The trouble with blogging.

drawing of a laptop and a notebook

In the quest for SEO dominance and high traffic (ostensibly) leading to the reader taking a desirable action, such as purchasing one’s online course or subscribing to an e-letter, online writers are encouraged to hack headlines according to templates and told to plant desirable keywords into opening paragraphs.

Listen to me read this piece below:

 

I’ve been avoiding the word “blog” and its various forms for a while now; first I called the online writing on my site Chronicles, then changed it back to Blog when my site was critiqued for its confusing navigation, and now have these pieces linked to as a Journal. I call this a Journal not so much because a journal is a free-form avenue of expression, though my writing here is often that to some degree, but also because a journal can also be the home of literature (i.e. a literary journal). A journal is something that permits, and often expects, experimentation.

On the other hand, blogging is something that, according to hundreds of self-proclaimed online experts, has definitive best practices. An example of this is the below diagram, which I’ve seen umpteen times on Pinterest.

diagram of "the perfect blog post"

A blog post, according to this diagram, is a plug-and-play endeavor. It’s a paint-by-numbers piece of writing that culminates in the goals according to your CTAs, or Calls to Action.

And yes — this diagram is from Social Triggers, which is a site not known for its subtlety. It’s the most extreme example of the sterility that I bump up against when I think about capital-B Blogging, though such sterility seeps into the best practices laid out across the universe of the Internet. In the quest for SEO dominance and high traffic (ostensibly) leading to the reader taking a desirable action, such as purchasing one’s online course or subscribing to an e-letter, online writers are encouraged to hack headlines according to templates and told to plant desirable keywords into opening paragraphs.

I assume that doing these things leads to tens of thousands of hits, if not millions, and perhaps Internet dominance will never be mine if I don’t do the same.

I choose not to believe this, as I choose not to believe plenty of things that I might be wrong about.

I choose not to believe that the oft-cited exhortation of BE HELPFUL means that everything I write must be a how-to, or a list of resources — that every story I tell must be an Aesop’s fable with a moral at the end, or else no one will ever take anything away from it. I choose not to believe it because I believe that readers are intelligent enough to be able to learn from stories without a spelled-out moral, and because often good stories, stories worth telling, are too complex to be summed up neatly.

I choose not to believe that offering services and products is inherently tied into the practice of constant and obvious marketing within what I write here, because I care about legacy and the practice of legacy-building in life and work. Such ideas are inclusive of amorphous notions such as compassion and resilience; I believe that storytelling about such things is not only important, but painful when shackled by convention. (For an excellent example of someone who writes beautifully and regularly online with a free hand, I recommend Roxane Gay, the bestselling author of Bad Feminist and An Untamed State, as well as Beth Kirby of the highly popular Local Milk, who has written here before.)

I believe that when I do have products to sell, or new services to offer, I will find a way to let you know about them that feels good and right to us both.

Let me assure you that, as with most things in life that involve beliefs and choices, this is about me. If you’re a writer who has found fulfillment with engaging in blogging’s best practices, I tip my hat to you. Please go right on ahead. And if you are like me, and are beginning to chafe against what’s said, modeled, and taught to be the way to exist online, I say, Godspeed, and tell your story.

P.S.

I write more about this topic in “Blogging Is a Genre, & Don’t You Forget It”: “In the world of blogging, every story must be, if not straight-up advice, an Aesop’s fable with a clear moral. We’re even encouraged to put the moral in bold, if possible, because blogging is a genre, and genres have certain borders and shapes to them–if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be genres.”

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  • I can absolutely relate to everything you’ve written. Thank you! It feels good to have read this. Forwarding on. Would you mind if I quote you in my own writing?

    • No, that’s absolutely fantastic. Please do quote from here — I’d appreciate a link back, but yes, of course feel free. And I’d love to see what you end up writing. xE

  • Esme,
    Over the years I’ve felt that your journey matches mine in many ways. I too started blogging in the very early days and because I found and connected with bloggers who were authentic and wrote from deep within their hearts and brain I find it so hard to fit in this new world.
    There is a terrible fight in me to try to make a living, just enough to keep my hobbies and interests alive, as well as my basic needs, but I’m constantly battling the tsunamis of advice on HOW TO MONETIZE ALL THINGS.
    I’m also familiar with the “perfect” blog post and recently I’ve become member of some business driven online communities… but I feel so strange and icky promoting tweets and sharing just because it’s the group’s policy.

    It’s refreshing to read this.
    At the moment I’m trying to decide between two avenues, one is the website I entered here and the other is web development and marketing. The second I have much more difficulty in bringing into the world, though I try to aleviate my discomfort by offering services to a very specific niche wich is academics and people in the Mindfulness field. But, the tone of my site is undoubtedly influenced by all other web design and web development freelancers. I trust I will find my voice but it’s pretty damn hard.

    I will attempt a small two week disconnection sabbatical to clean my head from all I’ve read, all the advice, all the selling and only read blogs that, like the two you mentioned, write with a free hand.

