Camels With Hammers turns three years old today!
On June 23, 2009, I put up my first post on my redesigned, renamed, and relaunched blog (which had formerly been known as Nietzschean Ideas and which had been defunct for a year). The day Camels With Hammers ramped up I was resolved not to blog in obscurity in the only aimless and occasional style I had done so previously. I decided that I was going to do this for real.
And three years later, the blog is still alive and growing. In my time at Freethought Blogs alone, Camels With Hammers has garnered nearly 1 million pageviews. I will easily hit that mark some time early next week, assuming my typical daily traffic averages hold.
So, to celebrate, I figured I would offer some of my philosophy of blogging (and a little history of Camels With Hammers) in the form of advice for aspiring and struggling bloggers. My suggestions are just based on my own observations, experiments, personal temperament, and value judgments. I don’t claim any special expertise. I would imagine that on any given point other bloggers—including bloggers way more successful than a relative small fry like I—would disagree with me. But these are my 2 cents for what they are worth.
When giving advice to bloggers in what follows, I am writing for those interested in having a well read and well regarded blog. If all you are interested in is just a cozy little place on the internet to write out your thoughts or log your experiences and get some feedback from friends, family, and the occasional stranger, then there’s no reason you should follow most of these tips. But if you’d like to make lots of (internet) money and gain lots of (internet) fame from your writing, then here are some things you should think about.
This post is really long because (a) it’s my blog’s anniversary and what better way to overemphasize a blogging milestone than with self-indulgence? (b) anyone interested in blogging will want to know everything they can and will benefit from even the occasional navel-gazing minutiae I didn’t edit out, and (c) this is Camels With Hammers, we do long posts here. How can I disappoint all the fans in the big anniversary post?
With no further ado…
1. Blog Like Everyone Is Reading.
When I started blogging almost no one was reading. But I blogged essentially like I do today. In fact, I blogged much more than I do today. I had the advantage of a summer off from teaching and I spent whole days pouring out all sorts of pent up thoughts on atheism, religion, and ethics, and scouring the internet for news stories and interesting blog posts worth aggregating. I would post constantly, modeling my efforts off of Andrew Sullivan’s insanely busy blog. (Andrew’s blog is, in my opinion, the gold standard in all of blogging and it was his must-read piece “Why I Blog” that convinced me blogging was the ideal medium for me.)
I wrote as though I had an audience that was relying on me as a source of information and looking to me for my commentary. Hardly anyone actually was, of course. But I wrote like they were there. And I resolved from the start that I would keep doing it for months and years, regardless of whether many people at all read what I was writing.
My assumption was simple. If I kept doing the highest quality job I could for as many months or years as I could, then eventually I would get lucky. The right blogger or the right reader would stumble on something I wrote and get excited about it and share it and even if it took years for this to happen, a big viral hit could bring with it an increase in traffic. Or, failing that, slowly accumulating readers, even if it was only 20 regulars a month, would eventually add up to an audience worth investing so much time writing for.
All I had control of was the quality of my blog. There was no point in waiting for there to be readers before I made it as good as I could. There was a point to making what I was doing good enough that when readers would finally show up they would see something special and want to stay. Every day of blogging in obscurity is like an audition for a small panel of judges. Those handful of readers who come across you for the first time have the power to either spread the word about what you’re doing or not. You’re writing for them. And if you can’t impress them, you will never get the platform to reach the rest of the world.
So write for them, write for your small handful of random readers. Give them the impression your blog is legitimate by acting like it is legitimate and maybe they will keep coming back. And you’ll be surprised. Within 6 weeks, I got an e-mail from a much buzzed about author who noticed I had aggregated a negative review of his book and asked if I would cover his response to it on my blog too—as though any one was reading my blog!
