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Being irrelevant (Sins of blogging)

Oct 4, 2009 • blogging, creativity

This is the second post in my 7 Deadly Sins of Blogging series. My version of the seven deadly sins of blogging are as follows: being fake, irrelevant, boring, unreadable, irresponsible, unfindable, and inattentive.

A few years ago, I was talking with a guy named Clyde about blogging. He wasn't sure what topic he wanted to write about, and I encouraged him to pick a topic he was passionate about and stick with that focus. Clyde was interested in two things: music and tech comm. So he actually started two blogs, one for each topic. He also planned to start a podcast and so ordered a podcasting kit.

After a while, his music blog faded (before he even wrote 10 posts, I think). And his interest about tech comm also faded, leaving him looking for a new direction. Gradually he moved toward the psychology of well-being, which I believe is learning to feel good about life, yourself, and those around you. He stayed with that focus for quite a while before blog-fading entirely.

Clyde's story is typical. We often think about our interests and passions, and they have little to do with technical writing (or whatever our day job is). So we start writing about those side interests (for example, one of my side interests is basketball). But we soon realize a couple of problems: first, to write well about a topic, you have to be immersed in knowledge about the topic, both reading about it and having personal experiences (coupled together, these two make a strong combination). If we don't have any new knowledge we're constantly acquiring or daily experiences we're having about the topic, we lose substance in our writing. So in the end, regardless of the topic we choose, we gravitate toward writing about what we know or what we're experiencing.

When new bloggers ask me for advice about what to blog about, I tell them not to worry about their focus for the first month. Just crank out a couple of dozen posts. Then, after you've done some writing, analyze your trends. What topics are you naturally moving towards? What topics do you keep coming back to again and again? Okay, now brand your site with that focus.

Sometimes people who lock themselves into a focus feel trapped. One person told me that if he narrowed his blog's focus to tech comm., he would only have 28 posts to write (he could think of no more). It's okay to move outside your natural path at times. Like a hiker, you can take side trails to go look at a scenic vista or lake, but you always return to the main trail, the trail that takes you toward your destination.

Blogging is like having a trail you follow -- a few offshoots are allowed
Blogging is like having a trail you follow -- a few offshoot trails are allowed

One of the paradoxes of having a focus is that, rather than limiting the topics you can write about, it actually opens you up to more ideas. Your focus gives rise to more creativity because you start looking at life through the lens of your blog's focus. For example, let's say you're playing basketball and you want to blog about defense somehow but it's not your blog's focus so you don't want to write about it. When you look at defense from the perspective of tech comm., ideas start to flow. For example, defense is partly about knowing where to look. You don't look at the person you're guarding or the person with the ball -- you look in the middle of the two, so that you can follow them both with your peripheral vision. Having this vision of the larger picture, being able to see the other players and the direction of their movements, helps you see motivations, agendas, and how different groups interact. You can't make good decisions until you can see the larger picture and leverage different motives.

That's not really much of a post, but it's moving in the direction of a post. You can see how having a focus gives you a lens through which to look at the world around you, and that lens helps you see the world in a new light?

After you decide on a focus, brand your site with it. Your URL and blog title (it's best to have them match) should communicate your focus, as well as the tagline. Your About page should also describe your blog's focus in greater depth.

No matter how granular of a focus you choose (for example, a blog about Hello Kitty), because of the global landscape, you will find others in the same niche. This is the concept of the Long Tail. The Long Tail asserts that niche products sold online to a global audience have more potential for revenue than the small core group of mainstream products. Your blog can be powerful within a niche. In fact, your focus on a niche rather than a mainstream topic is what gives social media its power. But regardless of the topic, stick with that general focus.

Oct 9 Update

I have to add an update to this post after reading Penelope Trunk's post, Blogs without topics are a waste of time. Our points are about the same, but the approaches are different. One idea in her post that made sense to me was the idea of a contract with the reader. She writes,

In the history of writing, everything has a focus. It's a contract you have with the reader. You stay within the bounds of the reader's expectations, and if you do that, you can write surprises that seem to stray from your topic, and the reader stays with you. Because surprises are fun. But if there's no contract because there is no focus, then there are no surprises. Every great piece of writing works this way.

Think about it: Canterbury Tales. The topic is getting to the end of the trip. Or Moby Dick. Melville can write about everything—God, the American dream, fishing boats, marriage, mental illness—and he gets away with it because his topic is totally solid: Nailing the whale.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.