A Blogging Experiment Post-Mortem

Alt Title: How Not To Make a Ton of Money Blogging About Things That Matter to You

Why Do I Write?

I mostly write for selfish reasons.

I started blogging because I thought passive income would be great, but then after a while I realized it’s probably the wrong niche, and I’d have to (be really annoying || prolific || write about popular things to generate clicks) to even be seen, and that’s not what I want to spend my resources on.

Along the way, I’ve learned a lot, and discovered other reasons to drive my writing.

I write to deliberately practice and overlearn the thing I’m writing about.

I write for personal improvement and retention. Writing about something forces me to pay attention to details where I would otherwise say “great it works” without understanding why, and move on and forget.

I write to offload the details of processes for things I might want to repeat in the future without re-learning or digging through my notes. Even if I don’t blog about something, if I write notes thinking I might, the notes tend to be more helpful when I cycle back.
 
I write to help people. If someone else finds my writing or tutorials useful, that’s icing on the cake.


Time for the Post-Mortem

That’s not to say I’m done blogging, just that the experimental phase has gone on longer than it should. I wanted to capture my thoughts and mark a milestone between the experimenting/learning phase, and the maybe-approaching-blogging-a-little-more-seriously phase.

Things to improve upon

Consistency

In the beginning, I was so enthusiastic about writing, and produced a post every day or two for a couple of weeks, then stopped for months and months. After that, I’d publish every several months. Then a year later, I went into a writing frenzy and posted a dozen posts over a few weeks again.

Improved approach: build up a backlog of posts before launching a blog or post series on a particular topic, then have regular releases. That way the release cycle depends less on my level of motivation or time to apply to writing blog posts.

Recycling and tying content together

Another thing I would like to try is to recycle content and add digest/summary posts which focus on a single point mentioned within a larger post/tutorial.

What worked

Adding pages via StumbleUpon generates some traffic (10% of overall traffic), but it has the highest bounce rate (percentage of readers who leave vs. clicking through to other content on your blog).

Linking to other blogs and tutorial sites for pingbacks (5% of overall traffic).

Claiming #1 SEO (85% of overall traffic) for a specific niche cross-section of technologies which was really just an amalgamation of existing, slightly outdated approaches in other locations on the web, a combination of which worked for my use case.

What didn’t work

Having a single blog for all topics when that blog is specialized to a specific niche.

Chances are while writing a post for the niche, you will stumble on ideas for other blog posts. It’s important to weigh whether these new ideas would fit in the theme of the blog. Cluttering the blog with too many off-topic posts might cause readers to take it less seriously as an authority on the niche.

I found there were things I wanted to write about but didn’t fit the very specific nature of my only existing blog. I would write a draft and have nowhere to put it. Eventually I determined how to host multiple WordPress sites in a cost-effective manner, and now replicating the process for a new topic is fairly simple.


Non-exhaustive collection of Things Learned asterisk asterisk

General blogging lessons

1. How to formulate a template to capture a process

My rough working order/milestones:

  1. concepting (The #1 question is: “Will I want to write about this?”)
  2. outline
  3. code snippets and raw steps
  4. test steps/capture screenshots
  5. write human words: rough draft/brain dump
  6. consider and try to answer questions that might be asked
  7. write about problems I had or possible failure points
  8. edit: This happens throughout as I spot improvements, but generally is to make the brain dump reasonably coherant

2. Project milestones and discipline are important

  • One of the early posts took me 20+ hours and 48 revisions (to be fair, the revisions metric no longer applies since I’m writing all drafts and performing all editing locally). I had no plan; it was mostly a brain dump, then I had to go back and fix it dozens of times.
  • My most recent posts take me roughly 6 hours. A quarter was getting the steps right. Half was editing and fixing inconsistencies, formatting, and grammar problems. If I realize the problem I’m solving would make a good blog post early enough and take good notes accordingly, I can probably cut that in half again.

3. The value of using markdown/writing in local workspace cannot be overstated

  • This is vs. the (insert platform) editor where you have to deal with formatting, network, and hosting VM limitations that slow you down.
  • My initial posts were written and edited completely in the vanilla WordPress post editor, which has some nice features, but is slow to save, and when writing initial drafts it’s easy to get lost in the weeds of formatting.
  • Now I do 95% of the work before I leave the local workspace, and worry about formatting when the content is mostly polished.

4. Perfection is the enemy

Publish fast. Get it to 90~95% and fix it later (without letting the debt pile up too high). Nobody’s looking right away anyway, unless you already have a ton of followers, and it’s more motivating to edit/look for issues in the flow/technical details when it’s already out in the wild. Not to mention problems are more obvious when looking at it with fresh eyes a week later.

5. Prioritizing topics is key to staying motivated

  • The possibility of writing/teaching about some project/problem I’m considering spending time on motivates me to spend that time on that project/problem.
  • Paradox of choice is real.
  • Eventually you learn how to crush that horrible voice (well, it goes in waves) telling you nobody will care (at best) or think you’re incompetent (at worst).
  • It’s easier to write in the Winter. Less guilt at missing the nice weather, maybe?

Technical things

Managing a blog

Observations regarding getting noticed, traffic, and monetizing

Generating and managing traffic

  • Google analytics is very useful (and free) for discovering
  • Stumbleupon is nice to you until you submit a few dozen pages from the same domain, then you get the axe

Receiving feedback

The main forms of feedback are generally unhelpful:

  • Family and friends not understanding what you’re talking about but being default-encouraging and showering you with well-meant but cringe-worthy I-have-no-idea-what-you’re-talking-about-but-you-must-be-so-smart-I-could-never-do-that comments, so eventually you stop sharing publicly on Facebook
  • Generally positive and encouraging, but no real actionable feedback
  • Crickets
  • I like your post but here let me sell you this marketing strategy and/or (insert blog booster/hack/product)

Monetizing

  • This is really hard without great content and a lot of traffic. Don’t go into creating a blog with little to no experience expecting to make bank right away. Do it for other reasons (teaching/learning/enjoyment of writing) so you don’t burn out.
  • Most affiliates reject you outright if you have only 500 pageviews a month 🙂
    • (If you know of any great affiliates, please share in the comments!)

Cost/Benefits Breakdown

Costs:

  • $200 for hosting and domain registration
  • ~500 hours of my personal time over 18 months

Benefits:

  • 3 blogs with ~40 posts between them
  • An affiliate commission of $65
  • A referral bonus of $25 toward Digital Ocean services (the referred gets a $10 bonus, so it’s a sweet deal for both of us. If you’re interested in Digital Ocean hosting, here’s the link)
  • Improvement in writing and technical documentation skills, which has helped me in my career

Conclusion

I’d consider the experiment a success. At the very least, my hobby isn’t prohibitively expensive. Now it’s an integral part of my life, and will continue to be so.

Thanks for reading!

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