In September 2003 I started a blogging project: six years later, I’m halfway through it. It seems like a good time to put down in writing what – if anything – I’ve learned through doing Popular: what I got right and what I got wrong.
Not the marks, of course – those aren’t changing, much as I’d like some of them to. But since I started doing it I’ve seen a lot of other blog projects – some predating mine, some inspired by mine, some in whole different galaxies. Some of them – and here’s where I shudder slightly – have not only started, they’ve finished while I’ve ambled scenically through some decade or other.
In other words, there’s a certain type of blogging saint or fool who likes to undertake vast projects and might appreciate advice on how to go about it. Am I the best person to give that advice? I doubt it, but I’m going to do it anyway. Here goes:
Know why you’re doing it: I started Popular for a bunch of reasons but the main was curiosity – what was pop like before people like us started caring about it? How has it changed? Why do people buy hits? That motivation has shaped the project in lots of ways: most importantly it meant I always had other people’s input in mind. (My comments box ideal is that every single hit will attract someone who said “Look, I bought this and I don’t regret it at all – here’s why”.)
But that’s only one possible motivation for doing it. I could have started it with a book deal in mind – in which case I would have written it differently and not cared about the community aspect. I could have started it to boost hits – in which case I’d have promoted it better and written it faster. I could have started it as an attempt to push a particular aesthetic vision – all sorts of reasons. If you’re clear about why you’re doing something, it gets easier and more enjoyable.
Don’t expect to finish: Of course, your motivation might be “Let’s see what happens”. That’s a good reason for doing something! But if that’s the case – and actually even if it isn’t – my advice would be to NOT shout about the project at first. Just get on with it, and once you’re sure you’re going to keep it up, then start talking about it as a Thing. Because it’s not a Thing at first, it’s a handful of blog posts with pretensions. Certainly don’t make big plans for, say, the 100th entry or what you’ll do when it finishes – though once it’s turned into a Thing it’s a good idea to have mini-milestones in sight to get you through it.
It’s not the next 100 entries, it’s the next three: Pessimism is as dangerous as optimism, though. If you’ve let a project lapse it can be agonising to start pushing the boulder uphill again. You know in your heart whether a project is “on the go” or not, I think, and if it is then I find it takes three new entries (at most!) for it to feel like a going concern again. Three entries – come on! That’s not too hard!
Have a realistic schedule: This one took me AGES to learn, oddly given that it’s the most basic project management skill there is! I now expect to put a Popular post up on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. If I don’t, I feel antsy – but I also don’t feel guilty about not writing anything on the other four days. This is a much healthier state of affairs than posting entries in a burst and then getting a gnawing feeling when you let things slip for a week. The schedule suits me and lets me feel the project is progressing, but it also suits the community – a couple of days turns out to be enough time for the commenters to cover all the obvious bases, with room for a good argument or two to start.
Don’t rely on other people: In my experience group blog projects suffer way more delays and hiatuses than solo ones. If anyone could potentially write the next entry, anyone could also potentially not write it. If you’ve got a way of making group blog projects work well I would love to hear it – this is very much a nut I’ve not cracked.
Pick the right topic: Ought to be top of the list maybe, but on the other hand few people wake up and say “I want a huge blog project – what can I do?”. You are called to these absurd things, like the priesthood. But it’s important to think about VARIETY and how you’ll give yourself it. Writing about “your 100 favourite pickles” might sound incredibly tempting but have you got the knowledge and vocab to make the entry for pickle #86 distinct from that of pickle #87? (I didn’t really appreciate when I started Popular how good it is for this – lots of different styles of music, tons of nice sub-stories, a range of reaction from bliss to wrath – perfect! If I do say so myself.)
Know your limits: On a related note, when you hit a limit to your knowledge, experience, or ability to usefully cover something it’s far better to admit it than to try and bluff it out. I’m lucky in that my project has a thriving community that allows me to be slapdash or simply baffled sometimes.
And one final piece of advice, DO IT! – writing Popular has mostly been an enormous pleasure, and when it hasn’t I know that I’ll have people discussing even the most strained post. The Internet is too big and fast for people to remember failures, so don’t worry about starting and abandoning things.
In the second half of this piece I’ll talk about stuff that’s specifically for people wanting to create a community around their blog project. Like I say, there are other motivations, but I don’t have a huge audience and I don’t have a book deal, so my advice on those would be specious. The community element, however, has gone far better than I ever imagined it would.