Tips for writing a good blog

The internet is buried in blogs. Some are brilliant and some mind-numbingly bad. But most blogs are simply mediocre, with a huge percentage read by very few.  Fortunately most farm blogs don’t fall into this category.  There is strength in a diversity of rural voices – people writing from a wide variety of industries, backgrounds, and personalities.  So it’s great to see increasing numbers having a go.

Tips for writing a good blog:

It’s pointless writing what has already been covered by every second man and his dog.  Ideally what you write is different, interesting, thought-provoking and/or funny.  And well written.  But give it a burl.  The only failure is the failure to try, and practice really does get you closer to perfection.

  • Write about what you’re passionate about.  Enthusiasm is infectious.
  • Stick to what you know. Properly research any gaps in your knowledge.  Or you’ll look like an ass, and worse, broadcast misinformation which is spread and perpetuated by others way into the future.
  • Difficult as this can be to accept (especially if you were born in the middle of your family), remember it’s impossible to please everyone.  As my school drama teacher pointed out to us, being obsessed with how you’re perceived by others is actually narcissistic and arrogant.  And if there isn’t a risk that someone will disagree with what you’ve written, it’s probably so mundane it’s pointless.
  • On the other hand, if you have absolutely no concern about the impact of your words on others (from friends and family to complete strangers), you probably shouldn’t be writing publicly. Moderation is the key.
  • ALWAYS keep your eye on the end result you’re aiming for, at least when revising what you’ve written. Ultimately, what do you want your words to achieve?  Do you want to prompt other people to think about an angle they haven’t thought of before, broadcast some facts others are overlooking, correct misinformation, help other people (this blog post), and/or make people laugh?  For many years one of my fundamental aims has been to inspire kids who have grown up in cities to give working in the bush a go.   If there’s only one aim of your blog, simply to say what you feel like saying, then it probably should be kept private.  In this case write the blog post – all writing is good practice, and sometimes cathartic – but leave it as a draft (unpublished).  In summary – when revising your blog post, think “why would someone want to read this”?  What’s in it for them?  Being self-obsessed is the most common mistake made by people on social media, generally.
  • It’s always a good idea to leave what you’ve written overnight and re-read it before making it public. And if it’s an especially tricky topic, leaving it a few days or weeks is better still.  You’ll be more likely to pick up typos and think of better ways to word what you’ve written. But most importantly, you have a chance to moderate the tone before releasing it into the world.
  • Writing in anger is fine.  It can help get anger out and crystalise reasoning.  But sending comments into the public sphere while you’re still red-hot angry is fraught with risk.  Delay, as above, and tone down as necessary.  What impression will a complete stranger get when they read your words?  If you’re mad with rage, they’ll probably just see anger, and your message will be lost.  Twitter has revealed how many famous people, politicians etc haven’t yet figured this out.
  • Copyright. Don’t ever repeat what someone else has written, unless you’ve made it clear you’re quoting them in the context of what you’ve written.  Use quotation marks plus their full name, and preferably a website link.
  • If you’re quoting someone in a way that is at all negative, ensure your facts are verifiable and 100% accurate.  And don’t take comments out of context. Avoid being pollyanna if you want to be taken seriously, but don’t be vitriolic.  Because it could come back to bite you. Either by like-returned-for-like or a defamation lawsuit.  Think “would I like someone quoting me in this way?” However I’m certainly not advocating avoiding tricky issues or letting crook things someone else has written go unchallenged.  That’s no way to make the world a better place, and it’d be a case of ‘do as I say not as I do’ (much laughter)!  But only grab snakes by the tail, carefully.
  • Ideas can’t be copyrighted.  However flogging other people’s ideas and passing them off as your own, will be picked up by the perceptive.  Especially if it’s a habit. And you’ll simply look like someone who is not only completely unoriginal, but also untrustworthy.  (There is a person gathering other people’s ideas for newspaper articles at present, and yes many people have noticed.)

