Addicted to novelty since 2001

I May Not Want to Read About Your Cat

There are, I think, two kinds of online diarists out there. Those who want more traffic, and those who claim not to. If you’re in the latter camp, and don’t care if only eight people a month read your site, then why are you making it public in the first place? I can think of a couple reasons:

  • You’re just doing it for friends, family or another specific, distributed group of people.

Hmm…that’s the only reason I could come up with. I think nearly everybody wants more readers. I certainly do. It’s only natural. You’re putting in an effort and want others to enjoy it.

I’m speaking here to people who mostly write about their own lives. If you write about a specific industry, subject or hobby, run a blog consisting mostly of links, or any of a dozen other approaches, this probably doesn’t apply to you. If you’re an online diarist, however, here’s how I think you should generate more traffic:

UPDATE: It’s become apparent to me that, ironically, this post wasn’t as clear as it should have been, and that my tone may have struck people as dictatorial. For this, I apologize. It was my intent to articulate what I looked for in an online diary, and to describe how aspiring diarists could increase their readership.

It wasn’t my intent to impose limitations on what people write about. They’re welcome to write about whatever they like. They may or may not find an audience for their writing. I still believe that nearly everyone wants a bigger audience, and these are my thoughts on how they should get it.

  1. If you’re going to write about the ordinary day-to-day events of your life,
    write extraordinarily, with humour and insight and passion. Heather Armstrong,
    of Dooce fame, does this
    very well. Here’s an amusing, informative entry about getting a haircut.
  2. Don’t confuse passion with complaining.
  3. If you’re going to complain a lot, make sure you’re very amusing doing so.
  4. Definitely write about the extraordinary events in your life. I want to
    read about your
    wedding
    or your
    struggle with illness
    or your
    great vacation
    .
  5. The same goes for your pet. If you’re going to write about your cat, I only
    want to hear about how it caught that bald eagle, has pea-green feces or
    is growing a third ear. I know that you love them and think they’re perfect–you
    don’t have to keep telling me.
  6. The same goes for your children. I want to hear about how your son came first
    in the town-wide spelling bee, wore his sister’s dress to school or said "cocksucker"
    in front of the grandparents.
  7. The same also goes for your spouse. In short, don’t gush about the other
    mammals in your life. Instead, tell entertaining or poignant or tragic stories
    about them.
  8. Include lots of photos of both people and things. I’m constantly amazed
    at the quality of photos I see on weblogs.
  9. Identify the cultural sub-group (suburban fathers, goth girls, cat-fanciers,
    etc.) you belong to, and seek them out on the Web. These people definitely
    want to read about your life experiences.
  10. Be self-effacing.
  11. Brevity
    is the soul of wit
    . Don’t post unless you’ve got
    something compelling to talk about. After writing a post, consider whether
    it’s worth publishing publicly or not. There’s nothing wrong with
    having both a public and private diary.
  12. Distill your experience. Good writing makes the commonplace exceptional.

I describe these as methods for generating more traffic because I regularly
abandon diary-type weblogs for their monotony, verbosity and grimness. I stick
with others because I like the style and content (or, admittedly, because they’re written by friends of mine). Maybe I’m alone in disdaining this approach–maybe there
are enough readers for every online diary. Whether that’s true or not, making
your online diary more compelling isn’t a bad idea, is it?

I know I’m courting controversy here. People are likely to respond with "I
don’t ask you to read my online diary." If that’s the case, then why is
it online?

Thanks to Laurent (via Martine) for the image that kicked off this line of thinking.

36 Responses to “I May Not Want to Read About Your Cat”

  1. Jody Cairns

    Great advice, which can also be used to judge good biographical and non-fiction books, such as those by Bill Bryson and Simon Winchester.

    Coincidently, I just posted Changing A Two Week Old Baby’s Diaper, a few thoughts about changing my son’s diapers. I think it fits your criteria, to some degree.

