Note: This post is part of An Unconventional Blog Tour, organized by Kelly and Liz to highlight some important topics in blogging. Make sure you visit all of the participants this week—there are really wonderful contributions to this different sort of blog tour.
In “real life,” I teach at a local college, where my focus is on digital media and communications, including a course specifically in blogging, as well as three other classes containing blogging units. When Kelly asked me to participate in the Unconventional Blog Tour (and, um… I still suspect I was accidentally added to the original email list—because there’s no way I should be included with these awesome, established book bloggers), I immediately thought of drawing on one of the most difficult sections in each of my classes: the challenge of finding your unique voice on the web.
My students usually struggle with getting over the hump where they cannot fathom that they have anything unique or original to contribute—they just don’t see themselves having a voice that’s all that special. However, invariably, when I start digging deeper in our course discussions, all sorts of interesting angles and perspectives bubble to the surface. Yet, I believe that they do have something to say—something no one else can. Seriously.
The thing is, there are so many folks out there saying that to be a blogger you must do this, and must never, ever do that, and you have to follow X, Y and Z Very Important Unbreakable Rules of Blogging. As a result, both aspiring and established bloggers often don’t allow themselves to think about what their own unique voice is, which is the fast track to burnout and boredom.
I’ve found that that problem is far worse in the book blogging world,* where review copies of books serve as a sort of stand-in currency.
How can bloggers find and preserve their distinctive voices? Well, it’s hard, but here’s what I tell my students, and it’s helped them discover some very unique and rewarding paths over the years.
You’re Creative: You. Yes, You.**
This is something I struggle with myself—a lot. How can I have something to say that stands out in the sea of people who also have something to say? Embrace your creativity. (Yes, I realize this is one of those easier said than done situations.)
By this, I don’t mean that you have to have a gimmicky post format for your reviews (unless you want to, naturally) or that you need to write lyrical commentary about the symbolism in The Fault in Our Stars. What I mean by being creative is don’t be afraid to embrace your unique perspective—play with it, see where it takes you.
You may know that my mom is one of the regular contributors to CEFS. One of the things I love about her writing on this blog is that she brings the perspective of someone who taught Language Arts for many years. And as a result, her perspective on books is very different from my own. She researches the history and mythology and symbolism in the books she reads and approaches her reviews in a more educational way (uhhh… and sometimes I have to tone her down—way down). But, some of her reviews have been incredibly popular (let’s hope they’re popular with readers interested in figuring out the meaning behind books they’ve enjoyed and not high school kids doing book reports), and I believe that’s because she comes at her discussion of reading from a different standpoint than a lot of folks.
One of my favorite book bloggers is Catie from The Readventurer. Catie and I have pretty different taste in reading, but I find her reviews absolutely captivating. She has an eye for nuance in books that you just don’t see very often and her musical pairings kill me, since I’m a complete nitwit when it comes to music. I feel like I’ve been enlightened whenever I read one of Catie’s reviews—and that’s why they feel so creative and memorable to me.
On the other hand, I also love the Forever Young Adult blog—those girls crack me up. I think half of the bookish internet wants to hang out with them, drink from champ cans and discuss Taylor Kitsch. Their posts are straight-up fun. And, of course, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books makes me happy every single time I read the word, “mantitty.”
All of these bloggers are incredibly creative—and that’s what draws me in as a blog reader. But I also bet that’s a lot of what makes blogging fun for them as well. Let yourself be creative and you’ll be rewarded.
Everyone Else is Doing It, But You Don’t Have To
The thing is, if you set out to write a blog that fits the formula of all the other popular blogs out there, you’ve got a big problem: It’s not uniquely yours—it’s an emulation of everything else that’s out there.
Want to write about books, but don’t want to review them? Sounds cool! My love of talking about reading “issues” is one of the reasons I started CEFS. Yes, we have reviews, but my favorite posts on this blog are things like this, this and this. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those are also some of our most popular posts. Sure, we get quite a bit of random traffic from people Googling, “X Book Name Reviews,” but we also get a decent amount of traffic from people Googling “Kyle Chandler Hottie” (for real), so Googlers may not be the most reliable visitors anyway.**
(Yes, I know publishers will only send ARCs to blogs that are posting reviews—and not only that, many publishers have what are in my opinion rather absurd qualifications for post frequency. But are you blogging about books because you want an early look at the newest releases? Or are you blogging about books because you want to share your love of, as Liz put it, “reading culture.”)