Rural blogs written by “agvocates”:

  • Don’t help perpetuate two-dimensional farmer stereotpyes.  These include education levels (little schooling), music tastes (country music loving), vehicle driving (everyone has a late-model 4WD), hobbies (pig shooting & fishing), conservation (environmental vandals), clothing (everyone in the bush wears a felt hat) or silver-spooners (inherited wealth and have to work very little).  And last but not least, hands-on farming as something that only blokes do not women or girls (there’s a surprising number of blogs and twitter accounts run by women who describe themselves as being a wife of a farmer.  Can you imagine blokes describing themselves thus?)  Yes some of those things might fit you but if you highlight them, you’re emphasising these aspects and feeding a general public perception that’s unlikely to be positive.  Instead encourage the impression of diversity, as that’s the reality, and encourage people to question their presumptions.
  • Don’t whine, because as above, you’ll just be feeding another farmer stereotype many people unfortunately have.  Yes point out problems, but in a factual manner, and only if possible solutions are also included.  I.e. be constructive. If you sing “poor bugger me” and display an “I deserve, because I am a farmer” mentality, don’t expect sympathy from people working and commuting long hours and struggling to raise a family and pay off the family home mortgage.
  • Think carefully about how your “bio” is worded, with the above in mind.  Your intended audience may be other farmers but if your bio and blog are online anyone can read it. What is a tongue-in-cheek joke amongst bushies can be completely misunderstood by readers from outside the industry, and taken as a ‘whingeing cocky’ comment, etc.  Or get up the nose of others working in agriculture. Something I disagree with very strongly is “4th generation farmer” type statements.  While it may be explained away as a statement of pride, it comes across as a basic boast of “I’m special”.  Think carefully about why someone sees fit to mention the activities of their ancestors, when describing themselves.  And potentially, how would such a public statement make people new to farming feel?  Ultimately I believe everyone should be valued on their own achievements not that of their forebears, whose efforts cannot be claimed by the current generation.  Inheriting land or other assets is something to feel privately very grateful for, not something to publicly crow about. And it pays to remember that knowledge and skills cannot be inherited, only learned.  Two of the very best farmers I have met, grew up in Sydney and launched into farming when adults.
  • Remember most small businesses share similar headaches.  If you’re unaware of this, it’s time you started listening to your local businesspeople.
  • Avoid insulting other rural industries.  If it’s not a field you work in you will not know the full story. I’m still gobsmacked that a part-time cattle producer from Victoria thought it was clever to write a blog post stating Australia’s live export industry should end. It was written by someone who didn’t know anything about northern Australia’s beef industry and they were not even reliant on a farm income themselves as they had a full-time off-farm job in a nearby town.  But because it was written by someone in regional Australia, self-described as a farmer, animal rights activists siezed it and held it up as an example that farmers themselves thought live exports should be banned.  (It was another reminder that many unfamiliar with Australian agriculture believe all farmers are the same, whether they are cattle producers or salad growers, in Tasmania or Tennant Creek.  And while some may know this is not the case, they’ll pretend otherwise if it suits their destructive agenda.)
  • If you have misgivings about another rural industry, ask (tactful) questions publicly and discuss/comment privately. Same goes for criticising a rural blog post – if commenting publicly, do so very diplomatically.  Try to find something positive to say as well, and be constructive.  If the conversation is getting pointier, do it privately.  Don’t help people intent on finding fault with Australian agriculture, by publicly brawling.  And don’t embarrass people who have their heart in the right place, by savaging them publicly.  (Unfortunately, seen it in action – and by people who should know better.)

Photos used in farm blogs:

  • Must be good quality. By “good quality” I DON’T mean technical excellence.  Who cares if you can count every hair on the dog’s back.  What I mean is message excellence.  Does the photo convey what you want to say? Is it moving or memorable?
  • Avoid using photos that reinforce farmer stereotypes (as referred to above).
  • Ensure there is absolutely no room for the photo subject matter to be misinterpreted by people with negative agendas.  When in doubt, leave it out.
  • It is a good idea to watermark all photos uploaded onto the internet, to help discourage illegal copying.  A copyright symbol won’t stop people stealing, but it does encourage people to think twice about doing it.
  • Chase up any theft of photos (or text), never ignore it.

