Much has been written about writing blogs that don’t suck, and about writing software that doesn’t suck. (When did suck become a word used in public?) This post focuses on what I find useful in Silverlight Blogs targeted at working programmers, and gleans (that is a nice word for steals) from many sources.
I very much invite your comments and rants…
Yet Another Silverlight Blog?
The very first thing to ask yourself is why you are starting YAB (Yet Another Blog) about Silverlight. In all seriousness, there are dozens of great blogs, and Silverlight Cream provides a daily summary of the best articles.
I know we are supposed to let a million flowers bloom, but it becomes a lot harder to separate flowers from weeds in a very large field, and perhaps your time and energy would be better spent weeding.
There is exactly one good reasons (and a hundred bad ones) for creating your own Silverlight Blog.
You have something valuable to contribute that either has not been said, or has not been said well until now. That is, you are meeting a need.
Among the most common bad reasons are:
- It will be good for business
- It will be good for my career
- It will be good for my bank account
Okay, now that I’ve been as curmudgeonly as possible, here are some tips for those of you intrepid enough to create a Silverlight Blog.
Content, Content Content
Let’s be clear, there are a lot of blogs, most have little to offer, and no one has time to read much anyway. There are also tutorials, white papers, magazine articles, emails, labs, and much more; not to mention other interests, family, world affairs and sleep.
We are targeting geeks, and so we’ll get about 500% more of their time for reading blogs than from the general population (a figure I just made up) but even so I’d bet that adds up to about 2 –4 hours / week (or at best, half an hour a day). Half of that time is spent determining what to read and what to skip, leaving time for one or two good articles a day. At best.
|I entered the terms Silverlight Blogs into Bing and received 84,300 results|
And while there are many factors that make a blog stand out, the key, the absolute cornerstone, is high value content, leavened with just the right amount of personal perspective.
- Timely (there when I need it, not six months later)
- Up to date (please don’t provide me obsolete information)
- Useful (nice in practice, not just in theory)
- Connected (with links to related material)
- Well Written (don’t make the reader work too hard)
- Discoverable (not much good if no one can find it)
Some of these attributes are more important than others, and what one person values another may discount. And of course, while being well written is critically important, we’ll almost always choose important, useful information that is poorly written over a well crafted but obsolete blog post on irrelevant information. That said…
Timely means that the user is looking for the information you are providing. To provide timely information you need to take certain conscious steps
- Understand Your Audience
- Advertise accurately
- Pay attention to the title of each post
Understand Your Audience
It is imperative that you pay attention to who is subscribing to, and visiting your blog. The best starting point for this is to read through every word you can find about Analytics, and to subscribe to Yoast’s podcasts and anything else he writes.
Make sure that the intent, targeted audience and focus of your blog is well understood. Give your blog a meaningful tag and subtitle. Set your categories and tags accurately so that search engines can find you, and check your analytics regularly to determine which key words are most important to your readers.
Pay Attention to the Title of each Post
While a catchy post is always valuable, if it doesn’t tell the user what the posting is about, your post won’t be read. When I was writing this post I started with Suckless Blog Posting – what the heck does that mean? Then I tried Blog Posts That Are Worth Reading – closer, but not catchy and is it a list or a how-to? Next came Blog Posts That Don’t Suck – better, but not there.
A well written blog post does not make me work very hard. I don’t stumble over the writing, I’m not confused by twisted syntax, ambiguous antecedents, or the result of putting a document originally written in Russian through an automated translator and slapping it into a blog.
Old joke, programmer put “Out of sight, out of mind” into a translator. Out came two Chinese characters. Cool. He put them into the same translator, and out popped “Invisible Idiot”
More important even than the syntax, though is the ability to write clearly, cogently, and logically. If the blog post doesn’t have a clear message, or if the technique being demonstrated is lost in tangents and irrelevancies, I pretty much stop reading that post and sooner or later (usually sooner) I unsubscribe.
Tell Me Something I Don’t Know
Tell Me Something I Don’t Know
You Didn’t Hear This From Me But….
No Me Diga!
