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

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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.

Home is Where I Feed My Cat and other 2013 Favorites

This past year, in response to a post on Home, a reader who has become an online friend said this:

Home is where I feed my cat.

Home is Where I Feed my Cat

Soon after, she sent the photograph above. Donna is a TCK living in Chicago. She is a thoughtful writer and thinker. This photo and my interactions with Donna illustrate why I love blogging and connecting to those of you who read Communicating Across Boundaries.

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I began blogging three years ago. I remember the day I decided I wanted to write. I was sitting in our living room with my daughter Annie. Annie is an excellent writer and editor. She also knows social media like no one else I know. The conversation went like this:

“I want to blog”

“Okay”

I listed the reasons:

“I want to have a voice. I need a way to process my time in Pakistan. I need to become a better writer. If Sarah Palin has a voice, I need a voice.” 

Annie didn’t dispute any of this. She just gave me good advice. If I wanted to blog I needed to use WordPress not Blogger because it was more user-friendly and professional. I needed to link to social media sites. The blog posts shouldn’t be too long. There was more but the general tenor of the advice was practical and affirming. She didn’t mock or question my motives. She just gave great advice.

And that’s how it all began. 

So today I celebrate my 3rd year and highlight some of what this year held writing wise.

  • I connected with Djibouti Jones and gained a friend, a writing mentor, and a voice that challenges me every time I read something she writes. Rachel did a series on Third Culture Kids this year that I contributed to (probably my most honest piece of writing ever) and one of my all time favorite stories of hers is called God, Giver of Harmonicas. Take a look at it over at She Loves Magazine. I read it aloud to my family last Christmas; I read it aloud again to my family this Christmas.
  • I began writing for A Life Overseas. It has been a joy to connect to this community and to have a regular place to write with a group of people, all with the same goal. Those of us who have a global background struggle with many faith blogs because the point of view is so narrowly western. The purpose of this blog is to connect people who live overseas. I’ll continue writing for them this next year and hope to get involved more on that site. To see posts that I’ve written for them click here.
  • Robynn Bliss began writing regularly for Communicating Across Boundaries. It has been a gift to have her a part of this blog this past year and a writing project is in the works for us.
  • A couple of organizations approached me to use my posts in orientation materials for people who are heading overseas. This was a gift as the requests came at a time when I wondered what business I had in writing at all.
  • I began writing about my faith journey toward Eastern Orthodoxy in a series called The Reluctant Orthodox. This has been a hard thing to do but I think it’s important in my journey of faith, writing, and connecting the two.
  • Lastly – I compiled the most read and shared posts on third culture kids and cross-cultural journeys and sent them to Doorlight Publications with hopes of a late Spring release date. I’m excited to move forward with this project. Next will be a memoir on growing up in Pakistan but this is a first step forward in actually getting these into book form.

Beyond that were Blogging favorites. The most popular posts written in 2013 were these:

My personal favorites were:

Most important because of content:

Finally – here are some things that caught my eye from around the web:

Favorite New Blog: The Link Between – Jody explores many topics from privilege to culture to cross-cultural relationships. Always thoughtful and engaging.

Most challenging post of the year: Silver and Gold on DL Mayfield’s blog Living in the Upside-Down Kingdom. This blog is amazing – this post by Ben Bishop shook me in a way that I haven’t been shaken in a long time.

Funnest Game: What Would I Say developed by some Princeton grad students takes all your Facebook Statuses and generates a status for you. I’t nonsensical and hilarious. Play it with your family – preferably on Facebook.

The one that brought tears to my eyes: The persecuted Christian minority in Pakistan suffered some tragic events. Two bombs going off in a church in Peshawar and a colony burnt down in Lahore were two of the biggest tragedies, but other smaller ones are continually escaping news coverage. This article Human chain formed to protect Christians during Lahore mass showed Muslims and Christians coming together to protect a community.

Favorite recipe blog of all time: Food Lust, People Love by Stacy, a TCK and expat who has lived all over the world. I love that she weaves expat stories into her recipes. Check out her muffin recipes every Monday on Communicating Across Boundaries!

