Ten Years of Down the Road

Choosing a place to share your content online and why I stick with WordPress.com

If you want to write (or share photos) on the Internet, do it on WordPress.com. If you want to grow your existing audience, do it on WordPress.com.

Forget Medium. Forget Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn (all of which allow blog-style posts). And forget Blogger.

WordPress.com is a fine platform on which to publish. It offers a good editor in which you write your posts. It manages images well. It provides a rich community through which you can promote your work and find readers. The good people at WordPress do all the system administration for you – you need configure no servers, schedule no backups, run no maintenance.

And you can use it for free forever. Now, I’ve purchased a couple upgrades that give me my custom blog.jimgrey.net address and let me customize my site’s design. You can buy these upgrades for your site for about $100 a year. But they’re not truly necessary for a successful blog.

I’ve been on WordPress.com since this blog’s birth, ten years and counting, and have no plans to leave. WordPress.com has grown and changed with this blog, adding useful features all along the way. (Blogger, on the other hand, feels like it is stuck in 2007.) For example, as people increasingly viewed the Internet on their phones, WordPress introduced blog themes (templates) that looked good even on those small form factors. I switched to one. It took more time to choose one I liked than it did to make the change and tweak the settings.

And then the WordPress.com community brought me a lot of readers. I’ve been featured four times on WordPress.com’s former Freshly Pressed feature, and once in their Discover feature. And others have found my blog by searching the WordPress.com Reader.

Because nothing’s perfect, there are some challenges. For example, when you need support, your only option is to leave a post in a support forum. The community is reasonably helpful, and if you tag your post “modlook” a WordPress support engineer will respond. I have an open case with them right now. They’ve addressed several problems I’ve reported, but have declined to fix a few others. I get it: in my work in software development I’ve declined to fix some user-reported bugs myself, for solid reasons. But it’s not terribly satisfying to receive that answer.

There are reasons to use other platforms. Medium has an elegant editor and the cachet of being where all the cool kids are. But my experience there is that the platform rewards the already well-known leaving regular Joes like me to languish. And I’m not convinced Medium’s business model is viable long term.

And when you publish directly on Facebook, LinkedIn, or any other social network, those networks are more likely to favor your posts in others’ feeds than when those posts come from other sources. Posts from outside sources are at a distinct disadvantage. But when you write directly on these social networks, it’s not entirely clear how much you control your content. And WordPress.com can automatically share your posts to these networks so you can still reach plenty of readers.

You can choose to host WordPress on your own Web server. Doing so lets you customize endlessly and lets you sign up for ad networks so you can get the most possible advertising revenue. I get enough traffic that I was accepted into the Automattic Ads program. It’s not been very lucrative so far — I could make more through self-hosting and signing up for Google’s AdSense program. But that would come at the cost of doing my own back-end maintenance, and I’m not interested. My buddy Pat, who has caught a tiger by the tail with his The Small Trailer Enthusiast site, self-hosts WordPress. He sells ads directly and participates in AdSense, neither of which you can do on WordPress.com. But his site is lucrative enough to make the maintenance hassles worth it.

Given all of this, when I wanted to start a new blog about software development, I went straight to WordPress.com.

2017-02-14_0725

And when the nonprofit I help run, the Historic Michigan Road Association, needed a new Web site, I turned again to WordPress.com. Yes, Web site. WordPress.com has provided tools for a modern, responsive, professional-looking online calling card for our organization.

historicmichiganroad

Here’s the final reason I stick with WordPress.com. Should I ever want to switch platforms for any reason, I can export this entire site to a set of files, and reimport them into pretty much any other content-management platform. My content is truly mine.

I donate testing to WordPress.com and the WordPress.org open-source project, and through that work have had reason to test site export. I’m thrilled to report that it successfully exports even a blog with this much history — more than 1,600 posts over ten years. But I don’t expect to need to use that feature for real anytime soon, as long as WordPress.com keeps on keeping pace with the Internet at large as it has.

Anytime you choose to publish your work online you make tradeoffs. I think that for most people, and certainly for me, WordPress.com offers the most benefits and the fewest challenges.

Advertisements
Standard
Ten Years of Down the Road

What’s the point of blogging if nobody reads what you write?

This blog had the best February in its history. Readership is usually down in February, but not this year!

stats2017

But so what? Who cares?

Some bloggers say that it’s folly to follow your stats, that it just creates a better-faster-more mentality around your blog — everything you do has to gain lots of views or it’s not worth it.

