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Blogging is the new national pastime–not just for
Americans, but for Internet-connected people all over the world. It’s an
activity that spans all age groups and occupations. There are personal blogs,
social blogs, and professional blogs. Whatever the topic, someone has probably blogged it. Some of us get paid to blog and others pay for
the privilege of blogging (on a particular site or with particular software).

The Internet made it possible for anyone to publish content
to a worldwide audience. The Web log, or blog format, has made it easier and
more convenient. But all blogs are not created equal. Some draw an eager
following and others languish in obscurity. Regardless of your reason for
blogging, you can make your blog better, more readable and–if it’s what you
want–more popular.

#1: Define your purpose

The first step in creating a better blog is to ask yourself
why you’re blogging. What’s the purpose of your blog? Is it to be a public
version of the personal diary, recounting your experiences, thoughts, and
emotions? Is it more of a journal, where you preserve ideas and outline
projects? Is it a social site, for interacting with friends, sharing links,
getting to know people? Is it an editorial page, for commentary on politics,
social trends, and current events? Is it a professional or hobbyist site, for
sharing conceptual and how-to information about some field of study or work
(e.g., aviation, computer programming, or photography)?

Sure, you can have “just a blog” that combines
elements of all of these, but you may find that readers prefer you to specialize.
If you want to write about your field of expertise sometimes and your favorite
political party at other times, it might be beneficial to maintain two separate
blogs to avoid alienating or boring your readers half the time.

Speaking of readers, an important element in defining your
purpose is to know your audience. That will help you determine the voice and
writing style that’s appropriate for those you’re addressing. You probably wouldn’t
use the same style when writing to stock car race fans that you’d use if your
audience were made up primarily of stock market brokers.

In keeping with your blog’s
purpose, you should have a defined theme. For example, if the purpose of your
blog is to express political opinions, the theme might be to promote a low-tax,
nonintrusive government.

#2: Create visual appeal

Content isn’t the only thing that matters. Your blog site
should also be visually appealing, or at least visually neutral. You don’t want
to scare away prospective readers or have them leave in frustration because the
page is distracting or unreadable.

The best visual design for the page is dependent in part on
your audience and theme. You can use color, font styles, and graphics to set
the mood and tone–just make sure the tone matches the content. Whatever your
theme, it’s best to avoid dark letters on a dark background, tiny or overly
fancy typefaces, and other elements that make your blog hard to read.

If your blog is hosted on a public blog site, you may be
limited in how much you can change the design, but there will usually be a
number of preconfigured visual themes you can choose from. Keep audience appeal
and readability in mind when selecting one.

#3: Use the proper tools

You can create a blog using any WYSIWYG HTML editor, such as
FrontPage (soon to be replaced by Microsoft Expression Web Designer),
Macromedia Dreamweaver, or the Amaya
open source editor endorsed by W3C. You can even use a text editor like Notepad
to compose the HTML code.

However, blogging is made much easier, faster, and more
convenient if you use a dedicated blogging program or the features of a
blogging Web site that lets you compose posts in the Web browser or via e-mail.

If your blog is hosted on a free public blog site, such as Blogger or Windows Live Spaces, you can write your posts in
your e-mail client and send them to a special address you’re given when you
create your account. For many, this is the easiest way to post, although it
doesn’t show you the formatting.

Another alternative is to use a blog program such as WordPress, Movable Type, Post2Blog, or Windows Live Writer,
which offer various useful features. For example, Windows Live Writer (free
download at http://windowslivewriter.spaces.live.com/)
lets you put a button on the toolbar in IE so that if you want your blog to
reference a Web site you’re visiting, you can highlight the text you want to
quote and click Blog It. This opens Live Writer and inserts the link and the
quoted text in your blog. You can publish to your blog on Live Spaces or other
popular blogs with a single click.

#4: Make it easy to navigate

If you’re designing your blog site from scratch, it’s
important to make it easy for readers to get around and do what they want to
do. For instance, if you’re using comments and RSS feeds, make sure it’s clear
to readers how to post a comment or subscribe to the feed.

You should also make it easy for readers to find past posts.
Make sure archives are organized logically–not just in chronological order but
in categories to make it easier to find particular posts.

If your blog is hosted on a public blog site, you can
usually change the arrangement of page elements, add or eliminate elements
(often called modules), and otherwise influence the navigability of the page.
Keep clutter to a minimum but be sure to include the elements that readers need.

Make your site searchable, if possible, so users can find
posts using keywords. You can put a free Google search box on your site (for
more information, see http://www.google.com/searchcode.html#both).

