Nov 14, 2007

Slick style tips

  • Catchy, funny or informative titles

  • Short paragraphs: giant blocks of text are scary

  • Sentences fewer than 25 words

  • Links (internal and external)

  • Always, always spellcheck…

  • One topic per post

  • Don't ramble. Sure, the web sprawls over infinite space, but readers' attention spans don't. Break that week in Rome into episodes: pasta overload, flasher on the Spanish Steps, witty musings about ancient art, Vespa crash, etc.

  • Many bloggers like to mix up the post length to keep things fresh: some days an essay, others just a Youtube link. Just remember to keep each unit narrowly focused.

  • Fresh voice, fresh content

  • Just as your passion dictated the blog's topic, let your personality infuse its voice. Carry readers along through your grumps, wild enthusiasms and strange obsessions.

  • Details are only rich in context: create a snapshot of how we live now or to embroider a universal theme.

  • Narrative nonfiction

    Vivid storytelling – a.k.a. as narrative writing and creative nonfiction – was once the norm. Mark Twain was a newspaperman, as well as a novelist. The “yellow papers” – led by Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal – teemed with color (much of it tawdry tabloidism, but color nonetheless). The practice continued until WWII, when Ernie Pyle's compassionate columns resembled “letters home”.

    Boston University Professor Mark Kramer observed in Literary Journalism: “James Agee, Ernest Hemingway, A. J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, Lillian Ross, and John Steinbeck tried out narrative essay forms,” he wrote. “Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion followed, and somewhere in there, the genre came into its own – that is, its writers began to identify themselves as part of a movement, and the movement began to take on conventions and to attract writers.”

    Authors like Hunter Thompson and John McPhee applied these techniques – and won great renown. But newspapers – on the whole – fostered a drier, more factual style. “Storytelling went out the window,” complained Jack Hart, managing editor of The Oregonian. “We had only the inverted pyramid and the standard news feature: quote, transition, quote, transition, quote, transition, kicker ... you're outta there!”

    Then New Journalism blazed and helped banish “the pale beige tone of the inverted pyramid,” Hart insisted. Best of all, readers connect more with this personable style. They comprehend complex topics easier, retain information and even buy more papers, according to Northwestern University's Readership Institute.

    So what is this miracle fix, exactly? Experts bicker on the finer points, but George nutshelled it well: “Essentially, a good story is like a good work of fiction, with a beginning, a middle and an end, characters and conflict, dialogue, telling details, a narrative arc. The full range of literary techniques should be employed.” Kramer confirms this: "scene setting, dialogue, and sensory description can improve every article." Read more insights from top writers in Chip Scanlon's coverage of the the sixth annual Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism.

    Events unfold around a protagonist in narrative writing. Jon Franklin, author of the classic Writing for Story, declared that “a story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.”

    Hart broke down the plot arc thus:

    1. Exposition: introduce the protagonist, the person who makes things happen (if you're stuck, start with the protagonist's name and a transitive verb).
    2. Inciting incident: something knocks the protagonist off the status quo. “Think of a movie ... a Hollywood movie, not a Danish one,” he joked.
    3. Rising action: the protagonist struggles with confrontations.
    4. Point of insight. The solution or outcome clarifies.
    5. Climax: the confrontation resolves.
    6. Denouement: Wrap it up.

    Hart considers the “point of insight” most valuable. “Here's what people are looking for in stories. They want to learn from the experiences of others how to be a more successful human being. Find the universal theme.”

    Narrative writing is an advanced technique. Experiment, but don't panic if this new medium takes time to learn. Mimicry really is the best tool. Read stories – and watch films –with these techniques in mind. Then perhaps try a brief piece in the format. As the great writing coach Hart said, “narrative articles needn't be 100-inch goat-chokers”. The short length forces your concentration onto the plot – picking, choosing and crystallizing the essential elements – rather than a glut of expression.

