It was ten years ago today that Windypundit was born.
For this anniversary, I’m going to tell you a bit about my approach to blogging, and my experience in writing a blog. Think of this as “How to Blog Like Windypundit” in one easy lesson. Perhaps those of you new to blogging will find something of interest in the accounts of one guy who’s been a very minor figure in the blogosphere for 10 years.
This will be one of my longest posts and certainly the most self-indulgent. Which if you’re familiar with my work, is saying a lot. If you get bored, you can skip to the end, which has some music.
When I started Windypundit in July of 2002, one of my first decisions was whether to write anonymously. There didn’t seem to be a need: I wasn’t planning to write about my work, and I didn’t think anyone I worked for would really care about my political opinions. And if it turned out some potential client or future employer did care…well, I’d be better off not working for anyone that uptight.
On the other hand, I wasn’t really “out” with all my friends and colleagues about my libertarian(ish) politics. It seems silly now, but back then I wasn’t sure if I really wanted everyone I knew to learn that I was in favor crazy ideas like free markets in human organs or legalizing street drugs. Maybe a little anonymity would do me good.
The problem is that true anonymity is a long hard road.
You have to be careful about posting photographs or videos. You can’t interview people you write about. You can’t have meet-ups with other bloggers unless you’re sure you can trust them. And unless you are extremely careful about what personal details you reveal (Blonde Justice is a good example of the level of paranoia required), there will eventually be enough information about you in your blog that people who know you (and eventually even total strangers) will be able to assemble the mosaic and uncover your identity.
Then once you’ve posted stuff you don’t want traced back to you, you can’t undo it. Even if you delete it, the internet remembers everything, and other people will always know what you wrote. If you ever reveal your identity, every last thing you ever wrote will come crashing down on top of you.
So unless your situation is strictly temporary — such as a job you’re planning to quit — it makes sense to stay anonymous only if you commit yourself to never, ever changing your mind. If you allow for the slightest chance that you will ever go public, then the knowledge of that possibility will always be there to inhibit your posting. And if you’re not going to take full advantage of the anonymity, you might as well just blog in your own name.
Which is what I did. And as it turns out, nobody in my real life cares what I think anyway.
I started blogging back when Glenn Reynolds was leading the blogging revolution over at Instapundit and, like a lot of other people, I decided to call my blog something that ended in -pundit. I can’t remember most of the other names I considered, but for a while I seriously considered calling myself Five Year Pundit, based on my observation that through much of my life, whenever I reflected on my past beliefs, everything I thought up until five years before seemed kind of stupid. The gimmick would have been that I was claiming I was right only for the next five years. There’s still a remnant of that name in my URL at Sitemeter.
I eventually settled on Windypundit, since I live in the Chicago, the Windy City. I mostly took it because it had a nice ring to it, and nobody else was using it. I was worried that it implied I was a Chicago-focused blog, which I knew wasn’t going to be the case because my interests were broader than that, so I used the tagline, “Commentary about government, economics, and science….with a Midwestern twang.” Eventually, I realized that no one cared about the blog description. They could figure out what it was about by reading it.
In the early days of blogging, one of the big complaints was that bloggers weren’t very accurate. Compared to the professional news media, a lot of what they wrote was rumor, nonsense, and wild blather. I didn’t see this as a problem.
When traditional reporters write a story, they have to sift through rumors and follow up on leads. They do research. They talk to experts and decide which ones have opinions worth considering. They pick through an enormous amount of information, and try to extract a story that is coherent, accurate, and important. Then they publish the story, and readers react and discuss it.
Bloggers go through the same process, but they do it collectively, contingently, and in the open, and the reactions and discussions of readers are just feedback to the process. Blogging is not a news report, it’s a conversation, and it’s foolish to hold it to the same standards as traditional journalism as long as participants understand the difference.
As long as I understood this and made sure my readers understood it, I felt I could blog about important subjects without worrying that I would substantially mislead anyone. I think most of my readers get it, but sometimes I feel the need to make my lack of expertise explicit. To my surprise, this confuses some readers, who are surprised that I would write about something after admitting I don’t know much about it. I figure it’s better than not admitting I don’t know much about it.