How to respond to queries and people who disagree with what you have written in a blog:

  • Answer politely. Never sneer at someone’s lack of knowledge or treat people with disdain because they’re asking you a question you deem to be ‘dumb’.  (Unfortunately, I’ve seen this quite often.) From the outset show respect for others and you’ll be far more likely to receive it in return.  Society needs people working in all kinds of jobs, and most people are just beavering away trying to do the best they can, regardless of their field of employment.  Yes farming does have some unique aspects, but many people genuinely don’t understand these differences.
  • People who aren’t farmers are customers.  Don’t offend people from the get-go, who are putting money into your bank account.  This doesn’t mean you have to accept garbage flung at you; don’t fall for the old line “customers are always right,” because some really are died-in-the-wool idiots.  However it’s best to ignore the clowns rather than succumb to the urge to provide a public character reference.
  • Cull some words from your vocabularly if appropriate.  “City slickers” should be the first to go. It has insulting overtones, on a par with “redneck”.  “City residents” is one of the terms I use regularly – strictly factual, with no subtly derisive meaning attached.  I was greatly entertained recently when an animal rights extremist tried to offend me by saying what would I know about the bush, since I lived in town.  Maintaining a sense of humour is vital re the silly, uninformed comments some people make.  (It’s surprising how many won’t bother reading a one-sentence long bio, before investing effort into jumping to the wrong conclusion.)
  • If you haven’t learned the skill of resisting the urge to be instantly defensive when someone queries something you’ve said, learn it. Learn to be your own best judge (especially vital for anyone working in creative fields – art, writing etc.)  Relying on the views of others is a major mistake.  Without a shield of defensiveness, you can genuinely consider what is being said, pick out any useful comments and ditch the chaff.  Very often, insults come from verandah-sitters whose major talent is rock-throwing.  Sometimes you’ll be listening to someone who is pointing out something really useful that you hadn’t thought of; but do be careful to not end up as a voluntary stress-relief target for someone lacking self-awareness.  Conversely, if you make a genuinely constructive comment that is thoughtfully and diplomatically worded, and it’s received with animosity – it illustrates the recipient’s level of  insecurity.

Often a lack of understanding is at the heart of a disagreement. Some causes of misunderstandings:

  • If you don’t already know most men and women communicate quite differently, get busy observing. It’s especially easy to see in written communication, and like all personality traits, it’s accentuated in a short messaging service like Twitter. Many men find women’s communication style too ‘fluffy’ and many women find men too direct.  There have been terminal meltdowns amongst rural women’s online forums and facebook groups due to clashing communication styles, lack of acceptance of differing views, perceived insults and grudge-bearing – amongst a small number of participants.  In stark contrast, most blokes are slow to take offence and can have far pithier conversations – and still remain on good terms.  When emailing, I always want to know whether I’m speaking to a woman or a man, because replies are written differently to each.  If it’s “Chris” or another name used by both men and women,  I can usually guess whether it’s a man or woman by what they’ve written.
  • Some think there isn’t a lot of sexism about these days but it’s just more subtle.  There are interesting statistics on book readership.  Generally, women will read books written by anyone whose writing they like. Blokes tend to read books written by blokes, not women.  Hence it’s not uncommon for female authors in some genres to just use their first initial, not full first name.  This difference is likely to be the case for blogs, too.  Many blokes read my blog, but I’m told I tend to be blunt (much laughter, surely not?)  A woman who is blunt is noticed and described as such, though likely to be much less so than the average man.
  • There are signification written communication differences between nationalities.  Eg Australians tend to combine a sense of humour with serious points, which Irish and UK residents understand, but Americans can find puzzling.  However as most Australian farm blogs are written with an Australian readership in mind, it’s not a complication that usually has to be borne in mind.
  • There are significant differences in experience and circumstances between remote northern Australian cattlemen/women and farmers in closely settled southern farming regions.  These differences quite often cause friction within the farming community on twitter, facebook pages and blogs.  (See point above, regarding not presuming to understand someone else’s situation unless you’re thoroughly familiar with their industry, specific region and current headaches.)

How to deal with people who are very angry or nasty (trolls):