When I look back, I realize I succeeded relatively quickly in hitting a decent traffic day. After only 6 weeks, I devised a clever scheme that brought me over 2,300 hits for one single day by piggy backing off a big atheist blogosphere story (PZ Myers’s and the Secular Student Alliance’s trip to Ken Ham’s creation museum) and providing a service. Basically, I live-blogged the event’s live Twitter feed in two posts highlighting the interesting things people were saying and grouping together all the photos they were posting. (I would link to this monumental moment in Camels With Hammers history when I first blipped on the atheist blogosphere radar, but unfortunately the posts are now mostly worthless since the pictures did not transfer when we moved the blog to Freethought Blogs.)
Until I pulled off that stunt I had scraped 200 hits only once and frequently could barely manage even 100. And those 6 weeks of full time writing for hardly any readers felt interminable and reaching 200 hits during them felt like trying to lift 400 pounds. And even after my sudden windfall of hits on the Creation Museum trip day, and even despite my prodigious high quality output aimed at keeping those new readers, within a week my traffic sunk to less than 100 hits for a day again. I poured out all my energies into writing dozens of posts a week, many of them really sophisticated, and yet it still took several more weeks until I would finally hit 400 hits again one day.
But then after two minor successes in one weekend, getting search traffic from Google on popular high profile mainstream stories that I wrote about before official news outlets got to them, and after getting some exposure by having my blog fed at Planet Atheism, I started to get 400 hits a day as my new floor. And within three months I had bootstrapped my way to traffic that fluctuated between 400 and 700 hits a day. And I would have kept growing if I didn’t take a few months away from atheist blogging to finish my dissertation.
2. Don’t count on the one big score, hustle everyday.
The experience I just described of having traffic spike only to crash again within a week is the pattern of most viral hits in my experience. You may get tens of thousands of hits for a magic post, but tens of thousands of people are typically not going to keep reading you on account of that one post. So, don’t think of this as getting one big hit. What I often get from a huge surge of traffic is, over time, a slight uptick in my daily averages and just a few noticeable fantastic, enthusiastic new readers. And they’re worth it. They’re how you keep building the blog.
In general I think that’s the philosophy to have. If everyday you write something that really grabs at least one of your new readers and makes them stay then in a year you could have 365 really good readers. That could be 365 people who are legitimately willing to be invested in your project, even if some of them only read a couple times a week on average. In three years you can have 1,000 great readers at that pace. And if you have that many great readers regularly coming through you are likely to have more total readers. So, write the very best you can everyday, because even if all you can manage to win over is one person, you have a shot at a mutually rewarding long term relationship between you and that reader on your blog. Those add up!
3. Practice blogging by commenting on other sites.
As I have talked about before, many great bloggers start as great commenters. If you are already pouring out hundreds of words a day on a blog or an internet forum, then you know you have it in you to write everyday. And if you have done a lot of your writing on blogs you love, then you have likely been noticed by your favorite bloggers and have a potential source of invaluable support if they like you. So prove yourself in their comments sections and then let them know when you set up your own shop.
Don’t hang around blogs just to promote yourself. Don’t hang around bloggers just to be a sycophant. Be willing to be a full participant. But definitely hang out at other blogs when you have a low profile blog. More people may be reading you on other blogs than on your own blog at that point so take advantage of the chance to be read! But don’t give others the feeling you’re only there with an agenda of gaining readers of your own. Engage for its own sake and help bloggers out with tips and (if you sincerely agree with them) bulldogging in favor of their controversial views against hostile other commenters.
4. Have a distinct voice and perspective.
Great bloggers have distinct personalities that come through in their writing. You can’t really fake this, though you may be able to develop it with writing experience. If you want a tangible way to make a personal connection that does not even rely on your having a distinctive voice, then connect instantly to readers with your photograph or a well done caricature of yourself. And make your profile into an engaging narrative about who you are, rather than a list of familiar facts or arcane trivia.
People are social creatures. We find other people stimulating. We like seeing faces. We like knowing who we’re dealing with. We want to know why we should listen to someone who wrote something. So these things should be the first and easiest thing new people arriving at your blog discover. Who are you? What qualifies you to be listened to? Where do you come from? Where are you going?