There are several writers whose work has been a touchstone for writing Windypundit.
When I was a kid, I loved reading collections of Isaac Asimov’s science articles. I think I learned a lot of basic physics that way, along with a bit of chemistry and biology. He had a habit of starting each article with a brief personal story which he then tied into the main subject. People made fun of him for that, calling it a sign of ego, but I liked it, because it made him seem friendlier. I don’t ape Asimov’s style by beginning each post with a personal anecdote, but I often start posts with some warm-up material, such as a link to someone else’s post, that I can tie into my main subject. And like Asimov, I really enjoy explaining things.
I remember reading a response Roger Ebert had written to someone who criticized him for being “biased” in his review. He said that he didn’t know how to write a non-biased review. He always wrote from his own point of view. This dovetailed well with my experiences reading his reviews: Regardless of whether or not Ebert gave a movie a good review, I could usually figure out from his review if I was going to like the movie.
It was kind of like vector math. Roger may not have been unbiased, but he was always himself, which meant he was a fixed point in his reviews. I knew how my tastes in movies differed from his, so when I read his review, I could subtract the difference between us to get an idea how I’d feel about the movie.
This is why I think that opinion journalism is so much better than “unbiased” reporting. All reporters have biases, it’s just that opinion journalists don’t try to hide them from you, so you know where they stand and you can use your knowledge of their biases to evaluate what they’re saying.
In other words, be yourself and don’t put on a facade of objectivity for your audience. It’s not only more fun for you, it’s more useful to your audience.
I first encountered Virginia Postrel when she was the editor in chief of Reason magazine. Her writing has a way of taking seemingly trivial issues and finding important lessons. Here are some examples:
- Why breast implants are an important political issue.
- Why you should respect the nail salon industry.
I wanted to be able to write posts like those. I still do.
Steve Landsburg is the author of the Armchair Economist, and I draw a lot of my thinking and writing about economics from his style in that book, although he probably wouldn’t recognize the mess I’ve made of it all. He has an abrupt and succinct way of stating things that I occasionally work into my own writing.
Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Joss Whedon
Whenever I try to be funny, I usually have in mind the ironic style of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Joss Whedon’s comedic scripts. I’m not actually that funny, but that’s the kind of humor I like.
The impetus for most of my posts is something I read on the web, usually a breaking news story or a recent post at another blog. Something will strike me as unusually smart/stupid/outrageous and I’ll want to say something about it.
Every once in a while, that turns out to be easy, and I’ll just write a post straight out with only light revision. But that’s pretty rare. Most of the time, I do a lot of rewriting. It’s not just a case of writing the basic post in one pass, and then cleaning it up in the next. I don’t have it that easy. I rewrite a lot. Ridiculously a lot.
I’ll go over a post again and again, changing words and rewriting sentences. Sometimes I write the same paragraph over and over until I have three or four copies in the post and then pick and choose the best sentences to assemble a frankenparagraph, which I then proceed to rewrite into something more coherent. Sometimes I even do this with entire posts, creating two versions with different organizations. (This post, for example.)
I move sections around. I spend an hour writing a section, then I come back an hour later and decide to delete that section, except I really just move it temporarily to the end of the post, where I can recover the good bits if I find a place for them. I know a finished post should only have text that serves a purpose, and that I shouldn’t keep anything in the post solely because I spent a lot of time writing it. But then again, if everything has to serve a purpose, why blog at all?
I don’t usually have time to write the whole post all at once, but I’ll keep coming back to it, writing and revising again and again until I have something I want to publish. On a good day, this happens fairly quickly. Sometimes, though, I have such a hard time writing the post that it stretches out over several days.
Depending on the subject, that can be long enough for it to go stale. When that happens, I just leave it sitting there in draft form. Sooner or later something will happen to make it timely again, and with a bit of rewriting I’ll be able to publish it. It might take a few attempts, though: My speculative gayvolution post went through three or four bursts of rewriting every time a gay science story hit the news, until I finally had something I felt okay about.
In case it’s not clear, writing Windypundit is really hard.
In some sense, I write for myself. I decided early on to write about the things that interest me in a style that I’d enjoy reading. This is an act of faith. I’m assuming that I am not a special snowflake: If I’m interested in something, there’s probably someone else out there who’s interested in it too.
