Category Archives: Blogging

How to Write a “Juicy” Nonprofit Blog — or a Blog of Any Kind

July’s “Nonprofit Blog Carnival” asks for suggestions on “How to Create a Juicy Nonprofit Blog.” I’m not sure it’s possible to write a “juicy” nonprofit blog—I can’t see how SIX SHOCKING CELEBRITY SEX TAPE SCANDALS!!!! would apply to the sector, except as Google bait and something to draw the idea of otherwise bored readers to the article.

That being said, here’s my advice:

* Tell stories. People like stories. Joel Spolsky’s Joel on Software gets zillions of visitors not because he’s a very good programmer—which he probably is—but because he imparts his lessons through real stories about software fiascos. He says in Introduction to Best Software Writing I:

See what I did here? I told a story. I’ll bet you’d rather sit through ten of those 400 word stories than have to listen to someone drone on about how “a good team leader provides inspiration by setting a positive example.”

Yeah! In “Anecdotes,” Joel says:

Heck, I practically invented the formula of “tell a funny story and then get all serious and show how this is amusing anecdote just goes to show that (one thing|the other) is a universal truth.”

Steal someone else’s stories if you have to (I just stole Joel’s, which is a pretty solid source).

There’s a reason the Bible and most other religious texts are lighter on “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” and heavier on parables: the parables are way more fun. More people read novels than read legal codes, even though the novels implicitly offer examples of how to live your life. People read stories more readily than they read “how-to” manuals. Taken together, this is we often tell stories about projects, clients, and so on; my post Deadlines are Everything, and How To Be Amazing is a good example of this, since it’s basically one story after another. So is Stay the Course: Don’t Change Horses (or Concepts) in the Middle of the Stream (or Proposal Writing).

Real life is just a story generating machine. Which leads me to my next point:

* Do or have done something. I get the sense—perhaps incorrect—that some nonprofit bloggers spend more time blogging than they do working in or running nonprofits. This is like describing how to play professional baseball despite having never done so. A lot of grant writing bloggers, for example, don’t show evidence of working on any actual proposals; they don’t tell stories about projects, use specific examples from RFPs, and so on. This makes me think they’re pretending to be grant writers.*

* Be an expert and genuinely know the field. A lot of blogs that are putatively about grant writing don’t appear to have much insight into the process of grant writing, the foibles involved, the difficulty of getting submissions right, and so on. As I mentioned above, the writers seldom mention projects they’ve worked on and RFPs they’ve responded to.

* Dave Winer on great blogging:

1. People talking about things they know about, not just expressing opinions about things they are not experts in (nothing wrong with that, of course).

2. Asking hard questions that powerful people might not want to be asked.

3. Saying things that few people have the courage to say.

I would amend 3. to say “Saying things that few people have the courage or knowledge to say.”

* Don’t do something that everyone else is already doing. Every blog has “eight tips for improving your submissions,” which say things like “read the RFP before you start” and “get someone else to proofread your proposal.” Paul Graham wrote an essay against the “List of N Things” approach that’s so popular in weak magazines:

The greatest weakness of the list of n things is that there’s so little room for new thought. The main point of essay writing, when done right, is the new ideas you have while doing it. A real essay, as the name implies, is dynamic: you don’t know what you’re going to write when you start. It will be about whatever you discover in the course of writing it.

The whole essay is worth reading. Sometimes a bulleted list is appropriate, but more often it’s merely easy. Sometimes the “eight tips” are obvious and sometimes they’re wrong, but they often don’t add anything unique to a discussion.

Everyone else writes posts that are 100 – 200 words long and includes pictures; we made a conscious decision to write long, detailed posts that will actually help people who are trying to write grants. Stock photo pictures don’t add anything to writing, and most of what grant writing deals with can’t be shown or expanded with pictures. So we don’t use them. Isaac, of course, insists on working in old movies, TV shows and rock ‘n’ roll lyrics, but I will not comment on these idiosyncrasies.

Writing proposals is really, really hard, and the process can’t be reduced to soundbites, which is why we write the way we write as opposed to some other way. Pictures are wonderful, but I think it better to have no pictures unless those pictures add something to the story that can’t be conveyed any other way. Generic pictures are just distractions.

As you’ve probably noticed, this post isn’t really about nonprofit blogs: it’s about how to be an interesting writer in general, regardless of the medium. Being an interesting writer has been a hard task since writing was invented, and it will probably continue to be a hard task forever, regardless of whether the medium involves paper (like books, magazines, and newspapers) or bits (like blogs) or neural channels (someday).

Finally, if you can’t take any of my suggestions but you do have a shocking celebrity sex tape, post it, and you’ll probably get 1000 times as much traffic as every other nonprofit blog combined. That’s really juicy—almost as juicy as posts that are unique and don’t merely parrot back what the author has heard elsewhere and the reader has seen before.


* I also get the feeling there are a lot of pretend grant writers out there because our clients are so often astonished that we do what we say we’re going to do. That this surprises so many people indicates to me that a lot of “grant writers” are out there who prefer to talk about grant writing rather than writing grants.

You’re Not Going to be a Professional Blogger, Regardless of What the Wall Street Journal Tells You

The Wall Street Journal published a misleading article by Dennis Nishi called “Early Transition to Blog Pro,” about BoingBoing’s Mark Frauenfelder. It has two major problems: it implies that many more people make money solely from blogging than actually do, as though one can make a quick career of blogging (“How You Can Get There, Too”) and it doesn’t discuss how people actually use their blogs to make money, which is by selling ancillary services.