— In The Heights 2009
Want to stand out from the crowd? Provide me with information I can’t get elsewhere. That doesn’t have to be a scoop from within Microsoft; it can well be a new perspective on how to do something I thought I already knew, or it can be a tip, or where to find reliable information.
You have to focus on what your blog has to offer that is different, new, interesting, better than all the other blogs available, or I return to my original question: is this worth doing?
One way to get a handle on this is to find the 20 most popular Silverlight Blogs and subscribe. Which ones do you find yourself reading… why? Which ones stand out and what information are you getting from them?
Blogging Is A Craft – Learn From Others
There are a number of good posts on what makes for a good blog. One of the best was written fully 3 years ago, by Scott Hanselman and yet almost everything in it still applies. Some of Scott’s best points are
- Know your audience (see above)
- Think before you blog (note to self!)
- Don’t blog bile (or tweet, or….)
I’d go on, but I’d risk violating his “don’t use excessive quoting” maxim (!).
Much as I respect Scott (and much as he’s my boss!) I disagree about politics. I decided ten years ago to mix politics with business, as I felt it was imperative to do so. Since joining Microsoft, I’ve created more of a wall between the two, isolating my overtly political comments to a separate blog. But I don’t hide my politics, and I do place a link in my sidebar. Is that a limiting factor? Possibly; I can’t really know, but politics is an important part of who I am, so I take that risk. (Oh, yes, this also violates Scott’s “Don’t Have Two Blogs” approach. I agree, don’t, except when you should.
And this lead me to….
Go Another Way
There is no point in being iconoclastic for its own sake, but having your own voice, even if you are not in lock-step with the mainstream is not only ok, it is a good idea. One very strong reason for reading your blog may be that you have alternative ideas that are worth hearing.
So don’t be afraid to challenge conventional wisdom. Just make sure that you actually have something to say. And mix things up. The definition of a fanatic is someone who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.
Be sure to cover a wide variety of topics, and don’t feel you have to blaze a new trail for each.
Presentation Matters… A Lot
How your blog looks matters a lot. No one will ever admit that the layout of a blog influences whether they read that blog, but better looking, more professional blogs have higher memberships. That doesn’t prove causation (it may be that having something to say and knowing how to layout a blog are independently correlated, or even that they stem from the same root traits), but it is worth stacking the odds in your favor. Especially now that it is possible to get a great starter blog from any number of blog providers.
Over the past six months I’ve been tweaking the look and feel of this blog. At one point I had menus across the top, but the default appearance was a set of interlocked arrows. What information were they intended to convey? I had no idea, and my friend David Platt (why Software Sucks) was kind enough to scream at me until I moved that material to the sidebar.
Here’s a hot tip: if you don’t have layout / artistic abilities, steal. Steal ideas and patterns from others. And do simple things:
- Limit the number of fonts
- Limit the number of colors
- Make all your images line up
- Let Live Writer help you size your images
- Oh yes, Use Live Writer – there is no excuse not to
Get The Fundamentals Right
This would be a very long list, but here are some highlights
- Use professional looking images and don’t violate copyright
- Do not “repurpose” other people’s writing
- Provide attributions for quotes and even ideas
- Fix broken links
- Use permalinks
- By all means tweet about your posts… once.
- Check your facts! Do not post off the cuff programming answers.
- Provide small urls for important or popular posts
- Make it easy to find you, to subscribe to your blog and to figure out which posts matter
- Let people know how to contact you
Back Up Your Blog
Finally, if your blog is worth writing, it is worth protecting. Create a full backup of your entire blog every day. All of it. And, as important and often overlooked, keep historical copies. There are two good ways to do this:
1. Use version control (but be sure to back up the repository as well!), or
2. Keep rolling copies. At a minimum: today, yesterday, two days ago, three days ago, 1 week ago, 2 weeks ago, 1 month ago. The more the better. Storage is cheap.
Keep offsite copies. – If you are not hosting your own blog, and if your host does daily backups you may be able to get away without doing this. Otherwise, check out Carbonite and Mozy and their cousins.