I’m not so sure. What is the point of writing and clicking Publish for your words to go into the infinite bit bucket, never to be read?

If you don’t care about being read, you don’t need a blogging platform, you need a journal. If you’re putting it out there, some part of you wants someone else to see it. Your stats show you that your work is being viewed.

And so: why not write to be read? Draw readers in with strong titles and sparkling opening paragraphs, as I described in this post? Write with good flow to keep readers engaged?

When this blog was young I wrote several stories from my life, stories that I still love. I used to think it was because I had few, if any, regular readers when I first published them that they got so few views. So when this blog had caught on (to the extent it’s done that) I reran them all, hoping they’d get more attention. They didn’t, not to the extent of my normal posts, anyway. I’m thinking about Restored in Bridgeton, and A Place to Start, and Re-Integrating Joy. And Holding Up My Hand. Especially that one. Please go read it.

While I could edit a few of them to make them stronger, I think they all still stand pretty well on their own. Yet every last one of them ignores my tips for drawing readers in.

Especially Holding Up My Hand. That one could be in a magazine about the Christian faith, I think. It might be well read there, well liked. A faith magazine brings an audience primed and ready to read stories like that. But even then, it wouldn’t just present it as I did. It would almost certainly at least subtitle the story: “How a young boy’s first walk to school with his mother became a metaphor for his faith journey.” There. Now you know what it is about and why you should read it.

My blog has become more about photography since those early days. I’m more likely to write a camera review or a how-to post now. But I still like to tell stories from my life. Once in a while, I might write one like those I mentioned above, ones where you have to just take it on faith that it’s going to be good. I hope I’ve built up enough goodwill with you that you’ll read it anyway.

But I’ve also rewritten a couple stories with titles that tell you better what you’re going to get, and with opening paragraphs that draw you in better. And they have done well. I’m thinking of A Good Icing, which I rewrote as What the Ice Storm Could Have Taught Me About Myself. The rewritten story got way more views and comments than the original, more views and comments than the time I reran the original. My retelling is a better story, and it connected with many readers.

On your blog, write what you want how you want. But my experience has been that if you want readers, you need to show them value. They have so much to read that you have to draw them in and keep them interested. Your writing must relate to them. If you ever become deeply established, or a celebrity where people would read anything you write because it’s you, then maybe you’ll be off the hook. Until then, get on with this.

Standard
Ten Years of Down the Road

How to blog more often

As I’ve been celebrating this blog’s tenth anniversary with posts about blogging, a few of you have asked me how I blog so often.

I haven’t always published six days a week. At first I published sporadically, as little as twice a month. In 2010 I committed to three days a week. In 2014 I bumped up to six days a week.

The benefits have been clear: the more often I publish, the more pageviews I get. That’s because frequent publishing makes your blog look more serious to the search engines. And when you publish regularly and write compelling posts, your readers come to look forward to it. You gain regular readers.

But publishing frequently takes time. At present I give this blog as much as ten hours a week. I’d like to produce the same output in no more than six hours. I recently took a nonfiction writing workshop that gave me some solid techniques that should help me get there. But when I started posting six days a week, it took me far more than ten hours a week to deliver the goods. I’ve figured out how to write more in less time.

Here, then, is how I do it.

blogideas

My sticky note of ideas for this series

Write down ideas as they come. You’ll always find two or three sticky notes on my desk filled with blog post ideas. I write down potential titles, which is usually enough for me to remember what I was thinking. When I sit down to write, I have plenty of ideas ready to go.

Brainstorm ideas. Sometimes I make time to imagine a series of posts I might like to write and just think up (and write down) titles.

Set aside specific regular times to write. I write 30 minutes to an hour (almost) every morning over breakfast. I also set aside at least a couple hours on Saturday morning. Writing regularly is important because it helps keep your pump primed. The more you write, the more you have to say. Make a regular writing schedule that you can stick with.

Freewrite in 15-30 minute time boxes. I’ve only recently started practicing this technique, and it is allowing me to write more posts in less time. I’ve always edited as I go, which slows me down, gets me stuck in the word-choice weeds, and blocks the free flow of thinking about my topic. Perfectionism kills creativity and can lead to writer’s block. I start by writing down my high-level ideas about what I want to say, and then I write about each idea without judging the words I type. I allow myself to move sentences, paragraphs, and sections around for better logical flow, but I do not let myself change or rearrange words. If I’m struggling to write, I make myself keep going for 15 minutes and then stop. If I’m able to freewrite easily, I’ll use all 30 minutes. I generally stop at 30, but if I still have time and I know a whole bunch of things I still want to say, I’ll write until either those words or my time are exhausted.