Speaking for myself in particular, I want to know a lot about the person I’m reading. I’m usually much more interested in who this person is than the topic of any given post. So provide easily accessible, interesting biographical information that conveys your personality, qualifications, perspective, and experiences. Make clear to readers why you are a credible and interesting person who deserves a hearing on the subjects you discuss.
Part of this can mean delving into peculiarities that make you you. But don’t do this at the expense of some central stuff. When I come to a new blog I don’t want to wade through only a bunch of evasive cutesy irrelevant descriptors like that the blogger eats Cap’n Crunch. Something distinctive about your personality has to come out, don’t just convey that you’re one of the million people who like to be clever for cleverness’s sake. That’s been done.
I admit that I find my own profile a bit boring to me. It could be punchier and more personable. But at minimum it orients everyone in numerous key areas to who they’re reading; i.e. where I am coming from and what my qualifications are. And it gives interested people key links to learn whatever else they likely want to know upon discovering me. And as old news as my life story is to me, I have to remember that I am new to you and let you discover the basics about me first. A majority of commenters seem well-oriented to me when they comment and that’s the most important thing to me. You want the reader to feel like they met a person—a credible and interesting person—and not that they have just read some disembodied (possibly dubious) ideas on a page.
And did I mention your face should be there? I did? Good. People love faces. They remember faces. They connect with faces. Cartoon faces or real photos. Whatever. Just give them a face to connect with. And if you can regularly include photos and videos of yourself and stories about you doing stuff on the blog itself, you just become so much more a part of people’s lives. When I have met bloggers in the real world whom I have watched and seen for years, I felt like I already knew them very well and they had even attained to celebrity status in my brain since I knew them first through media and only second in real life (and that has a powerful influence on the brain, I find).
One last note about this. There are a lot of women who feel like they can’t put their faces online because it is going to draw attention away from the quality of their writing or invite random abusive misogyny. This is a huge disadvantage and the hateful chauvinists who do this to women are disgusting. And I totally get it if women bloggers forego the value of a facial connection to readers for their own protection and/or sanity. This is just another way that misogyny ruins good things for talented women and for all of us who are denied their fullest self-expression.
5. Be boldly, crazily different (and unafraid to stretch your audience).
Don’t pander to the lowest common denominator. Everyone is already trying to give everyone what we all know that everyone wants. What you need to show people is that you have something to offer that no one else is offering. It might even be something few, if any, know they want yet.
Sure, you are inevitably going to be working in an established genre or interest which already has a saturated market—unless you do something so inane that even you have no interest in it. But it is up to you to do it in a way that is fresh. And that often means breaking with conventional wisdom. That is what is interesting.
So stretch people.
Don’t be afraid to write long posts (without rambling) if you have a lot to say. Not everyone writes them. Short posts are easier to read and easier to write. But there is an audience for good long posts so don’t be afraid to write for that audience if you have a lot worth saying. Or if you do short posts, make them as efficient and evocative as possible. Put some craft and style into them. Make them memorable, not disposable. Deal with challenging topics. Who cares if most people won’t care? If you are good, you will find your readers and they’ll care.
Put some care into doing something special and people will notice that there is something special. Try to be like everyone else and people will notice you’re just like everyone else—and so just keep clicking on through the internet looking for something special.
6. Write like clockwork.
The best blogs are reliable. They are usually daily. They usually update multiple times a day. They hook readers because whenever readers come back they are rewarded. You don’t want to disappoint an intrigued reader when she comes back for the second, third, and fourth visits, and sees nothing new.
So, plan to write everyday, ideally multiple times a day–if you want people visiting your blog everyday and multiple times a day. It’s a simple equation when you think about it.
And, really, if you want them coming back at all, try to put up at least 2-3 posts a week. Blogging is a kind of journalism. People read blogs the way they read magazines or newspapers. They’re part of a routine habit. If you want to be part of people’s regular habits, you have to write with regular habits that they can sync up with. If the idea of writing all the time does not sound fun, then blogging probably won’t be fun for you.
Only once you have established a core audience and sustained traffic, or if you have a blog where every post is a must-read epic piece of research and insight, can you really coast on a post a week or less. But even then, I do not see it as advisable. The big dogs, in my experience, are frequent updaters who make themselves part of people’s daily routines.
