On Blogging I

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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Petrucio

    Great stuff, very helpfull. I’m planning on creatting a blog in Portuguese about Critical Thinking and everything that comes with it: Science and Skepticism, Atheism, Astronomy, Bad Medicine…

    It’s more topics than I’d really like to focus on, but the problem is that the are actually very few blogs in Portuguese about these topics, specially good ones. I’m hoping my blog can eventually grow a community of skepticism in Portuguese, which is virtually non-existent (or so hidden it’s useless).

    But I’m postponing it until I have more time. I’m currently juggling about 3 jobs and I’d really like to juggle one more but don’t have time. (guess I haven’t been affect by the crisis yet, jobs are raining on my yard). And I still have those essays to translate… I only got 1/3 of the first one…

  • mikespeir

    I’ve thought about starting a blog. I’m egocentric enough. Problem is, I’m not clever enough. As Ebon suggests, I’ve noticed is that I follow the blogs that are updated frequently. If there are more than a couple of days between posts, I lose interest in a hurry.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    posts that are too short to say anything meaningful

    That’s funny, because a lot of times I try to craft a really meaningful post that hardly generates any comments at all, and then I do a short, throwaway post that generates a lot more comments.

  • http://liquidthinker.wordpress.com LiquidThinker

    Timely advice! Thanks for the thought you’ve put into this. I’m still kind of feeling my way around with blogging, but my main nemesis that I’m aware of (I’m sure there’s many others) seems to be finding the time to be consistent. VJack of Atheist Revolution though gave some other valuable advice on writing several posts during the weekend so they can be done and ready for posting during the busy weeks. Even then…

  • Leum

    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!

    Quoted for truth! Seriously, if you don’t have good archives, you don’t have a good blog. And if there isn’t an easily findable search button (naming no names), you’re just annoying your devoted follo–er, readers.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    I’ve only got a few regs at my blog, but I’ll also echo TommyKey on the weird fact that sometimes the things you just kinda treat lightly or not even seriously generate buzz. I did one post that made a mockery of the television show Psychic Kids, and just happened to post it the night of the premiere. When people all over started searching Psychic Kids on Google, they got me. So, I guess what I’m saying is it helps if you link an occasional post to some facet of pop culture or mainstream entertainment, and even better if you can do it in a timely manner on something that just came out.

    Leum,

    And if there isn’t an easily findable search button (naming no names), you’re just annoying your devoted follo–er, readers.

    Ha! LOL LOL LOL… I have lamented that same fact here often. For example yesterday, while looking for a post on PE/QS (Problem of Evil, or Question of Suffering)..

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    I do have a search button on my sidebar, you know. :) Or was this not directed at me?

  • http://bluehydra.blogspot.com/ Hydra

    Thank you for the advice. I’m an extremely green blogger and I need all the pointers I can get! I greatly underestimated how much time blogging sucks down.

    You’re right, figuring out what theme and angle you want are very important and I admire your choice on the matter: the positive aspects of atheism, a vastly underappreciated field.

    I agree that flashiness isn’t always helpful, especially if it interferes with reading the blog. Few things anger me more about a site than illegible font set to a black background – I’ve found that I tend to like a white background decorated with a little blue the most.

    Actually, there’s one thing that angers me more – not updating the site regularly. Ideally, there should be something new every 2-3 days. And if a week passes without any new content at all, I stop visiting the site. I’ve seen blogs with a month or longer between posts and I don’t see how they could possibly manage that without losing almost all their readership. Apology posts aren’t helpful – I don’t need a post about why you’re not posting – I need new posts! In addition to blogs, webcomics do that move all the time and it’s very aggravating.

    The thing I most like about the blogs that I frequent is that they consistently put up posts that expose me to exciting or interesting information. They don’t have to be novel-length essays worthy of a Pulitzer, they can be just a couple paragraphs about atheism or science – just enough to grab my attention and make a good point.

  • Leum

    No, Ebon. You have a good search button (it was right by me as I was typing that post),and good archives.

  • RiddleOfSteel

    I agree especially about the content. For me it is impressive the pace at which Ebonmuse is able to post well written and thought out commentaries on a range of topics. Trying to keep up with that pace would probably wipe me out. I would be spending hours writing the commentaries, going over each sentence. And after the work put in writing and publishing, the reward sometimes is to have people (sometimes me included) take potshots at the content. Such ingratitude:) Thanks for a great web site.

    One thing it might be interesting to know, is also some of the tech recommendations. I recall there were some slow response times a while back. I am currently looking into orgs to host a web site, and there is a lot to consider in terms of support, storage space, data throughput and overage charges. And there is use of custom or packaged code. I guess with a successful site you always have to think about the future expansion.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    Ebonmuse,

    Whoops – my bad! You do have a search button down at the bottom and I just didn’t notice it. The whole time I sat there thinking, “There’s no search button here,” and a search button actually was there! But before every shred of evidence I had pointed to the non-existence of the search button, but now I’m like, “Duh, how could you not have see that?” Indeed, perspective is everything and hindsight often 20/20.

    So, in regards to the search button on Ebonmuse’s site, I’ve been converted. I was an atheist, but I have seen and felt, and now I believe.

    (Now it’s time to use the darn thing and find what says Ebonmuse about the PE/QS (Problem of Evil / Question of Suffering).

  • Nes

    Just to echo some other commenters, time, time time! The downfall of my half-assed attempt at a blog was lack of time. As it is, I already don’t have time to keep up with all the blogs I read, so finding time to write for my own was extremely difficult and I wasn’t willing to drop other projects to do it. This is Greta’s point #5 at the link in the OP.

  • Alex Weaver

    The search button is good, though it would be convenient if it also found text in comments, perhaps as a checkboxable option (it consistently doesn’t seem to, when I try) though I don’t know if the software supports it.

  • Leum

    I dislike it when searches include comments, personally. But then, most blogs don’t have nearly as insightful comments as the ones here at Daylight Atheism–one of the reasons I started commenting here, I had to lower the tone ;)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    For Hydra:

    I greatly underestimated how much time blogging sucks down.

    When I started Daylight Atheism, that was one of my major worries as well. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I put off starting it as long as I did: I feared it would demand more productivity from me than I could supply.

    But one thing I do find is that you get better at it with practice – the writing goes faster when you’ve had more experience in how to organize your thoughts. After two years (almost three now, actually!), I feel I’ve found a happy medium in terms of how much effort I put into the site and what I get out of it in return.

    For RiddleOfSteel:

    One thing it might be interesting to know, is also some of the tech recommendations. I recall there were some slow response times a while back. I am currently looking into orgs to host a web site, and there is a lot to consider in terms of support, storage space, data throughput and overage charges.

    Searching for a web host is a bewildering endeavor: you can choose any one you wish, and you’ll find countless people praising it to high heaven and countless others condemning it as horrendous, uncaring, anti-customer, and so on.

    The most important thing I learned from that site slowness fiasco is that traffic matters. Most web hosts offer shared hosting packages, and those are fine for the majority of sites. But when your traffic begins to grow, there comes a point where shared hosting will no longer be sufficient to support the resource demands of your site, and you’ll have to consider upgrading. (NB: I’ve used WordPress since the beginning and can’t speak to the efficiency of other hosting platforms.)

    Leum: We’re glad to have you anyway. ;) I always enjoy reading your comments.