  • Rule number one:  stay calm.  Don’t ever react in anger.  (As above – write a response whenever you like, but don’t send it until you’ve cooled down).  Took me years to learn this. Finally have it more or less mastered.
  • Do think objectively about whether what the critic is saying has any merit at all.  Have you overlooked something, or accidentally greatly offended someone by the way you’ve worded an opinion?  If so, clarify – calmly – and apologise if appropriate.  But then dismiss whatever doesn’t have a grain of truth in it.  Don’t take rubbish hurled at you, personally.  Some people don’t accept genuine apologies or explanations. Always remember that’s their choice to stay angry, and their problem, not yours.
  • Remember it’s likely that someone who is madly insulting and repeatedly trying to provoke a reaction, probably has significant issues.  It could be something short term (eg they may be under financial  or personal relationship stress) or it could be long term (personality type).  Don’t spell this out (it’ll only wind up their spring tighter), but the best thing to do is feel sorry for someone in this situation.  Don’t take mad insults personally and don’t respond to their provocations, let them fall on deaf ears.
  • Zealots have a particular type of personality, leading them to obsess about one particular issue and remain resolutely impervious to the presentation of facts proving their view incorrect. It is absolutely a waste of time and valuable energy engaging with people who fall into this category.  Acknowledging their response may be appropriate (eg; “interesting view, but it’s doubtful we will ever agree so discussion is probably not a good investment in time and energy for either of us”), but then leave it at that. It’ll be clear to anyone who comes along and reads the conversation thread that you’ve said your bit, politely, then shut the door.   It takes two people to have a fight, and having an ongoing public disagreement just ends up reflecting badly on both parties.  Typical causes zealots latch onto include: animal rights extremism, veganism, politics, religion (self-proclaimed atheists tend to be far more sanctimonious & scathing than any religious believers) and advocating for refugees.  You may encounter someone who is on all those bandwagons (some are on twitter, and squeeze the whole list into their 160 character bio).  Interestingly, most people who are obsessed with conservation can still engage in constructive conversations.  Conservation zealots are actually scarce – which is a fortunate thing for the world’s environment, because a collaborative, inclusive approach gets positive results.
  • I have difficulty responding politely to fanatics and find it’s impossible for me to do on many days. After many years, finally I have learned the discipline to simply delete such comments, although some of the crazier ones I have filed as curiosities.  Developing a workable strategy to deal with what you find difficult, is important.

Blogs and anonymity:

  • Anonymous comments have little weight.  On sensitive topics (eg mental health, financial stress) remaining anonymous is completely understandable (in order to protect friends, family and oneself).  But as much as possible, be completely identifiable yourself so your words have much greater impact, and encourage others to do likewise when writing a blog or commenting on someone else’s.  The world population runs to billions and paranoia about a disgruntled reader turning up on your doorstep is misplaced.  Have courage in your convictions.
  • Needless to say, people tend to behave in a much more civil fashion when they are clearly identifiable. Having a policy on your blog (or public Facebook page) stating “comments from people who are not fully identified will not be accepted/published” automatically gives you an unarguable reason to delete anonymous troll comments.  Be aware that if someone else is defamed by a commenter on your blog, and you don’t remove the comment from public view, you can be deemed liable.  As the blog owner, you are responsible for your own words and the comments of others that you are able to remove.
  • My website is more than ten years old. Because I already work long hours and am required to be away from home at times, often without regular internet access, my blog has never been open to public comments.  I simply don’t have the time to moderate it.  However people do send me blog comments via my website.  I’ve also had enough insults sent to me, since day dot, to know that a lot of moderating would be required if my blog was open for public comments.  I really wish I had more time, because discussion comments on blogs often end up being more interesting and useful than the blog that precipitated the conversation.  A great blog post is a catalyst for further discussion.
  • Until fairly recently, it was easy to comment on a blog anonymously.  Thankfully now most blogs and forums require commenters to confirm their identity by providing a link to another source of identity verification – i.e. their own website or a social media account.

How often should I write a blog post and how long should a blog post be?

  • Self-described social media “experts” have all sorts of theories about how often you should post on blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.  I ignore most of this theory. Because for starters, there’s actually very, very few “social media experts” who are walking the talk!  Would you take driving advice from someone who doesn’t have a drivers licence?  I think not!  My view is, think about all social media from a reader’s point of view.  Just say something when you have something worth saying, that others will think is worth reading.  If you have a run of topics, then write lots.  If there’s a bit of a drought, then stay silent.  If what you’re writing about isn’t particularly time sensitive, you can stagger publication to even out timing.
  • How long should a blog post be? Again “social media expert” theorising abounds.  But think about how much you like to read, and what you like to read.  Obviously a couple of paragraphs is quick and easy.  But ultimately it’s quality that is vitally significant, above all else.  If something is really well written and interesting or entertaining, and/or funny, people will keep reading. And if your thoughts can be summed up in a few sentences, then don’t feel the need to pad it out.  It’s your blog!

If you have any suggested additions or comments, don’t hesitate to let me know, via the contact page or Twitter.

Many of the above points relate to Twitter and Facebook, not just blogs.

Note: written October 2013; since updated.

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