Random Notes

The public notebook of writer and essayist Scott Nesbitt

People like putting things, and others, into little boxes. They like categorizing things. They like pigeonholing people. All of that sort of thing. It's easier than thinking, and doesn't disrupt their view of the world.

But rarely does someone fit comfortably into any one category. Life just doesn't work like that. Take music, for example. When I was a teenager, I listened to a lot of thrash metal. Immediately, people assumed that was the only music I was interested in. They didn't realize that I also listened to progressive rock, jazz, blues, classical, Krautrock, and more. When they learned that, dazed and confused was the only way I could describe their reactions.

If people try to pigeonhole you, the problem lies with them and not with you. They refuse to think before they make a judgement. You're not going to change them. Don't try.

A green pin stuck in a bulletin board

Once upon a time, I used to blog a lot. No, make that a lot. During those days, I ran into a lot of the information and advice about blogging out that's floating around out there. Not just for beginners, but for more experienced bloggers as well.

A lot of that information and advice is good. Some of it sits on that line between being useful and being dubious. The rest is rubbish.

While all of that information and advice is interesting, and sometimes useful, it’s not gospel. It’s not written in stone. Some people seem to think it is, though.

I’m going to spend the next few hundred words offering you some advice that goes against the grain of the so-called conventional wisdom for bloggers. That information worked for me and fit with my goals when I was a blogger. It might also work for you.

Forget Keywords

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: keywords. Keywords have become tightly linked with SEO, and my thoughts about SEO are fairly well known in some circles.

Keywords can be either a precision tool or a bludgeon. Far too often, they’re a bludgeon. A big, heavy, nasty bludgeon.

Keywords and keyword density don’t matter. Keywords might draw traffic to your blog (though I’m not entirely convinced of that), but it won’t keep people on your blog. It won’t keep readers coming back. Remember that readers aren’t looking for keywords. They’re looking for information they can use. They’re looking for stories they can relate to.

If you feel the need to use keywords in your blog posts, don’t pack them in. It makes your writing sound unnatural. Writing like that doesn’t flow and reads badly. It sounds stilted. It sounds contrived. It reads like it was written for an algorithm rather than for human eyes and brains.

Someone suggested that you use one to two keywords in each paragraph. I’d go so far to say use them in every second paragraph. If that.

When in doubt about the number of keywords you’ve added to a blog post, read it out loud. If the post doesn’t sound natural or doesn’t flow, rewrite it.

WordPress Isn’t the Only Game on the Web

Many bloggers choose WordPress as their blogging platform. With good reason. But don’t think that WordPress is the only option you have.

While people pooh-pooh Blogger, Write.as, Ghost, Write.as, and other platforms for their supposed deficiencies, not everyone needs what WordPress has to offer. They can more than get by with simpler blogging platforms.

Choose your blogging platform based on your needs, not on what all the cool kids are using. If you want to go with WordPress, fine. If not, that’s fine too.

Remember that readers don’t care what blogging platform you use. They probably don't know that platform you use. They won’t run away in fear or disgust if you’re not using WordPress. They probably won’t know the difference, anyway.

And, if you haven't already guessed, this blog is hosted using Write.as. So there!

There’s No Ideal Length for a Blog Post

A question people often ask me is How long should a blog post be? You might as well as me how long a piece of string should be.

I’ve hear people talk about the optimal or ideal length of a blog post being between 1,200 and 1,500 words. It isn’t

A blog post should be as long as it needs to be. No more, no less. That could be 400 words or it could be 2,000.

Not every idea, not every topic will fit into that 1,200 to 1,500 word container. What’s the point of stretching and padding a post to reach that length? All those extra words aren’t adding anything, except unneeded bulk, to the post. So why add them in the first place?

You Don’t Need to be a Great Writer to be a Good Blogger

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone say that you need to be a great writer to be an effective blogger.

You don’t.

You need to be what I call an effective writer. By that, I mean someone who knows the basic rules of writing. Someone who’s willing to occasionally break those rules. Someone who can organize a piece of writing. Someone who can come up with interesting ideas, and who can tell an interesting story (when needed).

It’s not just about writing quickly. As the late William Zinsser (a legendary journalist, author, and writing teacher) said:

Just because you’re writing fluently doesn’t mean you’re writing well.

Strive to be great. But become a good writer first. There are too many hacks posting horrible writing on the web as it is. Why not set yourself apart from them? To become a good writer, you need to practice, practice, practice. Then repeat the process. Again, and again, and again. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

It’s Not About Numbers

It would be nice to have tens or hundreds of thousands of people reading your blog each week, wouldn’t it? Getting a bit (or more) income from all those readers would be nice, too.

