A week ago last Saturday happened to be both my birthday – a milestone birthday at that, which everyone seems to think should have had more of an impact on me than it actually did – and my six month blogiversary. Normally I don’t tend to feel the need to mark the type of occasions that mark out the passage of time, especially when that amount of time is as short as six months. But the coincidence of the two dates felt like a gentle poke in the ribs to take stock of my experience as a new blogger, to try and figure out exactly what that experience has been, even if it has only been six months-worth of experience.
When I decided to start blogging, I gave in to my pathological need to learn everything I could before beginning a new task and dove headlong into researching advice for new bloggers. My search produced predominantly a series of posts listing the top “25 Blogging Tips for New Bloggers,” or the “Number One Tip” for new bloggers from “38 Blogging Masters.” A great deal of the tips on offer were useful and often repeated, advice on finding your audience, on persevering despite not being immediately successful, or on not expecting success at all, all from bloggers who were already successful, who had persevered and found their audience, having built their blogs up from one hit a month to millions.
Those pieces were both encouraging and daunting when I started blogging. The advice was relatively concrete – keep writing even if no one reads what you write, get active in social media, find communities of people who read the type of pieces you write, stick to a schedule – but it was always subsumed by an undertone of cautionary optimism. “Yes, we became successful by following these steps,” the advisers seemed to say, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will.”
I continued to read this type of piece as I continued to blog, but after six months I realized that what I wanted to read was a post by someone like me, someone who hasn’t found their audience or created a blog that gets a hit a minute, and who is struggling with the top tip in many of these pieces – perseverance in the face of indifference.
So, here is a list, not so much of pieces of advice for new bloggers, but of observations on what it is to be a new blogger. This post won’t help you formulate strategies for growing your traffic or give you advice on how to stay focused and keep writing in spite of the daunting feeling that a lack of an audience can give you, like you’re screaming into the wind. But neither do I mean it to be discouraging. This is my experience of being a new blogger. Whether or not this experience resonates with your own, I hope to add something more to the discussion of what that experience is like beyond tips and tricks from those writers who don’t need tips and tricks anymore.
The reasons I write don’t always result in something that you want to read
One of the primary motivations for starting this blog was that I needed an outlet. Being a film academic can have strangely contradictory results: on the one hand, I study something that a vast majority of the people around me are interested in and love to discuss. But on the other, there is a tendency to be slightly suspicious of taking that discussion too far, a sense that the close analysis of film destroys something of its power. Magic is only magic after all, until you know the trick, and I know quite a few of film’s tricks. For me, discovering and pointing out those tricks is more thrilling than not knowing them. A good movie – or for that matter, a bad movie that’s bad in an interesting way – is better than a strong cup of coffee for me. I get excited when I see those tricks at work, and when I get excited I want everyone else to be excited too.
My favourite posts are the ones that let me get into the minutiae of some of those tricks, especially those that are simple enough that they tend to go unnoticed. The post I wrote on point of view structures in Marvel’s Daredevil series on Netflix probably seems like an obsessive, and obsessively laborious attempt to analyse something inherently fleeting, but it allowed me to do what I like to do best – to look closely at an element of style to try and figure out how it works. My post on shot scale and meaning (Part 1, Part 2) was about as close to a statement on what I like to write as anything. The section on How to Train Your Dragon 2 remains my favourite bit of writing so far, because while it’s essentially a focused stylistic analysis, it’s also a love letter to that film.
Those two posts didn’t get a lot of hits: my obsessive dive into Daredevil was read by two people, the second half of my shot scale post got eight hits.
The piece that received the most attention was my post “On the Horrors of Sequelitis,” addressing the notion that Hollywood is stuck in an endless and ultimately self-destructive loop of sequels, remakes, and adaptations. It was written after I saw one too many commentators making that complaint, and while I always like trying to shift the tenor of a conversation that’s primarily been composed of panicked predictions of doom, it didn’t excite me to anywhere near the degree the above two posts did.