  2. donna

    I don’t know, I can think of one other group — those who write because they have to, and figure it’s easier to put it online than not. I like how centrally accessible my site is, whether I write from work or home or some other location.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to get feedback from people, or have an easy way of keeping friends & family up to date on what I’m thinking, so that’s definitely part of it. But I once read somewhere… “I don’t write because I can. I write because I can’t not.”

    I write because otherwise, it gets bottled up inside and drives me wild. If nobody read my site (and I keep a second one that nobody does read, afaik), I would still write in it because it helps me. It’s therapeutic. Why put it online? Well, why not? It’s cheaper and easier than a paper journal, and I type faster than I write anyway.

    I write as a reflection of myself. And sometimes I’m boring, long winded, and whiny. If this translates to something that person X doesn’t want to read, person X doesn’t have to. Other people do, and more importantly, I want to write it, regardless of how many people are reading.

  3. alexis

    Yeah, I agree a lot with Donna. But I think my site is a combo of everything. I started it to detail my life in Mongolia, and it became a way to vent out my feelings while I was there. For me, it’s a way to explore my life and my observations, share articles about things that interest me, share information, GET information, and talk about things that I’m interested in. Sometimes I don’t write a lot about the things I post because hey, I’m more interested in seeing what others are going to say and if I wrote everything I thought, I’d spend all day blogging and not do much else. I LOVE to write, and I need to write, and that’s why I do it.

  4. Darren

    Donna: There’s an extremely small minority of the planet for whom writing online is easier than writing offline. Furthermore, the cost of Internet access alone exceeds that of a paper journal (whether paying for the former by the minute or the month). I can see the value of having a remotely-accessable diary, but a dead-tree journal is considerably more remotely-accessable than a website.

  5. Arwen

    I only recently started regularly blogging. I don’t really blog properly. I write essays. I keep asking myself, actually, why I’m doing it (since it’s only been this past month that I’ve done it regularly). It is my online diary; if I used a pen and paper diary, I’d write similarly.

    I find there’s all this stuff in my head; reactions, opinions, thoughts, questions, ideas – that have no real expression in my everyday life. Blogging is a hopeful action: maybe these ideas are good for someone, somewhere, even if they’re not witty or polished.
    Other than for friends, I’m not sure they’re useful on a consistant basis – but like Donna, I like to be able to unbottle them. Doing it in a public way means that I’ve passed them over, like burning your new year’s resolutions. It’s a great release.

    I bet writing them on paper and dropping them on park benches would work – but then I’d be “that crazy lady”.

  6. Devon

    Excellent post, Darren.

    I flip-flop about why I have a blog and whether or not I care about traffic or visitors or readers. I haven’t looked at my web stats (I don’t even have access to them) in well over a year, and I don’t care about them. I don’t particularily care about comments, either, although I’d be a bit perturbed if they disappeared completely. (And I do so despise people who attack my half-formed thoughts. These days I delete such things, though.)

    I blog to spread information to my friends and to whine, roughly in that order. I don’t understand how it could be interesting to anyone that doesn’t know me, but hey, people read it.

    PS: I am asking for a digital camera for Christmas. Hopefully I will be able to join those of you wonderful people who post photos a lot. I won’t be nearly as good as the Julies or Davins of the world, but at least there will be the occasional splash of colour on my weblog. :)

  7. Rog

    Wow, Darren. I couldn’t disagree more.

    As a writer, I would think that you of all people would understand the myriad drives and desires behind what people write. You make it sound like popularity is the only authentic and worthwhile reason.

    That’s something I’d expect more from a publicist than a writer. If you can’t think of more reasons, think harder.

    I’ll give you one: Cementing words, giving them root in the world makes them feel more real and often makes the author feel more real themselves.

    In other words, attempting to fulfil one of our strongest human needs: To feel understood.

    For most people, writing to share and be understood requires no more than a handful of people to read. For either a large audience or small, that reason may be much more complex, but I bet it’s a whole lot more common than popularity when it comes to reason to write an online blog/journal/whatever.