Let unfinished posts stay unfinished until the next time you write. An unfinished post will frequently keep percolating in the back of your mind until you come back to it. I’m astonished by how often I return to an unfinished post I had been struggling to write to find that I now have plenty of good things to say.

When the words come to you, make time to write them down. Sometimes post ideas and the words that go with them just come to me in a flood. I make every effort to set aside a block of time as soon as I can to write them. I love it when this happens, and when it does I can suddenly find myself with a month of posts queued up.

When the well is dry, choose a photograph you took and like and write a paragraph about it. Sometimes you just can’t think of anything to write about. Write about a photograph to prime your pump. If you’re not a photographer, write about a song or a book or a favorite possession. Tell something about it, or what was happening in your life when you photographed it/first heard it/first read it/first got it, or how it makes you feel now. It hardly matters what you write, just write it and publish it.

Edit separately, lightly. After you’ve written a post, set it aside for a while. I often use a future 15-30 minute time box for editing. And I generally edit lightly. This is a blog, not high literature. But my freewriting lets my personality shine through and I hate to edit that away. I start by making sure I like the way the post is organized; if I don’t, I move things around until I’m happy. Then I tweak the words, sentences, and paragraphs to make them flow better.

This is what works for me. Take what works for you from this and leave the rest. But if you try any of this and it works for you, I’d love it if you’d come back to this post and say so in the comments!

Standard
Ten Years of Down the Road

Why I probably won’t watch your vlog or listen to your podcast – and why I probably won’t create my own

It seems like podcasts and, especially, vlogs (video blogs) are where it’s at. All the cool kids are doing one. Some vloggers and podcasters have become Internet famous!

Will podcasts and vlogs leave traditional blogging in the dust? I worry that I’m out of step that I don’t make my own — and that I don’t follow any.

Well, hardly any. For the right podcast or vlog I will make an exception. I call it the Osgood Exception.

CBS NEWS SUNDAY MORNING

Charles Osgood. CBS News photo.

During my 1970s kidhood we listened to the radio over breakfast. We always tuned to the station that played middle-of-the-road music and CBS news on the hour. Being a CBS station, they also carried The Osgood File, a little vignette written and read by Charles Osgood. More than 40 years later, he still does four Osgood Files each weekday for CBS Radio. And he even makes them available on the Internet now as podcasts!

It was the perfect podcast before anybody could even conceive of the idea. Each one is a human interest story, crisply and engagingly written. And best of all, each one is short, clocking in at about 1 minute and 45 seconds.

As a kid, my whole family piped down for the 1 minute and 45 seconds it took to listen to an Osgood File. We could pack it into our busy mornings with no problem.

That’s the Osgood Exception: is it interesting and can I listen to it quickly and easily?

I will always prefer to read a blog post — I can do that anywhere. I’m not going to listen to your podcast or watch your vlog in a waiting room or in the can. I don’t want the sound to fill the room and I won’t carry headphones everywhere.

And how much of a time commitment are you asking of me? The shorter the better. I can skim and scan a blog post, but when I launch a podcast or vlog there isn’t any good way to cut to the good stuff. I have to listen through. So deliver the goods fast and I might stick around.

If it’s too long, it becomes like a television program: something I have to schedule time for. For the little time I have for television, the competition is fierce. Your podcast or vlog is going to have to be stunning to make the cut.

So the list of podcasts and vlogs I’m willing to follow is very short. A model podcast, one I do follow, is called Agile in 3 Minutes. (It’s about software development, which is what I do for a living.) See what the podcaster did there? He tells you right away that you need a bite-sized amount of time to listen to his podcast. I can listen to it quickly while cooking breakfast or while taking a quick work break. And it’s easy to listen to as it uses simple language, spoken clearly. That removed pretty much every barrier to me sampling his work, and now I’m hooked.

There’s a vlog I want to like. It’s by a blogger fairly well known in software-development circles who writes unfailingly interesting blog posts. But on his vlog, the stuff I want to hear is interlaced with cut scenes of him walking or driving through his city and interacting with his family at home. And his videos sometimes go on for as long as 10 minutes. I just want him to cut to the chase, tell me what he has to tell me, and end it already! I’m about to unsubscribe.