You also can’t coast on the occasional popular post if you want to be well read. When blogs don’t update, people stop reading them, seemingly no matter how popular and beloved they are. Lesser known and celebrated bloggers can outperform famous bloggers in hits if those famous bloggers take even a few days or a week off while the lesser known bloggers hustle to post multiple times a day. My best pre-FtB days can still beat some of my current FtB days when I haven’t blogged for a couple days, regardless of my bigger built-in cushion that comes with being on this much more visible platform.
This is a temporary, time-sensitive medium. To keep being read you have to keep writing. And, when I had a smaller audience? Consistent totals of 600-1,000 daily hits evaporated quickly after just a couple weeks or a month away. The audience was down to 200-300 again in no time. And getting an audience back again is an arduous chore. You can really lose readers if you don’t tend to them.
7. Take full advantage of social media.
Unless you get really really lucky, you have to be a bit of a shameless self promoter to get your blog noticed. Blogs are part of social media. So connect yours to the rest of your social media and connect to your potential readers personally using social media. For example, through this social media site called Facebook, I have friended thousands of atheists I’ve never met in real life. I started doing that because they were potential readers. Then we interacted on Facebook and I loved getting to know them. (I hear others use something called Twitter a lot too.)
And, pro-tip, reading the feed of the links my Facebook friends from the atheist community post up is much more efficient when I’m looking for stories than even my (packed to the brim with every interesting blog I can find) RSS feed. A sizable number of my most supportive readers both discovered my blog and are regularly updated on it through Facebook. It’s been indispensable to me thus far in building readership.
8. Be gracious and introspective in response to criticism and be good tempered in general.
If you write about controversial topics on the internet, you are going to get criticized. And on the internet, “controversial” means “anything”. Any given day your own comments thread can be filled with people lighting a flame, getting some logs, and beginning to roast you. Or some higher profile blogger might be poisoning the well against you or mischaracterizing your arguments. Or some inconsequential pissant who resents you might be trying to raise his own profile by making exaggerated claims about your contribution to the overall misery in the world.
Honor those who make sincere and legitimate criticisms, even if too harshly, with patient, sincere, and rational replies. Be willing to denounce those whose audiences are bigger than yours when their critiques are not fair and when their influence is dangerous or malicious. And ignore those whose audiences are smaller than yours when they are dangerous and malicious. Starve them of attention.
And, most of all, just be willing to learn from your readers and your rival bloggers. Blogging is a medium for collaborative thinking. It is a much richer experience when you are not insecure about risking being wrong publicly and having to grow publicly. As Andrew Sullivan succinctly put it, “A blogger who is not prepared to make a total fool out of himself is not a real blogger.” This is a medium for going out on a limb and thinking in real time and evolving in front of an audience. If you want to convince yourself or your audience you’re never wrong, write a book instead. That way you might have a chance of at least fooling yourself.
And, lastly on the subject of conflicts with others, I think it is best for numerous reasons to avoid all name calling, whether of famous people or other bloggers or commenters. Don’t just be a raging id online. You will turn off a lot of thoughtful people who would rather deal with other thoughtful people and ignore such manipulative or out of control histrionics. You have to be a really good writer to write stuff that is unmitigatingly insulting and not come off as just another pathetic, overly emotional, unfair, partisan ranter on the internet who has nothing of substance to offer serious discussions. And even when you are a really good writer and you can write stuff worth reading which you just pepper with insults for flavor, you are still giving your detractors valid moral reasons to dislike you and denounce you. That only distracts from your ideas. You can be very critical while still sticking scrupulously to descriptors which are accurate and not worthy of schoolyard bullies.
9. Write For Your Readers
Begin your posts in inviting ways, accessible to non-specialists, unless your blog is only for a niche technical audience. Without going on too long, succinctly introduce every post like the reader has never read you before and you have to orient them. Avoid marking a post in the title as “Part 47 B” and appreciate that the law of diminishing returns seriously applies to ongoing blog post series on the same topic. You can write numerous posts developing similar themes but try to mask that in how you present them.
