Have you met Justin Olivetti? He’s a crazy man. I do a podcast with the guy, and he’s the type who launches into silly songs and can’t summon a mean-spirited word about anyone. He’s just the kind of guy to found something like the Newbie Blogger Initiative in a bid to get more gamers into blogging about our hobby. Way to go, Olivetti — create more competition for the rest of us.
As one of the zillion sponsors he conned into helping him out on this project (he’s devious!), I owe you all a little post about how you mine for blogging. Here’s the caveat: I’m the last person who ought to be dishing out advice. I’m a bad example because I’ve done almost everything wrong and still succeeded — and I’d do it wrong all over again because I care more about writing than about blogging. But that doesn’t mean you should.
Your blog is your portfolio
I came to blogging almost by accident. I had been a paid proofreader previously, so I was far more interested in editing than writing, but I didn’t have even a personal blog before I was hired to blog professionally after applying on a whim because I was tired of seeing typos on my favorite MMO blog. This does not happen to people. Real people do not get lucky breaks. Real people have established portfolios of published and unpublished work that they shop around for years before they get anywhere. I realized, belatedly, that I needed one of those too! I needed a place where I could post essays that would show off my writing and my editing at the same time. I needed a blog of my own, the blog I ought to have had before I got hired, because that is exactly how most of my colleagues broke into the industry.
Even if you don’t want to become a “zomg pro blogger,” treat your blog like a showcase of your best work in case you change your mind later (or in case a future employer of any stripe decides to Google your name). I tend to think that if something’s got my name stamped on it, I want it to be good, even (and maybe especially) if it’s about something seemingly trivial like online gaming. If you take your hobby seriously, other people will too.
Don’t write just to write
The world already has places where people can post one liners and random daily thoughts. I didn’t want to be another Facebook and Twitter. I wanted long pieces, thoughtful essays, stuff that I spent a lot of time working on and tweaking until I was really proud of the result.
The problem is that most of the world doesn’t want long pieces or thoughtful essays. Facebook and Twitter are popular precisely because they require very little investment of time to write or read. And small, daily posts bring people back over and over. My method of posting one article a month is really not suited for the tl;dr self-promotional age. In fact, I’m double-fail because I haven’t promoted Skycandy really at all, save a few Tweets and a link in my Massively bio.
That’s OK with me. I’m not interested in feedback from people who can’t be arsed to read anyway. I’m focused on the art of it. But that’s absolutely the wrong way to go if you want your blog to be lively and bring you internet fame. You’re going to have to suck it up and promote yourself like crazy, even when you hate it as much as I do. Being a hermit will not make you a star.
There’s more to blogging than writing
I landed the gig at Massively because I was not only willing and able but thrilled to edit; I wasn’t just someone who secretly wanted to be the Queen Writer. But at media events, I usually get blank looks when I explain to other bloggers what it is I do all day. Most blogs do not have copy-editors; they just kinda post up whatever by whomever. This is not a job the blogosphere usually offers (and it shows).
Nevertheless, writing is in fact a very small part of my duties. I spend at least half of my non-editing work day dealing with PR contacts, coding and updating the site, establishing style standards, playing email tag, babysitting comment threads, blasting out social media, tracking bugs, and on and on. That’s going to be true to a lesser extent on a hobby blog, too. If you’re blogging alone, you’re not just the writer; you’re the proofreader, copy-editor, code monkey, designer, photographer, moderator, and promotion guru. Chances are good that you’re not going to be an expert in one or more of those areas. You’ll need to learn or get help to install your blog, make it look pretty, and coerce people to read it. Content is key, yes, but people won’t want to read your lovely prose if it’s wedged into a site that looks like Geocities vomited all over it or if you’re convinced that “commas go where pauses go.”
Skills beyond writing (especially basic image-editing and HTML) are a huge plus if you’re trying to join the ranks of paid bloggers and related jobs, too. Nothing you learn by jumping into blogging will go to waste, so it will never be a waste of your time, even if no one ever reads you.
Commas do not go where pauses go
Bear in mind that I’m saying this as a proofreader, not as a poet (though even poets would agree you have to learn the rules before you can break them): Being able to compose a thought in English does not make you a writer. Unless you have an advanced degree and the AP Stylebook memorized, you’re probably not very good at this. And that’s OK. Blogs are an awesome place to practice grammar and syntax and style. [meta] I’m practicing right now! [/meta] And it’s true that most of your readers will never notice dangling modifiers, comma splices, and pronoun disagreement… but the grammar-junkies in the audience will, and though they might not say anything, they are judging you on not just your ideas but your presentation. Precise English matters, like it or not.
Future employers will do the same thing, and I say that from experience. A poorly written application from a blogger with a poorly written blog is the easiest one to delete, and when we’re going through 300+ applications for a single part-time job, we’re looking for excuses to cull the herd. A blog riddled with grammar mistakes doesn’t last long in my RSS reader, either.
If you have no plans to learn the difference between jive and jibe or how not to split compound predicates with commas, at least try out the grammar- and spell-checking tools available to you. Word and After the Deadline aren’t perfect, but they’re better than nothing (and cheaper than hiring me!).
You write what you read
What I’ve learned in the last two years of blogging is exactly how much I didn’t know before. But there’s a dark side to polishing your writing skills: You realize just how truly awful most other blogs are, even the professional ones. You start to mentally proofread everything — TV shows, catalogues, cereal boxes — but the blogs influence you the most, and they mostly suck at English. Every day, I skim a few thousand blog posts that reinforce this depressing reality, and all I can do is shake my head. Of course, they also make the truly well-written ones stand out. There’s your in.
Ten years ago I would have said the best way to be a great writer is to read voraciously, but now I have to temper that with “assuming you’re reading high-end newspapers and books that have gone through a professional-grade editing process.” If you’re reading more Gawker than After the Deadline, you’re learning the wrong things. Garbage in, garbage out. That doesn’t mean you should stop reading those sites; they’re valuable for understanding style, tone, readership, and SEO tricks. But don’t fool yourself into thinking your writing is good if it’s only as good as theirs. Hold yourself to a higher standard!
Sure, you could just whip up a blog to have fun and not care about presentation or internet fame. You can! People do it. If you go that route, enjoy it while it’s amusing for you. Even if you slop through the process, even if you’re a billionaire whose employment status is never in question, you’re going to improve over time. The goal of the Newbie Blogger Initiative, after all, is to get people to blog, period. You can worry about the details later, when you’re not a newbie running around in cloth rags and a rusty sword.
But do worry about it later. Justin wants you to blog, but I’m selfish — I want to read really great blogs, the kind that make me want to hire you. Go about it however and whyever you like. Join us. Entertain us. Do all those other bloggy things wrong. But make it good.
June 2nd Update: The NBI is over now, and Justin’s posted an awesome wrap-up of all the sponsors, advice posts, and best of all, the new blogs!