Favorite Book: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I can’t even tell you how much I love this book! Review coming but for now, trust me.

The story that made me cringe: When a Fox news reporter claimed that Jesus was white. On what planet is this true?

All time number one most read piece on Communicating Across Boundaries: Saudade – A Word for the Third Culture Kid. No matter what the day or time, this post that I spent only a few minutes writing continues to be shared. Third Culture Kids need tools, and one of their tools is using words to articulate feelings. I don’t know this, but I’ve a strong suspicion that this is why this post continues to resonate.

And with that long year-end report I’ll say thank you – to really express my gratitude is difficult. I’ve learned and grown much through this process. Thank you for reading and sharing some of our complicated lives alongside Communicating Across Boundaries.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 180,000 times in 2013. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 8 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Culture – Weekly Photo Challenge

Google the word ‘culture’ and over 8 million results will pop up.

As Communicating Across Boundaries readers you know well the concept and the meaning of ‘culture’. As Edward Hall says “Culture is man’s medium”. It’s the way we make decisions, do government, create infrastructure, educational systems, court and marry, raise children. It encompasses all of life. So though I have never opted to take part in the weekly photo challenge hosted by WordPress, this week I had to. Choosing one picture to represent ‘Culture’ does not do the topic justice – but nor would a hundred pictures.

Today I’m posting three pictures that represent ‘culture’ to me. The first two are pictures of spices in spice shops in Cairo and Istanbul. The way the East sells spices is in stark contrast to the way the west sells them: the east in large burlap bags, the pungent aroma wafting through the air causing you to breathe in and sometimes sneeze; the west –  in pristine bottles with efficient labels to sit happily on your shelves. And the way Pakistanis store spices is also a contrast – so that is why I have posted the third picture – My Masala Dabba.

What I wish I could do is have all of you link up pictures that represent culture to you, instead I’ll ask you to use word-pictures. What picture would you post and why?

Culture

spices in baskets

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The Underbelly of the Blogging World

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll the reader sees is the finished product, punctuated by  a picture that reflects the theme of the post. It’s well-groomed and ready for display.

But while housekeeping, indeed spring-cleaning, my soul I was struck by what I will call the ‘underbelly’ of the blogging world. I was convicted of how caught I have been in this underbelly – like a floundering insect entangled in the beautiful but deadly web of a spider.

For those of you who are not bloggers, which is most of my readers (and for that I am so grateful!) bear with me as I take you into this underbelly for just a moment. For those of you who do blog – I’m speaking our language.

It can be summarized in three words: Statistics, Link-ups, and Shares.

Statistics: No matter what platform you use, be it WordPress, Blogger, or another hosted site, there is an administrative page that gives you statistics. This page has numbers, graphs, data, and charts. It’s this page that will tell you how many views you have, how many unique visitors, where readers are from in the world, who read, how long they stayed, how many posts were read that day, that week, that month. It can be a fun page – when viewed in moderation and taken with a tall glass of confidence. But if not taken in moderation – this is an underbelly that sucks you in and bleeds you dry. At its most lethal, it makes you question your worth. You begin to believe that your worth is based solely on how many people have read your blog that day. This is a terrifying thought.

Mentions & Link-ups: CS Lewis in one of his writings speaks of something called “The Inner Ring”. He describes this as the hierarchies in the world and in the areas of expertise where we find ourselves. Every time we think we have reached the pinnacle, the highest place, the inner circle, we realize there is yet one more circle to penetrate. And so it goes – we never feel we will be inside that inner ring. It begins in elementary school with the popular kids, takes different forms as you get older, but always and forever it remains exclusive and feels elusive. It is capricious, this inner ring. One day you may be in it – and the next day you are outside of it.

And so it is with blogging. There are those who we perceive as being in the “inner ring”. They know each other and promote each others work. They do weekly links to each other’s blogs and get thousands of shares and likes on Social Media sites. And if we allow ourselves to enter and get caught up in the underbelly of the blogging world, we want to be in this ring – but it remains just out of reach. We write about the wrong stuff. We are just so far outside of this circle that we will always be relatively unknown. Or we are too old (It’s rare to find a successful blogger over 35) and therefore irrelevant.

