Developing Your Craft as a Blogger

Whether it’s your bread and butter, a side project, or something you do for fun, creating a blog and maintaining it demands some kind of commitment from you. Bloggers have a responsibility toward their readership to hone their skills and their knowledge so they can provide good information and good insight.

So how do you become a better blogger?

Know Your Stuff

Your readers look to you for what you know or what you’ve experienced. So if your blog is about European travel, have you indeed traveled to Europe? If you review books in your blog, then you should have read each book that you’ve reviewed at least once. You might say, “Well, duh! Obviously!” Well, yes it is obvious. It’s so basic that you really should have it covered, but you’d be surprised how often this is overlooked, intentionally or unintentionally. Anyway, the point is, do try to achieve a certain level of expertise in your blog’s subject matter, and do your due diligence and keep yourself updated on new developments. 

Sharpen your Writing Skills

We don’t mean that you should become some sort of grammar snob, nobody likes that either, but let’s face it, blogging is about using words to communicate ideas. In fact, language is a building block of thought. So you’ve got to have those blocks down pat if you want to build anything. Grammar isn’t about following arbitrary rules, rather, it is about effective and efficient communication. Besides, you owe it to your readers to communicate well. Wouldn’t you want them to have a good experience in your blog? Nothing causes a headache quite like reading incoherent gibberish.

So brush up the grammar and composition lessons from your school days. Keep a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style handy. Build your vocabulary so that your use of words is correct and precise.

Practice. Tweeting would teach you valuable editing skills and help you appreciate economy in the use of words. Keeping a journal won’t just help you develop your skills as a writer, it’s good for you as a person to immortalize certain memories and verbalize thoughts and feelings.

Cultivate Your Curiosity

You can’t write if you have nothing to write about. Keep learning. When you stop learning, you stagnate. No matter how much you know, there’s always more to it.

And don’t just limit yourself to your own field. Take an interest in other things and develop new passions, and you’ll find it amazing how one hobby or interest enriches another.

Sign up for workshops — whether they be for writing, pottery, or wine tasting. Procure books. Attend talks. Take copious notes and make it a practice to revisit them after some time; detaching yourself for a while allows the new knowledge to marinate in the mind, which gives rise to new insights.

Have Your Own Voice

As a blogger, you wouldn’t want to simply regurgitate what you see and hear or read about. Put your own spin on it when you write. Share your reflections and reactions; have a point of view, an opinion. Think of yourself as a newspaper columnist rather than a beat reporter.

Your blog is an extension of yourself. It reflects who you are and what you stand for. So put something of yourself in it, so when your readers come, they find you.

How to Create and Publish Your Own eBook With a $0 Budget

publishing your own eBookAntique Printing Press by DaddyNewt

eBooks are books or pamphlets in a digital format. They’re a unique form of web content because they’re inherently portable. An eBook can be shared and spread far beyond your web presence.

There are a number of ways bloggers, webmasters or any web user can leverage an eBook to achieve a variety of outcomes, from building a brand to attracting traffic, and everything in between.

In this post I want to present a guide to creating your own eBooks from the idea stage right up until distribution.

I’ll also describe various ways you can use the eBooks you create to build buzz and achieve individual outcomes. Best of all, the process can be completed without spending a cent.

What could I do with an eBook?

  • Encourage RSS subscriptions — you could use the Feedburner FeedFlare service (accessible via the ‘Optimize’ tab inside your Feedburner control panel) to add a link to your eBook at the bottom of each feed you publish. Let your readers know that each feed subscription comes with a bonus eBook. You can see this method in action at ChrisG.com. Here are instructions on how to do it.
  • Package archives — you could celebrate each year by offering your blog or website’s archives in eBook format. This is a great way to get new visitors up to speed on what you do. You can see this method in action at Boing Boing.
  • Publicize your brand — encourage those who download your eBook to share it however they like. As long as it clearly features what you want to promote (yourself, your site, or your products) you will be benefiting from the free advertising.
  • Go viral – Seth Godin’s eBooks have been instrumental to his success. If your ideas are interesting enough they could go viral — an incredibly powerful promotion of both yourself and your product. Seth’s most famous eBook, Unleashing the Ideavirus, was later published in both paperback and hardcover.
  • And more — take some time to think about how you could best leverage your eBook. What are you trying to do with it? What will be the best method to achieve your goal?

