How Novelists Can Blog

There are mixed opinions about whether blogging is any good for novelists. As Caprice Hokstad noted on my post “Why You Should Be Blogging,” this kind of writing is nonfiction and doesn’t come easily to fiction writers. I myself struggled to blog consistently over at my other blog before I got serious, got a purpose, and started serving writers by producing this blog.

I have no delusions that my efforts here or there will help me promote my novels when they’re released.

novelist blog

Nevertheless, some novelists do make a go of blogging, usually by writing about topics or themes that occur in their books. Articles about the kinds of things their target readers would be interested in. So if blogging suits you, here are some novelist blogs you can look to for inspiration.

Lynn Coleman writes historical fiction and blogs about her research at 19th Century Historical Tidbits. The same kind of readers who enjoy reading books with 19th-century settings will also enjoy reading the recipes, fashion plates, and magazine articles from the period that Coleman shares.

David Brin, a science fiction writer, blogs about science and society. He spotlights other writers’ books and isn’t afraid to go off on a political rant. Here is a writer focused on serving his target readers and not trying to please everyone.

Angela Hunt pulls of the rare feat of writing both fiction and nonfiction in multiple genres, so she has a diverse blog.

Wanda Brunstetter, by contrast, has a blog tightly focused on the subject of her novels—Amish culture.

Danielle Steel blogs in a way that makes each post seem like a letter to her readers. She blogs about fashion and other topics that appeal to her readership.

Brandon Sanderson, who writes epic fantasy, tends to blog about his work, including promoting the writing podcast he’s part of, but he also covers news relating to the genre and promotes other authors’ books.

For more ideas, listen to the Novel Marketing Podcast episode “What Should Novelists Blog About?”

If blogging’s not for you, don’t bother

Having started this discussion with an affirmation of blogging, I will nevertheless close it by admitting that you don’t have to blog. Plenty of writers succeed without a blog. You should still have a website, though, so people can find you online. If you can stock that website with a few articles related to the themes and topics in your fiction, so much the better. C.J. Lyons, who writes medical thrillers, has a website with a small collection of related articles. You need a web presence, but that presence doesn’t have to include a blog.

UPDATE: Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn posted a blog the same day as this one on the same topic, and she has some excellent observations about what your author website should contain. She, too, advises against blogging if your heart’s not in it:

If you have to ask what to blog about, then probably don’t bother. It’s only worth doing if you just can’t help but share what you’re passionate about.—Joanna Penn

Why You Need a Picture with Your Blog Post

You may have noticed that almost every blog post you read has at least one picture with it. Often, the picture isn’t strictly necessary to understanding the topic. In fact, sometimes the images have a tenuous connection to the actual content. Nevertheless, you are well advised to include one with your own posts. The reason is simple.

Pictures get people’s attention.

blog pictures

Illustration by Billy Alexander, my favorite FreeImages artist.

In print media, photos provide what we call an “entry point.” Say I’m flipping through a newspaper—maybe my local business journal?—and see an illustration of a spacecraft. What the heck? So I stop to see what that’s about and learn that a local manufacturer just got a NASA contract to build a new manned space flight vehicle for the U.S.A., and they’re going to hire a few thousand aerospace engineers right here in Central Florida…

OK, I know, wishful thinking on my part.

But the point is, a photo or illustration is attention-getting, and in a media-saturated environment like the Internet, they’re incredibly important. When your blog post is shared on social media, either by you or by one of your followers, it will get more attention if there’s a photo with it. People will pause to look at the photo, and if the headline also grabs their attention, they’ll click through to your post.

Also, images give you another search engine opportunity. When you upload a photo, one of the information fields is “alt text.” If you put your keywords in that field, your post will be more likely to show up in search engine results than if you leave it blank.

Where to find good images

Don’t use Google Images or something like it to find images for your blog. If you grab pictures from there, you do not have a license to re-use them on your own site. As writers, we expect people to honor our copyrights. Photographers and artists are also protected by copyright, so honor that and don’t use their images without their permission.

Here are some good sites for blog art:

FreeImages. This site has a large collection of photos and illustrations, all free for you to use. Because these are free, the quality is iffy, but there are some gems in there. This is always my first stop, because like many freelancers, I’m on a shoestring budget.

Fotolia. This isn’t a free site, but the prices are reasonable, and the quality of the images is excellent. Especially when I’m looking for something abstract rather than literal, Fotolia usually meets my needs.

WANA Commons. This Flickr group founded by blogger Kristen Lamb is a free photo pool by and for bloggers. (WANA is Lamb’s acronym for We Are Not Alone, her rallying cry for writers.)

Wikimedia Commons. This site is good for when you need classical art or pictures of things in the real world. The photos are usually covered by a Creative Commons license.

Unsplash. This site has fabulous photography, but a limited selection. Also using the Creative Commons licensing model.