I know a few friends who read my blog. My wife is one of them, and I’m always mentally anticipating her reaction. My parents never got on the web, but they had friends who would sometimes bring them printed copies of my work, which probably prevented me from writing about a thing or two.
Then there are the other bloggers, some of whom know way more than I do about what I’m writing about. When I write about criminal justice issues, for example, I sometimes get comments from criminal lawyers or links from their blogs. This can be intimidating. There’s nothing quite like bloviating about the benefit-cost analysis of the death penalty only to have a lawyer who does capital defense write a response. (I started to write my own response to that, but it’s one of those posts that’s been sitting in draft for years.)
One thing that has never worked out well for me is playing tricks on my readers. I’ve done it a few times, and it always seems like a mistake later. This year I participated in Eric Turkewitz’s April Fools prank, and the only people who I fooled were my trusting readers. I have to keep reminding myself that this is not a good idea.
Marketing the Blog
Notice that this section is about marketing your blog. It is not about using a blog to market your business. The difference is that if you use your blog for marketing, you’re trying to attract readers so you can convert them to customers. If you’re a pure blogger like me, attracting readers is an end unto itself.
There area a couple of different levels of Search Engine Optimization, but the one that matters most is this: Google can’t index websites it doesn’t understand. If a blog has badly-formed HTML, search engines may have trouble finding the text of the posts on the page. And just as certain visual arrangements make it easier for people to read a post, there are certain technical features of a blog page that make it easier for Google to find the meaningful parts.
Understand that this is not some sort of super-web-guru magic trick that you have to hire an expert for. It’s the internet equivalent of using a typewriter instead of a crayon, and it’s not that hard to do. I know about these things because I usually build my own page templates. But if you use one of the major blogging platforms — WordPress, Blogger, Typepad — they’ll take care of most of this for you.
Content is King
I’ve always believed that the real key to bringing traffic to your blog is to have good content. Not only does your content attract readers, but it’s also a pretty effective SEO strategy, which brings in even more readers.
That works because Google famously scores websites according to the number and quality of inbound links from other sites. Some SEO companies will claim to get you inbound links for a fee (assuming they can outsmart Google) but you can do it yourself by posting something that interests other people enough for them to link to it.
For the most part, this means your best marketing move is to write really good blog posts that other people will like. I find this reassuring. The best way to get a lot of traffic is to write a lot of good stuff.
It’s a basic economic principle that your offerings will be most valuable to others if they are unusual. Thus I’m not going to draw in a lot of readers merely by having an opinion — they can find opinions anywhere. I have to bring something more to the table. I have to bring something original.
Fortunately, I get a certain amount of originality just by being me. This blog is an expression of my interests, my style, my way of thinking, and my personality. That’s an unusual enough combination that apparently some of you can’t get it anywhere else, so you keep coming here.
But it also helps to have something really original. It doesn’t have to be spectacular, just something that no one else has. Some of my most-linked posts have included original photography, reviews of new software or new books, or even just accounts of personal experiences.
Marketing to Other Bloggers
The closest I come to overt marketing is leaving comments at someone else’s blog. If I say something interesting in my comment, maybe someone will follow the signature link back to my blog and find something they like. For the most part, I comment on other blogs to contribute to the conversation, but I realize there’s a marketing effect.
I almost never put a link to my blog in the comment text. There’s nothing really wrong with leaving an “I blogged about this too here” comment on somebody else’s post, but I’d feel silly doing it. The one exception is that I sometimes put links in the comments when I have something original to contribute to the discussion, such as original photographs of the subject under discussion.
On the other hand, I really don’t mind when people leave comments like that on one of my posts, or send me an email about something they’ve written. I will say this, though: If you want me to link to your blog, don’t tell me about your blog; tell me about a specific post that you think will interest me or my readers.
Yes, you can use social media to market your blog. These days it’s probably not a bad idea to tweet and post Facebook updates whenever you put up a new post on your blog. Not everybody is using a feed reader.
Dealing With Other People
Blogging is a conversation, which means I have to deal with other people.