What form could my eBook take?

What you include in your eBook will depend on what you’re trying to achieve with it. I’ll list some broad approaches and describe how they could be useful.

  • Digital book — the most traditional form of eBook, the digital book, is usually upwards of a hundred pages and presents itself as the kind of book you might buy at a bookstore. Unleashing the Ideavirus, for example, is 197 pages. This type of eBook is your best bet at going viral or being widely circulated because it packs a lot of value. This type of eBook will typically be broken into chapters on particular topics and contain more than one idea. While it has the potential for the greatest gains, it is also obviously the most time consuming option.
  • Manifesto — this type of eBook is less time consuming to create but also retains the potential to go viral because it focuses on communicating one idea in 1 to 25 pages. A great example of a manifesto-style eBook is Tim Ferriss’ The Low Information Diet, at 16 pages. What is your best idea? Your number one tip? It may just be the perfect idea for a manifesto. Here’s another example, this time written for bloggers: Killer Flagship Content. That one is 17 pages.
  • Bonus or archived content — if you’re a blogger or webmaster you could create a bonus content eBook. This simply involves packaging a quantity of new content in an eBook rather than publishing it on your site. You could use this as an incentive to subscribe or encourage readers to distribute it freely.

How do I make an eBook?

The best format for an eBook is PDF. These files best re-create the effect of reading the pages of a book on screen.

You can create PDF files directly with Adobe Acrobat if you’re lucky enough to have access to the program.

This is a $0 budget guide, however, so I want to suggest some free resources we can use to achieve the same effect.

If you have Microsoft Word I’d recommend creating your eBook in .doc format. If you use a different Word processor you can create your eBooks in .rtf format.

These can be converted to PDFs with the help of some free online programs, but first, let’s discuss formatting.

Number and link

Ideally, the footer of each page in your eBook should be numbered and contain a link to your web presence, your logo or your name. Your choice will depend on what your eBook is designed to promote.

Make it visually interesting

One advantage to the eBook format is that printing costs aren’t an issue. You can use slick fonts, colored headings, photographs, and other items to add visual interest, but keep in mind that detailed elements like images will increase the download size of your eBook.

Read a little

Download good eBooks and look at paperback copies of books you think look good. Write down what you like best about the formatting and try to emulate that in your own work. Don’t be afraid to use chapters, sub-headings, introductions, and so on.

Craft it

Most of us like the idea of publishing a best-selling book, if only in the realm of fantasy. I’d recommend taking the presentation of your eBook as seriously as you would a potential best-seller. Readers will notice (and appreciate) the care you’ve put into what you create.

If you’re not a Word Processing genius…

If you’re not sure how to translate your vision into reality it’s worth gathering the skills required to do so.

Try to locate specific sources of information as you need them, rather than wasting time learning about features you may not need.

If you want to know how to add a footer to each page, for example, Google what you want to do and the Word Processor you’re using (ex: “add footer to each page in Open Office”).

In most cases this will be enough to answer your question. If not, try searching for a general guide/tutorial directory for your Word Processor of choice.

Here are some example tutorials for Microsoft Word.

Edit, edit, edit

Unlike a blog post or web-page you can’t re-edit an eBook to your heart’s content. Once people begin to download and share copies of your eBook you can’t exactly ask them to give it back in exchange for a fixed copy.

It’s essential that you get it right the first time.

  • Rigorously edit what you’ve written. Draft, re-draft, check spelling, check grammar. Let your eBook sit for a week and come back to it with fresh eyes. Print it out and carefully go over the paper copy. Sometimes things you missed on screen will be glaringly obvious on paper.
  • Enlist the help of others. Give it to family and friends to read through. They will likely notice some errors you missed. They can also tell you which bits were unclear to them. If your eBook isn’t targeted at the average person you could instead share it with some trusted friends or readers who are within the target demographic for your book.