A great deal of advice for growing your web traffic counsels you on how to discover what kind of things readers want to read by looking at other blogs that write on topics similar to your own, or by doing keyword research, while also reminding you to stick to your own voice and write first for yourself and not for the possibility of success. But the reasons I write don’t always result in something you want to read, and that can be uniquely discouraging, especially given my felt need to make everyone as excited as I am about those cinematic tricks I like to focus on.
Indifference is worse than hate
At the beginning of my post on spoilers I cited the “crippling self-doubt that accompanies pressing the publish button on the new post page.” I’ve never been the most confident person, and so starting a blog meant overcoming the fear that someone was going to tear me apart every time I posted something new, the anxiety that what I had just posted is incredibly stupid and that someone is waiting out there just to point that out. I read a number of advice posts that encouraged new bloggers to just keep writing and posting no matter the quality of the work in order to gain experience or find their voice, that it wasn’t necessary to post only masterworks as long as you keep posting. It’s perfectly good advice, even if it doesn’t help to silence that particular brand of self-doubt I cited.
New posts always come with the nagging anxiety that I’m going to be called out for something I’ve written. My post on the Black Widow controversy produced the greatest degree of trepidation since it weighed into a delicate and deeply felt issue that was very much on the minds of social commentators.
But after six months I’ve discovered that indifference is far worse than hate. I’d much rather have someone try and tell me that I’m wrong, to engage with my writing, even in disagreement, than to not engage with it at all.
Must love social media
Perhaps the commonest piece of advice for new bloggers is to optimize your presence on social media. Use the existing network of friends and followers you have to publicize your blog, and join new sites to find new readers or likeminded bloggers.
I’m not the biggest fan of social media. Before I began blogging I was only on Facebook after having resisted joining the site for years, and only giving in to ensure I didn’t lose touch with the friends I had made in my Master’s program after graduation.
I joined Twitter because one of my friends – herself a successful blogger – incredulously asked how else I was going to promote my blog when I said I wasn’t going to join the site.
One of the reasons that post on sequelitis got so many views is that someone with far more Twitter followers than me retweeted it, and someone with far more Facebook friends than me posted a link to it on their timeline. All the advice posts aside, that alone convinced me of the power of social media to direct people to my blog, and I remain thankful to those two people for using their social media presence to do so.
Social media is still something of a struggle for me. It takes a surprising amount of energy to produce the kind of casual humor and pithy insight I admire in other people’s Twitter feeds. I find I rarely have anything to tweet, and a profile that does nothing but post links to my blog seems too obviously self-serving. As Peg Fitzpatrick argues, “social media isn’t just for blasting your blog posts, you need to build a well-rounded presence so people can get to know you.” I’ve always had a little trouble with self-promotion. It’s not the result of shyness – I would probably describe myself as a situational extrovert – but I’ve always been as uncomfortable with praise as I am with singing my own praises. It may have something to do with the aforementioned crippling self-doubt.
I understand the necessity of social media, but can’t seem to develop a feel for it. The length of my blog posts alone should make why I’m not the best at using Twitter pretty obvious: I can rarely be described as “pithy.”
Where perseverance meets passion
Perseverance is the common thread that runs through almost all the tips for new bloggers I’ve read. “Most bloggers give up in three to six months,” Joel Runyon warns, “and most of the ones who ‘make’ it, simply last longer than the others.” Setting a posting schedule and sticking to it can help build up a body of work, he advises, suggesting that consistency should be prioritized in order to keep blogging and getting better at blogging.
Posting on a regular basis will certainly help keep a blog alive, but it can turn writing into a chore. I initially posted something new pretty much once a week. Sometimes I would have three or four posts written in a couple of days and could dole them out on a regular schedule, and at other times I had to search for something to write about and then hammer out a post to ensure I got something out each week.
