Friday, April 25, 2008

Guest-Blogger Tom Christensen, "Right-reading" Blogger, on Writers's Blogs: 3 Dos + 3 Don'ts--- or, the Basics of Karma

Re: my upcoming panel on "Writers's Blogs: Best (& Worst) Practices" for the Maryland Writers Association Conference on May 3rd, I'll be blogging about writers's blogs for the next week, and inviting other writers to offer their tips. Tom Christensen's eclectic and charming, always suprising, and beautifully written blog, Right-reading, is so outstanding that I recently included on my list of top 10 writers's blogs. A delight and honor it is to host this post! Over to you, Tom.
Just as there is no one way to write a novel, so there is no one way to write a blog. I imagine Joyce's blog would look a lot different from Proust's, or from Kafka's, or from Celine's, and so on. But I would subscribe to all those feeds.
That said, there are a few things that I think can limit or expand a blog's interest, effectiveness, and reach. Following are three dos and three don'ts to consider in developing a writer's blog.

1. Don't be too self-referential
The approach that is usually the least appealing and most limiting is the navel-gazing diary--- what I had for dinner, what I'm listening to on the radio, which friend I am annoyed at, me, me, me. I suppose this could work if you are a really celebrated and fascinating person, but for most people, unless you are simply writing for friends and family, being too self-referential is a common, and deadly, mistake.

2. Do have a consistent focus
So if you're not going to just write about yourself, what will you write about? The best blogs have a defined focus. Regularly addressing one area of interest will help attract readers, since they will know what to expect, and by returning they confirm an interest in the topic. (Some bloggers apply the 80/20 rule: if 80 percent of posts are on topic, 20 percent can be on other things.)

How tight does the focus have to be? I think my suffers a little from having a focus that is not especially rigorous. I address all aspects of print and electronic publishing, particularly editorial and design, which are seldom fully integrated. As a generalist, I find it difficult to get much more narrow than that. Still, I did spin off several other blogs-— on Asian art (, on Mesoamerica (, on northern California ( These are all things I am interested in that I thought would be better off having their own domains rather than mucking up the content at rightreading.

Am I talking too much about myself?

3. Do create useful and original content
Whatever the topic, you have to have something original to offer. Some bloggers do succeed as aggregators of content produced by others, but I think it is more difficult to get by with that approach than it used to be. Sure, many posts can consist of passing along items spotted elsewhere, but unless you create some original content with a unique point of view, it will be difficult for the blog to grow.

Some web marketers like to talk about "link bait." While the term sounds a bit cynical, it encapsulates an important truth. If you have at least one excellent piece of content that will draw readers to your site, that can help to unmoor the blog and carry it into deeper waters. Rightreading gets more visitors than my other blogs in part because they are drawn to popular pages on how to get a book published, Taoism and the arts of China, my book publishing glossary, my rendering of the Yi jing, and more.

(I will not abuse my host's hospitality by inserting links to those pages; anyone who is interested can find them by typing the search term into the Google search box followed by; that is, for example, by typing book publishing glossary

It's good to distinguish between print content and web content. Broadly, print is about sustained concentration; the web is about instant gratification. While some bloggers-— Conrad Roth ( and Gawain (, for example-- manage to sustain excellent blogs built on the model of the literary essay, these writers are battling the basic nature of the medium. It is better, I think, to keep things short and sweet, for example by breaking up print paragraphs into two or three web paragraphs.

4. Don't confuse press releases and publicity materials with blog posts
Corporate bloggers often fall into this trap, and most publishing companies are among the worst offenders. When blog posts are always pushing a product, they push readers away. Consider Veer, a good example of a smart corporate blog (— it rarely promotes its own products. It is entertaining and informative, so it attracts readers.

Mention your own articles and books, but be judicious-— limit those mentions and keep them pertinent. Try to look at the blog as the product, not as a vehicle for promoting the product: that is how your readers will look at it. If your blog becomes a destination you will earn links and rise up in the SERPs (search engine result pages).

5. Don't blog in a vacuum
Have you heard the new blogger's anthem ( Especially with a new blog, you have to be patient. Search engine specialists argue about the nature of a possible Google "sandbox"-— a holding area to which new websites may be assigned for months before they are allowed into the top-ranking SERPS. What is clear is that you need to establish trustworthiness (to build up your "trust rank" in web lingo) before you can consistently rank well for most search terms. That means acquiring links from established authority sites in a natural pattern (certainly not by buying irrelevant links en masse, a technique that might have worked in 2002).

One of the best way to acquire links is to participate on other blogs and forums. By that I don't mean making a quick self-promoting comment on somebody's blog (which is likely tagged "nofollow" in any case), and then never returning, but instead actively participating in web communities. When the conversation comes around to topics on which you have made good posts, you will get links.

6. Do be generous
Old-media types look aghast at bloggers providing links that lead readers away from their websites and off to other areas. And some SEO (search engine optimization) specialists are leery of squandering page rank by leaking away link juice. These approaches will not work. You must credit your sources and link to excellence whenever you can. Most people will notice when you link to them, and they may reward you with a link back.

Your "link neighborhood," the constellation of sites you link to and that link to you, says a lot—- both to your readers and to the search engines-— about the nature of your blog. It's karmic-— if you are generous with credit, praise, and links, I promise you will be repaid.

---Tom Christensen

---> For more of Madam Mayo's guest-blog posts, click here.

---> For Madam Mayo's archive posts on lit-blogging, click here.