Friday, 19 February 2010

Why Blog?

The Past

Over the last 27 years I've used many methods to broadcast work and communicate with writers. Here are some starting dates and comments

1983: Face-to-face workshopsThese seems as popular as ever, though competition from the WWW might have narrowed the variety of people who attend.
1983: PerformanceNorwich, Nottingham, Cambridge
1987: Printed MagazinesThese continue much as before - even the letters pages with their turn-around time of months don't seem too affected by the Web. But the current recession may take its toll on printed magazines.

Then I started using computers

1987: Usenet (rec.arts.poems)This continues on Google Groups. Then as now it's unmoderated, which limits its usefulness. It's been superceded by functionally similar Web Forums.
1989: E-mail-mediated workshopMore private but by today's standards not user-friendly.

Then the Web arrived. Web magazines are in abundance, but the better ones perform much the same role as their printed counterparts (cheaper for submitters though, and less money for editors). Other uses of the medium emerged

1993: Web sites Litrefs and, later, Love the PoetTicking over. Top pages in Jan 2010 were Metaphor and Simile (1649 hits), Translating Dante (884 hits), and Getting your poetry published (880 hits)
2001: WWW-mediated workshopModerated
2007: YouTubeI have a few poetry videos on YouTube
2007: FacebookI glance at this weekly for invitations and announcements. The communication there seems mostly phatic and ephemeral to me.

I've never used Twitter. I've never published podcasts on iTunes (though I considered it once), and I've only added a few sentences to Wikipedia.

The Present

In December 2009 I started a blog, just when Stephen Fry, Rob MacKenzie (Surroundings), and others were cutting back on web emissions. Why?

  • Interblogability - Other bloggers are more likely to find it than my web site, and they're more likely to respond. Since I've been duplicating articles on my blog and website I've noticed that it's the blog versions that get mentioned in Tweets, etc. I also find that having a blog makes visiting other blogs easier.
  • Freedom - Being a non-work-based facility there are fewer restrictions on the material I can post.
  • Web 2.0 features - Users have come to expect social networking features. Blogging software has improved lately, and supplies them.

Some people use blogging software because it's the only way they can put things online. Nowadays that's not restrictive - blogging software's developed into site-management sofware, so blogware can be used for magazine publications nowadays. That said, blogs remain by default time-sequence-based, and items disappear from sight (posts get compacted into months, and months into years), which is why I duplicate info on the WWW so that I can categorise and structure it. If something's worth saying, it's worth keeping - news that stays news. However, with tags, gadgets and sophisticated searches old posts needn't be lost, and blogs are providing other ways to do what structure provides for a traditional web site so I may eventually relegate my web site to being a back-up site.

Blogs come in so many shapes and sizes that it's hard to decide whether a page is a blog let alone a good blog. Here's a list of sites that I like and sites that are generally popular

  • Personal Blogs - Silliman's Blog (Blogger) is internationally popular, opinionated, informative, often mentioned in the other universe of print, and responsive to comments. It's confirmation that "blog" is a verb as well as a noun. The Truth About Lies (Blogger - Jim Murdoch) is another literary blog - essay-length posts with a podcast option. Less purely literary (but the writers' lives are so tied up with literature that it makes little difference) are Baroque in Hackney (Wordpress - Katy Evans-Bush; mentioned in "Time Out"!), George Szirtes (Blogger - a major poet, but also a good journal writer), TaniaWrites (Blogger - Tania Hershman; 91 followers, and pages of value to writers - The Short Review, UK prose mags, etc) and Venessa Gebbie (Blogger)
  • Magazines - Everyday Fiction prints a story a day. Readers can add comments, and there's a rating system plus Forums. Various print publications have blog offshoots - Magma, Harriet (WordPress? Poetry Foundation) and The Guardian come to mind.
  • Sites - Bookslut is often mentioned in best-of blogrolls. It combines topical and reference material with adverts, but lacks some typically bloggy features.

The Future

I started drafting this article a few weeks ago. Since then, Adrian Slater's written Literary Communications where he writes that "the blog and online magazine used to complement the offline publishing world - I get the feeling that they're both sinking a little together". Perhaps so.

I can understand why blogs get abandoned. Budding authors are advised to start blogs so that agents notice them. Authors about to publish books are advised to promote the book in a blog. And some people start a blog like they would a diary as a New Year's resolution. Blogs that are started for these reasons aren't likely to last long. Other authors look upon their sites as providing an information service to the writing community, which may result in pressure to keep material up-to-date, to keep publishing (I've seen people apologise on their blogs for not posting recently. Why?). Some bloggers may feel that they're in competition with their peers and develop deadline anxiety. Eventually, some bloggers (especially when they see the access statistics) may wonder if all the effort's worthwhile: without income, purpose or loyal readership the effort's not sustainable.

I don't think I'll suffer from such pressures (if nothing else my web pages have longevity), but I'm unsure what role my blog will play. Perhaps this uncertainty is more wide-spread, and is a factor in some blogs' decline - is a blog a soapbox, personal journal, self-publishing on-the-cheap, a place to post drafts for comments, a discussion forum, a magazine, or a filing system for interesting URLs? Is it mostly static or mostly ephemeral? Of course, it can be any of these things, but sometimes while trying to do too much a site can lose focus and audience.

What you spend your time on depends on your post/read ratio, the amount of filtering you're prepared to do, the importance you attach to archiving and sorting your posts, whether you use smart-phones or computers, whether you combine poetry with socialising, etc. It also depends on what those you contact use.

I expect to use the blog for literary purposes - drafting articles, making topical announcements, and advertising items from other blogs. I'll post every week or so (I can post revised files from my website if I run out of ideas). I'll mention the blog in bios. I'll use the website to store static information for posterity, and I'll use Facebook for making announcements as well as making/receiving invitations. If you want to turn up to all the launches, sign the petitions, and be the first to hear about deaths, prize-winners, etc, then you need at least Facebook. If you're happy to let the dust settle first then you don't need Twitter.


  1. I read a lot of blogs before I started mine. A lot. Hundreds. I researched my subject thoroughly. Which is why I made the choices I made when I began the thing. The main reason was to promote my writing but there’s only so much one can say about one’s own writing without boring people to death. There’s also only so much one can say about oneself, especially if, like me, you live a quiet (i.e. boring) life. So I decided to keep myself on the sidelines and the same with my writing. The book reviews weren’t planned but, hell, if people are willing to send me free books I’m happy to read ‘em.

    I have some doubts about how effective online promotion is. I work hard at promoting my site but there are only so many people out there who are ever likely to be interested in my kind of stuff. Growth has been slow but steady and I’ve been getting 4000+ hits every month for a while now. But I’ve yet to be “discovered”. And I doubt I ever will be.

    The bottom line is that people read what I write even when I have the cheek to post a 6000 word article people still read it. That says something. I’m not the man I was two and a half years ago when I started all this. Writing daily and keeping a posting schedule has had a very positive effect on me as a person and as a writer. But it’s still hard work at times.

  2. But why a blog? Because it's easier to advertise?
    Your posts (interesting though they are) don't seem topical to me - no-one need rush to read them. Rather than blog them why not put them on your web site where you could arrange them by theme rather than blog-chronological order? I'd guess that the longer your pages exist, the more people will link to them and hence the more they'll be visited by search-engine robots, so I'd expect the steady growth of hits that you're observing. If you dealt with topical literary events or market/competition news I think people would more regularly revisit, and they might read the meatier stuff while they're there.