♦ ♦ ♦

I could probably make my own podcast or vlog. A podcast would be easier: I’d need to buy a good microphone. I happen to own audio-editing software already. While my radio voice is rusty, with a little practice it would be fully sonorous again. And I do know how to write for audio, which is different from writing to be read.

Vlogging is another matter. I could do it quick and dirty with my Canon PowerShot S95 on a tripod. The video would be serviceable and the audio would be tinny and include ambient noise, but at least it would be a way to start. But ultimately I’d want to invest in a good camera and microphone.

I could just write a podcast and film myself reading it. That’s all some vlogs are: a talking head. An especially attractive or animated talking head can be interesting. But I’m a reserved middle-aged man; therefore I fit into neither category. So I’d have to do something else creative to make it more than a talking-head vlog, which would require extensive shoots and editing.

All of this would take time away from blogging. Which is what I really want to do. So if I’m to be left behind by popular podcasters and vloggers, I guess that’s how it has to be.

Standard
Stories told, Ten Years of Down the Road

The Electric Breakfast

Blogging today is like radio was for me 30 years ago, when I was a disk jockey.

Does anybody listen to the radio anymore? Even for the listeners who hang on, it’s not like it was even 20 years ago. Stations increasingly automate everything. A computer runs the show, playing both songs and commercials. The disk jockey in Denver might actually have been recorded yesterday in Albuquerque. The computer knows when to make the recorded disk jockey speak, too. It’s driven the feeling of connection out of the medium.

mewmhd1989aI got my start in radio long before all that, at my college’s station. Our biggest audience tuned in weeknights after 6 pm, which was when students settled in for a long night of homework. It was an engineering school, an they worked us hard.

Sometimes I’d break from my own homework and walk through the residence halls. I’d hear our station coming from dozens of rooms. Or I’d visit the broadcast studio, where the phone rang off the hook with students and townies calling to request their favorite music.

Radio was still live and local everywhere then, not just at college stations like ours. We engaged with our listeners, and they responded. It made the evening shows so much fun! Our best jocks lined up to take them. Afternoon shows were next most popular, but shows before noon were hard to fill. The morning show was nearly impossible to staff, as it meant being on the air at 7 am.

I was station manager, the top dog, and I could have any show I wanted. But I chose the morning shift whenever my class schedule allowed. I loved it.

WMHD was in the basement of a residence hall. I lived in a room about a hundred feet away. When my alarm went off at 6:45 a.m., I’d put on my glasses and head right for the station, barefoot and in my nightclothes, stopping only to answer nature’s call. I’d pick out the first four or five songs, fire up the transmitter, and play the sign-on message. The Electric Breakfast was on the air!

mewmhd1989bOur station’s hallmark was that each disk jockey got to play whatever he wanted. For the morning show, I chose mellow acoustic music to gently ease listeners into the morning. It really stood out against the station’s regular alt-rock and heavy-metal programming.

I figure that most mornings I had at most a handful of listeners. I am sure that sometimes I played music for nobody at all. At 160 watts, WMHD could be heard within only about a two-mile radius, half of which was a cornfield and a horse farm.

I would have been thrilled for hundreds of people to hear my show, but I was plenty happy with the way things were. You see, I loved to match key, tempo, and mood, mixing songs so that each one seemed a natural extension of the one before. I did it all by feel, and was supremely satisfied each time I nailed it.

But more importantly, once in a while the phone would ring. It was usually a fellow from Seelyville, a nearby tiny town. He often listened to me as he got ready for work. He enjoyed the tapestries of music I wove and would call to tell me when he especially enjoyed a transition I made between songs. And once in a while someone would stop me on my way to class to say that he heard me that morning and liked it.

This occasional praise was all I needed to keep at it.

I am so glad I recorded a few Electric Breakfasts. Here is the first 45 minutes of the show from Wednesday, April 6, 1988. You can hear pops and scratches in the records I played – unlike most radio stations, we didn’t compress our audio to eliminate noise and make the music seem louder. You can also hear the sleepiness in my voice; it usually took me most of the first hour to shake it. But I was not so sleepy that I couldn’t manage a few good transitions between songs. Check it out.

My blogging experience has been very much like The Electric Breakfast. Down the Road is a mere blip in the blogosphere, barely a whisper among the Internet’s clamoring voices. This post might find 25 views today, and maybe that many more the rest of this week. Thanks to the Internet’s long tail, it might find another 50 readers in the next year.

