Blogging thoughts

I always tell people to blog what they’re working on. "If it’s worth doing, it’s worth blogging!" I’ve put effort into blogging over the last three years, so here’s the advice that I give myself each time I start to blog something.

This entry is long and isn’t very well layed out, but it’s been on my laptop for too long so I decided to dump it out.

  1. Make the first paragraphs on-topic, and try to make them interesting. Everyone has a small number of writers whose articles they will read completely regardless of the topic, but for most people who see your blog, they’ll skim the initial paragraphs to see if you make sense and to see if the topic is of interest to them.
  2. When you read other people’s blogs and news articles, make a note of what you don’t like. Each time you stop reading an article or you get annoyed because some journalist is a moron, take a few seconds to make a note about why you stopped reading.
  3. Talk about the news, not about you. People care about how things affect them, or how they affect society, or how an effect displays a general principal. The inconvenience caused to you is usually not of much interest to others. If you’re looking for a topic to write about, look at what you’ve done recently (instead of looking at what news you found interesting and would like to give your opinion about). UPDATE Good example: someone just knocked on the door, collecting money "Hi, I’m doing a parachute jump for charity" – no, I’m not interested. And why would I be? If he told me what charity he’s supporting, there’s a chance I’d be interested, but if he’s just going to focus on himself doing a parachute jump, why should I be interested?
  4. It can take time. A good article-style blog entry can take six hours to write! Time is needed to develop the arguments, to dig up references and links, and to put the info in a right order and structure. You should know this, and employers should too. For some types of work, blogging should be given 20% of worktime. (Again, "If it’s worth doing, it’s worth blogging!")
  5. It can also be done quickly. You can post a scribble and add more details later. An example is my recent update about translating websites. It started off with two links, but after I posted it I remembered some more, and now it contains enough info to help someone.
  6. Don’t be a loudspeaker for your opponent. Use your first paragraph to make your point, not to repeat whatever they said. Further, don’t quote them directly if they use dishonest terms.
  7. Learn to paraphrase. Careful now. Paraphrasing is very different to putting words in someone else’s mouth! You can’t change the meaning of what they said. An example of paraphrasing is the "Motiviations" section of this entry about the Community Patent. In her actual words, she talked about a "patent infringer", but according to her story, the company had actually clearly never been in a position to infringe the patent and was only a potential infringer (if they crossed certain borders, if the patents were valid, if a judge would agree that the tyres infringed said patents, …). So it’s a good idea to retell her story, keeping the facts, but without repeating the mis-lable of "patent infringer".
  8. Who are you? Why should anyone read your writing? If your credentials in a field are not well known, then mention near the start what experience you’re writing from. If you’re the guy who installed some software, then write from that perspective.
  9. Blog, and you’ll improve with time. Always analyse afterward: was that a success? Is anyone reading? Will the reader have found it interesting enough that they’ll come back in a while to see if I’ve written anything new?
  10. Before publishing, read your own blog entry the way you’d read someone else’s. If you’re making an argument, then for each sentence, ask yourself "says who?" Not every sentence will need a reference, but it’s worth keeping in mind. If you’re just saying X is wrong, Y is good, people will find that boring and unconvincing.
  11. You have to publicise what you wrote – and if it was worth the time to write it, it’s worth a little bit extra to ensure some people read it. Some people think that to get published on community websites, they just have to publish their article, and if it’s good then readers and article scouts will submit it for republication on the community sites. That’s not how it works. Of the six times my work has gotten on Slashdot’s front page, five times were because I submitted it myself,[1, 2, 3, 4, 5] and once because someone else did.[6] Submitting your blog feed to aggregators is also a good idea. I’m on Planet ILUG and Planet Grep.be.
  12. If the blog entry is long (this entry is too long!), formatting is important so that readers can see at a glance what is in the block of text. Examples of three options are table of contents, or headings, or like in this post, bold text. The structure of this entry is not exemplary :-) but I might find time to improve it in the future.
  13. Read Richard Stallman. Aside from liking the political arguments of his writings, I find his style very disciplined. If he’s rebutting a disingenuous argument, he’ll paraphrase rather than repeating. He brings all arguments back to the values he’s working for (the value of software freedom). For example, to argue against software patents, one can say they restrict essential freedoms, and that they’re bad for small businesses. The latter is the easier argument to make, but Richard’s purpose isn’t the defense of small businesses, it’s the defense of software freedom, and he sticks to that purpose. Most of his writings are in the GNU philosophy directory and it’s worth reading transcripts of his speeches.

Ok, that’s all I can think of. I’ll add more as it comes to me. Regarding the first point, you have to keep in mind that a blog is not the same as a university assignment where the goal is to lay out your arguments, knowing that the one reader will be obliged to read from start to finish. Quite the opposite, the short attention span of web surfers is the main challenge of bloggers.

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Ciarán O’Riordan,
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