Six Lessons I Could Only Learn by Letting my Blog go 524

It was a little painful to read Darren Rowse’s series of posts on letting your blog go. It hit a nerve with me for reasons that are probably self-evident: in the last four months there have only been eight new posts at Skelliewag. In this post I want to explain some of the important lessons I learned by letting my blog go, and how these lessons will help me approach the future.

Reflecting on that time I’ve realized that there are always deeper reasons for letting a blog go than ‘I don’t have the time’. I’ve learned that the way you use your time reveals your true priorities, even if they aren’t the priorities you acknowledge.

This article is, surprisingly, a positive one. It doesn’t benefit anyone for me to make excuses for my own personal situation, but I’m sure some of you are going through a similar phase and struggling to keep your blog regularly updated. Maybe you’ll see yourself in some of the lessons I learned.

1. You should allow your blog to evolve to match the challenges you set yourself.

One of the most important things every blogger should do when preparing to launch their first (or second, or third) blog is to decide on what you want to achieve with it. If you want to make money from AdSense ads about HDTVs then you’re going to be taking a very different path to someone who wants to become a life coach, for example. Your content and approach will need to be radically different.

However, though it’s essential to plot your route into the future, it’s also equally essential that you allow your goals to shift and realign as your blog evolves. After a time I found that trying to raise my subscriber count ad infinitum was not as rewarding as I expected it to be, but I never properly acknowledged this so I could work on finding new markers to aim towards. I was afraid of changing a formula that seemed to be working well, but the formula had become out of step with new priorities. As a result, following a pattern that no longer seemed authentic led to a drop in enthusiasm for blogging.

2. Sometimes you should break rules.

If you dedicate all your time to optimizing your content in a certain way, using all the right formulas and sticking within clearly defined topics, you’re shackling your creativity. This isn’t to suggest you should ignore the best practices for growing a popular blog–far from it–but it’s also important to step outside the rules sometimes, exercise your creativity and be confident that your readers will stick with you.

Write about a topic you’ve never covered before, experiment with a different voice, break conventions, forget about Digg and StumbleUpon for one post (or several) and write the post you would most enjoy writing. Allow yourself to do this regularly and be fearless about it–particularly when you sense that you’ve been letting your blog go. This is a sign that your writing process needs to be re-invigorated.

2. Sometimes you need to find new challenges.

If you do let your blog go, whether it’s for a week or several months, there’s a reason for it. Boredom is a poor reason, as a blog post begins as a blank screen and the possibilities are limitless. If you feel bored, you’re probably needlessly constraining yourself, and you need to approach your content from a completely new angle. If you’ve ever felt sick of a room in your house and re-arranged everything inside it so it feels ‘new’, you need to do the same thing to your blogging routine.

I suspect the most common cause for letting a blog go is feeling like there’s not enough time to blog. Strangely enough, you may simultaneously be finding time to work, watch television, pursue other projects and play the guitar (or your hobby of choice). Each of us has a long list of priorities and not enough time to do everything on that list. Certain things may consistently fall into the nether regions (or ‘no time’) area of that list, like mowing the lawn, doing your taxes, and blogging. What this really means is that blogging has slipped down towards the bottom of that list. Either things that were once below it have moved up, knocking it down, or new things have been added above it, squeezing it out. If you don’t have time, the truth is that blogging is no longer a high priority for you.

The way we prioritize something is determined both by how much we have to gain by doing it and how much we have to lose by not doing it. Sometimes our reasons for giving blogging a lower priority are very good. We may have just taken a new job, had a baby, needed to care for someone who became sick (maybe ourselves) or gone on vacation. Alternately, you may find the rewards of blogging have become less and the rewards of something else have become more, or that you’re experiencing both these things at once. At this point, you need to either: a) increase the rewards of blogging by shifting your goals so that blogging becomes a higher priority or b) accept that you have decided to put blogging on the back-berner for now and that you will accept the consequences. Sometimes it’s not possible to do everything you want at once, and sometimes you need to experience a degree of failure in one area to experience a success in another.

3. Allow yourself to explore new topics and be confident your readers will come along for the ride.

If you write several times a week on your blog and cover a set array of topics, there’ll come a time when you publish a post and are then struck by the feeling that you’ve restated something you’ve said before, only couched in different terms. This is not very inspiring. Interestingly enough, your readers may not remember your past content as well as you do, and more recent readers may need to be introduced to some of your foundational ideas for the first time.

While it’s certainly OK to repeat yourself sometimes, it will also be necessary that you widen your focus slowly and surely as the amount of content on your blog increases.

This isn’t to suggest that I should feel free to start writing about moisturizer (though I have been asked, believe it or not) and that you should feel free to write about rock collecting. Instead, the topics you branch into should be strongly linked to the topics you’re already covering. If you’re tired of writing about just web design, branch into writing about web development as well. If you’re sick of writing about iPhones all the time, start writing about iPods as well. By keeping the topics related but different you can guarantee most of your readers will find the expansion relatively seamless.

4. Don’t set unnecessary boundaries.

When I started Skelliewag I had never heard the term passive income and had not read widely on earning an income through web content. I tended to deride advertising when I mentioned it, and was very proud that was ad-free. If I’m honest, this is easier to do when you know you wouldn’t be making money anyway. Fast-forward to 5,000 subscribers and decent traffic and the stance becomes a lot more meaningful. My enjoyment of clean side-bars now requires a sacrifice of between $600 and $1000 a month, and I suspect that throughout Skelliewag’s lifespan I’ve sacrificed more than $5,000 in the name of no banner ads.

In hindsight this strikes me as kind of silly, but I was petrified that if I introduced banner ads there would be some kind of revolt. It took a surprisingly long time to ask the ever-useful question: “How would I feel if someone else did the same thing?” I wouldn’t care. I believe everyone else has a right to be rewarded for hard work, so it’s strange that I wouldn’t apply the same standards to myself. This means that sometime in the future there will be banner ads in the sidebar at Skelliewag (I’ll most likely wait a month or more until traffic returns to normal levels), and that you probably won’t be too bothered by it.

6. Write for yourself.

This sounds trite–and in a way it is–but this is the simplest way to say it. The person/entity you should be pleasing before social media, before other bloggers and even before your readers is yourself. A big chunk of what makes content remarkable is the sense that the blogger loved creating it. Once you lose that, the other stuff becomes less effective. In fact, if you have to choose between enjoying yourself and writing according to proven social media formulas, choose to enjoy yourself. You might be surprised at the results, both for your enjoyment of blogging and the growth your blog experiences.

How does this reflect on the future?

I’ll be branching into a broader range of topics: blogging as a business model, online business, case studies, effective user-interfaces, websites as a business model, more on social media and web trends in addition to all the topics I’ve covered in the past.

The style of content will be more varied. Some posts will be quite short, others will be very long, others will fall somewhere in-between, and the frequency will depend how inspired I am in any given week (though I would love to write at least three articles a week, which I will be surpassing by one post this week).

As you can see, I’ve simplified and broadened the categories list. The archives are now completely up to date and managed by a plug-in (trying to do it myself was doomed to failure, and I’m not quite sure what brought on that bright idea). The blog has a new header and I’ve tweaked a few other aspects of the design. I’ll be treating the blog more like an online business which will hopefully allow me to make more time for creating content and re-investing in new features. Most importantly, I’m excited to jump back into blogging and excited about the months ahead.

If you feel like you are letting your blog go, or if you start to feel that way in future, hopefully this post will be something you can learn from.

Am I going to promise that things have now returned to normal? No, I’m not. I think the content I have written and planned for the coming days and weeks will speak for itself. I hope you’ll be there to listen.

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