“So You Think You Can Blog?” Advice for New Bloggers


In September of 2015 one of my posts went viral. I had been blogging almost daily for four years and had built up a loyal and amazing group of readers. The law of averages could have predicted that given the sheer number of pieces I was writing, at some point one of them would get picked up. Of course it was the post that I spent fifteen minutes on instead of a week. The piece is Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis and to date it has been shared on Facebook 596 thousand times. (596,000) That being said my first piece of advice is Do not blog because you want to go viral. No. NO. NOO. That’s not why you blog. You pick a reason, and you stick with it. I wanted to repost this piece because in the last week I’ve spoken to at least 20 people who want to start a blog.

So this is for you who are beginning this journey.

It’s the new year and last night you had a blast of inspiration – as you were thinking about 2014, you suddenly realized you wanted to start a blog.

That’s what happened to me in 2011. And it’s one of the best activities I’ve ever started.

So there’s some things that I want to pass on to you who are beginning this journey in 2014.

  1. Keep it real. Be yourself – don’t try to blog about something you don’t know. Your blog will attract people who are interested in the subject, they’ll stay connected because they begin to like you, your style, your writing. Don’t try to be someone or something you’re not. Readers are smart – they’ll figure it out.
  2. Be fully present. In other words — Care about your readers. If readers come to your blog and take time to comment, reply to their comments. There are literally millions of things to read on the internet. They’ve chosen to read you. Be fully present and willing to respond to them. Read the comment well and think about how to respond. Don’t treat comments like discardable, inanimate objects when they come from real, animate people who took the time to put fingers to keyboard and type out words. That being said – watch out for spammers. If they have a dot com website and say inane things like “I have looked all over web and truly I found this site to be quite surprisingly wonderful how do you do it” then don’t approve their comment. They are spam.

Don’t treat comments like discardable, inanimate objects when they come from real, animate people who took the time to put fingers to keyboard and type out words,

3. Connecting happens when you least expect it. Rachel Pieh Jones said this recently “Some posts will resonate with people and some won’t. Sometimes it is surprising to me which way things go. I think a post will fall flat or almost don’t publish it ….and it goes nuts. I think a post is wicked good and it barely raises a flicker on the traffic stats. I’m still trying to figure out what it is that makes a post spread.” Sometimes what you spend the least amount of time on ends up making the biggest impact. There is a mystery to this. Don’t spend too much time analyzing. Just continue connecting and writing.

4. Freshly Pressed is wonderful….but even more wonderful is when the post that didn’t get Freshly Pressed gets some traffic. I was incredibly grateful to WordPress for highlighting 3 of my posts on Freshly Pressed. The two on Egypt were purely because Matt Mullenweg found them. I will always love Matt for this. That he found these posts was a gift and allowed my unknown blog to be seen by a record number of people. What I found however is that readers will arrive from Freshly Pressed, but only a fraction, say five to ten percent, will stay. You want the readers who will stay, the readers who will engage with the piece and each other. 

5. Don’t write controversy for the sake of controversy. It’s tempting to get on the social media circuit with what’s enjoying its fifteen minutes of fame, but there is no staying power in those posts. Once the controversy is over, no one cares about your post anymore. Besides that, there are hundreds of other articles written on the same subject and you are a new blogger so people won’t find your post. You want the post that can be resurrected two years later and still be shared. If you feel strongly about something like this or this, don’t hesitate to write about it, but don’t do it just to get views. It won’t last.

6. Blogging takes time. There are other people in my family that are far better writers than I am. The difference is that I do it. Every. Day. Every day I write an average of 500 words. I can’t tell you any secrets, any suggestions — it’s a bit like the Nike commercial: “Just do it”. Just write. Even if you post once a week, just write. And always, always do the spell and grammar check. All mistakes won’t be caught but a number will and for the rest you will have cousins and friends who take the time and mercy to gently let you know where you erred.

7. Keep posts relatively short. We’re in an age of short attention spans and vying websites. 700 words for a post is ideal. If it will be longer, just warn people to get a cup of tea and sit down. That way they’ll be ready and willing to sit down and spend a bit more time.