Convert your document to .PDF

Once you’re confident that you’ve created a solid final draft you can start to think about converting that into the finished product.

There are a myriad of online converters and freeware programs you can use to quickly change document files into PDFs. It’s worth experimenting with a few to see which one works best for you.

Adobe, the creator of the .PDF format, allows you to convert 5 documents to PDF for free via this page.

Another free program I like is PrimoPDF, which allows you to create PDFs directly from your source document via the ‘Print’ option.

If you’re not satisfied with either of these options you’ll be able to locate many others by Googling “document to .pdf converters”.

A good strategy is to copy some of your eBook into a sample document of three or four pages and use that to test how different converters will present your eBook.

What you’re looking for

  • Clarity. You want the PDF file you create to display your text clearly and crisply. Some converters will blur your text — avoid them.
  • Retention of formatting. Your PDF should look as much like your source document as possible. Check that fonts, colors, images and columns are displaying correctly.
  • Small size. The smaller your PDF is the easier it will be for people to attach it to e-mails, host it on their own site, or spread it through other viral methods. An ideal size is below 1 megabyte, but anything below 5 megabytes is acceptable. I would hesitate before releasing a PDF larger than that size. Consider cutting out unnecessary images or decreasing their quality.

Distribution methods

Once your PDF eBook is looking and reading exactly how you want it you can start thinking about distribution. The first step in this process is to upload it to your webhost (if you have one). If not, there are a number of free file-hosting services you can use.

  • Scribd — free document hosting, kinda like YouTube for PDFs.
  • TinyLoad — host 300mb worth of files with no bandwidth limit.

Rewards based distribution

If you only want your PDF to be available to certain people (usually as a result of them completing a certain action, such as subscribing to your feed, reviewing your site, etc.) you should make the file available for download on a section of your site not connected to the main navigation network. This allows you to control who has access to your eBook.

For extra security you could make the download page password protected. Choosing a complicated password (something that is unlikely to produce any search results, such as a random combination of letters and numbers) should help you track down anyone providing the password to your download page.

A Google search for your password should be all you need. You might consider changing the password if this kind of theft occurs.

Viral distribution

This kind of distribution aims to get people actively sharing and propagating your eBook. Here are some tips to help your eBook go viral.

  • Ask them. Encourage readers to share your eBook inside the document.
  • Edit the file name. Add ‘ReadandShare’ to your document’s filename. Seth Godin uses ‘IdeavirusReadandShare.pdf’.
  • Change the context. Emphasize that your eBook is free to download and share in each location that you offer it (static pages, forum posts, e-mails, etc.)
  • E-mail list. Create an email list for eBook owners. Offer the link to the join page for this list inside your eBook. This creates a feeling of exclusivity and will allow you to leverage your existing audience if you release another eBook in future.
  • Leverage traffic. Publicize your eBook on your blog or website. Make it as easy as possible for readers to download it.
  • Provide ideas. Suggest ways your eBook could be shared. Encourage readers to host it on their own site, e-mail it to friends, and link to your download page.

The end result

It’s entirely possible to complete all these steps and end up with a high quality eBook that cost you absolutely nothing to make.

Feel free to direct any questions, ideas or concerns into the comments section below. If you do publish an eBook as a result of reading this post, or have published one in the past, feel free to link to it here, also.

It certainly can’t hurt your viral campaign!

If you liked this post, please consider share it on Facebook or giving it a Tweet. Thanks!

What Should I Write About? Well, Who Are You Writing For?

vital contentPhotography: The Crowd Watches the Fireworks by Waldo Jaquith

Many bloggers and webmasters struggle to decide what topics they should cover. In this post, I want to answer some common but very important questions.

  • What kinds of things should I write about?
  • Should I focus on one topic, or many?
  • What kind of topics should I choose?
  • Are some topics bad for making money?

Working with your interests and expertise

There are things you like. Things you know a lot about. Things you find interesting and would like to know more about. These are all potential topics you could write on.

The next, crucial step is to work out who you will be writing for. I’m convinced that many bloggers and webmasters are not yet aware of how important this step is.

