Leveraging the Internet for Your Writing
From my notes for a presentation this afternoon at the Western Reserve Writers Conference at Lakeland Community College:
Every writer, novice to master, should maintain some form of web presence, the more substantial the better. At the very least, that should include a page or two with your credits, background and contact information. It should provide a sense of your style and distinguish you from others who wield a pen or word processor. If it also includes a handful of examples of your best work, published or not, so much the better. I can promise you this: it will make you feel more serious about your own writing aspirations and invite others to do so as well. Through the power of search technologies such as Google and the web’s unique linking structure, you will also substantially increase your likelihood of serendipity. You’ll find that, done right, even a modest web strategy will help writing opportunities find you rather than you always having to search for them. Not a bad idea in any line of work, but especially helpful in writing.
Weblogs, or blogs for short, are an excellent way to establish that web presence. These easily updatable online journals or sites allow anyone to instantly publish to the web, and you needn’t have any particular Internet skills to do so. What do they do? Whatever you want them to do. You can use it as a way to stretch your muscles and try new things. Experiment with new topics, new voices or approaches. If you’re a fiction writer, you can take a stab at nonfiction, or vice versa. If you’re a journalist, you can try some poetry. You can choose to tell people it exists, or wait until you feel ready to unveil it. You can be more ambitious, treating it as your own online publication, written for an audience. Even if you’re an advanced writer with decades of experience, blogs are a way to steadily widen your audience, engage more people (including new editors) and show more of what you can do and have done. You can share links to new articles and other publications, maintain an archive of earlier work, announce and sell your books (or even branded merchandise, if you like) and inform folks about your workshop appearances. In short, it’s a great method for building a community around your work. Unlike a static writers’ website, it screams out for readers to return periodically to your site to read about what’s new.
Other Benefits That Will Surprise You
If you want it to, having a blog will instantly connect you to a dense network of fellow writers, thinkers, readers, doers and seekers. This group of highly engaged people can become a community of practice for you and your writing that will sustain and support you in your efforts. That’s critical for every writer, from the greenest novice to the most experienced master wordsmith, because writing can be, but need not be, the loneliest calling/profession/hobby/pursuit (choose one or more that applies to you). Through blogging, you can, should you so choose, join a large ongoing discussion, or many discussions, that will stimulate your curiosity and imagination, challenge your intellect and ultimately inform and nourish your writing. It will stretch your writing horizons and possibly erase geographic boundaries. It could bring you a few (or perhaps many) international readers, and might just even get you hired for a writing gig simply because someone liked what they read and wanted more.
My friend and fellow blogger, Sandy Piderit, a professor of management at the Case Western Reserve Weatherhead School of Business, once explained to her students why she recommended they blog. It remains one of the best explanations I’ve seen of why smart people should experiment with the form, and it applies doubly for those who write, or who want to begin:
Reflecting carefully on your own thinking is a very important skill to cultivate. Whether you are planning to enter management or any other professional field, your learning will not end on the day you graduate from college. You will need to engage in lifelong learning, which involves developing a sense of how to sort through different sources of information and distinguish between facts, well-reasoned judgments or conclusions, and poorly supported opinions. To encourage you to develop this skill in reflecting carefully on your own thinking, this course blogging assignment will challenge you to go beyond simply stating your opinion, or quoting a source that you respect and accepting its assertions at face value…Developing your skill in articulating and advocating for your beliefs will help you become a more effective manager or professional.
Just substitute “student” for “writer” or “aspiring writer” in that passage, and you have all the reasons you would ever need to begin a blog. Because, after all, writing is essentially a form of lifelong learning, in which you learn about a subject (through research and reporting) before sharing the fruits of that learning with others, through the vehicle of your writing.
Getting Down to Brass Tacks
Okay: so let’s say for the sake of argument that I’ve convinced you to consider beginning your own blog. How do you do it? There are a number of online publishing platforms through which you can publish your blog. But perhaps the best, easiest one can be found at www.blogger.com. It’s owned by Google, is simple and generally reliable, and best of all, it’s completely free (though they’ll be happy to sell you upgrades with more bells and whistles). Actually, believe it or not, there’s something even better than the fact that it’s free: you don’t have to know a thing about web technology to set one up yourself and to maintain it. If you can figure out the Microsoft Word program, you can follow Blogger’s highly intuitive prompts and in about 10 minutes set up your own blog. You’ll just have to give yourself a password, decide the look you’d prefer by choosing from among several page templates, decide what to call your blog and if you’ll want to allow visitors to post comments. And bingo--you’ll be in business, ready to become your own publisher. If you need help, just ask. I’ll be happy to walk you through the process.
Examples of Good Writer’s Sites
For writers, a static website and a blog need not be, in fact should not be, thought of as either-or propositions. Ideally, they work together, complementing each other. Consider these examples:
www.gladwell.com (prominent New Yorker writer whose simple but attractive site is often copied)
www.ruhlman.com (local writer – note the similarities to Gladwell’s site)
www.kristinohlson.com (accomplished local writer with an especially attractive site)
www.richardmontanari.com (local writer with an enthusiastic international following)
www.dynamist.com (writer Virginia Postrel’s site, which nicely highlights her many sides)
* Please note: Malcolm Gladwell and Kristin Ohlson have both recently begun a blog, a link to which you’ll find on their sites. Michael Ruhlman includes a link to a prominent blog on which he has posted as a guest blogger. And Virginia Postrel, who has maintained a blog for years, is one of the better examples of a writer who uses simple but elegant design and site architecture to visually differentiate the many facets of her writing life, while simultaneously emphasizing how they converge.