“I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”

It’s easy to begin thinking it’s all about that inner ring – the mythical inner ring of the blogging world. We compare ourselves to those who we perceive are there, and we find ourselves wanting as we realize we are outside the ring, and will probably never enter it.

Shares: This underbelly is exhausting and never-ending. A place where we begin to judge our work and our worth based on the number of shares we have received on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in, Digg, Stumbleupon, GooglePlus, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr….it is the underbelly of underbellies.

So what is the solution to avoiding this underbelly?

Identifying an area that needs work and a redeeming touch is only the first step. I have to be willing to either resist the underbelly or stop blogging. It’s that important.

And so I begin. Since Ash Wednesday I have not looked at the statistics page – Not once. It is so healthy. I don’t have a clue how many or how few have been coming by Communicating Across Boundaries. This past week I looked at only two other blogs, I stayed away from reading those who I perceive to be in the mythical inner circle, and was the healthier for it.

And I began praying specifically about blogging and writing, what it means to me, why it means a lot, what I would like Communicating Across Boundaries to be and more. It’s a journey and I have not arrived. But I do know that underbellies suck you in and before you know it, you are compromising to fit a mold. And molds have a way of stifling us instead of freeing us.

So this was one of the hidden places that needed to be cleaned and aired this past week. I wish I could say I am alive in this new found freedom, that my writing will reflect that and honor those of you who come by. But I’m more sobered than alive, more aware that I don’t want to waste your time – instead offering a space of light, rest, hope, and thought in the midst of a world that offers all kinds of underbellies that can catch us.

Thank you for listening.

“The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow.” CS Lewis

Year in Review

fireworksIt’s the last day of the year and as I write Boston is gearing up for its First Night Celebrations. I’ve felt too sick for reflections, preferring just to drown myself in tea and books, but I wanted to close out the year on this blog by highlighting posts that you have liked as well as introducing you to a couple of other bloggers that I’ve learned from through this year.

The following posts were this years top crowd-pleasers, meaning they received the most views and shares on Facebook, Twitter etc.

Regular Reader Pleasers – these were the posts that regular readers to Communicating Across Boundaries liked.

  •  Who ‘Kindled’ Your Parents? This post, inspired by my husband finding out that my parents had received a Kindle for Christmas was so fun in the comments it received, reminding me that the world divides on many things. Turns out people have strong opinions on print vs. electronic modes of reading.
  • What’s Mom Doing in My Mirror? Ahh – aging and the sense of connection we feel when others express what this whole aging thing feels like. If you’re over 50, this post is for you!
  • 14 year-old Courage. When Malala Yousafzai was shot in Pakistan in October I felt it acutely. It turns out so did many of you.
  • And God….. As an American citizen I am an Independent voter and felt compelled to write about God’s sovereignty no matter who holds the highest office in the land. Turns out those words landed on hearts that felt the same.
  • The Gifts of Loneliness. This post by Robynn beautifully put into words what can be learned through loneliness.

My Faves…..So, blogging is funny in that those posts that I think might be really good often don’t end up top of the list for readers. I wanted to point out a couple of my favorites from this past year.

  • They Want our Symptoms but not our Stories. I shared a personal story that happened soon after coming to the United States in this post, one that resonates with my immigrant friends and patients. This post is for anyone working with a refugee or immigrant population. 
  • Abigail’s Bread. I was struck by the story of Abigail in the Old Testament. A story of a woman who did what was needed to mend an offense.
  • Just One Click. This is one of my most important posts I believe. We have to be held accountable for attack drones.
  • It Was an Old Love. My response to seeing an elderly couple in our youth-obsessed world.

And Now….Bloggers that have inspired me. 