    Lisa Pollack, an editor for NPR's This American Life, discusses techniques useful to both print and broadcast journalism. “You need specific characters, events and reactions to them. Basically, you 'cast' the story: find the situation first, then a compelling subject.

    “Unfold the story. Set the scenario and introduce suspense and tension. If nothing's at stake, nothing drives the story – and reader – forward. A tale with no sympathetic characters, where everything works out as expected, has no juice in it.

    “By sympathetic, I don't mean the character did no wrong. Flaws make people sympathetic, make readers care and want to know what happens to them.”

    Once the plot arc is in place, she recommends: “Step outside the story and examine its meaning. Understand what attracts you to the story.”

    Michelle Hiskey, a reporter for The Atlanta Journal Constitution, takes this credo a step further. She urges: “Attach a ONE WORD theme to your story – i.e. greed, monopoly, trust, hunger, etc. – to keep you focused.”

    Poynter's Writing Coach Chip Scanlan agrees: “Every story is about something. The best stories have a focus and a point. Try asking these questions: What's the news? What's the story? What information surprised me the most? What will surprise my reader or viewer? What one thing does my reader need to know?”

    The “something” – the engine of a story – shouldn't merely be “Borneo” or “Boston”. Push deeper into the texture of the experience. Try imagining the place is a person. What would he or she say? Want? How was this character revealed? Hidden? And who best gives voice to all this?

    For a blog, that answer often may be “myself,” but stop and consider other alternatives. Is there a person – or a concept – that could frame the tale far better? Remember that while we label ourselves writers, we also are reporters.

    Increasing traffic

    Increasing traffic
    Original content, useful and unique
    Write frequently, if not daily
    Comment on other blogs
    Link to others
    Encourage comments and interact
    Add a signature to your outgoing mail
    Print the URL on business cards
    Chat on bulletin boards, leave a signature link
    Submit to Blog Top Sites, Technorati and other aggregators

    Read more on ProBlogger.

    Ethical and personal issues

    Exposing self, friends and family. Is it fair? Safe?
    Authorial transparency versus privacy – what's best for you?
    Protect the day job (don't get dooced)
    Stunt journalism – right or wrong?
    Libel and slander
    Creative Commons (limited content-sharing licenses)

    Moving on, making money

    Segueing into "mainstream" media
    Book deals and Blookers
    Syndication (including RSS feeds)
    Purists vs. monetizers
    Can it pay?
    Pay-per-click (Adsense etc.)
    Affiliates (like Amazon)
    Micropatrons and Paypal
    Cafepress and other merchandise
    Blog conglomerates (Gawker, Weblogs, etc.)

    Naming and branding your blog

    Make the blog's name memorable – and something you can suffer on a t-shirt or as your first book title. "What would you rather read: A Blog About Books or Bookslut?" asks Jonathan Yang, author of The Rough Guide to Blogging (2006).

    Many bloggers prefer a nome de plume, like Mimi Smartypants, another superstar who made the leap from pixels to print. Being anonymous can permit more frank chat, certainly … but are you prepared to be outed? Employers now tap into MySpace profiles, for example, and already applicants have lost job offers to that duct-tape fetish or underage drunken snapshot.

    Read more: How to chose a niche.

    Nov 10, 2007

    Today 120,000 blogs will be born

    Information from the November 2007 Blog World Expo

    Nov 9, 2007

    Pick a toe-curling topic

    Blogging absorbs a lot of time and energy. "Budget an hour a day, if you're really serious," recommends Marie Javins, who spun her blog No Hurry ( into her first travelogue book, Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik (Seal Press 2007).

    Seattle food writer Jess Thomson spent 2007 creating, cooking and blogging a recipe a day for Hogwash ( "Ultimately, writing a blog helped me discover my voice, and as a result find publications whose tones work best for me," she says. But she also acknowledges the downsides. " Posting every day has sometimes threatened to strip me of my interest in food. Another f***ing recipe? I normally love to cook at home, but sometimes the temptation of take-out swirls around me simply because I've developed this heavy sense of duty around my blog that doesn't necessarily need to be there."