8. Keep a note-book on hand. Always. Small moleskin journals are perfect for this. Ideas for blogs will come when you least expect and you can’t always rely on your memory. The idea for this one came while I was sautéing onions to put in an egg dish on New Year’s Day. A note-book where you can write your ideas down is critical to keeping your blogging fresh and real.

9. Promote your blog to non-bloggers. While most people will tell you to connect with other bloggers — and that is great and sound advice — I would also encourage you to try to connect with non-bloggers. Other bloggers are working towards their own blogging goals and audience. The people who don’t blog? They will be a huge encouragement and impetus to write and write well. Use social media of all types to do this – Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest — all of it. Sometimes you’ll connect with people who don’t have a blog but want to write. Encourage them to write by asking them to do guest posts.

10. Have fun with your blog. Above all, have fun. Enjoy learning to craft a post, to put words together, to learn how to respond to others. Don’t do it for the money you think you might make! Making money on a blog takes a long time and more than our allotted 15 minutes of fame. Along with that, you become a slave to the products that you write about. Do it for fun – do it to find your voice – do it to become a better writer – do it to connect – but don’t do it for money.

So you think you can blog? I know you can! And if you just started, leave a comment with a link to your new blog.

Note: WordPress always does some great posts at the beginning of the year encouraging new bloggers or those who want to revive and old blog. Take a look here and here. Rachel Pieh Jones wrote a great post with lessons learned from her last year of blogging. I’ve linked above but if you missed it go here. 

Pick up your copy of Between Worlds – Essays on Culture and Belonging today

This book is a set of essays on living between worlds. It is divided into 7 sections and each section is illustrated by my talented daughter – Annie Gardner. Home, Identity, Belonging, Airports, Grief & Loss, Culture Clash, and Goodbyes set the stage for the individual essays within each section.

Between Worlds is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Through Stefanie’s Eyes – Cairo, 2011

Today I am excited and proud to share the work of my youngest daughter, Stefanie, with my Communicating Across  Boundaries world. Stefanie is an amazing photographer. She captures the world with her lens and I view her works of art, amazed. Enjoy Cairo through Stefanie’s eyes and thanks for taking a look. Have a blessed weekend!

Dull Women Have Immaculate Coffee Tables

This piece was featured on Freshly Pressed at the end of May 2011! Thank you WordPress! 

How many books and magazines does one coffee table need? Turns out our coffee table needs between 25 to 35. Those occasions when I want to create order from chaos in my home I look at our coffee table in despair. Armed with Pledge and a cloth I resolve to decrease the clutter and get to work, determined to have no more than 10 books and magazines by the time I am finished.

And then I begin – there’s Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa, a story that captures the experience of a Palestinian family after 1948. Just the opening sentence is enough to warrant a place on my coffee table.

In a distant time, before history marched over the hills and shattered present and future, before wind grabbed the land at one corner and shook it of its name and character, before Amal was born, a small village east of Haifa lived quietly on figs and olives, open frontiers and sunshine.”

That book definitely stays. I put it back. Then there’s The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah, a humorous, entertaining account of a man who leaves cold, rainy England and relocates his family to sunny Casablanca, Morocco, taking on the daunting task of remodeling a villa. That one stays. It’s a tale that reminds me dreams can come true in the middle of winter.

I move on to 5 copies of the New Yorker Magazine. But they all look so interesting and although my husband has read several articles, I have not,  so I place them back on the table. I’ll get to them this summer.

Jars of Clay and The Day the Chicken Cackled? No way can those two be put away. The first, written by Pauline A. Brown (my mom!), is a reminder of  my heritage on days when it feels threatened. That too has a first sentence that I have memorized and used:

“I take missionaries out and monkeys back and I don’t know which is worse!”- We recognized that voice – the captain of our ship was talking to the captain of a passing ship.”

Through words and images I’m brought into the world my parents experienced as they headed to Pakistan in 1954 and set up a new home in a place they had barely read about, creating a new normal for their young family that would ultimately expand to 7, then 12, then grandchildren and ultimately great grands. The second, penned by Bettie Rose Addleton, gives stories from a life in Pakistan, an intimate look at friendships and customs. Both books are vital to my life and my past. They serve as reference books and challenge me to continue writing this blog and think about writing more.