Want to review only books that are on the shelves at your local library? Go for it! You don’t have to write about the latest and greatest release to write a successful blog. Want to only talk about category romances? All right! What to approach your blog like it’s a reading journal? That’s cool too!
Where a lot of bloggers get derailed is believing (understandably, since everyone and their pet monkey has written about “how to blog”) that there’s a certain formula for what makes a blog—and within each niche, there are certain norms that bubble up as “the way” to do things. If you want to be unconventional—if that’s the best fit for you and your editorial vision—go for it!
You Never Know What Will Work Until You Try It
When starting CEFS, I felt a lot of pressure (mostly from myself) to have a numerical rating system of some sort. Laura and I were never able to really figure out one that worked for us, so for awhile we used a qualitative system that sucked—because book blogs have to have some sort of system, you know. Eventually, we realized that it wasn’t worth the effort and just stuck with our patented, and highly scientific, FNL Character Rating and called it a day. We kept our FNL Character Rating because it was a fun thing for us, not really for anyone else—we wanted our reviews to stand alone as useful for people to determine if a book would be a good read for them or not.
Well, it turns out that “focusing” on the FNL Character Rating was probably one of the best decisions we could make. We’ve had an unbelievably positive response to that system. (Melissa Walker tweeted me that she was aiming for a Tim Riggins rating for her next book after she earned a Matt and Julie for Unbreak My Heart.) Even people who don’t know a thing about Friday Night Lights*** (for which this blog is named) have told me that they’ve Googled who the characters are and think it’s memorable and different. We had no idea that this would be such a fun touch for so many readers.
But, if we’d followed the advice of many of the Very Knowledgeable Blogging Experts, we would never have tried something so ridiculous as creating a nebulous rating system from a defunct television show about a Texas football.
The thing is, in terms of figuring out what you’re readers will enjoy and what you’ll have fun writing about, the best only way to know if it’s going to work for you is to throw that spaghetti against the wall and see if it sticks.
You’re Allowed to Grow, Change & Make U-Turns
Blogs are living organisms. Your interests may change over the life of your blogging career. Maybe you started writing about contemporary young adult fiction, and then fell for urban fantasy hard. A lot of folks will tell you to stay the course if you’ve got some traction in that niche. However, I couldn’t disagree more.
I’m thinking of the book blog I’ve probably read the longest, The Book Smugglers, and their reviewing focus has evolved and developed over the years. For me, this is one of the reasons that such a long-lived blog still feels fresh with each day’s post.
In a blogging climate where we’re told that to be “successful,” we need to specialize, specialize, specialize,**** keep in mind that if you’re too rigid in your approach you can find yourself bored and burned out. (Trust me—that’s why I put my old blog on permanent hiatus.)
In order to preserve the integrity of your own unique voice, evaluate where you’re at in terms of your own personal satisfaction on a regular basis—make sure you’re still having fun, that you’re still reading what you want to read, that you’re talking about what matters you to. If you’re not—change course.
Don’t Forget the Passion
Okay, that sounds like the key to a successful marriage (which it is… duh), but it’s also the key to a successful blog—and more importantly, a happy blogger and loyal readers.
I say this as someone who completely lost the passion for my first blog—it was popular, I had loyal readers and it afforded me loads of interesting opportunities, but I just lost the love for it. It felt like I was simply outputting content for the world and I didn’t feel any joy in doing so anymore. This unease came through in my writing and erroded my creativity. Frankly, I felt like my blog started to suck.
Kelly wrote quite eloquently about how blogging is plain hard—when you’ve lost your passion for the subject or just the act of blogging, it’s so, so, so much harder. Don’t let yourself get to that point—keep your enthusiasm for your subject at the front of your mind, explore new things that interest you and remain accountable to yourself, to your personal integrity, first.
*I’ve written and managed for clients a number of successful blogs in addition to my teaching—so I’ve been hands-on in several blogging fields, from sports to sewing, for a long time. I’ve seen a lot of blog weirdness over the years.
** TMMarcus Flutie
**If you listen carefully, that noise is the sound of a hundred SEO specialists beating their heads against the wall as I advice you not to worry too much about Google.
***Uh… get on that. FNL is only the Best Television Show Ever—readers should love the mult-layered story. And, uh, the visuals.
****I just finished reading an awful book on blogging that advised that you were better off to start a blog about riding lawn mowers than gardening. That sounds… thrilling.