How to find good images

Usually, as on this post, a literal interpretation of the topic works just fine. To find the image above, I used the search terms “photo collage” on FreeImages.

Other times, you’ll want to avoid the obvious. For example, if you’re writing about business introductions, don’t go with the obvious handshake photo. Dig deeper for something that hasn’t been done before. Try adding the word concept to your keyword as a search term. That’s how I found the illustration on my “Introduce Your Readers to Someone New” post.

The more abstract the topic, the more creative you need to be about how to illustrate it. That’s why you see a Rubik’s Cube on my post about preventing continuity errors. Instead of illustrating your topic literally, try to think of a metaphor. That can help set your post apart in the social media stream.

If you know a great site for free or inexpensive art, please share in the comments.

Choose Your Style Guide

I wrote before about three of the most common style books: The Chicago Manual of Style, The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, and the Associated Press Stylebook.

There are two others worth considering if you do most of your work online.

The Yahoo! Style Guide is a huge compendium that not only deals with spelling issues (it recommends capitalizing Internet but omits the hyphen in e-mail, which I think wrong-headed) but also with web-specific issues like search engine optimization and user interfaces. At the moment, the Yahoo guide is going for $11 on Kindle and $16.88 in print, but it’s possible to buy used copies for much less.

Garbl’s Editorial Style and Usage Manual is compiled by freelance writer and editor Gary B. Larson, and though I have yet to delve deeply into it, what I’ve seen so far is entirely sensible, except of course that pesky omission of the hyphen in e-mail. The Garbl manual is organized alphabetically, just like the AP and CWMS books. Garbl seems very similar to the AP book. I offer it here because it’s free, so you can use it as a “starter” style guide until you settle on one for sure.

style books e-reader

Illustration © Oleksiy Mark • Fotolia

How style affects spelling

Which style book you choose can have an effect on your spelling. If you’re using Chicago, you’ll hyphenate e-mail, as the major dictionaries recommend.

On whether to write OK or okay, AP, Yahoo, and Garbl specifically call for OK. CWMS calls for okay. Chicago is silent in print, but when I asked the editors, they said, “We follow Webster’s 11th Collegiate, which puts ‘OK’ as the first spelling—but that does not mean it is preferred. Rather, ‘okay’ is an equal variant (also standard).”

So when checking your spelling, check the style book first. If it’s silent on the issue, go to your dictionary.

Knowing Which Style Book to Choose

With so many style books to choose from (and I haven’t even addressed The Gregg Reference Manual and the FranklinCovey Style Guide, which are for business writing, or the Turabian and APA manuals, used in colleges), how do you pick?

The main thing to consider is what you are writing. If you plan to do most or all of your writing on the web, the Yahoo manual is perfect. Use Garbl if financial constraints are a problem.

If you’re writing in the Christian Market, the CWMS will advise you on matters the others don’t address. A colleague recently introduced me to the now out-of-print Creative Writer’s Style Guide, which so far looks very useful for novelists and writers of creative nonfiction. I suggest picking up a used copy while you still can.

If you’re writing articles for periodicals, you may want the Associated Press Stylebook, but again, since Garbl seems closely modeled on that one, you could use Garbl if you need to save money. Chicago is the standard for academic nonfiction, but for most writers, it’s overkill. As I said before, Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors compiles information from both Chicago and AP, so it’s the only one most writers will need.

Grammar and Spelling Resources

Last time, we looked at the first two parts of PUGS, Punctuation and Usage. Today we’ll look at the others.

Grammar

In common speech, we often use “grammar” to encompass all parts of writing, including spelling and punctuation. But grammar really refers specifically to the way we assemble words into sentences.

English grammar is very complex, and has multiple registers, or degrees of formality. Many college instructors require the most formal register, so that’s what many businesspeople use. At its most extreme, this register eliminates both first and second-person pronouns, leading to unnatural constructions like “this researcher has found” and “one may notice” instead of “I’ve found” and “you may notice.” In standard writing, there is no proscription against these forms. So you can choose whatever level of formality you’re comfortable with. In a blog, you can be very casual.

grammar spelling

illustration © kentoh • Fotolia

You are, however, going to have to proofread your own grammar, or have someone else do it. Microsoft’s grammar checker is frequently wrong. If grammar is not your strong suit, you can outsource it to someone like me, or you can enlist a friend who’s strong in grammar and in exchange offer to help them in some way that suits your skill set.

For further reading on grammar, I recommend The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation by Jane Straus as an accessible text that provides the fundamentals most writers need. If you want a more in-depth text, try Oxford Modern English Grammar by Bas Aarts. The latter is a highly technical academic text, so it’s probably overkill for most of us. While you’re at Amazon, download the Kindle preview of A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum (you can read on your computer if you don’t have a Kindle device). It’s even more technical and densely written than the Oxford, but it’s got a great introduction that explains the differences between standard and nonstandard English, formal and informal style, and descriptive and prescriptive approaches to grammar.

