If a blog falls in the forest…

I was asked yesterday if a Microsoft IT Pro has to be a good writer to blog. I said no, what do you think?

Keep in mind that whatever level your writing skill is right now, it will improve as you write more. So, my advice is dive in and learn as you go. You can read some tips here.

A well known Microsoft blogger offered me this advice, which I think trumps writing "style" issues:

  1. Keep in mind, a blog posting can go from 2 readers to 2 million readers overnight.
  2. Be passionate, be authoritative. One indicator of passion is posting frequency. If you are an expert on something and blog about it with authority - make sure your blog shares plenty of that information. For example, if you work in a Data Center, share a little tip each day, a way of reducing monitoring task burdens, a way of automating installs, information customers cannot get in a ResKit.
  3. Read blogs before you start. To understand what you like and don't like, and to understand your reader - you should install an RSS aggregator and read 20-30 blogs for 2-3 weeks.

In my former job at Microsoft when I interviewed technical writers I would ask them "How do you define good technical writing"?

I got many interesting answers. The one I wanted to see included somewhere in the list is "appropriate to the audience." For example, when writing technical documentation to a mass end-user audience, you make certain assumptions, and style guidelines tell you things like "don't overuse three-letter acronyms (TLA)." However, when writing to a technical audience like IT Pros we assume TLAs are OK, in fact, preferred.

Then there is the "make it personal" advice. My advice is this - don't worry about it. How can your writing be anything other than personal? When you write about things you are passionate about, you are making it personal. I think the issue again comes back to - know your audience. If the readers of your blog let you know they really don't care for non-technical posts about your (so called) "personal life" - then consider posting those on another blog like spaces.msn.com. If your readers give you feedback that they like what you do - do more of that. DO consider the difference between blogging and journaling, and be clear on which one you are doing.

Steve Farber, in his book on extreme leadership, gives this advice:“Communicate yourself, your humanity. Don’t just recite your company’s vision statement, talk in your own words. Talk to people about your ideas for the future, and ask for theirs. Be the person you are. Forget your title, forget your position, and speak from your heart. Talk not only of your hopes for the future, but also about your foibles today. Vulnerability aids human connection, and connection is the conduit for energy. Pretense of invincibility builds walls and creates distance between human hearts.”

Try thinking of it this way - the commodity we are trading in is the reader's attention. If you give them what they want, they will give you their attention. Once you have that, you can work on your other goals, be it relationship building, information exchange, education, whatever. You can measure (perhaps indirectly) the attention you are getting to help you adjust your blogging habits.

Viral Marketing is another relevant buzz-phrase here. Consider the following clip from http://www.myneweconomy.com/articles/210703/buzz.htm

Shelby Coffey, a shy, blond 10-year-old in suburban Atlanta, loves BellyWashers. Really. There are 45 of the cartoon-character juice bottles in a place of honor on a shelf above her desk. There's a scarce Sylvester, a rare Blossom, and the much sought-after green Power Ranger.

But Shelby is more than just a collector. With 15 young friends, she has organized a BellyWashers club to do community-service projects. They visit children's hospitals to pass out BellyWashers at Christmas, clean city parks under a BellyWashers banner, and donate proceeds of their yard sales to disadvantaged children. Over the past year, Shelby has amassed a five-inch-thick binder of pictures and newspaper clippings documenting her work on behalf of the brand. Local TV stations have filmed her good deeds. The kicker: She does it all for free. "It's been lots of fun," says the fifth grader.

Shelby is a buzz machine, the sort of hyperdevoted customer that marketers dreams of. As traditional media channels fragment and consumers zap commercials quicker than you can say TiVo, more companies are looking to harness the power of buzz. "Word of mouth has superseded any form of paid advertising, in terms of influence," says Marian Salzman, chief strategy officer at Euro RSCG Worldwide and author of Buzz: Harness the Power of Influence and Create Demand (John Wiley, 2003). Personal recommendations, she says, have become far more reliable and authentic than conventional hype.

The best way to learn something is to teach it. When you write about a topic, you learn that you don’t know some stuff, or have to go check/verify some stuff. Not only have you helped all of your readers by this effort, but you also benefit and your understanding of the topic will improve.

And there is this advice on Eric Gunnerson's Blog
Can you write?
Or, to put it more succinctly, can you write well in a reasonable amount of time without driving yourself and the people around you crazy.
Before you can get a signed contract, you need to be able to demonstrate this to your publisher (unless you're a big name draw, and the publisher is willing to pay for editing and/or a ghostwriter).
To find out whether this is feasible for you, you need to do some writing, and then you need to have an audience read the writing and give you constructive feedback. Writing is a skill, and over time you should be able to develop techniques that work will with your target audience.
Good ways to practice:

  • Write a blog. Book writing is not like blog writing, but it's a good, cheap way to practice, and a great way to get quick and easy feedback.
  • Write articles for an online programer's site - something like CodeProject.
  • Write an article for MSDN
  • Answer questions on newsgroups or message boards

Finally, consider making it easier for readers to find your blog while writing. See 10 Tips here for making your blog a little easier for search engines to find. What do you think? Can you point me to well-written blogs? Poorly written ones? Does the writing style matter to IT Pros as long as the technical information is good and useful? Post a comment and let us know.

Comments (3)

  1. Anonymous says:

    Tony writes about writing for blogs — it is good advice.  I am going to follow it. 

  2. What makes a good blog? says:

    A little while ago, tonyso wrote a post entitled If a blog falls in the forest…

  3. Ian Smith says:

    Actually I generally find those bloggers who post less frequently (but have a much better signal to noise ratio) are the only ones I subscribe to directly. Scott Hanselman is a good example. Robert Scoble is probably the exception that proves the rule, just because he has so much blog information I wouldn’t otherwise stumble across, at his fingertips (and he keeps his entries relevant and short).

    We’re in a world of information overload and while a Tip of the Day every day would certainly work it seems to me that’s not how the vast majority of blogs I’m reading via various aggregators are being written. Reading tens, if not hundreds, of daily entries all saying "Check out Rory and Scott’s TechEd video" or "I had a difficult journey into work today" or "Here’s a picture of the cat" are the sorts of things that make me think I’m wasting way too much time reading blogs. The problem is the basic premise seems to be "It’s all about me" which covers too many areas that I as a blog reader will not want to waste time reading. Targeted blogs are what’s most important – if it’s a technical blog, keep it technical please! And check what other bloggers on the same host are saying so that we don’t get the same "news" posted over and over and over again.

    For my part I’m actually going to blog just once a week – at the weekend when I actually have time to review the previous week – and typically that blog entry will be "The Best of the Blogs – reading through all the crap so you don’t have to!" with links to the entries I found useful and might want to refer back to later.

    I completely agree with your other points though. Nice post!

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