Sadly, for many bloggers that’s not going to happen. Even if it did, how many of those visitors:

  1. Will come back?
  2. Are truly engaged with what you’ve written?

Probably only a fraction of them.

What you should be aiming for is a core of enthusiastic, engaged readers. I’d rather have 100 engaged readers than 1,000 casual ones. People who keep coming back because what I’ve written is helpful, is interesting, and speaks to them.

Not Everything Needs to Tell a Story

About eight or 10 years ago, people started nattering on about how everything that you wrote needed to tell a story. Whether it as marketing material, website copy, articles, books, or blog posts, the story (we were told) was the key to engaging readers. That’s nothing new — newspapers have been doing that for centuries.

To be honest, I got storied about pretty quickly. While stories can humanize writing and can help people relate to what you’re writing, not everything fits into the framework of a story.

But a story isn’t suitable for everything. Trying to shoehorn something you’re writing into the framework of a story can make it look like you’re trying to shoehorn it into the framework of a story. The writing becomes awkward, forced, unconvincing.

Don’t try to tell a story with everything you write. In some cases, you’ll use a scenario to frame a problem you’re trying to solve or to introduce what you’re writing about. Then, get to the heart of the matter. Jump into a procedure, a how-to, your idea or opinion. Don’t waste words going into detail or adding background. Offer your key insights or the solution immediately.

Final Thoughts

What’s important when blogging? It’s all about what you have to say. And you need to say it effectively.

Focusing on keywords, link building, audience numbers, and the like doesn’t get the job done. Instead, focus on crafting good blog posts. Focus on creating blog posts that will help your readers, that will entertain them, that will keep them coming back.

If there’s any secret to good blogging, that’s it.

Scrabble tiles laid out to spell 'BLOG'

Once again, I've been thinking about when a place has its greatest impact upon us.

I've found that a place has its greatest impact not when it's teeming with people. No, that has the opposite effect. Milling crowds with their cameras and smartphones generally take away from a place. Instead, it's when a place is at its calmest, it's quietest, it's most tranquil that you can really feel its power.

You notice more. You sense more. You feel more. I've experienced that with monuments, places of worship, memorials, and more in a number of countries.

Sometimes, you just don't get that feeling of power, that feeling of awe. Sometimes, you get mixed signals. Sometimes, you just wonder why.

Cliffs at Monkey Bay in New Zealand

That pretty much sums up life.

No one enters the world a perfectly-formed human being. We're pretty much blank slates, gathering a store of experiences that mold us. That imbue us with a sense of being and purpose.

Those experiences are nothing without opportunities to grow and to learn and to change. The number and quality of the opportunities we're presented with vary depending on a number of circumstances. Some of us let opportunities slip through our fingers. Others reach out and grab them in a death grip.

Those opportunities, those experiences pile up. They define the kind of people we are and become. That shapes our view of not only ourselves, but of others and the world at large.

Rain can be many things. It brings life. It brings destruction. It's an annoyance. It's a pleasant surprise. It makes a beautiful sound. It's incessant and depressing.

I have two very strong memories of rain. Memories that I don't think will ever leave my brain.

The first from when I was a child. It was a Sunday afternoon in October. The mid 1970s. I watched the heavy rain that had been falling since early morning flow into a sewer grate near my house. A steady, unrelenting river that soon had the sewer overflowing. My childish imagination conjured images of a flood of biblical proportions engulfing the street I lived on.

The other memory is when I was in Beijing one July in 2006. The heat, the humidity, and the pollution came together to create a dark, oppressive smog that blanketed the city. A typical summer day in that burgh. The rains came, and washed away the dirty air. There was a short break in the rain, then it started again. I looked out the window of the apartment I was staying in and saw something beautiful: cyclist wearing multicoloured rain ponchos streaming down the street below. By the time I got my camera, they were gone.

Raindrops hitting the ground

The worst thing that you can do as a musician is listen to your fans, listen to what they want. Don't ever listen because everyone has an opinion. The most important thing is to create music in a vacuum. There's a great irony, a great paradox about being an artist: to be an artist, I think you have to be incredibly selfish but, at the same time, you need people to buy what you do.

You cannot pay attention to what your fans want. To evolve as a musician, to be true to yourself you need to be incredibly selfish.