    So pick a subject you love, one you can live with for six months or six years.

    Darren Rowse of agrees: "While it might be tempting to start blogs based on what other people are interested in or what makes commercial sense, there is little logic in starting a blog on a topic that you have no interest in.

    "Your readers will quickly discern if you are passionate about your topic or not. Blogs that are dry and passionless don't tend to grow.

    "Rowse recommends these questions to focus your theme:

    • Is the topic growing or shrinking?

    • What competition is there?

    • What is the competition neglecting?

    • Will you have enough content?

    • Are there income streams on the topic?

    Bloggers making it work

    • Local writer Michelle Goodman picked a niche she's passionate about: helping "cubicle expats transition to part-time, flextime, at-home, outdoor, overseas, nonprofit, or self-employed work." Anti 9-to-5 Guide compliments the book of the same name (Seal Press 2007).
    • British bad-boy LC has maintained Liars and Lunatics, a snarky commentary online since 2000 (and claims to be a big-cheese international blog consultant in real life).
    • Joe Mathlete seems a little overwhelmed by the popularity of Marmaduke Explained, but gamely continues to poke fun at comic artist Brad Anderson, due to popular demand.

    Successful bloggers who moved on

    • Seattle writergrrrrl and fellow Hugo House blog instructor Rebecca Agiewich scored her first novel deal, Breakup Babe, after chronicling her dating life online. She retired when she realized the confessional wasn't helping said dating life. Now she keeps a less revealing diary at Sparkly, Sparkly (

    • Author Edward Readicker-Henderson gave himself 131 posts on Unexpected World, then packed up shop. "I found it was taking energy away from the rest of my writing. I also started to feel like I was repeating myself, and so boring myself."

    • Jen Leo launched Written Road, "the inside scoop for the travel publishing world": She moved onto projects about poker and Las Vegas, as well as editing anthologies. A team of volunteers took over Written Road, but standards have slid.

    Choose a blog host

    Starting a blog takes just minutes, thanks to a plethora of host sites like Blogger and Wordpress. These provide a web address, page templates and tools for posting. Most beginners prefer services like:

    • Blogger - a free blogging platform by Google. Ad-free.

    • LiveJournal - blogging tool by SixApart, which offers free basic packages, as well as premium paid ones (from $3/month). Popular for social networking tools.

    • Typepad - paid blogging tool by SixApart. After the free trial, prices start at $4.95/month.

    • Wordpress - A free hoster, quite simple to use, except for an irritating photo-upload.

    • Xanga - popular among teens and young adults for easy networking (especially the guestbook). Free and paid premium services.

    DO: Start bookmarking blogs you enjoy. Pay attention to the hosts, templates and features.

    DON'T: Succumb to Myspace and Friendster. These are more social networking sites than proper blog tools. Best avoided by those old enough to drink legally.

    EXTRA CREDIT: Radio Userland - schmancy and expensive pro tool that incorporates security controls, an integrated news aggregator, multiple-author capabilities etc. Slick, but not a great starting point for the tech-inhibited.

    SKOOKUM: Server-side and self-hosted blogs. Audioblogs. Podcasting. Videoblogs (vlogs).

    Nov 8, 2007


    Gratuitious tabby photo. Because that's what the web is all about... See this LOLcats treasure trove.

    Photo by Marcus Donner

    HTML basics

    Baby's First Blog (one-day class)

    Come on in – the water's fine! Learn how to set up and brand a blog. Designed for the tech-intimidated, this workshop covers the basics, including posts, links, blogrolls, images, tags and comments. We'll also explore tactics – literary and otherwise – for a strong blog.

    November 10, 2007. Hugo House: 1634 11th Avenue, Seattle, WA 98122. (206) 322-7030.