    Sure, there are plenty of bloggers who are into the ‘cult of Me’, but otherall those are the minority. To state that the rest are either wanting to be as popular or claim not to (does that make them liars? I sure got that implication) is… well, insulting.

    The byline on this article itself seems intended to demean an important passion. Someone writing about their cat probably does so because they LOVE their cat. Sure, the rest of us may not want to read about it, but if we don’t then we’re not whom it was written for.

    Part of the beauty of the Internet is that we don’t have to have a lowest-common denominator media that’s catering to a single large audience. There’s enough people creating and reading online that small segments can still be appreciated by those who appreciate them.

    When people are driven to do something, you can explain it easier by asking “why not” rather than “why”. What you see as not adding up just seems to me like a narrow view of what you’re questioning.

  8. Rog

    “There’s an extremely small minority of the planet for whom writing online is easier than writing offline.”

    Okay, then there’s an even smaller minority for whom writing is easier than just thinking it. Why on earth would you waste paper when you can just leave the thoughts in your head?

    Absurd.

  9. udge

    The gentleman (Rog) doth protest too much, methinks. No matter for whom one writes, clarity of expression is a good thing. DB’s comments promote clarity of writing. My opinion; your mileage may differ – and what if it does? The internet is big enough for all three of us.

  10. donna

    udge: Clarity of expression is one thing… content is another. I resent the thought that my website isn’t “good enough” because of the content. Yeah, it would be nice if we all wrote a bit more clearly, but half the time when I’m writing something that would really benefit from more clarity, I’m forumulating my thoughts as I write — not necessarily condusive to clarity. No, I don’t feel the need to rewrite the post once I’ve figured out what I’m thinking — I personally find it much more interesting to see my thought process, rather than just a final conclusion. Thought processes are occasionally twisty things. :)

    …Which is another reason I write — I find it much easier to formulate thoughts by putting them on paper, be them virtual or not. (I actually do carry a notebook for when I’m not near a computer and have some burning desire to write something down or figure something out. Also handy for jotting down phone numbers and such.)

    Darren: Most people who have a website would likely already have internet access, whether they keep a blog or not. I don’t count that “price” as part of the price of keeping one. You could consider the hosting fees & domain charges as the price, but I had a domain before I had a journal, so I don’t count that either. Hell, I’ve got 4 other domains that have essentially no useful content on them, other than the blogs I host for other people — so it costs them even less.

    I don’t find a paper journal even remotely accessible. Sure, it’s there when a computer isn’t (although, so is my PDA … if only I were faster at writing graffiti). There’s no keyword search, no easily found archives by date, and my handwriting is so bloody awful I’m lucky if I can figure out what I was writing. Not to mention, my hand cramps up after writing more than a few sentences.

    Basically? I find paper journals to be a huge pain in the ass. If I do, I’m assuming I can’t be the only one. Like Devon, I have no idea why anyone who didn’t know me would want to read my site. I don’t write for them. Most of the time, I don’t write for the people who do know me, either (unless I’m sharing a link that I rather like, or something along those lines.) I write for me. So no, my goals with my site have never been to “increase traffic”. It’s nice to bounce ideas off other peoples, but if everyone stopped reading, I’d still write — as evidenced by my second, generally unknown blog.

    As Rog said… why not? Doesn’t hurt anyone.

  11. Elle Wiz

    I used to have two blogs: “The Diary of Elle Wiz” and “Lost Another Me.” “Elle Wiz” was first, and it was just a collection of news stories that interested/annoyed me, my political ramblings, and so on. I started “Lost Another Me” focused specifically on my Weight Watchers efforts. It turned out that I preferred the blogging personality in “Lost Another Me”; it was much more upbeat. I started it because I knew that other Weight Watchers websites really inspired me when I started. Now I get dozens of views a day, and I get lots of e-mails from people who tell me how much help they get from it.

