This post is long but it features many valuable blogging lessons from some very inspiring bloggers. Let’s get started by getting to know our guests:
- Laura Caldentey (LC) runs a blog about illustrations, lifestyle and photography.
- Park Howell (PH) calls himself a sustainable storyteller.
- Annika Ruohonen (AR) is a fine art photographer based in Finland.
- Robert Chen (RC) is a business/life coach who writes “articles for ordinary people who want to be extraordinary”.
- Susan Spira (LS) is a life coach.
- Sally Ormond (SO) is the author of the popular Freelance Copywriter’s Site through which she offers useful advice and tips about copywriting and marketing.
- Robb Sutton (RS) is a business owner who writes about how to successfully grow a business and raise a family at the same time.
- Sharon Hurley Hall (SH) is an engaging writer.
- Livia Blackburne (LB) is a PhD neuroscientist at MIT and fiction writer who carries out an analysis of writing from a brain scientist’s perspective.
- Joost de Valk (JV) is famous for his plugins that have been downloaded millions of times and are daily used by thousands of authors.
- Gretchen Rubin (GR), the author of The Happiness Project, a site where you find her experiences, thoughts, theories and studies about how to be happier.
- Jacob Gube (JB) shares his expertise in web design through Six Revisions.
- Neil Patel (NP) helps businesses get more traffic.
- Jonathan Mead (JM) helps people live on their own terms.
- Ryan Nicodemus (RN) of The Minimalists writing about living a meaningful life with less stuff.
How and why did you start your blog?
LC: I started to blog because I was very inspired by other bloggers on the internet. I wanted to share my work and my experiences with others.
PH: I started to post about green marketing and sustainability to further define our ad agency’s position in this growing niche. When the recession hit, I realized that we needed to do a better job of communicating our unique strategy and creative capabilities relative to sustainability. Blogging and using online social media was one of the best ways to share our agency with the world.
AR: I have always been into writing but I haven’t found the right way to express myself. Seven years ago I tried to blog in my native language, Finnish. I wrote about being a full time mum at home, my only occupation at that time. Somehow writing in English turned out to be more satisfying to me. My present blog I started mainly to show my photos and share the impressions coming up in my mind when I shoot and look at images.
SO: I began blogging when I started my copywriting business. It was a way to generate interest in what I was doing, offer advice and tips and help establish myself as an expert in my field. So, that would have been about 5 years ago, initially under a WordPress.com domain, and then later on my own.
RS: Everything started with wanting to create a trail review site based on user reviews from mountain bikers. About 5 minutes in to the process, I realized it is really hard to have user reviews when you have no traffic. The blog was started in an attempt to attract readers that would then review their favorite trails, but it ended up completely taking over.
SH: I’d love to be able to tell you I had a strategy in mind when I started my site, but the truth is that I read some advice that said I should start a site and I did. It took a couple of months to figure out what my main topic would be, and that came from listening to reader feedback and noting what they found interesting and commented on. That eventually led to focusing on writing.
LB: I started my site almost 3 years ago, when I was starting to become more serious about my writing career. Many people tell aspiring writers to start a site to build a potential audience for your book. I knew that if I wanted to keep a site long-term, it had to be on a sustainable subject — something that I could keep writing about, and something that I was interested enough in to maintain. I decided to stick with something that I already did — analyzing books I like and figuring out the writing techniques that made them work.
JV: I was doing a lot of coding and wanted to share that with people. In the beginning that coding was mostly CSS and HTML stuff, I did a lot of CSS3 previews which I later split off into its own site.
GR: I started it in March 2006, as one of the experiments in happiness that I undertook as part of my research for my book, The Happiness Project. I wanted to see if the experts were right, that “novelty and challenge bring happiness.” I started a blog as something new and (very!) challenging for me.
JG: I started our first site, Six Revisions, almost (it seems like) on a whim. I’d been an avid reader of several sites which inspired me to start my own. One day, I just had the sudden desire to start a website. So I made a short list of site names, picked one and registered it. Then I got a hosting account, installed WordPress, wrote my first post, and published it even before the domain name fully resolved to the hosting server. I wanted to catalog the things I learned while working as a web developer and web designer. The other reason was out of a desire to share useful and practical information that would help professionals in their jobs.
