If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I travel and speak quite a lot. A frequent question I’m asked at these events is “I want to start blogging, but don’t know where to start. What do you recommend?” This is a such a common and natural question as to be almost existential at it’s root. In most every context where we move from the known to the unknown, from taking that first international trip to learning how to swim, we might first begin by saying “I’m uncertain. Where do I start?”
Success in any of these situations can be distilled down to a single word – DOING. You can plan and plot for months, attempting to foil every possible risk and mitigate every unpleasant possibility, but you will never progress without the doing of the thing. As Nike says, “Just do it”.
I have had the benefit of talking to a lot of really talented writers, from poetry to fiction to non-fiction, and no matter what tact they take they always have to knuckle down and do it. Some like to plan ahead for all of their major points, and they’re successful in that approach. Others like to start writing without a plan, letting their characters and the thesis of their article take shape as they write. But in all of those situations, they sit down and write.
So my first piece of advice is to carve out a pre-defined, well-bounded block of time to write every single week. In my case, I have blocked off Monday mornings on my Outlook calendar for writing. And that’s what I do every Monday morning. You should too, even if it’s just a half-hour once per month, you’ll make much more progress than if you say to yourself “I’ll write when I have time”. Block off the time and respect it – don’t dodge it or blow it off as something that’s disposable. In other words, don’t let your own self-discipline be your biggest obstacle.
FIND YOUR VOICE
Another common follow-up question I get is “I know I want to write, but I don’t know what to say”. On this point, I have a couple tips to get you started. I find, however, that once someone has spent some time blogging reliable, this becomes much less of an issue. But here are some ideas about how to find your voice as a blogger:
- Write advice to your younger self: You’ve struggled to get the knowledge and experience you’ve accumulated. Some of the things you’ve learned were hard won. You wished you’d had it easier. Conversely, there are tens of thousands of IT professionals who are now struggling with exactly the same exasperating situation(s) you’d conquered in the past. Use that as your starting point – write a blog post explaining that trying time and how you’d handle it then if only you knew what you know now. (Incidentally, as I went to publish this post, my buddy Brent Ozar (b | t) did this very thing in this blog post called Sentences to My Younger Selves. It’s a great read).
- Catalog your own knowledge: Similarly, some things that we learn are hard to retain or we have to train a bunch of people on the topic several times a year. Maybe me know a tough process so well that others in our organization are constantly asking us about it. Maybe writing something down helps cement something we’ve learned into our permanent memory. Maybe we don’t use a technique or process very often. For example, I write a newsletter for SQL Sentry every month. Personally, if I do something only once per month, I never really and truly learn it by heart. Knowing that, I wrote a post for myself (and perhaps for use by my successor) to document in step-by-step detail exactly how I manage this rather complex, multi-person process. You could do the same for the things you learn working with SQL Server. And you’ll feel a unique sense of pride months or years later when you do an Internet search on that topic and your post appears as the top hit from Google or Bing.
- Write about what you want to learn: This is an approach that my buddy Aaron Bertrand (b | t) is a master of and is something you can see demonstrated every week in his new blog posts on SQLPerformance.com. In this case, you might be wondering about a specific technical questions and, finding no good answer to the question with an Internet search, set about researching the topic yourself. For example, you might be wondering “What’s faster? Option A or Option B” Well, guess what? There are likely to be thousands of others wondering the same thing across the Internet. That means they are the audience you’ll be answering by researching the answer and blogging your findings. You’ll literally be improving their lives. Wow!
- Speak to your values: Even in purely technical writing, we have personal values to are reflected in what we have to say. For example, let’s say you’ve written a blog post about various kinds of high-availability and disaster recovery options that your enterprise has thought about implementing. When you write about your conclusions, be sure to describe the values that drove your conclusion. Was low-price a bigger factor than resilience? Was ease of management a bigger factor than performance? When you explain your motivations and values in light of technological questions, your readers begin to connect with you on a deeper level and from that connection you can build stronger rapport with your readers.
If you start writing from one of those three points of view, you’ll always have something valuable to say.
NUTS AND BOLTS BLOGGING ADVICE
Here are a few tips about the more procedural, nuts and bolts of blogging:
- Start reading http://www.problogger.net/: They literally wrote the Bible on blogging. Reading their stuff will both: A) blow your mind with their awesome information, and B) make you feel really inadequate. Option B is what I spend most of my time experiencing, since I already know a lot of their recommendations. But don’t have the time or (frequently) the drive to implement their recommendations. But even if you implement a fraction of their recommendations, you’ll be better than 90% of the other bloggers out there. And they have a great book of the same name. Buy it.
- Fully invest in social media and make that a part of your blogging: You might not be very active on social media. That’s a mistake. Get at least a Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter account. If you prefer, create separate accounts for your professional life, so that your friends don’t see your technical content and your blog readers don’t see how cute your kitten. (In my case, I started on social media before the recommendation was self-evident. Now, public and private personas are hopelessly entangled). Fwiw, the SQL Server community is HUGE on Twitter. So don’t ignore it, if for no other reason than to publicize your posts to the Twittersphere.
- Include a picture: I didn’t know about this until recently, but it makes a big difference in how Google ranks your pages when someone searches on a given topic. Also, when naming pictures, use a naming standard such as “johnqpublic.net – powerpivot example 014.jpg”. That way, if someone searches on Google Images, you’ll get the full dose of SEO goodness.
- All things being equal, go with a WordPress blog: If you haven’t chose a blogging platform, you won’t go wrong with a Wordpress blog. It’s fast. It’s easy. There are lots of inexpensive consultants who can help, if you ever need it. And there are plenty of good, plug-in widgets add nearly endless customization and special features. Want a widget to announce your your new blogs to your social media channels? There are a dozen (or more). Want a widget to automate backups? Lots of those. Want better SEO ranking? Already written. For that matter, let’s talk about a couple specific examples….
- WordPress widgets. Make sure to get some of the other really useful WordPress widgets:
A) Grab Yost SEO, Moz, or Jetpack SEO plug-in.
B) Get one of the social widgets I mentioned earlier. I use Sociable for WordPress. These do two things for you. First, they enable you to post directly to your social media channels either on a schedule or immediately upon publication. Second, they enable little “Share Now” links for readers to post to their social media channels as they read. SEO goodness!
C) Get a WordPress backup widget of some kind. I currently use WP-DBBackup at the moment, but it only backs up the post text, not images or other files like slide decks. Afaik, I’ll have to spend a little money for a full-site backup widget.
D) Askimet for spam comment filtering.
E) You might like a Related Posts widget. Since I’ve been blogging a long time, I’ve got a lot of content. This widget automatically puts a little entry at the bottom of a blog post which says “You might like to read these:” and shows links to other posts by me and others.
And don’t forget to pace yourself. There’s no need to hurry. You’ve got a lot of good things to say. But you don’t have to say everything at once. I recommend a pace of no more than two blog posts per week. As time goes on, you can alter the pace (if you want to). It’s not really a very bad thing to put out a bazillion posts in the early days of your blog. However, you haven’t caught a lot of traction with a lot of readers yet. So when you string it out over a longer period of time, you can build your readership with a steady, consistent release schedule. As I always say, when dealing with people it is better to consistently exceed expectations than to be occasionally brilliant AND occasionally absent.
Does this all make sense? What sort of questions do you have?