  12. Chris

    I think that this post goes against the recent post entitled “Why You Should Blog.” This post talks about why you shouldn’t bother blogging unless you write interesting things that many people will find readable. The previous post opens with “examples of why you, a normal human, should blog.”

    So, you’re saying that all normal people should blog, and that all blogs should be well thought out and non-boring. That’s a bit much to ask, I think. It’s like saying that everyone should start a sourceforge project (open source software), and not only that, every project should be really good.

  13. bree

    When I first started I was much more concerned about getting traffic. Now I don’t care as much. I barely ever check my site stats, for example, and when I do it’s mostly to see who’s referring to me (I find it more interesting to see who is linking to me than how many are). I’m very comfortable with the amount of traffic I get. It’s not so much that I get trolls, but it’s enough that I get comments (I dig the interactivity, baby). And I can get to know my readers through their comments and blogs, so it feels more like an online community of friends than a zine or publishing platform for me.

    Lately I’ve been doing more personal diary-type posts, but I just generally blog about whatever is on my mind that I’m willing to share with the world. I get more response than I expect with some of those personal posts, often more response than I get with political or newsie posts.

    I’m not a particularly funny writer, and so I doubt I’ll ever join the dooces of the world. I’m also too wary of posting really personal stuff online to be a tell-all kind of diarist. But I do feel like I’ve got a good community of people reading my blog, and I’m happy writing the kind of stuff I do. I keep a paper journal for the stuff that’s too personal to post online or that’s just really not that interesting to anyone but me. I also find the kind of fulfilment from expressing myself in a paper journal to be very different from blogging.

  14. Rog

    udge: It seems funny to me that you would defend Darren’s post with essentially the same perspective as my own. I do feel the Internet is big enough for everyone, so I balk at someone saying that the reasons people write distill down to only one.

    Clarity of expression is one thing, but telling people their reasons are illegitimate is entirely different.

  15. Darren

    In the interests of brevity, let me try to reply generally.

    I still hold to my notion that nearly everybody wants more traffic. The act of publishing something in a public forum implies a desire for audience, does it not? I’ll grant that there are rare exceptions to this, but I imagine if I surveyed LiveJournal users, the vast majority would want greater readership.

    You’ll note that nowhere in my post did I say “don’t run an online diary if you can’t be these things”. These are characteristics (humour, passion, clarity, etc) that I think people–myself included–should aspire to. If you think you’re an average writer, then try to learn how to be a better one. If you don’t think you’re funny, then try to learn to be funnier.

    What Rog refers to is commonly called the long tail of the blogosphere. If everyone adhered to my advice, that phenomenon wouldn’t change. The average online diary would simply, in my opinion, obviously, be better. Clearly hardly anyone’s going to adhere to my advice, so it’s not something we need to worry about.

    As someone pointed out, I’m discussing two areas: style and content. I think my points on style are pretty incontrovertible. Getting people to be funnier, more insightful, more passionate, more succint and clearer is a reasonable and desirable goal, isn’t it?

    As for content, as I and others have pointed out, there is an audience for every interest and perspective on the Web. My point is that if you’re posting publicly, then you very probably want to increase your audience. If you want to increase your audience, then you may need to temper certain aspects of your writing.

    There are plenty of artificial ways to increase traffic to personal weblogs, but I think the best, most reliable way is to be more compelling. This is how I think people should be more compelling. If other people have other ideas, I’d love to hear them.

  16. Darren

    Chris: I really don’t think it’s too much to ask that a weblog be well thought out and non-boring.

    As for your SourceForge metaphor: everybody should aspire to make their project really good. Why would you set out to make a crappy software project (that market’s already cornered)? Even if you’re a 10-year-old with the most rudimentary programming skills, you want to make something compelling, don’t you?

  17. Sue

    I am not actually a big “writer” — I don’t keep a journal anymore, and my attempts to do so resulted in more money spent on cool notebooks than actual journalling activity. So I would definitely identify myself as a person who blogs because I want people to read what I’m writing.