Spelling

Spell check will flag blatant misspellings, so it is not quite as useless as the grammar checker. But spell check will not save you if you add an h to the last name of Florida politician Charlie Crist. Yeah, I did that once. Spell check can’t help if you type manger instead of manager. It just has no sense of context. So proofread backward. That will force you to examine each word in turn without running them together into sentences.

Many people, including copyeditors, wrestle with when to include hyphens. You may think of that as punctuation, but truly hyphenation is usually a spelling issue. There are pages of charts in the Chicago manual—10 pages—explaining when to use and not use hyphens, and they still don’t cover all circumstances.

The trend in American English is to eliminate hyphens unless confusion will result. That said, check your dictionary, because some compounds are always hyphenated, such as well-being and cross-eyed, while some are open in one form but not in another. For example, long term is open as a noun (e.g., he’s in it for the long term) but hyphenated as an adjective (this is a long-term assignment). A good dictionary will help with usage and spelling, including, in many cases, hyphenation.

The Chicago Manual of Style editors recommend Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. If you often write for periodicals, you may be more familiar with Associated Press Style, which calls for Webster’s New World College Dictionary.

For her book Your Own Words, Barbara Walraff surveyed dictionaries and found the one that’s built into MS Word is sufficient for most writers. If you’re a Mac user, you have the Dictionary app, which includes the New Oxford American Dictionary, which Walraff also rates highly.

The website OneLook is an excellent resource for word nerds, since it searches multiple dictionaries at once, including slang dictionaries like Wordnik and the not-safe-for-work Urban Dictionary.

Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, has a great article about hyphens. Here’s another good article, at AP vs. Chicago: “Compounds Ending with a Preposition or Adverb: Open, Hyphenated, or Solid.”

Just to confuse matters, sometimes spelling is dependent upon your style book of choice. More on that next time.

Don’t neglect punctuation and usage on your blog

Back in the day, amateur bloggers could often get away with sloppy craft. The novelty of the medium meant readers were very forgiving. Even today, the readers of someone’s personal blog may not care about slips such as using intrical to mean integral. But the more professional your blog is, the more you’re expected to maintain high standards of craft.

Most business people are good writers. They’ve had to be to succeed in school and work. And people who self-identify as writers usually write very strong prose. Paying close attention to the quality of your writing is a must if you’re blogging to build your business or platform.

Kathy Ide, founder of The Christian PEN Proofreaders and Editors Network, coined the term PUGS to refer to the primary elements of craft: Punctuation, Usage, Grammar, and Spelling. Today, let’s look at the first two. We’ll tackle Grammar and Spelling next time.

punctuation

Illustration © fotomatrix • Fotolia

Punctuation

Punctuation is hard. The section on commas in The Chicago Manual of Style is 14 pages long. I think this complexity is what keeps copy editors in business. My Comma Cheat Sheet contains the bare minimum you need to know about commas, and it’s still almost a whole page.

I’ve written before about punctuation, so I won’t repeat myself here. If you want to learn more about punctuation, Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors is a great resource. The Copyeditor’s Handbook contains more on the subject than most writers need. If you really want to get into it, you can find Chicago on the reference shelf at your local library. Punctuation is covered in Chapter 6.

Usage

When editors speak of usage, we’re talking about using words correctly. Make sure the word you write is the word you mean. One commonly confused pair of words is trooper (the guys employed by the state to patrol the highways) and trouper (an actor in a traveling company). When you say someone’s a trouper, it’s that second sense you’re after—the idea that they are a dependable performer who believes the show must go on, no matter what. Law enforcement is not part of that idiom.

Some other common confusables:

Principal (a leader, or the first part of something, e.g., an investment) and principle (a tenet)

Throws (as in a ball) and throes (as in agony)

Roll (a list, or a bread served with dinner) and role (a part you play)

Rack (as in the torture device) and wrack (a shipwreck). Brains and nerves are racked. If something is destroyed, people sometimes use the cliched term wrack and ruin. Smart writers like you will come up with something more original.

The Oxford Dictionaries website has a good long list of commonly confused words.

If you must use jargon or industry-specific language, define the terms. Yes, people in your field probably already know them. But assume that as least some of your readers are newbies. If there are a lot of them, you can include a glossary. For example, an article about investing would define terms like stop-loss order and ROI.

For more about usage, including some books on the topic, see this post: Watch your language usage.

 

Three Elements of a Good Blog Post

When writing your blog post, keep these three elements in mind.

Attention-getting headlines are a must. Write your headlines with your reader in mind. Think about what sort of terms people would use on Google to find the subject you’re writing about. Put that term in your headline.