Succinctly bring people into where an on-going story is since probably most of your readers everyday will be new to the blog and need to be both oriented and not overwhelmed. If there is a long complicated back story, think about whether a reader really needs to know that and whether they might be scared off if you told them that. You might instead start in a broadly accessible way and hint at the end about how this connects to a larger narrative regular readers are following or give links there. I tend to blitz people with a whole table of contents of links so they can explore a topic I’ve just discussed from numerous angles. But be careful of that, it overwhelms many people. Just a handful of judiciously chosen “related posts” at the end can be a great idea to entice people to stick around and read a little more and get a little more hooked into your project.
Also always keep in mind the primary practical and philosophical concerns of the community you write within and reassure them that you understand their concerns when challenging them. Forestall misunderstandings by scrupulously acknowledging that you understand what they worry about and what they are ready to pounce on is something you care about too and have taken into account. I aim to challenge the average atheist reader to think about stuff I do not think is either commonly known or commonly agreed upon. And usually my readers take it very well and that is in no small part because I know how to frame things with them in mind. I am writing to a distinct audience, not into the void. A good writer starts thinking about the actual audience when writing, rather than some imaginary generic person who does not exist.
And I respond to the audience. As I have written this blog in the first three years, my concerns have shifted from generally making clear what was wrong with religious beliefs to paying a lot more attention to the interests and needs of the people who wound up actually reading me (which was often not religious people, to say the least!). My blog is part of a community and so that community’s concerns and needs influence my attention. I still write stuff that is primarily against the theoretical religious reader’s beliefs, in hopes that some day those people come by and in hopes that developing good lines of argument against the religious will bolster my atheist readers’ own thinking and arguing. But I accept that my writing brings a certain kind of actual audience and I pay attention to them.
You have to have confidence that your writing will find your readers. When my blog was solo I felt really really proud of my commenters because I felt like they reflected my temperament and personality and concerns and I liked what their character said about my own as a result. On Freethought Blogs I have a wider audience which means the comments sections have become much less reflective of my own distinctive personality. And that is also great, but in a much different way. It opens me up to a much broader array of challenges and insights and (occasional) hostilities. It’s something that can be distressing for the weak of heart, but I think it is well worth adapting to and growing from. In the end it is preferable and more enriching.
Finally, wherever possible avoid using jargon that you do not explain. Smart people can understand ideas in fields outside their own if only jargon is avoided, so suck it up and spell it out for people. That’s not dumbing things down, it’s making the same hard ideas people in your group understand accessible to equally smart people who just happen to reside outside your narrow subgroup. Don’t condescend to them and don’t try to play smarter than them. Just explain precisely what you know and think in common language that catches them up to where they are capable of being.
10. Have an original blog layout (not one “out of the box” if at all possible) and make it clean, clear, and uncluttered.
No busy backgrounds. No gimmicks. No distractions from your writing. White on black text is a nightmare to read for long periods of time. Just stick with plain old classic white background and black text. Every legit and popular blog I know of eschews busy site designs and unusual text color choices. So learn from their success. I was in love with my black and orange original scheme and my white on black text I used whenever I was quoting in block quotes. But all that busyness made my blog look way too amateur and confusing and hurt people’s eyes. Don’t do it. Also, remember when blogging that relatively short paragraphs are just easier on the eye. When doing our site redesign in 2010 my webmaster Dave and I took my favorite 10 or so big popular blogs and just studied what they all had in common. Two biggest takeaways: every one of them featured a picture or cartoon drawing of the blogger and every one of them was clean and super easy to read.
Okay, so these are just 10 tips. I am sure if I sat here longer I could churn out 10 more even. But people (and by people I mean search engines) love top 10 lists. A blogger could do a lot worse than post top 10 lists every day. Numbered lists are great in general—even if other numbers do not excite quite like “10″ does. So, even though that’s sort of an eleventh tip (and many more could be generated) I’ll stop there and call it a list of ten.