Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
A couple of years ago, Penguin asked me to contribute a chapter on a book they were bringing out for kids giving them writing advice. The book, Get Smart—Writing Skills, is in bookstores now. I contributed a chapter with tips on writing a blog. It basically contains lessons that I’ve learnt over my five years and 7000+ posts on India Uncut—but it need not apply to anyone else. Still, in case someone finds it useful, here it is.
Writing a blog can be the most enjoyable kind of writing you do. There are no restrictions on a blogger: you can write as many or as few words as you want, and there is no one correcting or editing your writing, saying ‘write like this’ or ‘write like that’. What’s more, you can write about anything you like, and are not restricted by subject or style.
If you wish to write a blog for your own satisfaction, and don’t care about building a readership, then you don’t need to read the rest of this piece. Write whatever you feel like, and more power to you.
But if you want to be a widely-read blogger, with regular readers who take time off every day to read your blog, then you need to work hard at it. The reason for this is the nature of the medium.
When readers buy a book, they are mentally prepared to spend a large amount of time with it. When they pick up a magazine or a newspaper, they are less patient, but there is still some commitment there. When readers visit a website, on the other hand, they are probably doing many other things at the same time. They could be chatting with people, sending and receiving emails, perhaps playing a game somewhere — and other websites might also be open, in various windows or tabs. Your blog is competing with all these distractions. If your writing does not grip your readers’ attention and keep them engrossed, they will move away to something else just by clicking their mouse.
To be a successful blogger, thus, there is just one rule you need to remember: Respect your reader’s time. Any advice I can give you on writing a widely-read blog flows from that one rule.
Here are some of the things I have learnt about blogging.
KEEP IT CRISP
There is nothing as intimidating to an Internet surfer as pages and pages of text, or long, wordy paragraphs. Your friends and relatives may suffer through it, but why should a stranger? Keep your content as crisp as possible. Use the shortest, most common words possible. Use simple sentences. Make sure each sentence adds something to what you are trying to say: otherwise, cut it out.
DON’T SHOW OFF
The most common mistake an aspiring writer can make is to show off his writing skills. Do not do this. Writing is merely a means to an end: people write to tell stories, express points of view, and so on. It should be as simple as possible. If a reader actually notices your writing and says, ‘Wow, this is so well written,’ then you are not writing well. Your writing should not be the focus of the blog — what you are writing about should be. Style should be a slave to substance.
ASK YOURSELF WHY YOU ARE WRITING YOUR BLOG
Are you writing it because you are passionate about a particular subject? Do you think you have a unique take on things that you want to communicate? Do you like telling stories? If you are clear about why you are blogging, it will make you a better blogger.
WHO ARE YOU WRITING FOR?
It will help you write smoothly if you can imagine your ideal reader. Here’s a trick I use sometimes when I am stuck in the middle of writing a difficult piece: I pretend that I am sending an email to a friend. That helps me finish what I am writing without getting too stressed out about it. One can always polish the piece later.
ADD A LITTLE OF YOURSELF TO THE POST
There are millions of blogs out there, and there is only one thing unique about your blog: You. Try and add a little of yourself to every post you write. It could be a point of view; it could be an anecdote you share related to the subject of your blogging; it could even be just a wisecrack. Your blog is the one space where you can share yourself with the world—don’t hold back.
BE REGULAR—BUT DON’T FORCE YOURSELF
If you want to build an audience of regular readers, you need to blog regularly. They should keep coming back for more - and get something when they come back. Remember, even a small thought lasting one sentence is enough for a post, so don’t hold yourself back.
Equally, don’t blog just for the sake of it. If you are bored of blogging, your readers will get bored of reading you. You may force yourself to write, but your readers won’t force themselves to read. When the juices aren’t flowing, give it a rest.
DON’T BE SCARED TO TRY NEW THINGS
Want to experiment with your writing a bit? This is a good space to do so. When I was a cricket journalist, my boss once told me, ‘If in doubt, play your shots.’ I’d give you the same advice. You never know what you may find out about yourself - and trust me, any regular readers you have won’t mind.
USE PROPER ENGLISH
Contractions and short forms may be convenient when one is sending SMSs, but they should be avoided when you write a blog. I say this not because I am an old-fashioned purist, but because SMS-speak is simply harder to read. Contrast these two sentences: ‘grt meeting u, c u l8r’ and ‘Great meeting you, see you later.’ I don’t know about you, but I find that I have to pause and interpret the first sentence, and the second is easier to read. Why would you want to make your reader work harder than he needs to?
The more value you will provide to your readers, the more they will come back to your blog. The greatest service you can provide to your readers is by expanding their knowledge. The easiest way to do this is by using links. The beauty of the Internet is that a single site can contain multitudes: in a single paragraph, you can put a number of useful links to the subjects you are talking about that your readers find interesting and enlightening.
Don’t worry about your readers leaving your site by clicking on a link. If they find the link to be of any value, they will automatically credit your blog for it, and come back to read your next post. But don’t overdo the links. An overuse of links leaves the page looking ugly and cluttered, and confuses the reader. Remember, respect the reader’s time.