The dangers of ignoring a target audience

Let’s say you’re interested in cooking. You previously stumbled across a blog called Mark’s Thoughts and read an amazing post on making better ratatouille.

As a result, you’ve never made it the same way again. You subscribed to the blog eagerly awaiting more cooking tips.

The next post, however, was on running an eBay business. You thought: “That’s alright, perhaps the cooking stuff will come later.”

But it didn’t. You waited a week, skipping over posts about domain name selection, a movie review, and the author’s favorite breed of dog. Finally, you unsubscribe, disappointed.

The author obviously has a passion for all of the above: cooking, domain names, movies and dogs. But how many others have the same configuration of diverse interests?

Our friends, for example, are unlikely to share more than a few interests with us. My best friend is an Elvis fanatic, but Elvis has always left me lukewarm.

If she consistently tried to discuss Elvis with me, I’d probably get annoyed. But she doesn’t. We’re both aware of our mutual interests and focus on discussing things we both enjoy.

It might be useful to think of a blog without a target audience like a friend who will discuss all their interests without fail, regardless of who’s listening.

I might enjoy talking about sport with that person, but want to knock myself unconscious when he begins to discuss the virtues of a particular political party, or real estate prices, or chess, or country music.

Before you decide what to talk about, you need to know who you want to speak to.

Selecting topics with an audience in mind

To illustrate this with an example, let’s use a fictional person with a fictional set of interests: Shelley. She has brainstormed topics that interest her and the results are below.

fictional set of interests

I’d like you to think about the cloud above for a moment. Do you share some interests? Do some of Shelley’s interests bore you, or even slightly offend you? Would you subscribe to a site that wrote about all these topics?

Conscious of this, Shelley has linked up topics likely to be of interest to certain audiences. The result looks like this:

similar topics

The blue line is likely to be of keen interest to a socially and environmentally conscious Christian audience with liberal political views.

The yellow line will consistently have something to offer environmentally conscious outdoorsy types. The green line is likely to be of interest to web designers and web developers.

Would you read one of these sites, if the writing was good?

Do the topics covered on your site connect up in this way?

One topic, or many?

More topics can mean more competition, though you might stand to receive greater traffic in the long-run.

Focusing on a specific niche often results in a smaller, more focused audience. Neither is worse than the other from a money-making perspective.

If Shelley decides to write only about kayaking, she might make a small fortune selling kayaking equipment on her blog, because her audience is so well targeted.

On the other hand, broader sites have a larger target audience and, therefore, the potential for higher visitor numbers.

If you have aspirations of cracking the Technorati 100, however, a specific niche is unlikely to get you there. The approach you take will depend on your long-term blogging goals.

I love __________, but there’s no money in it

Any popular or well-targeted site can be profitable, as long as you’re willing to look outside AdSense. I strongly believe that if you create a great site and employ money-making strategies suited to that site, any niche can be profitable.

I’m a little like the guy on the left, below:

do what you love cartoon

Before you have the same reaction as the man on the left, I want to site some examples of unusual sites that proved to be profitable.

If you create a fantastic and well-loved site you will find ways to monetize it. Sometimes you will need to seek them out. At other times, opportunities will present themselves.

Your focus shouldn’t lie solely on picking a niche you think will be profitable — unless it also happens to be a niche you love.

There are so many monetization options around these days that you will find one that suits you, no matter what you write about.

Five reasons to focus on target audience first

  1. Your readers will be consistently interested in the topics you cover.
  2. It will give you guidance in deciding what to write about.
  3. Target audiences are social networks: they may help your content go viral.
  4. You will be able to build a profile amidst an influential group.
  5. It will ensure your site maintains focus on presenting the reader with content that is valuable to them.

37 Viral Post Ideas You Can Use Today

viral post ideas

Viral articles are word of mouth worthy, and will grow your site more so than any other kind of content.

Previously, I examined six strategies you can use when you want to create content with a decent chance of going viral. In this post, I want to focus on 37 concrete ideas for viral posts that should be readily applicable to your niche.

This post could be a useful port of call the next time you run out of inspiration, or if you want to try something different with your content.

What are the benefits of writing viral posts?