Back in my newspaper days, when I was producing content for the Orlando Business Journal website, our crash course in search engine optimization included an example of what not to do, citing the news agency whose article about an airplane crash in the Hudson River was titled “Jetliner’s Icy Plunge.” Well, of course no one was doing web searches for those terms. People searched for “airplane crash Hudson River,” so outlets that had headlines close to that ranked higher on Google.

Copyblogger has a great set of resources called How to Write Magnetic Headlines.

story

Photo © dizain • Fotolia

Focus on great writing rather than SEO. Include your keywords in the first paragraph, if it’s not too corny to do so. Keywords in your lead can improve your search engine ranking. But if putting them there produces prose that sounds artificial, go for authenticity instead.

Over at Lateral Action, Mark McGuinness puts it this way:

“While keywords are definitely important, it’s a common misconception that the most important thing you need to do to get a new website to rank well on search engines is to fiddle about with the keywords in your website text…First, produce great content that will naturally attract links from other sites. Then optimize your most important pages.”

I wish I could give you the five easy steps to great writing. But truly, it comes down to practice. Nevertheless, later in this series I will talk about the craft of writing and give you some resources.

Use story elements when possible. Fiction stories are made up of character and plot. Nonfiction, likewise, is often about people and events. Every story is a human interest story. Even a story about robots has the angle of “how will this affect the lives of humans?” Trace cause and effect relationships to a conclusion. Raise questions and answer them, from both sides, if possible.

One technique is to bring the reader into the article as if he or she were a player in it by using the second person, e.g., You know that when all the family arrives for Thanksgiving dinner, you’re likely to feel increased stress. Here are 10 ways to unwind during the holidays… This is most often found in how-to articles, but can work in other types as well. People are bored by facts, but they remember stories.

You can also make up a fictional story to make your point. Jesus did this with his parables, and modern-day parables can also be effective. McGuinness has a cast of characters that he uses on his site to illustrate points and relate them to his readers. Here’s one example: “The 3 Critical Characteristics of the Creative Entrepreneur”

Your story can be about something that happened to you and what you learned from it. I did this above with the headline anecdote. Sometimes the whole blog post is the story, for example in Hannah Gaddini’s post for The Junia Project about what she learned while preaching in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: “An Accidental Advocate (in one of the worst places in the world to be a woman).”

True-life stories about other people are extremely effective. The folks at Planet Money do this really well. Soon after the Haiti earthquake, they presented a story about “Yvrose Jean Baptiste, a small-time Haitian wholesaler” whose business was disrupted by the quake. If the reporters had just served up a bunch of facts and figures, you’d forget about it, but this businesswoman got people’s attention. Five years on, I still think of her when I think about Haiti’s beleaguered economy. That’s great storytelling.

Do Your Research, but Not Too Much

Research can be a great source of ideas. It can also be a huge time sink. If you’re doing research solely for a single blog post, set a limit on your time. Decide when you will stop researching and start writing. For most blog posts, an hour or two should be plenty. Then stop and work with what you have. You’re writing a blog post, not a book.

Well, maybe you are writing a book. That’s a whole other issue.

If you’re studying a complex topic that requires more time to fully understand, then consider writing multiple posts about it.

studying research writing

Photo by Mikhail Lavrenov • freeimages.com

Let’s also look at this from another angle. If there’s research you need to do to succeed or stay current in your business, consider blogging about it. If you were going to do the research anyway, you might as well get a blog post, or several, out of it.

As for writing a book, Nina Amir literally wrote the book about blogging a book. The short version is that you can write sections of your book in blog-post-size bits, and post them to your website. Then when it’s all written, you edit the posts into a blog. This is an effective technique that lets you build an audience as you write the book.

I have to say that blogging a book is not recommended for fiction. But for nonfiction, it’s a great tactic.

Use reliable sources

Don’t rely on Wikipedia for anything you stake your reputation on. There’s just no way of knowing when it’s wrong.

Wikipedia is useful for giving yourself a foundation of knowledge to build on. At the bottom each article is a list of links to other sources. Use those as the basis of your research rather than the Wikipedia article. Websites ending in .edu are university sites and are reliable as they usually carefully curate their content.

If you’re interviewing someone, be sure to check their references to establish their expertise. Plan your questions out ahead of time to make best use of the interviewee’s time. Consider recording, either with a computer or phone or digital recorder, but remember to let people know you’re recording.

Avoid research paralysis. Consider whether all the information you need is already in your head. Write the first draft based on what you know, then fill in gaps from research and notes. One of the reasons research slows people down is that the more you study, the more you realize how little you know. Don’t let that stop you. You don’t need to know everything. You just need to know enough to educate your readers. The more complex the topic, the more likely you are to want to keep digging. Stop. Share what you’ve learned so far.

If you are still inspired to keep digging, you can always write more later.