RN: We first started this site as a grounds to share the experiences we were learning while applying minimalistic principles in our lives. We started with my 21 day journey, and it started to receive a lot of traffic at the time (about 100-150 visits a week), because at the time it was “a lot” of traffic. When Joshua and I saw the attention we were getting that’s when we saw the opportunity to make this a full-time gig. There is a big misconception though. People assume we jumped the ship from our corporate jobs to make more money with our site (or even the same money) however I make much less than what I made at my corporate job. The key to making the transition was planning, budgeting, and getting rid of as much debt as possible. One very cool thing about being a minimalist is not having many bills.
How much time do you spend working on it?
LC: I write in Spanish and in English so that takes more time to blog. I think I spend more or less about 3-4 hours per week on taking pictures and writing. But then I also spend more time reading other blogs, commenting on other blogs and promoting my blog. Also I spent a lot of hours that I can’t count with the site design. The usual tasks are taking good pictures, editing, posting and promoting.
PH: When I began over three years ago, I spent between 15 and 20 hours per week listening online, researching, writing and promoting my posts. My goal was to reach 50 posts as quick as possible, because it seems the search engines start taking you seriously after 50 posts. This meant three to four articles per week, and I believe I wrote nearly 200 in my first year. It still is a ton of work, but your knowledge of your niche, social media and the world at large compounds itself through your efforts.
AR: I write when I have free time, mostly during the weekends and holidays. I wander in the wilderness of a forest, take pictures and pick up the most interesting ones. I always feel connected to my images throughout the process, from shooting to publishing. My blog allows me to write about this connection.
SO: I guess somewhere in the region of 3-5 hours per week. Usually, that time involves researching new ideas, creating the posts, publishing them and fielding the comments and requests for guest posts that I receive. Mainly, it’s the writing as I post 5 times a week across the 2 sites.
RS: All week. I don’t think there is a single moment of the day when I’m not at least thinking about it. Several hours of each day are spent physically doing something to the site.
SH: The time I spend on the site has changed over the years. At the start, I blogged virtually every day and would spend time responding to comments. As social bookmarking grew, I added that to the mix. Now, I post less on my own site and more for other people. However, I spend a fair bit of time on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.
LB: I’m currently posting less in order to finish my dissertation, but during normal periods, I post once a week, and the entries take anywhere from 1 to 7 hours to write. Beyond that, there isn’t much upkeep. I respond to comments, and that takes about 30 minutes per article. Once in a while, I check the analytics, but try not to spend too much time on that.
JV: A LOT of time. From writing posts to doing link building to coding on my plugins, it takes up hours and hours of work.
GR: You know, I can never figure out how much time I spend on it. That work is so intertwined in my writing day. I post six or seven times a week, answer emails, shoot a weekly video, read and reply to comments, take notes, research, and write.
JG: I spend quite a lot of time running both of our sites. I’d say at least 10 hours a day, including weekends. Oftentimes, it’ll be 12-15-hour days. Some of my usual day-to-day tasks are:
- working with our authors (we have over 250 people that have contributed to one of our sites)
- communicating with readers (through comments and via email)
- writing articles
- editing articles
- reading industry news
That’s on top of projects like our first set eBooks, web development work (such as site upgrades) and so forth.
RN: We don’t keep track of how many hours we work on the site, because sometimes we’re working when we don’t even realize it. If I had to put a number on it, I’d say Joshua and I work on website stuff 100-120 hours a week combined. Our work includes responding to our readers, writing and editing essays, spending time on social media, conducting interviews, and brainstorming new topics to write about. People may think we’re crazy for working as much as we do, but if your doing it right, and living your passion, it doesn’t feel like work at all.
Which qualities do you have that make you a good blogger?
RC: Good is subjective to a person’s experience but I think people enjoy my articles because they are well organized, easy to understand and touch upon topics they can relate to. As for the qualities that make a good blogger, the three that I value most is having a clear message (this is a combination of research and thought), being authentic and having a good time while writing. If you don’t know what you want to say, then it’s probably better not to say anything. Pretending to be someone else is just to draining. If you don’t enjoy the process, it makes it hard to put in the time to become good and you’re probably better off doing something else.