As part of the Simple Web post series I established the reasoning behind my personal philosophy of trying to simplify down to only taking actions with the potential to grow your site.

In my experience, posts I’ve written that have gone viral (at least within this niche) have grown this blog more than any other kind of post. From what I’ve observed, this seems to hold true across all blogs and websites.

Viral posts are rarely produced effortlessly. They take time and care to produce, and it shows in the finished product. Many of us like the idea of creating viral content but lament that we don’t have enough time. Luckily, more time is not what we need.

Time can always be made by changing the way you distribute it. Rather than writing short posts daily, what if you wrote three short posts and one carefully constructed, virally targeted post a week?

Unless those short posts are quite profound, you are likely to find that the virally targeted posts grows your blog far more than the four short posts would have.

Won’t readers get sick of virally targeted posts?

Mason of SmallFuel Marketing gave an insightful answer to the question I asked at the end of Under the Microscope: Six Strategies for Building Viral Content: “How would it affect your site if every article you wrote was designed to go viral — even if it meant you had to post less?”

His initial response was: “I think if every post were written “to go viral” it would probably burn out the regular readers (and possibly yourself).”

In many ways, I agree with him, though I think there is an easy work-around. Constantly trying to go viral through the same methods will bore your readers, unless your site is built on a particular type of viral content (Smashing Magazine or Mashable and resource lists, for example).

Any site needs varied and diverse content, so it’s important to approach viral targeting from an ever-changing angle.

A final point to consider is that calling something ‘viral’ is a catchier way of calling it word-of-mouth worthy.

Creating word-of-mouth worthy content won’t bore your readers because what’s worth talking about is, in most cases, high quality.

As long as you explore a variety of possibilities for virality, working on viral posts is one of the best ways to grow your site.

The list!

  1. Assemble one sentence/paragraph answers to a question you ask key figures across your niche.
  2. Create a time spectacle: create content non-stop over a designated period of time (8hrs, 24hrs?).
  3. Write a review of the redesign of a popular blog/website in your niche. Everyone has an opinion on redesigns and will appreciate someone laying out some of their own thoughts.
  4. Assemble a directory of great interviews conducted with prominent/interesting figures in your niche.
  5. Construct a central hub of posts written on a specific, focused topic of great importance to your niche.
  6. Create a ranked list of products, services, people, or some other variable, within your niche.
  7. Offer a free service to everyone who asks, utilizing one of your skills. Then expect nothing in return.
  8. Write a history of your niche’s presence online. What have been its earliest blogs and websites? Its most popular? Are they still around?
  9. Begin a group writing project.
  10. Assemble a directory of tips on a topic, delivered in the form of quotes from other sites in your niche.
  11. Build a quiz for readers to test their niche knowledge.
  12. Offer to write a guest-post for anyone who asks. View it as a long-term commitment: could you manage one guest post a week? The task only becomes insurmountable if you want them all done at once. People will be patient if the service has no strings attached.
  13. Conduct a short interview, both containing the same questions, with two prominent figures in your niche, and display the answers side-by-side, allowing us to compare the answers.
  14. Assemble a large number of one-sentence tips on a specific topic.
  15. Simpsonize some key personalities in your niche.
  16. Assemble the most interesting or thought provoking quotes that apply to your niche, even if the person quoted was not talking about your niche specifically.
  17. Ask readers a question and have them answer it on their blog/website. Then link to the collected answers from a central hub post.
  18. Write a post carefully arguing a view that you feel many of your readers will agree with.
  19. Take reader questions and answer them in one post. These can be questions about you, your niche, or your site. Set boundaries if necessary.
  20. Link to online tools, software and sites any person taking part in your niche should know about.
  21. Organize an initiative and get other bloggers involved.
  22. Take a birds-eye view of your niche, analyze its strengths and weaknesses.
  23. Predict what your niche will look like in 5, or 10, or 50 years.
  24. Create a list of feeds you believe everyone interested in your topic should be subscribed to.
  25. Answer a question many of your headers may have, but have not asked because of its complex nature. Some questions of that nature that might be unspoken by readers in this niche, for example, are: What do I do if my blog isn’t growing as I hoped it would? How long will it take my site to start generating a worthwhile income? Is there ever going to be a big enough audience for a site in my niche?
  26. Address a general ‘want’ shared by most readers in your niche. What are the key three things readers of your site want? For this site, that might be: more traffic, more links, more subscribers. To address the want for more subscribers, I might write a post called: “Ten Innovative Ways to Get More Subscribers”. There have been plenty of posts on this subject, but readers are likely to have a look just in case there’s something they haven’t seen before. To make sure they’re rewarded, make certain you meet this need in an innovative/different way.
  27. The web is on a productivity/uncluttering trip at the moment. Can you write a guide to being more efficient or productive in your niche? Can you write a guide to getting organized in your niche?
  28. Visualize useful information and make it easy to share.
  29. Show readers how to construct a cheap object that will prove useful to them.
  30. Release a free ebook, packed with value.
  31. Write a post answering 5 important questions, then ask others to answer the same questions on their own sites, promising to link to the answers from a central hub post. Follow through on that promise.
  32. Take a famous/interesting person and ask: what approach would that person take to my niche? For example: The Leonardo Da Vinci Guide to Cooking.
  33. Create a ranked list of must-read books relating to your niche.
  34. Create a beginner’s tour of your topic. If you were showing a beginner the sights, what essential articles should they read to get a grip on your niche?
  35. Explore what you would change about your niche if you could. What are its short-comings?
  36. If you could only share 10 more tips with your readers, what would they be?
  37. Assemble a collection of amazing photos/images relating to your niche (some niches will be more suited to this than others).

