. If you’re looking to reach a big audience and don’t already have a blog that reaches one, I advise you write for an existing popular blog, or start a podcast or a vlog.

Have Camera, Will Shoot
Me, working on this blog

Fortunately, I got into blogging while it was still young and readers like you found me. It’s a darned good thing: I am a writer and a photographer. I want to do these things. Blogging is the medium that best supports what I do.

But I’m watching carefully for signs that this blog’s day in the sun is passing, and that blogs in general are dying. If readership were to slow to a trickle, much of the joy would be gone and I’d stop doing it.

I worry a little that I’m like the radio actor who couldn’t or wouldn’t shift to television, and found himself irrelevant in a new age. If I want to retain an audience for my work, I must remain open to trying new ways of reaching it.

I could probably do a podcast. I’ve considered starting one, of interviews with other film photographers. Guests could join me on Skype and I could just record our conversation. I was a radio disk jockey in my 20s; I’m sure it would take me no time to be comfortable behind a mic again.

But video? That’s work. When I worked in radio I could control the entire station by myself through my four-hour airshift. Meanwhile, the TV station down the street needed a crew of 10 to put on a thirty-minute newscast. The effort multiplies similarly from podcasting to vlogging. It scares me off.

Fortunately, this blog is still in its salad days, and I can publish it in the time I have available. Therefore I continue to make photographs, write stories, and share them here. It remains a rich reward that you like what I do enough to keep coming back. Thank you! Every time I post, I hope to see your name among the comments.

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Blogosphere

2018’s greatest hits

Every year at this time I look back at how this blog performed: raw stats and popular posts.

Down the Road stats as of a few days ago

Visits to my blog were down by 10-15% compared to last year. My October blog sabbatical hurt: visits dropped by a third, and recovered only weakly after I returned to blogging.

The biggest loss was in search-driven visits, which are down a quarter to a third. A handful of my posts answer common questions for film-photography newbies. Tens of thousands of visits each year used to come from people Googling for those answers. Competing articles have appeared on other better-known sites, and disappointingly Google quickly ranked them ahead of my posts. Search-driven visits fell further after I updated and republished those posts this year. Google surely downranked my older posts because the newer ones were too similar.

I’d rather have your engagement with my stories and photographs than fat pageviews from people who never comment, never click Like, never share on social media. That’s why I republished those useful evergreen posts, and plan to do so annually henceforth. It’s also why I’ve been focusing more on great new posts lately. It’s made a difference: new posts get two or three times more views in the first few days than they did just two years ago. That hasn’t made up for the loss of search-driven visits, but it’s helped. I hope this growth trend continues.

My efforts to build a more vibrant community here are paying off: comments were up 30% in 2017, and another 5% this year.

My five personal favorite posts in 2018:

Five most visited posts of 2018:

Five most commented posts of 2018:

Five most Liked posts of 2018:

I look forward to an even more engaged community in 2019!

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