DON’T TREAT THE READER LIKE A FOOL
Too many bloggers, drunk on the power they feel while blogging, talk down to their readers. Do not do this. Treat your readers as if they are as smart as you, if not smarter. If you have comments, don’t behave like a king granting an audience to minions. Be respectful of others’ opinions and points of view. As a friend of mine once told me, ‘Speak as if you are right; but listen as if you are wrong.’
NEVER GET PERSONAL
Inevitably, while blogging, you will enter discussions. These could be in your own comments space, or in someone else’s. Many such discussions become ugly because they get personal. While conversation is generally a win-win situation, as all parties concerned learn a little more, discussions that are personal are just the opposite - everybody feels bitter and angry, and they are a waste of time.
So what to do in a situation like that? Simply remember to focus on the argument, and not the person. Do not question his motives, his intelligence or his parentage. Just state your point of view without reference to the person you’re arguing with. Do it simply and crisply, and neutral readers will be inclined to agree with you. Even if they don’t, they will at least respect you.
DON’T BETRAY CONFIDENCES
A lot of bloggers treat blogs like personal diaries, and write about their lives. There’s nothing wrong in that. But we should remember to respect the privacy of others when we do that. Before we blog a conversation with someone, or quote from an email we received, we should take permission. If something is in a public space, like a concert we went to or a blog post we read, then we can write about it freely. But if it is private, it should stay private.
This rule doesn’t affect your readership. If you blog juicy gossip about your friends and classmates, your blog may attract a few readers. But your friends, if you have any, will be careful of what they say in your presence. You will not be trusted, and once the juicy gossip disappears, so will your readers.
DON’T CLUTTER YOUR PAGE
Writing a blog is not just about writing. When we are in a bookshop, we are always more inclined to pick up a beautiful book than an ugly one. Similarly, your blog should be clean and easy to read. Don’t clutter the sidebar with too many links or widgets, as fledgling bloggers tend to do. You or your readers won’t use most of them, and they will add clutter to the page. Link to all your friends and the blogs you like to read, but ask yourself if the other things you are adding serve a purpose. For example, some bloggers add a clock to their sidebar. When every computer displays the time anyway, this is redundant.
Whenever you can, use a picture with your post. It makes the site look colourful and vibrant. However, make sure that the picture you use is not someone else’s property. Use pictures in the public domain. If you do use a picture without being sure of whether it’s okay to use it, add a link at the end of the post acknowledging where you got the picture from. Isn’t that the minimum you would ask for if someone used pictures taken by you?
DO IT ONLY IF IT’S FUN
This is my last piece of advice, and possibly the most important one. If you don’t enjoy yourself, your readers won’t enjoy reading your blog. Blogging won’t make you a millionaire, so you should only blog if you love doing it. If it’s fun for you, then all of the above advice might be redundant, for the act of writing a blog will be its own reward. So log on and have a blast!
Box 1—Web Design
• Do not clutter your page. Keep it clean and easy to read.
• Organize the content well. Make it easy for the reader to find anything on your site.
• Make sure your site loads quickly.
• Do not use fancy or colourful fonts. The text should be easy to read.
• Go easy on the graphics. White space is good.
Box 2—Traffic Generation
• Write about things that interest you. If they don’t interest you, what you write on them will interest no one else.
• Join conversations on other blogs. If you add value, people will check out your blog.
• Link to bloggers you like. If they also like you, they’ll link back. This is called link karma.
• Use tags and/or categories for every post. This makes posts on any subject easier to find.
• Be topical. If you blog about a subject in the news, people are more likely to stumble upon your blog.
• Blog often. You won’t get regular readers if you blog irregularly.
Box 3—The Secret to a Good Post
• Write about something you know. Lack of knowledge is easily exposed on the Internet.
• Write about things you feel strongly about.
• Your post should have something only you can provide, be it opinion, humour or whatever else. Otherwise why should anyone read it?
• Increase the reader’s gyan by providing relevant links.
• Be crisp. Don’t waste the reader’s time. Keep it simple.
Box 4—Copyright Law
• Everything on the Internet is copyrighted by default. Even material without a copyright notice.
• Do not reproduce anyone’s posts in full without asking and attributing.
• Quoting people is okay. But always attribute and link back.
• For your own content, use a copyright notice. (Example: Copyright © 2009 [Your name].) Even without this, your original writing is copyrighted to you, but there’s no harm in making it explicit.
• If you don’t mind your content being used by others under certain conditions, choose a Creative Commons license that suits your purpose.
There’s another largish box after this that speaks about the different kinds of blogs I like to read. I’ve mentioned people like Prem Panicker, Amit Agarwal, Nilanjana Roy, Sanjay Sipahimalani, Nitin Pai, Jai Arjun Singh and Chandrahas Choudhury, as well as Sepia Mutiny. I hope they are overwhelmed by an army of kiddie readers now.
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