That’s all folks!

How to Write Like a Painter

Study of a Woman’s Hands

Study of a Woman’s Hands by Leonardo Da Vinci

If you’ve seen the creation process behind a drawing or painting you’ll know that artists rarely produce a finished artwork without a rough sketch beneath.

What starts off looking like a lopsided scarecrow eventually becomes a beautifully rendered person. The canvas that begins as a few splotches of color eventually morphs into a life portrait.

The artist knows generally what they want to paint. What they might not be sure on until later is the detail.

This model is incredibly useful to us. As producers of written content we can adapt this strategy to what we write.

This is a simple tip, but it can increase the quality of what you write and allow you to produce articles faster.

Once you have an idea for an article it’s relatively easy to work out what you want to say. It’s the how that trips us up, so often causing writer’s block.

We’re trying to paint a masterpiece in the first sweep, when every great masterpiece grows from very humble beginnings.

Building the foundations of a strong article

Like a painting, the articles we write need a firm foundation to stand on. It requires we put up with some pretty ugly writing (for a little while).

I use this method all the time now, and every blog post I write starts out looking horrible. If I published the posts as they are then I’d lose my readership overnight – just like any painter who tried to show off a sketch as a finished piece would be laughed at.

A post like ‘Criticism: A Rite of Passage on the Web?’ (picked at random) would have looked a lot like this when I first sketched it out:

1. Recognize that unconstructive criticism has no value

2. ‘mass viewing + unaccountability = idiocy’

3. Logic doesn’t work on an illogical person

4. Aim to diffuse

A little ugliness can be a good thing
(in the beginning)

The above ugly and useless for the reader. Without explanation, none of those points have value. For the writer, however, this sketch is incredibly useful.

Rather than tacking the post as a whole, this process breaks down the article into manageable chunks. You’ve sketched out what you’re going to say. This makes the how easier.

Flesh out your first point. Explain it. Qualify it. Define it. Say everything that you want about it. Once you’re done, move on to the next point, tackling each one at a time. As you focus on one point, don’t think about the others.

It’s a lot easier to write one paragraph than it is to write a whole article, but an article is built out of paragraphs, one after the other.

When you’re done, your sketch points can be deleted. Or they can be retained, as sub-headings, or emphasized sentences. If it helped you write the piece, chances are it will help visitors to read it.

Give it a try: next time you write an article to publish online, first, set out (very loosely) your points and then flesh them out, one at a time. You could even write the introduction last if you like.

The advantage of doing so is that introductions can seem a lot less daunting when you know exactly what you’re introducing!