LS: I am a real person just wanting to entertain others. I write the most personal things that we all share. I am fearless and won’t allow myself to censor my thoughts. I am authentic and have so many different interests that it makes it fun for people to read me regularly. I’ve been told that they never know what to expect but they know I will somehow touch them or make them laugh. I am also dedicated to growing my potential. I try to branch out into new areas in new ways. I think most of all that people identify with my humanness. They see themselves in me and can feel what I say.
NP: You have to write content that people find valuable and you have to blog on a consistent basis. In addition to that you need to respond to commenters to help encourage the conversation.
JM: I think the passion and my desire to contribute are my best qualities as a blogger. I also feel that people learn the best by teaching, which is what drives me to want to share my thoughts and experience with others.
What is your advice to people who want to start blogging?
LC: Be yourself and make your blog unique. Be inspired by other bloggers but don’t try to be exactly as them.
PH: Despite popular belief, blogging is not a popularity contest. If you fixate on the numbers of your followers and feel like a loser if they’re not growing as quickly as you like, then the whole process becomes a psychological train wreck. I focus on writing about industry information I find interesting, and to help others see a different point-of-view, whether they agree with it or not. Sometimes writing is just therapeutic, and I don’t care if the post gets a bunch of hits. Sometimes you can be a mad scientist and test your followers’ paradigms. Sometimes you can just be jovial, or pissed off, or obtuse and simply let it fly. But all of the time, be you.
AR: I avoid getting too personally involved with my writing or revealing my personal life in details. For me straight-forward “this is how I feel today’” posts are not so interesting. My main challenge is to improve my writing, to convey a useful message by using the link between the words and the images. I would be happy if people could take something out of my words and images, if I would be able to bring forth new ideas and thoughts in others.
RC: If you want to start a site, just do it. It’s really easy and there is really no reason or excuse for not starting now. Now to grow a site is a bit tougher. There are still a lot of resources and websites that can help but I think it really comes down to the message you want to get out to the world and the reasons you are blogging. There are no wrong reasons – you can be doing it for money, you can be doing it to show off how much you know or you can be doing it to help people.
LS: Don’t wait to get started. Do it today. Take a chance and put yourself out there. Keep your page clean and concentrate on good posts. For most of us that won’t be building our numbers by winning the lottery and going viral on a daily basis – have patience and make your website the best product that you can. Post regularly. Don’t let all the so-called experts confuse you and take your money. There is no magic bullet for building readership – it’s a combination of everything, including dumb luck. Hold your head high and enjoy self-pride that you are actually acting on your dream. Make sure every post you write is creative and something that you are proud to encourage people to read. Write what you want to read and not what experts say will be a big hit. More people are like you than you realize. Bottom line: you’ll have days when you just have to push through and others when you’re so happy you stuck with it. Blogging is a lot like life.
SO: When you create content, make sure you understand your audience and what they want to read. It’s very tempting just to write about stuff you’re interested in, but that doesn’t mean your audience shares your interests. Think about your niche, what you want to achieve through your blogging and how you want to present yourself. Then it’s a case of generating loads of great ideas for interesting posts that your audience is going to want to read.
RS: Stick with what you are good at. There is going to be a time when you start blogging that you are going to want to create a blog for everything you like. That is a bad idea. Allocate your resources to building up a solid blog that you enjoy. If you spread yourself too thin, you will not accomplish anything and your work will suffer.
SH: Listen to your readers and commenters – often the questions they ask give you great ideas for content.
LB: My best advice is to think first about what you want to accomplish, and who you’re trying to reach. I’m most familiar with the writing blogosphere, so I can use that as an example. Aspiring writers are often advised to keep sites in order to build up a future readership for their book. Many aspiring novelist, upon hearing this advice, run off and start sites about writing. But then, you need to stop and think. If you write, say, vampire novels for teenage girls, how many of those teenage girls would really be interested in reading your content? And how many of the people who enjoy reading about an aspiring writer’s writing journey would actually be interested in reading a vampire novel?
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with posting about writing if what you want to do is network with other writers and talk about your craft, but don’t do it with the illusion that you’re building a future readership for your novels. After you’ve thought through your goals and audience, the next best advice I can give is to turn the focus away from yourself and towards your audience. Don’t think about what you want to write. Instead, you should be asking what people want to read about. What’s in it for them? There’s a lot of content on the Internet, so if you have nothing to offer, people won’t come.