Steven Wilson

What Steven Wilson said doesn't just apply to music. It applies to every creative endeavour. If you respond to the whims of your audience, you'll lose them eventually. And there's a chance you won't gain a new one. Your current audience might become very fickle and turn away when they get bored of you giving them what they want.

David Bowie was successful, in part, because he always stayed a few steps ahead of his audience. Bowie shaped the taste and wants and expectations of his audience, not the other way around.

For most of us who create, though, that approach can be hit or miss. We might gain a wider audience. We might lose our current one. Or we could be playing to an empty house.

Being selfish, and taking the risks involved with being selfish, is worth it. You stay true to yourself as a creator.

People regularly tell me I didn't like xyz, with xyz usually something that I've written or written about. They're usually quite cranky when they say that, and I can only assume their aim is to make me feel bad.

My response is usually swift and harsh: So what? No one says you have to like it. That usually kills the conversation.

Not everything you try, not everything you read, not everything you watch is going to appeal to you. That's just the way life is. Whining about it doesn't help. It only makes you look like a spoiled, whinging child. Nobody wants to hear your complaints.

Instead, keep your mouth shut, forget the negative experience, and move on.

I started blogging back in 2003, and for the longest time I was a fairly prolific blogger on a range of subjects. Over two multi-year stretches, I maintained three blogs. Each updated at least twice a week.

Then, burnout crept in. No, it didn't creep in. It hit like a flying cinder block. I was compelled to keep up the pace, even if I couldn't. I began to doubt myself. I wondered if my ideas, which were (and are) a bit too left field, were actually having an impact.

While I had enough ideas to keep my blogs going for at least a year, I had to stop. I had no plans to start again.

That said, I missed blogging a bit. I didn't miss the pace and expectations I'd set for myself, but I did miss the act of putting down an idea (no matter how completely formed) and setting it adrift on the seas of the internet. So, I decided to slide back into the blogging world.

The problem was that I didn't want to blog. At least, not in the form that blogging has adopted. I didn't want to publish long tracts, fully-formed arguments, lengthy guides. Instead, I wanted to set thoughts and ideas loose online. Nothing too long, nothing too structured. Just wonderings and woolgathering. Just snippets and speculation. Something like what I regularly jot down into a paper notebook.

And that's how I view this space. A notebook, but one that's not in my horrible handwriting. A notebook that gives readers a glimpse into what I'm thinking and doing. A notebook I'm under no pressure to regularly update.

Hands writing in a paper notebook

A while ago, author and speaker Scott Berkun tweeted something that got me thinking about journeys and destinations. Journeys and destinations in a more abstract and metaphorical sense.

In that tweet, Berkun wrote:

despite the popularity of the journey vs destination platitude the USA is destination obsessed. Why?

The impression I get is that people believe reaching the destination indicates completion, closure, and permission to move on to the next thing. But on those types of journeys, your destination is rarely a terminus. It's usually a waystation on a longer, more winding journey. One that builds on what's come before. One that branches off from something you thought you'd put behind you or finished. One that really never ends until you give up or pass on.

A cyclist checking a map

I love to read. I always have. I'd still love to read if I didn't write for a living. While most of my reading is for pleasure, I do read to learn and to get ideas for articles and blog posts.

Over the last six to eight months, the bulk of my reading has been long-form articles — ranging in length from 3,000 to 8,000 words. In case you're interested, I find most of the articles that I read at Longreads and Longform, as well as at Nautilus and Aeon magazines.

Lately, though, I've been wanting to get back to reading books. I have a number of electronic books waiting for my eyes to be cast over them. It's just that I haven't found the motivation or the energy to do so.

Until last Saturday. I was searching for something when I stumbled upon my old Kobo eReader. I haven't laid eyes on it for about a year, when I thought I had turned it into a brick with an update. Turns out that reader works perfectly. After charging it up and synchronizing it, I read two books.

Many would consider reading on a dedicated ebook reader to be archaic. Especially the model I have, which is four years old. People will ask Why use one of those when you have a tablet or a smartphone?

I disagree. An ebook reader, especially one with an E Ink screen, makes reading a bit easier. Most tablets and phones (as well as media players) I've read on are a bit harder on the eyes. They're a bit too bright for my taste. My Kobo eReader, on the other hand, approximates reading a physical book. Not perfectly, but well enough.

But it doesn't matter if I use a mobile device or a dedicated ereader. It doesn't matter if I'm poring over a dead-trees tome. What matters is that I'm using the printed word to nourish my brain and enlighten myself.

Reading with an ereader

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