Sally Ormond, Robb Sutton and Sharon Hurley Hall share their best writing and blogging advice in this post. Let’s meet our guests:
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. Sally is a successful example of how sharing skills in your field of expertise can get you to build an audience, reputation and advance your career.
Robb Sutton (RS) is a business owner who writes about how to successfully grow a business and raise a family at the same time. He provides guidelines for those who want to find the balance between business and family life.
Sharon Hurley Hall (SH) is an engaging writer. The potential of online writing is still relatively unexplored so it’s a good thing that people like Sharon share their expertise.
Livia Blackburne (LB) blogs at A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing. She is a PhD neuroscientist at MIT and fiction writer who carries out an analysis of writing from a brain scientist’s perspective.
How and why did you start?
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 advise aspiring writers to start a site to build a potential audience for your book (I actually have mixed feelings about this advice, but more on that later.) 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. At the time, I didn’t write about neuroscience, even though I’m getting my PhD in neuroscience. That happened later, when a friend e-mailed me a link to an article on the neuroscience of stories. I posted about it, and it was a huge hit. Now, about one third of my stories are about psychology and neuroscience, as applied to creative writing.
How much time do you spend working on it and what are the usual tasks?
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, but Dan Smith contributes a weekly post. 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.
What is the best lesson learned that you would like to share with our readers?
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 a 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.
What is your best advice on how to get visitors?
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.
What is your biggest success and biggest mistake?
SO: It’s the readers and their comments that really make it all worthwhile. As for my biggest mistake? 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 Success: Mainstream media exposure. Biggest Mistake: Picking a hard to remember domain name in the very 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. 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 ebook, From Words to Brain because the editor of 40k Books stumbled upon my content and invited me to write for them. As for biggest mistake, I think I underestimated the importance of responding to comments at first. It’s really crucial for building a connection to your readers.