JV: Just do it. Find something you love to write about, start writing and never stop, but make sure to keep on improving yourself.
GR: Write every day, or just about every day. Weirdly, it’s easier to write every day than just once in a while. Also, constant engagement feeds creative thinking.
JG: The best lesson I’ve learned is that you should focus on content quality over anything else. I’d much rather post infrequently rather than post articles that I feel do not meet the quality standards we’ve established.
JM: If you want to build a business find the intersection between what lights you on fire and what other people deeply need. Then aim to be the best at that.
RN: Do not set yourself up with unrealistic expectations. We did a great job of setting reasonable expectations with ourselves but there were still a few things we didn’t expect. The biggest surprise was how uncomfortable changing each of our routines would be. Being in the routine of having to be somewhere every day and suddenly waking up to being your own boss can be difficult.
What is your best advice on how to grow a blog?
LC: I think that the quality is more important than quantity. I prefer to read only one or two good posts with great pictures than a bunch of posts which have been written quickly. So I think that creating good content for your blog is the most important thing. Spend time on it!
PH: Write with a unique voice. Don’t regurgitate existing content unless you make it WAY more interesting than the original. Test, poke and prod your readers’ mindsets, and try to nudge the world in whatever direction you choose.
AR: Tags. My students have blogs as well and they get lots of readers by adding interesting tags. Getting followers requires interesting content. Publishing high quality photos helps too. Moreover you also have to be interested in what other people write. WordPress is also a social media, if you comment on someone’s post they will most likely comment on yours.
RC: If you want to get people’s attention, help them get what they want and they’ll help you get what you want. Play to your strengths and don’t let anyone tell you what you should want or what to do. Talk to successful writers, read their articles and take their courses but whenever you get expert advice (for anything) take what works in your situation and don’t be afraid to discard the rest. There is only one you so be your unique self. In my particular situation, growing my site means promoting it to people who would benefit from reading what I’ve written (guest posting is a great way to do this) and continue to produce quality content.
SO: If you want your site to grow, you need to generate great quality articles that engage with the reader. Don’t be fooled into thinking quantity outweighs quality – it doesn’t. If your posts start to appear badly structured and full of typos, you’ll leave readers left right and center. Keep on topic and involve your readers. Make sure each post has a call to action – even if it’s just to ask their opinion on what you’ve written about. That’s a great way to generate comments and start relationships with your readers. After all, if you show you’re genuinely interested in their thoughts, they’ll keep coming back. Plus, adopt an informal writing style, as if you were sat having a conversation with your best friend. That style of writing really engages with the reader and makes them feel part of your writing. Plus, if you continually produce top notch posts, you’ll start to attract guest bloggers. The beauty of that is that a) it means you don’t have to come up with quite so many post ideas, and b) it helps widen the appeal of your site.
RS: Content. A lot of content. While marketing your site is very important, if you have no content… none of that matters. In the beginning, just get a simple logo and design then hammer out content. I watch too many beginning bloggers obsess over their site design and that could be time they could spend writing. A site is all about content… not moving pixels.
SH: Post regularly and guest post too, but make sure that when you guest post it’s your best work. When you write a great guest post on another site, you usually pick up a few new readers who come to check out your other posts. Twitter is where a lot of my readers hang out, so find out where your readers are and join them there so you can get to know them better. Use carnivals too. Not only have I met a great bunch of people, but I learn a lot and have new readers too – and I’ve found new, interesting sites to visit.
LB: It’s cliché, but the best advice is to write quality content that people want to read and share. That’s the only way you’ll get an audience that stays. Beyond that, you can hang out on social media. When you post links to your articles, do your best to frame them in a way to arouse someone’s curiosity so that they’re motivated to click-through. There are plenty of articles out there on writing good headlines, and they’re worth reading.
JV: First of all, don’t focus on the numbers but focus on the quality of your readers. In your particular niche there just might not be 10s of thousands of readers available. Second: guest post on other, related, sites, be active in the comments on other pages, write stuff that people will want to read, build stuff that people will want to use. In other words: do something cool and tell people about it.
GR: Get to know the other people working in your area. Write frequently. Link to others. Have something to say.