Problem One: No Money

Frauenfelder says that his blog does “make enough from advertising alone to cover costs and salaries,” but that “it’s hard to grow on just advertising.” Other bloggers—whose blog is a cornerstone of their career strategy—have already dealt with this issue in almost the exact language that he uses. As Penelope Trunk writes in “Reality check: You’re not going to make money from your blog,” people whose blogs are their income are very much the anomaly.” Right: even she doesn’t derive her primary income from blogging. Google ads pay almost nothing. Banner ads are worth almost nothing, and the market for advertising has cratered with the Great Recession.

Notice her first point: “Big bloggers come from big media.” She wrote a syndicated column before Brazen Careerist. If you’re not already involved in big media, you’re even less likely to make money blogging.

The experience described in “Blogs Falling in an Empty Forest” is probably more common: “Many people who think blogging is a fast path to financial independence also find themselves discouraged.”

First-Move Advantage

Frauenfelder has a first-mover advantage. Notice this:

Not long after [Frauenfelder’s magazine distributor folded], I discovered blogs and loved how easy they made it to publish, so I turned BoingBoing into one in 2000. It had already become a web zine (so) it seemed like a natural evolution.

He started nine years ago, before anyone on a newspaper staff had even heard the word “blog.” BoingBoing is now one of the most popular blogs on the Internet, in part because it covers technology, which is perhaps the most pervasive topic on the net. Very people are going to get there, even if they do work as hard as he has. Even then, I’d love to see Frauenfelder’s tax returns, because I bet he’s not making all that much despite running one of the Internet’s most popular blogs. Virtually no one is making any money directly from web advertising except Google (more on that later).

Lying With Numbers

The sidebar to “Early Transition to Blog Pro” claims:

Salary range: According to Henry Copeland, founder of BlogAds.com, a Web advertising concern based in Carrboro, N.C., self-employed bloggers in 2007 took in between $2,000 and $10,000 a month from ad sales.

I’d love to see what those numbers are based on, how Copeland defines self-employed, and so forth, especially since the numbers come from a person with an interest in making them appear high. This is a classic example of bogus data appearing in newspapers, and it’s the sort of thing that makes people doubt the news; this statistic could be an example in James Fallows’ Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy.

Paul Graham explains how bogus numbers get into newspapers in The Submarine, which concerns how public relations lurk beneath much of what you read and watch. In one example, he says:

Our greatest PR coup was a two-part one. We estimated, based on some fairly informal math, that there were about 5000 stores on the Web. We got one paper to print this number, which seemed neutral enough. But once this “fact” was out there in print, we could quote it to other publications, and claim that with 1000 users we had 20% of the online store market.

Copeland did the same thing to the WSJ, which is unusual—not because he tried, but because they bit. Without real metrics, Copeland’s numbers are garbage, and I doubt they’d stand up to, say, peer review. You can see the same kind of twisting in data about, say, job creation through government spending.

Still, Blogging Isn’t a Waste of Time

That being said, Trunk also argues that “Blogging [is] essential for a good career,” which is true for the reasons she gives and one she doesn’t: it sends a powerful signal of your intellectual engagement and prowess. You can’t fake enthusiasm and knowledge on a blog, where what you know and how you express what you know is available for all to see; Geoffrey Miller discusses extensively in his book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior.

Note, however, that Trunk’s article doesn’t map to “you’ll make a lot of money from blogging,” which is the subject of the WSJ story, and the likelihood of it being one’s primary income source is, again, low.

Problem Two: How People Do Make Money Via Blogging

They sell something else besides ads on their blog. If they run XKCD, they sell T-Shirts. If they run Ph.D. Comics, they sell… T-Shirts. If they run Joel on Software, they sell software. Trunk began a startup around headhunting.

Far more seem to make money by showing expertise and then selling said expertise. In other words, they’re producing something useful for the world.

To be Fair…

I wrote an e-mail to expressing some of these concerns Nishi, who replied:

Most of the people I interview for this column probably have some advantage or more sheer will than most people. But they do represent exceptional examples and are meant to inspire and show what’s possible. So if I interview Bill Gates, it wouldn’t be an instruction guide about how to create a software giant. It’s more of a glimpse into what it took to build a software giant, hence the name of the column.

(The name of the column is “How I Got Here”).

Bill Gates isn’t a very good analogy—if you told someone you could be like Bill Gates and get rich selling desktop software in, say, 2001, you would’ve been misguided at best: the world was (and still is) moving to web-based applications. Hell, even if you said that in 1989, you would’ve been wrong: between then and now, the only companies that have really made money from shrinkwrapped software are Microsoft and Adobe. Everyone else folded. His timing advantage isn’t just “some advantage”—it’s the advantage that allowed him to massively succeed.

Nonetheless, Nishi has a strong point. But the tone of the story differs from the tone of his e-mail. Look at the first line of the story: “When blogs first came to the Internet over a decade ago, nobody believed they would make money,” which implies that now some of them do make money. Which is correct—but it’s probably an astonishingly small number relative to the number of blogs out there, especially given the (cratered) advertising market. Look at the aforementioned sidebar: “How You Can Get There, Too.” Lots of people build blogs about subjects they’re passionate about and will never make money from them, as Trunk observes.