But I love the writing process and find it supremely satisfying when my sentences flow seamlessly into powerful paragraphs, which build an engaging story. And I love it when you leave comments, sharing your experiences or challenging my assertions or just saying that you enjoyed what I wrote. This is enough to keep me blogging indefinitely.

I never thanked that guy from Seelyville for listening. But I thank you for reading!

I first published this story in 2010. I revised it significantly for this retelling.

Standard
Ten Years of Down the Road

How to attract readers to your blog – and keep them

Even though you’re almost certainly never going to become rich or famous through blogging, with effort and patience you can build a rewarding regular readership, and start to form a community with your readers.

dtr-header-3.jpg

A masthead image from this blog’s bygone days

I’ve learned a lot about how to do this in my ten years of blogging. Some of it I’ve figured out on my own, and the rest I’ve learned from other successful bloggers.

Titles and opening paragraphs must be crackling good. Your readers follow many other sources of information and entertainment. They probably don’t have time to read everything they follow, so they scan titles looking for stuff that might be interesting. When the title pulls them in, they skim the opening paragraphs to decide whether to read the rest of the post.

As people find themselves regularly drawn into your posts, they often start to think, “This blog posts good stuff, so I’m always going to read it.” That’s the moment a reader becomes regular.

I’m still not as good at titles as I want to be, but I feel like my opening paragraphs are much improved now over just a couple years ago. And it is paying off in terms of views, likes, and comments.

Post regularly, on a schedule if you can. The more often you post, the better your posts rank in searches. And readers come to look forward to your posts. One of my blogging friends posts every Friday morning, for example. When I see his post in my feed, I think, “Oh yeah, Friday morning!” And then I dive in and read. It’s a little weekly dopamine hit.

I don’t publish regularly on my other blog, about software development. The stats reflect it: that blog gets five percent of the views this one does.

Keep your posts short, between 300 and 1000 words. The Internet is a short-attention-span theater, after all. People are more likely to stick with a post when it’s bite sized.

I’ve not always kept to this. Last year, I wrote a post that was over 2,500 words! Because most of my posts are 500-800 words, I hoped you’d all beg my pardon. I was surprised by how many of you read it all the way through and commented.

But when all of your posts are long, people become fatigued. “Ah, another post from that guy. It’s probably gonna be a mile long. No time for that today. Pass.”

Tell stories. Humans are naturally drawn to stories. Using them keeps them engaged with your posts. Even when I’m writing something routine like a camera review, I tell little stories about the places I photograph, or of a triggered memory, or about what’s going on in my life as it relates to the photographs I took. It humanizes the post and makes it interesting even to people who don’t care much about the gear itself.

Write as someone who’s still learning, still growing – except when you’re really an expert, when you should write as an expert. A blog becomes tiresome when the author always comes across as the World’s Foremost Expert. We’re all works in progress here. Let your blog reflect it. You’ll resonate with readers more deeply.

Yet you just might be an authority on some things. When your imperfect humanity comes through elsewhere on your blog, you have air cover to boldly assert the authority you do have. (Like I’m doing in this post.) Your readers will accept it because they aren’t fatigued from it.

In your feed, show your posts’ full text rather than a summary. This might seem counterintuitive – don’t you want people to click through from their feed reader to your blog, to juice your stats? But unless you’re a famous blogger, people won’t hang on your every post. They’re skimming and scanning their feed readers looking for interesting stuff. Making them click through gives them a good reason not to read your posts.

Remove that friction! In WordPress.com, go to yourblog.wordpress.com/wp-admin/options-reading.php, click the “Full text” radio button and click Save.

showfulltext

Reply to comments. Leaving even a simple reply lets your reader know that you’re a real person and that you are happy they stopped by. It encourages them to keep coming back.

And for those of you who don’t allow comments at all: what the? I know that on some sites the comments are a cesspool. But on your blog, that’s fully under your control. You’ll get the comment section you cultivate. Cultivate a good one and more readers will become regular.

Include images in your posts. This is a trick more than a technique. But most feed readers show one of your post’s images, which adds interest and encourages people to click through. And when you share your posts on social media, one of the images generally appears as part of the share. It causes the share to take up more real estate, making it harder to miss. And eyes are naturally drawn to good imagery anyway.

This is what I’ve learned so far. One thing I’ve very much enjoyed about blogging is that it has provided endless opportunity to learn. So when I learn more, I’ll share it in future posts!

Standard