    • This really clicks with me: “…the tone of my site is undoubtedly influenced by all other web design and web development freelancers.” It IS hard to not be influenced by all of these Best Practices, even if they don’t resonate with us. I think you’re absolutely on the right track with a sabbatical and only reading blogs that “write with a free hand.” Please do let me know how it goes. xE

  • You’ve given voice to what I suspect so many of us feel, Esme. I had a moment about a year ago when I wondered if I should get on the “best practices” blogging track after seeing yet another article about it. But then I realized how bored and disinterested I am reading those kinds of blogs, and how there must be other people like me who value story over strategy. Maybe there’s an audience for that canned blog thing but those are probably not my people.

    You made me laugh with the phrase “internet dominance.” Does that even happen anymore? Seems like the potential for the internet nowadays is in small, lovely communities forming here and there.

    Btw, I love your stories and writing. I don’t think I’ve ever left a comment before, but your stories are riveting. One night I stayed up far too late reading back through your blog (journal!) and was just bowled over. Wow!

    • Wow! Thank you so much for this heartwarming comment — I’m reading back over my comments at 5am on a Saturday, and this is so wonderful to find as I begin my day.

      I, too, am growing increasingly bored and disinterested with certain blogs that follow a certain cookie-cutter track. Do you own an online business? This in particular — making a living online, and attempting to balance “content strategy” with writing what I want to write — is a struggle for me. I’d love to hear your thoughts. xE

  • I coulnd’t have said it better. Somehow I always feel tired when I try to do the SEO and other things. Strangely my writing is first for myself and not to hammer on someone elses pain points. It is just me sharing my thoughts and experiences and I feel very uncomfortable to turn it into something else. I let my writing just flow the way it comes and I don’t have any structures. Your post feels like an absolution and the permission to do what I like to do. Thanks a lot.

    • Ooo, thank you. And I love your paintings (the few I’ve seen). PERMISSION. Yes. If this mini-essay can inspire someone to feel as though they have permission to follow their gut as to what they want to write, I’ll have done something I believe in. xE

  • I was going to say, like Corrinna, that this post felt like permission for me too. I have felt a real and increasing tension lately between what I’m ‘supposed’ to do as someone who writes a blog as part of my work, and as someone who really does not love all the formulae we’re taught are necessary to make an online business successful {ie. profitable}.

    I tend to walk a tightrope with it, and although I have fallen on the side of ‘how to’ and list posts sometimes, for example, I can feel myself longing to write more personally, like I used to when I just blogged for myself and didn’t know if anyone was reading it. I have a good brain and sometimes I feel like I’m wasting it and doing an injustice to the intelligence of my readers as well, which makes it confusing when such posts are well received. I don’t know why I seem to need permission to do it my own way, but I am grateful to you Esme for writing posts like this and reminding me that I can. 🙂

    • I love this part — “the intelligence of my readers.” David Foster Wallace often said that an essential thing to keep in mind when writing was to think of your readers as always just as smart as you are — if not smarter. I often feel oddly condescended to when I read things online in certain circles. & I’m glad that you this reminded you that you can write as you please! xE

  • Oh, how thrilled I am to have come across this article – thank you! It absolutely resonates with me. It feels so good and so right.
    When I began writing online it was to make a difference, build relationships, and leave a legacy. All that viral and marketing tactic stuff would trip me up and then… leaving me drained.
    But over time I’ve moved away from that, though can still feel like it is what I “supposed” to be doing. But your article is just another positive affirmation to be authentically me. Thank you! Thank you!

  • I am just starting a brand new blog, and am thrilled to read this. I can’t even deal with those “perfect” blog posts, and while I do hope that someday I will somehow achieve an income stream, I am happy to not even look at the “HowTo’s”. I will keep the faith that whatever I do with passion will provide me with exactly what I need somehow. Thank you for being Real!

    • My thought is that if *I* can’t deal with those “perfect” blog posts, why would I expect the people who come to read my website to enjoy those types of posts? I also try to remind myself that this medium (online writing) is still very new. The novel is hundreds of years old, and no one claims that *that* form has been perfected! xE

      • I love this observation! No one claims the novel has been perfected…nor painting, nor music, etc. There is room (and need) for so many variations. Thank you so much, for this post, and the comments. <3

  • Esme,

    I really like this post. I have had such heart ache in trying to decide how to approach my own blog. I don’t know what to “How To” about. I have agonized over whether to have a side bar or not, but I just don’t like the side bar. I have tried to approach it very simply, but it seems like I need a lot of extra things that I just don’t know how to do. Like RSS feed, what is that? Even after hours on mail chimp and help from squarespace, I still have no idea if my subscription feature works.
    I like to believe that there can be a way that is more suited to me. That is something I like about your blog. I always enjoy reading because it is very sincere. So thank you Esme and I hope we can all find ways to have successful blogs that matter and don’t necessarily follow a set formula.

  • Thank you so much for explaining that Blogging doesn’t have to follow the rules of so called SEO gurus.

    BTW, love the spoken word element you’ve provided with the audio player.

    Cheers,

    Bill

  • It’s as if you understand me. The writer in me always struggle with the words blogging, blogger, blogs for the reason that you explained perfectly. I appreciate this journal entry.

  • Fascinating perspective. My blog is focused on personal essays with no real opportunities or need for monetization, so a lot of the advice just doesn’t add up for me. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one. I’ve been thinking a lot about personal branding and what that means, so this is a really interesting perspective to add to that consideration.

  • I also hate to use the word blog, and find myself replacing it with website for some reason. When I think of blog, I tend to think of followers all trying to do anything to make some money and get free tampons or something.