JG: Create great content. If you do this, Internet users will eventually find your site, share it on their social networks, and you’ll be more likely to build a strong community of supporters.
NP: Be patient because it can take years before your site becomes popular.
RN: This is one of the top three questions we get asked. I’m going to list out this advice in the order of most importance to the least:
Content, content, content
This means a few things. First, make sure the content you are providing your readers is good content. Ask yourself questions like “Would I want to read this?” and “Is this my best effort?” Don’t ever publish something you are only sort of happy with, because if you’re not happy with your published content, then your readers won’t be either. Second, be genuine in your writings. That means to write from your heart, not what you think your readers want to hear. People will sniff out the bullshit even if you think they won’t. Third, you want to make sure you not only have a considerable initial amount of content but also make sure the content is being posted to your site consistently. Fridays are a good day usually to post content because the loyal readers will start to look forward to your posts as a good start to the weekend. They will start getting excited to the point of being impatient, which is a great thing. If you don’t have the time to be consistent then don’t expect great results.
There is nothing wrong with sending someone an email that says “Hi, I want to add value to your site and think I have an idea on how to do that.” The important part to networking with other bloggers is making sure they are getting something out of it. The worst someone can tell you is “no” or just not respond to your email. You will get the occasional jerk that makes you feel bad for emailing them but that’s just it, they’re jerks. If you are genuine and add value you will do well in creating a thriving network of bloggers.
Have a Plan
Don’t just quit your job and start blogging. That’s silly. Recognize there is going to be a transition period and its going to be uncomfortable as hell, but that means your doing the right thing. If you don’t have a plan at least have a direction you want to go in and make steps towards that every day.
One Thing at a Time
Do not overwhelm yourself with all the things you want to accomplish with your site. Its alright to have a high level idea of your ideas but working on more than one of those ideas at a time will take you down a stressful, unorganized, and cluttered road. Additionally, the value of your work will suffer if you’re trying to do a million things at once. I had to learn this the hard way. The good news is, you don’t have to.
What is your biggest mistake or mistake to avoid?
LC: Taking bad photos or having a bad blog design is a big mistake when making a blog. A blog has to be visually attractive. For example, I hate when I open a blog and it starts to play music or has a lot of blinking gifs and stuff like that, I close it instantly, even though its content might have been good.
PH: My biggest mistake was listening to the so-called social media experts. There are really only about three or four. Unfortunately, I initially bought into the need to have massive amounts of followers and be loved by all. That just lead to superficial drama in my social media life, and I quickly abandoned the hedonistic practice.
AR: I don’t think I have made any big mistake yet, but it would be a nightmare for me to hurt someone’s feelings unintentionally, so I’m trying to be very careful not to do that.
SO: Not sure about that one, other than writing posts that weren’t so well received as others. But you learn from that and eventually find the type of thing your readers love.
RS: Biggest Mistake: Picking a hard to remember domain name in the beginning. Always pick a domain name that people can remember if you tell it to them on the street… they will remember it.
SH: I’ve made plenty of mistakes – not choosing a good domain name first time round, setting up the site with software that was limited instead of just going to WordPress from the beginning – but they didn’t do any lasting damage.
LB: I think I underestimated the importance of responding to comments at first. It’s really crucial for building a connection to your readers.
JV: I’ve made a few I think, especially in the beginning. I did some undisclosed paid posts back then and some other stupid things, like selling links, I now wouldn’t ever do again.
GR: Waiting too long between re-designs.
JG: Delaying the redesign of the site for this long! The design and structure of your site is important, and should support the content of your site.
What is your biggest success as a blogger?
LC: I’ve met new friends all around the world. The internet is magical in that way. It also gave me the opportunity of sharing my illustrations and finally starting and growing an online shop.
PH: I enjoy writing so much more now, and my followers are more authentic in their interest of my work. I just realized that my biggest mistake has become my greatest success: Be at peace with your blogging, and your audience will find you.
AR: One of my posts was featured on WordPress front page and due to that I have now more than 250 followers. That post has been read more than 4000 times and it has more than 300 likes. It is pretty amazing.