    However, that doesn’t automatically translate into me wanting MORE traffic. I like the amount of traffic that I have – I like recognizing the names of anyone who comments on my site, and it would make me nervous if a bunch of strangers suddenly started piping up. I have a blog because I’m convinced that I am smart and amusing, and I like the public reinforcement of my ego that comes from the proof of other people reading and commenting. I’m not even going to pretend that my blog isn’t purely ego-driven. However, that doesn’t mean I want MORE people there. Hence why I pay no attention at all to whether my RSS feed is working, or what my site stats or search engine rankings are.

    I agree with your points about style – but I like them more for the self-improvement aspect of it. If I’m going to write publicly, for whatever reason, of course I’m going to try to make it better writing, MOST of the time. Sometimes I’m going to say “screw my readers” and post whatever drivel I feel like posting. And that’s why I have a blog. It’s mine.

  18. breebop

    no petblogging for me, but if it feels good do it

    Darren Barefoot’s got a controversial post about diary-type blogs that’s got me a little riled. He figures everyone wants more traffic, and if you do there’s some things that should be verboten for online diarists. Like catblogging. While I like…

  19. Sue

    A further thought: blogging did not start out as a PR tool. It started as a personal tool. Just because companies have co-opted the medium for their own profit-driven purposes does not mean that individuals must fall in line with the style or purpose of these companies.

    And finally, my husband (who does not blog) wants to add this gem:

    “Blogging is verbal expectoration.”

  20. Darren

    Sue: Good quote, there. I’m not advocating that individuals fall in line with corporate philosophy. Do you think I’d advocate hearing about pee-green feces or children spouting “cocksucker” if that was the case?

    Basically, I’m considering the blog as art. It’s writing intended for public consumption, so that seems like a sound conclusion. I’m offering my opinion on what would make that art better. You may disagree with my suggestions, but what’s wrong with that goal?

  21. RanXerox

    ahhhh. That’s cute. When presented with the opportunity to host a comment that actually names names (ie: specific blogs) , our beloved blogger Darren ‘edits’ (ie: deletes) posts. How daring. How adventurous. How ‘don’t rock the boat’. How cluck cluck. Quick Darren – what’s the difference between a “writer” like yourself and an avowed ass kisser? It’s okay, I couldn’t figure it out either…

  22. bree

    “Getting people to be funnier, more insightful, more passionate, more succint and clearer is a reasonable and desirable goal, isn’t it?”

    Sure it is. But I think that some people just aren’t particularly funny or insightful or passionate. And when they try to be it comes across stilted and, well, bad. I’d rather people be true to their personality, and work with their strengths. Personally I’d rather read a weblog that is insightful but not particularly funny rather than suffer through cheesy attempts at humour in a blog that is otherwise worth readin.

    Being succinct and clear is different. Those are things every writer should try for, no matter what style of writing.

  23. Darren

    RanXeror: Your comment was a dirty, one-line cheap shot at a particular blogger that added nothing constructive to the conversation. The entire comment read:

    “Dear [website]”

    I would have emailed you about it to ask you to expand on your thoughts, but you didn’t leave an email address.

    You’ll note that several of the folks in this comment thread disagreed with me, and I didn’t delete their posts. That’s because we’re having a reasonable and interesting exchange of views. If you’ve got something useful to offer, let’s hear it. If you want to name specific sites, go ahead, but please do it in a manner that contributes to the debate.

  24. Chris

    Darren: You missed the point of my metaphor.

    You’re right that it’s not “too much to ask that a weblog be well thought out and non-boring.” However, when you say that, along with the equivalent of “Everyone should blog”, that’s when things get troublesome.

    I agree that you shouldn’t start a sourceforge project if you don’t want it to be good. However, the difference between us is that I’m not encouraging everyone I know to start sourceforge projects. I don’t even have one myself. Why not? Because I can’t think of a project right now that I want to make really good.

