5 Truths About Blogging (IMHO)

As always happens when conflict and controversy and hurt feelings come gushing forth from the normally tame river of words that constitutes my writing life, I have done a lot of thinking in the past few days. I have been thinking about what I wrote and what I meant, about when to speak up and when to shut up, about all I don’t know and the colleagues and friends whom I am so lucky to know. I have promised to say no more publicly about this week’s kerfuffle. But I would like to share some conclusions that this week’s events, along with years of experience as a blogger and author, have led me to regarding blogging and the assumptions that both writers and readers bring to it.

These are my  5 Truths About Blogging (IMHO, for me, based on my experience as both blogger and avid blog reader, and on umpteen conversations I’ve had with colleagues in the blogosphere, and which I believe hold true for many other bloggers as well):

When a blogger writes about his/her own opinions and experiences, that is not de facto narcissism (though, of course, it can be). Many readers flock to memoirs and blogs that offer them a glimpse into writers’ homes, kitchens, good and bad parenting moments, wrestling with theological and moral issues, pet peeves, marriage troubles and triumphs…and more. Readers love writing, in other words, that is personal, in which the writer bares some of his or her soul. I don’t write (or read) much academic theology, parenting how-tos, disability studies, or spiritual advice. I do write (and read) books and blog posts in which the writer’s personal experiences and musings on theology, parenting, disability, and the spiritual life invite readers to reflect on their experiences and perhaps add their musings to the conversation. Writing about the self—even writing about the self often, and in depth, and with detail—is not narcissism. It is (or can be) good writing that engages readers with honesty and a measured vulnerability. Writing that is truly narcissistic and self-absorbed will fail, because the writer will fail to move beyond his or her own perspective to invite readers to reflect on theirs. Any blogger with a decent audience, who regularly elicits interaction with readers other than his/her mom, best friends, and the creepy dude from high school who has nursed a crush all these years, is probably managing to write about the self without falling into narcissism. Do we sometimes pen a post that is narcissistic? Sure. Sometimes I finish a piece, read it, and immediately trash it when I realize it was a load of self-absorbed nonsense. Sometimes I post something and no one responds, which is a strong indication that I failed to write something that speaks to anyone but me. But quality writing about the self is capable of reaching out and pulling readers in.

When a blogger responds to a post by another blogger, that is not de facto bad manners (though, of course, it can be). At its best, the blogosphere is one gigantic conversation, in which someone writes something, others write something else in response, and so on. This is fundamentally a good thing and, as one colleague put it recently, “what makes the Internet go ’round.” Any blog post written for public consumption is a reasonable focus for another writer’s response written for public consumption. This dynamic is fundamentally different from, say, writing a public response to private correspondence (which I once did long ago and, though I had my reasons, probably shouldn’t have), or critiquing the awkward family photos posted by your sister-in-law on her password-protected blog meant for family only. And yet, every time one blogger’s response to another blogger’s post gets more than the usual amount of attention (including when the conversation involves much bigger-name bloggers than me) someone pipes up and says,”Why do you have to air your differences so publicly? Why not correspond privately? This is just not very nice.” To the contrary, many bloggers welcome public responses to what we have written, even if the responses are somewhat critical. Let’ s be honest—responses drive more traffic back to what we’ve written. And given that blogging is a job—a job that helps pay the bills either directly (we get paid by page views) or indirectly (we blog to support an author platform in order to sell books, secure paid speaking engagements, etc.)—more traffic is almost always good. Particularly if we have written with diligence and care, and are therefore confident that our work is high-quality, even if not everyone agrees with it.

When a blogger expresses a strong opinion in writing, that is not de facto cowardice (though of course,  it can be).  When online conversation gets heated, someone inevitably accuses those participating in the conversation of “hiding behind your keyboards.” The assumption here is that we are choosing the “easier” medium of writing over the “harder” medium of speaking directly to the person with whom we disagree. This accusation is based on a ubiquitous truth—there are many, many people who write things online that they would never, ever say in person. However, I think it’s fair to say that this phenomenon is most apparent in comment sections where people are often, though not always, writing without revealing their identity. I think it’s also fair to say that any blogger who has achieved some success (again, success being a regular, committed readership beyond the people who would bring you chicken soup when you are sick) does not regularly post this kind of cowardly vitriol. If we did, we would rapidly alienate sensible readers and be left with a skewed audience of like-minded vitriol addicts—which is unlikely to land anyone a book contract, a paid blogging gig, or speaking invitations (at least not to the kind of conference that nice people would want to attend). Writers use our keyboards to share our opinions because we are writers, not because we are cowards. I have to wonder whether David Brooks, Andrew Sullivan, Anna Quindlen, or Ariana Huffington have ever been told they should Stop hiding behind your keyboards and just give Barack Obama or Sarah Palin or Terry O’Neill or Wayne LaPierre a call or shoot them an e-mail to share your criticisms of their viewpoints!