In the last few months I’ve posted far less often. My decrease in production is partially the result of other demands on my time, and partially the realization that writing for myself means writing when I feel the need to write. While a couple of the posts I’ve written for the purpose of having something to post have gotten more hits than pieces that I was really passionate about, I have the sneaking suspicion that readers can tell when your heart’s not in what you write. For the most part I write because I have to, there’s something that needs putting down on paper – or in pixels. My particular brand of fannish excitement needs an outlet, but scheduling is built on the ideals of consistency and perseverance, not passion.
Bloggers aren’t baseball players
It’s easy to become obsessed with your stats page. There’s something uniquely satisfying about watching the number of hits on a post tick up or getting new followers, but the flip side of that satisfaction is an equally potent disappointment when those numbers don’t materialise.
Analytics can tell you a lot about how your blog is doing, about where readers are coming from, and about the efficacy of your social media presence. I get a thrill out of seeing where my readers are from. Every time I get a hit from a new country I say to myself, “Hello first person from country X.” Everyone is aware of the global extent of the internet, but it’s strange to think of your own writing reaching people on other continents, as that little map on the stats page gets shaded in.
But if you’re just starting out, or have a very small readership, becoming preoccupied with stats can be a distraction.
I love baseball. As a Canadian, and the daughter of someone who sold programs at Maple Leaf Gardens – the legendary original home of the Toronto Maple Leafs – when he was a kid, it may come as a surprise that I was raised on that game and not hockey. I enjoyed watching the game as a kid – the crack of the bat from a good hit is still one of the most satisfying sounds in sport – but as an adult I began to understand its complexity, how every at bat is a chess match of managing expectations, of the pitcher and catcher knowing what the batter can do, and of the batter knowing what the pitcher can do. Stats are an important part of that chess match, and baseball thrives on analytics.
But sometimes the proliferation of stats can become just plain absurd. My sister and I have a running competition that will never be won for the most obscure, complexly layered, situationally specific stat mentioned in a game.
Bloggers aren’t baseball players. If your stats aren’t helping you write better or increase your traffic, if they’re not helping you get more hits (if you’ll excuse the pun), stop looking at them.
6 months and counting
All this might seem slightly gloomy.
But don’t worry, this isn’t a letter of resignation.
I continue to be passionate about cinema, and writing about film remains the best way of feeding that passion. While advice to new bloggers often centers on passion – finding your passion and writing about it, letting it shine through your posts – it often comes in the form of homily-like simplicity. For David Meerman Scott, “if you are passionate about the subject and you want to share your passion with the world, you’ll likely do great. If it is ‘just work’ you’ll likely fail.” It’s sound advice, but for me, while passion may be a driving force that makes me want to succeed, it is not a means of achieving that success.
Unless your aim is to build a million-post-a-month blog that can be immediately monetized, turning you into a millionaire, passion is the only thing you need to worry about. It won’t increase your traffic, get you more followers on Twitter, or serve as a panacea for any of the disappointments that come with not building a readership, but it’s the best litmus test for whether or not you should keep blogging.
Canadian film producer Robert Lantos once came to my college to give a talk on his experience in the industry. His speech was oddly and refreshingly lacking in the type of homilies designed to encourage perseverance that are normally delivered to students at the cusp of entering any industry, let alone one as difficult to break into as film. Getting into the industry, becoming successful and staying successful is difficult, he said, so if you can do something else, do it. Only get into cinema if “you can’t do anything else.”
I’m dedicated to learning about cinema because I can’t do anything else, and part of that dedication means continuing to write about it.
I suppose you could sum that up as “following my passion,” and argue that I’m just repeating the very advice I found lacking.
But I won’t claim that passion will automatically lead to success. And I won’t deny that it can be as crippling as it is motivating.
Passion is not a sufficient condition for success, but it may very well be a necessary one.
Even after six months of self-doubt and discouragement, it’s enough to tip the scales.