What six years of writing for {grow} taught me (and now, you)

years of writing

By Kiki Schirr, {grow} Contributing Columnist

The social media world started with blogging. Long before smart devices could edit videos on the fly or record a podcast, we had a keyboard and we could write words. But I often hear that no one reads anymore. Newspaper and magazine subscriptions are indeed tanking and many bound books are gathering dust. Audiobooks, podcasts, and YouTube channels have arguably taken their place.

But wait. What’s that I hear? Could it be the rumbling of great writing surging back to the front of the line?

Amazon requires its employees to write 6-page essays on critical developments in their industry. Medium, LinkedIn and Substack newsletters are exploding right now, and Backlinko calculated that in February 2021, the top 10 newsletters pulled in $15M by themselves. Newsletters are suddenly hot.

And there’s the tortoise in the race, slow but surprisingly resilient: the self-hosted blog. Mark Schaefer started writing his {grow} blog posts in 2009. In 2009, IBM was the second-largest tech company by market share, the iMac had a rear-projection screen and came in Bondi Blue, and Geocities was breathing its final breaths.

The {grow} blog has been around longer than Snapchat, Tinder, Venmo, Uber, and Slack. Mark’s blog has outlived MoviePass, Path social network, Google Glass, Microsoft Kinect, Vine, Meerkat, Periscope, and Amazon and Facebook’s attempts at phones.

There’s a reason blogs are the best home base for your digital presence. They won’t shut down like Vine did. Blogs won’t pivot like Medium has (aplenty). They won’t shadowban you or lock you out.

Your blog is yours, and it has staying power for as long as you put in the effort.

But even as a guest or a recurring contributor to a blog, there are amazing benefits to regular posts.

What being a contributing author on {grow} has done for me

In May of 2015, I wrote my first post for the {grow} blog. When I read it now I’m a bit embarrassed that I was such a novice. But Mark saw something in that guest post, and maybe in my random tweets about tech and startup culture. He invited me to be a contributing columnist to this blog.

Now, here I am, six years and 64 posts later. Through these years of writing, I’ve met people in real life (IRL) who I first encountered through {grow.} I was hired for a job based on one of my posts. I’ve even been recognized at events because I write for {grow}!

But the most important benefit of writing for {grow} is how I’ve grown as a writer. Between the reader feedback and Mark’s editing, I’ve gained confidence in my writing. I’d like to say that I’ve become wiser, but that’s hard to prove. But I know for sure that I’m a better author.

The most successful blog posts don’t fly through the interwebs because of flawless grammar and spelling. Once you learn to eliminate common mistakes, the benefits of continuing to improve the technical aspects of your writing are subtle and difficult to measure. Neverthless, growing and improving are important.

I’ve learned some tricks over these years of writing that made me a better columnist. I wish I’d known them as I was typing out my first post for {grow.} While I might not be able to save my younger self from those early errors, I’ll share what I’ve gained over the years …

1) I learned to know this audience

The importance of knowing your audience cannot be overstated … and it’s also the easiest advice to overlook. “Oh, they’ll like this,” the new author tells himself, writing a 3,000-word essay on why Pokémon cards will outlast Digimon cards in his blog about motorcycles. “They’ll learn something.”

Don’t be that guy.

Even though we’ve all been that guy.

I should have noticed sooner (before devoting three posts to the subject!), that {grow} really isn’t the right place for long, philosophical discussions about the ethics of new technologies. That’s not to say {grow} readers wouldn’t enjoy this discussion over a glass of wine or mug of coffee — I’ve met enough of you now to know that you would.

But when people navigate to the {grow} blog, they won’t slog through my ruminations on artificial intelligence and the academic honor code. Even if it is a better post than Poke-vs-Digi-mon.

Readers want actionable advice, practical information, and Mark’s experienced view on trends and the horizon’s edge of marketing. They might read Mark’s post if he wrote about AI and honor codes, because he is a university educator and an industry-leading expert. And after years of blogging, Mark has become the digital equivalent of a close friend.

So knowing your audience is not only knowing about what your readers enjoy, but also why they chose your blog over the millions of others they could have chosen. Stay in your lane.

