Starting Your Site
Several bloggers I follow regularly, including Atheist Revolution, A Load of Bright, and Greta Christina, have written posts about blogging in the past several months. Since October was my best month to date, I thought it was about time for me to follow suit. Here follows a two-post series with my personal opinions and advice. Today’s post is aimed primarily at those who may be considering starting up a blog of their own, while tomorrow’s will address the question of how you can build a community and help your site grow. I hope both new and established writers will find something worthwhile here.
Choose your topic. The most important question for any potential writer is why you want to keep a blog. Ask yourself: What is my purpose in writing this? What thoughts do I want to share with the world? It’s best to make sure you have clear answers in mind to these questions before starting out. In my observation, blogs whose authors don’t have this tend to fizzle out in short order.
A blog with a consistent theme is more likely to attract a stable readership, because people who are interested in the same topic will keep coming back for more. My advice is to choose a topic that you’re personally interested in and that you know something about. You don’t need to be an authority on the subject or have a formal education in it, but it should be something that you can speak about knowledgeably and with familiarity, and something that you’re passionate about. In my case, I chose to write about atheism because that’s what I am, because it’s a subject that means a great deal to me, and because I feel I’ve read enough books by atheists and about atheists that I can say something insightful on the subject.
Your topic can be anything that you’re interested in – the range of choices is virtually limitless. Be aware, however, that if your topic is “you,” then you should be prepared to only attract people who are personally interested in you, which probably won’t be many. (I don’t write about my personal life very often because, truthfully, I don’t think it’s all that interesting.) By the same token, and paradoxical though it seems, a blog on a niche topic can attract more attention than one on a popular topic. Subjects like politics, celebrities, and personal finance are saturated, which doesn’t mean that a new blog on those topics can’t succeed, only that it’s much more difficult to stand out from the crowd. In topics of more specialized interest, it’s easier to make your mark. In my case, although there are other good atheist blogs, I felt there was plenty of room for another one.
Choose your angle. Once you’ve settled on a topic, next you need to decide: why am I the one to write about this? What will set my site apart from the crowd? What’s the “hook” that will draw readers in, the unique perspective that I’m more qualified than anyone else in the world to provide? There are endless variations that can be played around a theme. If you can find a niche that no one currently occupies but that will strike a chord with the reading public, so much the better.
In my case, I chose an angle that I think is underserved and that has tremendous potential: the perspective of positive atheism and humanism. Blog posts criticizing the harms of religion are a dime a dozen, which is why I wanted to focus more on atheism as a purposeful and fulfilling worldview in its own right, one that offers happiness and consolation to match or exceed anything offered by religion.
Keep things lively. Although a theme is vital, it’s also a good idea to have variety. No matter how talented a writer you are, if you continually beat on the same topic you’ll soon run out of original things to say. Keep your site fresh and interesting by writing about subtopics that you can tie back to your central theme. In my case, I divided my site into categories that reflect these subtopics: science and skepticism (the Observatory), history and philosophy (the Library), media and politics (the Rotunda), positive atheism and secular humanism (the Garden), and miscellaneous meditations and thought experiments (the Loft).
Content is king. This is a point I can’t stress enough. More than anything else, the way you build a readership is by producing original, insightful content on a regular basis. Posts that consist of nothing but links to other sites; posts that are too short to say anything meaningful; posts that are search-engine bait but have little else to recommend them – these things bore and annoy readers and don’t contribute to return visits. If you want people to be interested in your site, make it worth their while to visit. You don’t have to write long posts – just long enough to make your point and defend it!
I also find that consistent posting is a big help in building a readership. You don’t have to post something new every day, but new posts should appear at least on a semi-regular schedule, and not erratically, so readers know what to expect. There’s nothing I dislike more than the “sorry I’m not writing new posts” post. If you intend to be away for a while, say so. In my case, I try to update Daylight Atheism with new content three to four times a week, roughly every other day.
Design your site to be open and accessible. I don’t think that flashy graphics or whiz-bang themes make a site popular – in fact, they can often be a distraction and an annoyance – but it is important to design your site so that readers can easily navigate it and find what they’re looking for. Many’s the time I’ve searched a blog for that one post I vaguely remember and want to cite, but couldn’t find it!
My recommendations, all of which you’ll notice that Daylight Atheism follows, are to have good archives (ones that list post names, dates and quick summaries, rather than forcing readers to trawl through the text of every past posting), categories/tags, and a keyword search feature. I also think it’s a good idea to have recent comment listings, to encourage readers to join ongoing conversations, and listings of your best or most popular posts, so that new visitors can quickly get a taste of what your site is all about. Last but not least, I strongly recommend human-readable permalinks. If the permanent links to your posts are either meaningless strings of numbers, or strings of text so long that people won’t want to retype them, then you’ll discourage people from linking to your posts. Make your permalinks short and memorable.
Coming up: Once you’ve created your site, how do you get noticed, and how do you build a community of regular readers and active commenters? Part II will address these questions.