  • Intersections by Deanna Davis. Deanna’s writing is poignant and leads me to love Jesus even more. She has gone through a major crisis this year and leads us to the source of her strength. 
  • Making All Things New by Amy Lepine Peterson. I found this blog awhile ago but was delighted to find a personal connection. Amy is the sister-in-law of the son of one of my close friends.
  • Little Gumnut. Sophie is creativity personified. A fellow third culture kid from Pakistan, she now makes her home in Australia. She writes about everything from creative projects to belonging and what that means.
  • Cecily Mostly. Cecily Thew grew up in Pakistan and now lives in New South Wales. She is an award-winning author and her book Love, Tears, and Autism can be found here.
  • Outside-In. My friend Joanne, another TCK from Pakistan (I promise there isn’t bias here!) has a witty and insightful approach to all things cross-cultural.

It may sound odd but blogging continues to be something I do to make sense of the world around me. Truth is I’m a nurse and I’ve never even taken a college level English class. (you may have noticed some of the grammar and mixed metaphors?!) There are amazing writers one click away from your fingers but you still come here – I’m honored.

In 2013 you can look forward to more Robynn on Fridays. She has been a wonderful addition to CAB. Also I hope to bring on my daughter Stef. She is a great photographer and my hope is to weekly treat you to some of her work. And I’ll be bringing you more from the world around me.

Have a great evening celebration from Kuwait to Karachi to Kansas! 

Urban (Garbage & Graffiti)

When you live in the city your eyesight changes. What visitors consider ugly and want to avoid, city dwellers often find attractive, interesting, even beautiful.

Urban living reminds me to look for beauty in unexpected places.

This picture posted is called Garbage and Graffiti and is taken by my daughter, Stefanie. With it I ask the question — Where have you found beauty in unlikely spaces?

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“Marlboro Man” and Other Names Bloggers Call Those They Love

In a year and a half of blogging I’ve realized something….I have broken an unspoken rule of the trade – I have not given those I love clever pseudonyms while writing about them!

The most famous one that comes to mind is Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman – the successful “High Heels to Tractor Wheels” woman who garnered a full feature story in the New Yorker, a book deal, and a spot on Food Network. She calls her husband “Marlboro Man”. Why? I guess he looks like one.

It was somewhat embarrassing to suddenly realize this. To try to correct this situation, I decided to take a look at the creative names other bloggers have chosen. The list is not exhaustive by any means but I’ve chosen some of my favorites.

There’s Renée at Lessons from Teachers and Twits with a son called Tech Support.I love this! It’s clear this child is a partner in her blogging world.

There’s MJ Monaghan who writes about MLB – My Lovely Bride (Presumably this is his wife!)

On to Stacy at Slowing the Racing Mind – she has a couple of names: The Huz (husband) The Girl, and The Boy. Simple but it works well.

Ironic mom has twins – twins that she calls Thing 1 and Thing 2, reminiscent of Dr. Seuss. Ironic Mom also has a famous sense of humour and a book deal (which is amazing and fun and cool all at the same time!)

On we go to Simple Life of a Country Man’s Wife – she keeps to the theme by calling her love “The Country Man”.

And Missindeedy? She has Sweetboy. Littlesundog who blogs at Day by Day the Farm Girl Way goes simple with the initials “FD” and Ann Voskamp, famous from her One Thousand Gifts has “The Farmer”.

These pseudonyms protect those we love; they allow bloggers to write personal content without bringing their families into a place that could be uncomfortable. It is also a clever way to personalize or ‘brand’ your blog,

But the idea brings up a deeper issue:what we choose to share and not share online through the medium of blogging. We know readers connect to personal content — blogging is about a relationship and relationships grow when we feel like we know someone, can relate with them in their conflicts, joys, laughter and tears. Blogging can be as complex as any other relationship. But our real-life flesh and blood is an even more important (and complex) relationship.

The idea that we would hurt someone who shares our dinner table and DNA is not fun and could have long-term ramifications.

In no way have I worked this through….I haven’t even thought up the pseudonyms yet and it’s a little late. But I am beginning the conversation.

What I would love to know is this:

Do you blog and if so what do you call those people in your life who you love, write about, and want to protect? If you don’t blog, what do you think of the names people give their “others”? For both bloggers and non-bloggers – what are, or should be, the rules of writing about those we love?