2) Reader engagement beyond likes

Because people trust the quality of {grow} posts, it’s shared automatically through services like Zapier and Buffer. When I saw people sharing my post on Twitter and LinkedIn it took me a long time to realize that those shares are a false positive on how I’m doing as a blogger.

It can be easy to get caught up in likes and retweets, but those metrics are generally a distraction. What’s most important is the back-and-forth of engagement with your readers that creates a bond. It doesn’t take a human to pull a title and Twitter handle into a tweet. Watch for people who have taken the time to pass your content on to their followers with personal commentary.

When you see your post reshared on LinkedIn with a long analysis of all of the knowledge bombs you dropped and a few wishes for what more you could have added, take note. That’s a good topic to revisit.

But if you write an article and tie-in a dog analogy so you can feature a picture of a puppy, you’ll get a misleading amount of likes and even un-commented shares. Unless your reader feels like responding or backing your content to the point of staking their own reputation on it, those likes can’t be seen as true measures for the regard of your audience.

Also, when you find someone responding effusively to your writing, connect with them, get to know them, and ask what other topics they’d like you to cover or expand.

3) {grow} taught me that formatting is vital

When I first began blogging here, my sentences were too long. My past experience writing non-fiction was academic. My long and complicated sentence structures cobbled together with em dashes and semi-colons were the norm.

Blogs are not an academic exercise or creative writing contest.

A common SEO best practice is to let just 300 words accumulate between sub-headings. Break up those large blocks of texts. A reader’s attention is more important than SEO, so sometimes I’ll also use images and block quotes for spacing.

The best practices of SEO are in constant flux, but line breaks will remain important as long as we read from small, backlit screens. Until a new technology is widely adopted, short sentences, short paragraphs on a single topic, and accurate summary headers will be your best friends.

New bloggers often dismiss readers who skim as being “not their reader.” This is false. Everyone — no matter how academic or attached to em dashes — will sometimes skim an article.

Readers might skim multiple articles is when deciding to subscribe to your content. If you think skimmers are not “your reader” you’ll have few readers at all!

So treat each post as if your audience depends on it. Use easy-to-read fonts, high contrast colors, summary headlines, short paragraphs, and attractive images with alt tags.

4) Find your niche

I warned you to stay in your lane, but first you have to know your niche. Of course knowing your audience and engaging with them helps, but finding your niche probably comes through time and experience.

Mark has always allowed me to choose the topics of my posts, but he was able to see long before I did that my posts about new tech for marketers were the ones that shined.

If you don’t have a Mark Schaefer guiding you, finding your niche will take consistent effort. Writing a variety of blog posts to see what sticks is the simplest strategy.

Early on, Mark challenged me: what blog post can only you write?

If you focus on that, you’re bound to come up with something original and that’s a great start. If you can skateboard, write code, and speak Korean, then you might be the only person who can write about the new apps out of Seoul that geofence good skating areas and send alerts if someone in your area is cracking down on skaters!

Pay attention to reader feedback and social shares to narrow your focus over time.

5) Don’t get caught up in fads

As I was compiling data for this article, I stumbled across another lesson I’d learned: Don’t write long blog posts about fads or technologies you don’t think will last for three years.

In the 30 grow posts that I wrote between 2015-2017, I recommended 86 different tech products or services for marketers.

By 2021, 16 of those products and companies failed and four were acquired and renamed. If I were in venture capital, that would be a pretty decent portfolio. But as a blogger, I’ve created outdated content. In my defense, I recommended most of the failed products in my first four blog posts. That was before it dawned on me — blog posts outlive fads!

In a blog that isn’t about news or trends, it’s better to skip dated posts and write evergreen content. Evergreen content remains a relevant search term and needs little editing even five years later. It’s the type of content you don’t need to scour for broken links after six months.

Reformatting for current SEO standards becomes less important when you have a trail of quality writing leading to your homepage. So write articles that will remain relevant in order to stay relevant yourself.

I hope that you found this guide useful and inspiring. Have you been procrastinating on starting your own blog or newsletter? Or if you already have a blog or a regular blogging gig, what other advice would you share with {grow} readers?

KikiSchirrKiki Schirr is a freelance marketer, writer, and former founder who enjoys new technologies. She believes success is a product of luck, tenacity, and chutzpah. You can email Kiki Schirr at her full name without spaces at Gmail. Just remember that she responds faster on Twitter.

 

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