When a blogger engages in criticism of other writers’ work, that is not de facto bullying, attacking, envy, or insult (though, of course, it can be). Criticism of the blog posts, books, films, ideas, and movements that affect our culture or some subset of it is a normal part of the blogger’s job description—but not because we enjoy making fun of other people. Rather, we are part of a long tradition of cultural criticism that encourages people to take another look at the assumptions or stories or arguments that people take for granted, to consider a different perspective, or take note of flaws that haven’t been widely discussed. We are, of course, human. Our opinions are just our opinions. We will certainly disagree with other critics and observers. We may occasionally get something really wrong because we misinterpret, or allow personal feelings about the person whose work we are criticizing too much sway. I aim to be a writer who raises questions about widely held assumptions, who points out nuance and complexity on topics where oversimplification and dualism run rampant, who speaks up when I read something that doesn’t ring entirely true. I do that imperfectly. While I feel confident that most of my work is positive and fair, I can overuse sarcasm, bluntness, and misdirected humor with the best of them. But writing a critical post about another writer’s ideas has most frequently led to fruitful conversation with that writer—something I continue to hope for any time I question another writer’s ideas.

When a commenter leaves a harsh comment on a blog and returns later to apologize, that is….amazing. That is unusual. That is sheer grace. That happened several times this week, and I am blown away. I still dislike comment sections and hope we bloggers come up with a better system for receiving reader feedback some day. But to be on the receiving end of such graciousness on the part of strangers this week has been a surprising means of grace. I am grateful.


The Perfect Pair of Boots and the Essential Work of Parenting
Why I Believe Native American Mascots Should Go
14 Blog Posts from 2014 That You Need to Read
I Have Three Things to Say About “The Dress”
About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    You nailed it on every single point, Ellen. And you did it graciously, which is one of the things I appreciate so much about you and your writing.
    P.S. Don’t you love the word “kerfuffle”?

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      Definitely a favorite word. Maybe I’ll start a new blog post series of favorite words. That would be fun! (Only fun for word nerds like us, of course, but we deserve to have fun too!)

      • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

        I not only think you should write that post, Ellen; I think you should write it as a guest piece for my place! (Why yes, I can be quite the greedy blogger sometimes.)

        • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

          Sure. I’ll do that. Sounds fun!

  • Dave Parker

    > Sometimes I post something and no one responds, which is a strong indication that I failed to write something that speaks to anyone but me.

    Or, you may have said everything that needed to be said. Like how Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was not followed by applause, but by a profound silence.

    Personally, the problem of time management for bloggers also extends to me as a commenter. I don’t have much extra time to read blogs, much less comment on them. In fact, the only blog I read regularly is yours, and the only one I respond to is yours. And I usually only respond if I feel I have something useful to add, or if I have a different opinion about something.

    If I agree with everything you say in one of your posts and have nothing to add, then I breathe a sigh of relief because then I don’t have to comment, and then I have some extra time to finish my regular work. :)

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      And you certainly do have a “different opinion” quite often! Most of which I do appreciate.

      I like the positive spin you put on the “no comment” posts. I think that may happen sometimes. I have also had that feeling of reading a great blog post and saying, “Wow, that was really great. No need to question or say anything!” And then usually I just share it via Facebook or Twitter. But I think realistically, most of us bloggers not being Abe Lincoln, a lack of response is more likely to be because the post is a dud. Although, on the other hand, I do once in a while post something that I don’t really EXPECT any reaction on. I was thinking today about maybe posting a photo once a week of what’s blooming in my garden. Not because my garden is particularly unique or because I want to show off my gardening skills (which mainly consist of choosing hardy plants that don’t need much care) but just to share a little snippet of beauty. And I certainly wouldn’t expect much response on that sort of post.

      • Dave Parker

        > I was thinking today about maybe posting a photo once a week of what’s blooming in my garden … to share a little snippet of beauty.

        That sounds good. I enjoyed your post with the picture of your “Christmas and Easter Cactus”, and what I assume is a picture of your garden in your post on “Silence and Simplicity”.

  • Jeannie

    Ouch. I didn’t even know about the kerfuffe till I read today’s post, even though I’d commented on the prior post. I think you make great points here. Ultimately I feel you’ve handled all this well and that you’re a good model for writing wisely about controversial issues.
    I agree with what Dave says too about posts that don’t receive comments — that doesn’t necessarily mean it hasn’t resonated with anyone but the writer. There are lots of reasons people comment, and I suppose lots of reasons they don’t!

  • http://www.jamiecallowayhanauer.com/ Jamie Calloway-Hanauer

    This is fantastic. I’m definitely adding it to my Friday Week Links tomorrow!

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      Thanks for sharing this Jamie!

  • David Hilfiker

    Thanks, Ellen, for this post. As a blogger who writes about my Alzheimer’s disease, I recently received a comment to the effect a) that I was writing as if all of my ideas were unique, b) that I was disparaging those who have made different decisions about how to handle their disease, and c) that I was as if my opinions were for all time and would not change as my disease progressed. I’ve tried to be sensitive to each of those problems but, since I am purposely writing about my own experiences, I’m sure I can come across much as this commenter described.
    I have never dealt with criticism well (I have always taken it personally), but I do think that a) this kind of comment now and then is probably helpful to keep me honest and b) gives me another opportunity to say that I am trying not to write as I’m being interpreted. So I wait until I’ve cooled down a little and tried to be grateful for the comment.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      I always take criticism quite personally too, though I have learned over the years not to let comments that are unfair or snarky get under my skin the way they used to. It’s not easy. And I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that all of our ideas aren’t unique. But I stick by what I said in this post–anyone who is getting regular committed readers is saying something valuable. It may not be unique. It may not be perfect. But it clearly has value if people are reading it.