RC: Blogging is a fairly lonely profession. Yes you can connect with other authors and yes you do get many readers contacting you or leaving comments but when you are writing (which is where I spend most of my time), you are by yourself with your ideas. When you first start out you wonder if people care and in the beginning it doesn’t seem like they do. That’s why it’s so important to enjoy the process and to know why you are blogging in the first place. If those reasons haven’t changed, then you keep writing without worrying about what people think or stats and analytics. To answer your question, my fondest memory came after I wrote my first feature article. It was finished in the wee hours of the morning and despite not getting sleep, I felt energized for writing this article. I was really proud of it since I put a lot of thought and research into it and I was glad I had built a platform to share it with people.
LS: I love my story about my Barbie doll. I enjoyed writing it so much because of the wonderful memories that toy brought to my life. I can feel the thrill of seeing that first Barbie commercial on TV as a young girl. I love to reread my stories like this one and relive my life. I also enjoy sharing those fond memories with others. I love it when someone tells me they share similar thoughts but I was able to capture the words to describe it. Blogging for me is all about sharing myself and connecting.
SO: It’s the readers and their comments that really make it all worthwhile.
RS: Biggest Success: Mainstream media exposure.
SH: My biggest success – hard to say. I’m just pleased that my site is now in its 7th year and people still find it useful.
LB: I can’t think of one single success, but I’m really thankful for the opportunities that have come my way through my site. I’ve been lucky enough to correspond with many people in the industry, who have advised and supported me throughout my writing journey. I also published my first e-book, From Words to Brain because the editor of 40k Books stumbled upon my content and invited me to write for them.
JV: As a coder, they’re my WordPress plugins.
GR: My biggest success was just jumping in and starting. I felt so unprepared to do it, but I pushed myself, and now my blog is a giant engine of happiness for me.
JG: I’m humbled that we’ve been able to grow our sites consistently since we started them, though I can’t take credit for this since it’s our hardworking, talented authors and our supportive readership that’s really helped our sites become what they are now.
NP: One of my favorite moments is when a reader emailed me how my blog helped them grow their income from $1000 a month to over $10,000.
JM: I think the early days are probably my most fond and frequent memory. When you first start something everything feels so new and full of possibility. That beginner’s mindset is something I’m always trying to harness and rekindle with my blog.
RN: The best thing that we have experienced is the joy of knowing the profound positive affect we have had on our readers. I can’t begin to tell you how many emails we have gotten that starts with “You have added value to my life…”.
What are best and most challenging aspects of your lifestyle?
RC: The best aspects are the communications I get from the readers and meeting many interesting people who were intrigued by my message to get to know me better. I also like reading old articles that I’ve written and finding that it was better than I remembered and wondering if it was me that wrote that article.
One challenging aspect is striking a balance between perfect and good enough. It’s tough for me to stop tightening my articles but at the same time, when it’s 3:45am and I’ve been fussing over the same article all night, it’s time to just hit publish and go to bed. The second challenging aspect is the time commitment. Before I started blogging, I already had many interests and ideas and not enough time to implement them. Now with my site, I have even less time. Since I enjoy replying to comments, I’ve found that there are too many things that compete for my time and attention.
LS: The best part of the blogging lifestyle is the personal challenge of the writing. It’s so gratifying when someone tells me that I made them laugh or that they enjoy my posts. The most challenging is the writing and the business end of the internet. As far as the writing goes I decided to post daily. It is very difficult for me to find topics and be interesting on a daily basis. I often sit with a blank screen and begin to soul search. It can be grueling. I push my way through it and manage to come through. Like anything, some days are easier than others.
As far as the business end goes I am trying to begin to monetize my site. It is really difficult to make money unless you build readership. Building a huge base of regular readers can’t be hurried. It is sometimes disheartening to look at numbers and know you have a really good post that day and just couldn’t get your message out to enough people. On one hand I don’t want to only measure my success and live and die by numbers but the reality of finding readers is a tough one. I am determined to keep pushing and looking to build more and more. I also realized that I need to have something else to sell other than referrals or other people’s products so I am in the process of completing my first ebook.
NP: You have to produce content on a consistent basis. This is tough because I have a really busy schedule.
JM: The best: being able to be a part of an incredible community of awesome people. The most challenging part I think is knowing what to focus your energy and attention on. As a blogger with an established platform there are always a lot of opportunities presented to you. It’s hard to sort through them and stay focused sometimes.