    I have no problem with this post – I have a problem with the combination of posts.

  25. Rog

    “You may disagree with my suggestions, but what’s wrong with that goal?”

    Darren: I don’t necessarily disagree with your suggestions or the goal of author self-improvement.

    I disagree with your basic premise as to why they should want to improve. Not everything is about fame and fortune.

  26. Darren

    Chris: Looking back at that post you referred to, it’s probably titled poorly. I should have called it “Two More Reasons to Blog”. I don’t really think that everyone on the planet should have a weblog–clearly, it’s not for everyone.

    Rog: I’ll amend my statement to say that ‘most’ or ‘the vast majority’ of online diarists want a greater readership.

    I note that the people in this comment thread (and elsewhere) who have expressed satisfaction with their traffic have been blogging for quite some time. The average online diarist is an 18-year-old who has been at it for a few months, in a publishing space that has gotten much busier recently. I’m pretty sure that most of them want their voice to be louder.

  27. Penmachine words music comment

    Being a better blogger, regardless of hair length

    Darren Barefoot posted some useful points on improving your weblog, if you have one (or writing one well, if you’re just starting). The ensuing conversation in his comments has some good back-and-forth as well.

  28. halfacanuck

    Blog the dead donkey

    Darren Barefoot, a Canadian PR dude and blogger, makes two interesting points about personal, diary-style blogs.

  29. Neb

    My cat enjoyed this blog entry very much and will be haunting your blog posting random comments henceforward.

    Just kidding. The usual contribution from my cats toward my writing (read: fooling around on the computer) is to step on the keyboard or otherwise impede my typing.

  30. spam poetry

    Well, my cocker spaniel has her own blog, so I don’t need to write about her.

    I think the best online/blog writing happens when the author is able to embrace the reality that blogs are the digital version of standing on the coffee table at a cocktail party and yelling, “Look at ME! Pay attention to ME! ME! ME!”

    Once one is able to embrace that the whole endeavour is narcisstic and kind of unneccesary, the writing gets much better. Perhaps the easiest way to increase readership is to stop trying to be Dorothy Parker when one is Ethel Merman, and to embrace the Merman-ness, own the Merman-ness, and ultimately, let everyone else online enjoy access to the Merman-ness.

  31. Jelly

    I’ve had a website up for a few years and recently switched it over to a blog engine. Why do I do it? So I don’t have to cut n paste and try to “personalize” an email everytime something I want to share happened. My site is directed at my family back home, and my friends around the world I’ve met and want to keep in touch with. I don’t particularly care if anyone else reads it, enjoys it, or even “gets” it.
    About 2 months ago, I used my blog as a vehicle to get the word out to my extended family & friends that I was alive and well and made it through a particularly nasty hurricane unscathed. I posted some pictures and some stuff from a paper journal that I kept in the aftermath.
    Before long I started seeing a lot of comments and links pouring in. Out of curiosity I looked at the website stats last week, and since sept 1 had 540k hits and 55k page views. I was blown away. I don’t think my site ever had that much traffic at all in the last four years, let alone in 60-90 days.
    For about a week I changed my ‘writing style’ because of the bigger audience, but then stopped and went back to my usual verbal diarrhea. I realized I was trying to be something bigger than I really was.

  32. halfacanuck

    Blog the dead donkey

    Darren Barefoot, a Canadian PR dude and blogger, makes two interesting points about personal, diary-style blogs. The first is that everyone who blogs wants readers. This might seem like it’s not even worth saying, but I believe it is, because…

  33. halfacanuck

    Blog the dead donkey

    Darren Barefoot, a Canadian PR dude and blogger, makes two interesting points about personal, diary-style blogs….

  34. halfacanuck

    Blog the dead donkey

    Darren Barefoot, a Canadian PR dude and blogger, makes two interesting points about personal, diary-style blogs. The first is that everyone who blogs wants readers. This might seem like it’s not even worth saying, but I believe it is, because…

Comments are closed.