#5: Stay in one place

Many bloggers experiment with different blog hosting sites
and/or with hosting their own sites, especially early on in their blogging
experience. It may take you awhile to find the best setup, but try to do so as
soon as possible and then stay in one place so your readers can find you.
Moving around to different URLs too often is sure to lose you some readers.

If you have an established blog and it’s necessary to move
it to a different address, try to publish a last post on the old blog that
points readers to the new blog and leave it up as long as possible.

#6: Engage your readers

Perhaps the most important factor in attracting and keep
readers is establishing a relationship with them. Even interesting content is
rendered less interesting if we don’t know who’s talking (writing) to us. Tell
your readers who you are and something about yourself.

You need not go into a lot of personal details if your blog
is political or professional, and in some cases you may not even want to reveal
your real name (especially, for example, if you’re posting derogatory
information about your employer or the police chief in your small town). But
don’t just remain nameless; give readers a pseudonym by which to identify you
and tell them generalities about yourself that will lend you credibility
without blowing your cover. For instance, you might say that you’re a
middle-age male who lives in Texas and has worked in the telecommunications
industry.

If you don’t have a reason to keep your identity confidential,
you may be able to benefit (attract the attention of headhunters in your field,
become recognized as an expert in a particular area, etc.) by using your real
name and providing contact information.

Regardless of whether you reveal your true identity, you can
engage readers by interacting with them through the comments feature or by
providing an e-mail address and responding to their input. You can, of course,
use a free Webmail address or other alternative to
your primary address if you want to protect your identity and/or avoid spam.

Engaging readers involves winning their trust and thinking
of the reader first. If you make claims, back them up with cites and links. If
possible, don’t link to sites that require a subscription or even free registration
(or if you must, warn readers).

#7: Establish a blogging schedule

Blog readers are a fickle bunch. Once you’ve drawn an
audience, they expect to find new content when they visit your blog. That
doesn’t mean you have to post every day, but you should establish a minimum
blogging schedule and stick to it. Let readers know, preferably in a static
text box at the top of your blog page, that you will update the blog daily,
weekly, on Mondays and Fridays, or whatever. Then do it–even if some of your
posts aren’t particular profound or long. Readers will abandon your blog if
they think you’ve abandoned them.

If you need to deviate from your schedule (for example,
you’re going on vacation for two weeks or you’ll be in the hospital or you have
a family or job emergency), let readers know that you won’t be posting at the
regular time and give them an idea of when you’ll be back.

#8: Keep it concise

Speaking of posts that aren’t particularly profound or long,
don’t think you have to wait until you have something brilliant to say before
you post or put off posting because you don’t have time to write War and Peace today. In truth, most
readers have short attention spans and/or crowded schedules themselves and
would prefer to read a short, pithy post rather than a long, complex one.

If you do post lengthy pieces, break them up into short
paragraphs to make them more readable. There’s nothing more daunting to a
reader than a huge mass of unbroken text, no matter how skillful your turn of
phrase.

You’ll also attract more readers with common words than with
obscure ones, so unless you’re writing for a particularly scholarly audience,
follow the old KISS advice: Keep it simple, sweetheart.

#9: Proofread before publishing

Even if you’re an English professor, it’s easy to end up
with typographical errors, misspellings, and grammatical flaws in your posts if
you don’t proofread before you hit the Publish button. Especially if you’re
writing in the heat of passion or inspiration, your typing fingers can get
ahead of your thoughts and cause words to be omitted or transposed, commas to
appear in the wrong places, or sentences to become garbled.

Maybe you pride yourself on not adhering strictly to the rules, but presumably, you still want
your readers to understand what you’re saying. That complex sentence that
seemed so brilliant in composition may read a little awkwardly once you see it
on the screen.

It’s difficult to catch mistakes in your own writing,
because you tend to fill in what you thought you typed, rather than see what’s
really there. This is particularly true immediately after writing. If possible,
have someone else proofread your post before you publish it. Otherwise, let it
“cool off” for an hour or a day so you can approach it with a more objective
proofreader’s eye.

And although it’s best to catch mistakes before they’re
published, one huge advantage of Web content is that, unlike print copy, it’s
easy to change if you discover a problem after publication.

#10: Go syndicate yourself

You don’t have to wait for readers to come to your blog
every day or every week. Instead, you can take your blog to them. Use RSS to
feed your new blog posts to readers who sign up. This makes it easier for your
readers, who don’t have to remember to visit your blog Web site to check for
new posts–and whatever makes it easier for readers is good for authors. You
can syndicate just your post titles, short summaries, or entire posts.

Most public blog hosting sites give you the option to
syndicate your blog, and it’s usually as easy as clicking a button or two in
the configuration interface. If you want to syndicate your self-hosted Web
site, see http://www.xul.fr/en-xml-rss.html
for more information.