At this point, I realize I have only gone through 4 books and 5 magazines and have 20 more to consider but I’ve already gone over my self-imposed limit of 10. Sighing I decide that Infections and Inequalities (Paul Farmer); The Dude Abides (Kathleen Falsani); and Songs of Blood and and Sword (an autographed copy from Fatima Bhutto) and my small blue Bible (my lifeline to all of life) all have to stay. Even if read only a chapter at a time, they signify something of our interests and loves.

I make a judgment call realizing it’s the only way I can justify clutter: Dull women have immaculate coffee tables. 

I realize that it’s a losing battle. As much as I want to decrease clutter, these books are like friends and to take them off my coffee table is like taking them out of my life. I realize just how irrational it is as I look at the packed bookshelf directly across from the coffee table. I give up and console myself by paraphrasing a well-known quote.

“Women with immaculate coffee tables rarely make history.”

Update from Cairo: March of a Million

This article was featured on Freshly Pressed. Thank you WordPress!

1:30am Cambridge time – 8:30am Cairo time: Annie update

“Whole families, tons of woman, little kids (really cute!) and not an ounce of anti-American sentiment” were the words my daughter used to describe Tahrir Square.  She went on to say it was the old and young, middle class and wealthy, Copts and Muslims all with a tangible hope of change. She was there for 3 or 4 hours and her excitement was palpable. Tahrir Square – normally an intersection of masses of cars, people, vendors and tourists is now a car-free zone.  She has never seen Tahrir Square so clean as people at the protest have organized clean-up crews.  It is also the safest part of the city and functioning as an autonomous zone surrounded by military.  A journalist friend of hers ,Jack Shenker from the Guardian newspaper, has described the absence of police as a removal of the “fear barrier” and the neighborhood groups continue to function well in their role of protection and order.

She has not experienced a lack of food but says one of the difficulties is  stores closing early because of the curfew beginning daily at 4pm.  She does say it is becoming more difficult to find bottled water.  We laughed as I reminded her that boiling tap water works really well – something she knows from her childhood in Egypt and a kitchen functioning as part kitchen, part sauna with pans of water boiling at any time to make sure our family of 7 had safe drinking water.

There is a desperation to communicate to the west that this is Egypt’s moment – a time where the people have spoken and are continuing to speak.   It is a bit frightening that our country, desperate to promote democracy is promoting democracy hypocrisy, as they remain neutral in the face of an overwhelming majority wanting the step-down of the Mubarak regime.  Is the US policy to promote democracy only when we start the process?  Egyptians she has spoken to voice a hope  for Mohamed ElBaradei who has already formed a leading opposition group with a 10-person committee representing the movement.

I asked if she sees today and the March of a Million gathering to march to the presidential palace as a turning point – “Every day has been a turning point.” Every day people have shown up continued to be motivated and so proud of their fellow Egyptians.”

Asked what she would want to communicate should she have her “tools” available (Twitter, Gmail,Facebook,Blog): “Anyone who believes in true democracy should advocate for Egypt by calling elected officials to apply pressure on Mubarak to resign.  He needs to go, Pray that he goes!”. “Oh and you need to really let people know that women are a key part of this!”

As she continues to witness history in the making, she still ended the conversation by reassuring this mother’s heart with the words “If I see it is not safe, I’ll immediately go home”.

Authors note: Update 1pm  Cambridge  6pm Cairo Wednesday 2.2.11

“Reports from the ground indicate that people are in Tahrir quite literally fighting for their lives right now against government-hired thugs. Additionally, people bringing in medical aid and journalists are getting the crap kicked out of them right now. The Mubarak regime is not stable and it is trying to silence them in the most violent way possible”

In solidarity…May the millions marching find a peaceful resolution. Mr. Obama–a new day dawns, support the people of Egypt. Mr. Mubarak–a new day dawns. Do what is best for your beloved country. – Stolen from a friend who said it better than I could”

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