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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Ten Years of Down the Road

So… tell me a little about you

Today I’d like to turn it over to you.

I’d love to know who you are, where you’re from, how you found my blog, and how long you’ve read it. Especially if you’re a new reader or a longtime lurker. Please leave a comment and tell me!

My blog - Down the Road

Also, I’d love to know what topics I’ve covered that you’ve enjoyed, and which ones you skip over. If you’re a longtime reader, have I left any topics behind that you miss?

This is ultimately a personal blog. I can write whatever I want because this doesn’t pay any of my bills. But I also want to be read. The surest way for that not to happen is to ignore my audience!

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Ten Years of Down the Road

Ten years of Down the Road

Today marks ten years of this blog.

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Down the Road, v. 1.0

I’ll spare you the usual blogiversary gushing and just say that I love doing this. It’s my favorite hobby. I can’t imagine not doing it.

I started this blog to scratch my itch to write. I had written professionally early in my career, but ten years ago my work had long since evolved away from trading words for pay. I missed the process of expressing myself.

But I didn’t know what I wanted this blog to be. My first post was essentially a sermon. I tried a little diary-style blogging, and I wrote articles about old TV shows. I’ve left the proselytizing and most of those other topics behind. I kept one element that has characterized this blog from the beginning: stories from my life.

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Masthead banner from Down the Road, v. 2.0

What I could never have predicted, however, is that this blog led directly to my love of photography. I’ve collected old film cameras since I was 8, and even put film through a couple of them to see what would happen. But when I started reviewing cameras from my collection on this blog, you photographers found my work and offered encouragement and constructive criticism. Bit by bit, in no small part thanks to you, I came to care more about photography than the cameras, and now I’m a devoted amateur photographer interested in doing better and better work.

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Masthead banner from Down the Road, v. 3.0

And so now this is a photography blog with the occasional story from my life thrown in. Will it stay that way? Who knows. Probably for as long as you keep enjoying it.

It turns out that’s the whole point of blogging: interacting with you. What writer wants to send his words into the ether, never to be recognized, never to be praised, never to be cursed? (Well, hopefully seldom cursed.)

I have a lot more to say about ten years of blogging, and about writing and blogging in general. I’ll share those thoughts in several upcoming posts.

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Life, Photography

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

I’ve been asked a few times if I’ve ever thought about making photography my living.

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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 a long time. 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 filed with great work. Yet they wound up writing and editing books about software, which wasn’t 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 fairly well. Few of them loved the work, but they were grateful to be writing for 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 intrinsically 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.

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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 value necessary to capture your attention is much lower than the value necessary to make you pay even a little bit.

If I were to charge even a nominal fee to read my posts and see my photographs, I feel sure that most if not all of you would quit visiting. What I do here isn’t that kind of valuable. And I’m just one small voice on the vast Internet. 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 started to fall, and hard. 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), 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.

Here’s the fatal flaw in my argument: 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. It’ll be ten years in February. I’m very happy that my work creates enough value to keep capturing your attention. I’m working on 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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Growth, Photography

To learn what you think about something, write about it

I’m growing as a photographer. I can see it in my photographs. It satisfies me deeply.

But I don’t know what I think about photography.

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Olympus OM-1, 50mm f/1.7 F.Zuiko, Fujicolor 200, 2011

I originally wrote “I have no idea what I’m doing” in the previous paragraph, but as I typed those words I knew they weren’t exactly true. I have learned the mechanics of using cameras, even fully manual ones. I have picked up decent composition skills. I have a growing understanding of which camera and lens to use with which film to use to get a look I want. I have learned how to show you what I see in a few kinds of subjects — old cars, for one.

Yet I lack two key things: knowledge of what makes a photograph great, and a solid understanding of what I see that most others don’t.

I know that learning what makes a photograph great means studying the work of other photographers, especially the great ones. I’ve done a little of it. I bought a book of Ansel Adams’ Polaroids some time ago and spent a lot of time in it. Time and again, Adams layered three intersecting horizontal planes. I liked the effect, and ran right out and tried it myself. I need to keep practicing it.

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Canon T70, 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD, Fujicolor 200, 2014

But to understand what I see that others don’t, the only thing I know to do is keep writing about my work. Writing about something I don’t understand almost paradoxically helps me come to understand it.

I think this is true for a lot of us. We think we believe a thing strongly, but struggle to articulate why. Or we have a whole lot of disjointed thoughts about a subject, but struggle to say exactly what we believe about it. The process of writing can help us reason through and understand what we think, and then express it clearly.

This process can also clarify and even reveal flaws in our thinking. Writing even this post has helped me come to understand something: that knowledge of what makes a photograph great is separate from understanding what I see that others don’t. When I started writing this post, I hadn’t yet separated those ideas. It took a lot of writing that I have since deleted from this post to come to understand that.

This kind of writing is hard work. For me, writing camera or film reviews or expositions of a photographic subject takes time and effort, but is not terribly hard. I do some research, I think about my experience and impressions, I organize all of this information, I write. It’s a well-worn, familiar path. It feels sure.

To write a post of original thinking like this is anything but sure, anything but easy. I write and rewrite. Sometimes a post like this one languishes in my drafts folder for weeks while I think about it. Then I’ll come back to it and write four paragraphs and later realize they’re not genuine, and cut them. Along the way, I’ll realize something important that changes my thesis and causes me to start over.

It’s a wrestling match. It consumes hours and hours. I can write five camera reviews in the time it takes me to write one post of original thinking.

But when I’m done, I’ve thought deeply about the subject and know very well what I think.

Do you find yourself to be a clear thinker, someone who can process and synthesize information and feelings in your head? Or do you think you might benefit from writing to discover what you think?

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