Don’t bother asking for a link exchange, I just don’t do them. My blogrolling policy is that I’ll add you to my blogroll if I read you regularly, or if I think my readers might find your blog interesting. Although I appreciate your link to me, it doesn’t affect the foregoing criteria, so it won’t make me link to you.
A corollary of this is that the appearance of someone in my blogroll is not a show of support. Agreeing with me is not a requirement for listing. If I read someone’s blog because I hate everything they say, that still makes them interesting, and they’ll still get a link.
This is tempered by the fact that I don’t do a very good job of maintaining my blogroll. If you think you belong there, drop me an email. I probably meant to add you.
When it comes to removing people from the blogroll, I’ve seen a few other bloggers do noisy delistings when someone pisses them off, announcing their decision with great fanfare, and Enumerating The Sins Of The Removed. That seems silly.
In any case, since I freely list ideological opponents, that’s not going to happen here. I’m only going to take you off the blogroll if you stop being interesting to me or anyone else. And given my poor blogroll maintenance skills, that pretty much means I’ll keep you in the blogroll until your blog goes dead. And then six months after that.
I don’t have much of a comment policy. Agree or disagree, if you’ve got something to say, then come on and say it. The only stuff I delete is spam, threats, and as it turns out, Nazi trolls. And yes, if you know of something relevant, of course you can post a link.
When I first started getting comments, I tended not to reply to them unless I had something specific to say. If my only response would be to reiterate the main point of the post, that seemed too much like trying to get the last word.
After a while, though, I realized that people who leave comments would probably appreciate knowing the blog author is paying attention, so now I try to reply to most of the comments on current posts. I appreciate your taking the time to say something, and I want you to know it. If I have enough to say, I may even use your comment to launch another post.
Picking On Other People
As a blogger, I spend a lot of words criticizing what other people are saying. I point out why they’re stupid or wrong or dangerous. In other words, I’m not always nice to people.
However, I try to choose the targets of my scorn carefully. I don’t like picking on people smaller than me. I’m not going to write a post about something I read in a letters-to-the editor column (I’ll make an exception if the writer is well known, or represents a government agency), or something someone wrote in a comment somewhere. I prefer to pick on major bloggers, professional pundits, government functionaries, politicians, and self-important blowhards.
In a sense I follow the old newspaper adage about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
Other People Picking On Me
Come at me, bro.
I’m a product of the early days of the blogosphere, so I can’t quite escape the feeling that as bloggers, we’re all in this together. Therefore I try to maintain an atmosphere of what I think of as blogger collegiality. This is not the same as being nice. If I disagree with another blogger, I say so pretty clearly. And if I think their ideas are horrifying, I say that pretty clearly too, often with swearing. But I try not to let my posts turn into a personal attack on the bloggers involved, even if they really have it coming.
(Note that this only applies to bloggers, pundits, and other species of journalists. That’s because for the most part, they’re just saying horrifying things. People who actually do horrifying things — or want to be elected to do horrifying things — don’t get the same courtesy.)
When referring to other bloggers in my posts, I generally try to keep things on a post-by-post basis. For example, I disagree with Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms over a lot of things, particularly his positions on immigration and the drug war, as well as his willingness to discount the importance of human choice, but if I read something of his that I agree with, fairness requies that I consider blogging about that too.
Lessons Learned Along the Way
This is the advice section. Bear with me, we’re past the halfway point.
Buy a domain
I originally hosted Windypundit on Blogger like everybody else. As soon as I had a few posts up, I bought the domain name “windypundit.com” and got a cheap hosting service. I used a feature of Blogger that allowed you to edit content on the Blogger site but have it published via FTP on your own site. Eventually I converted to the new Movable Type blogging engine which ran directly on the host.
Buying my own domain name was the best technical decision I ever made about this blog. It’s my number one piece of advice for new bloggers. Don’t use a subdomain, and don’t get the name as part of your hosting package. Buy the domain directly from a registrar and set it up yourself. It requires a little more technical skill, but it gives you complete control. I’ve been through four or five hosting services, and I’ve never had trouble leaving one behind because I’ve always owned the Windypundit name, and I could always take it with me.
Bad News For High-School Students
Your high school teachers taught you that it’s very important to start every paragraph with a topic sentence that states the main idea of the paragraph. And when writing for school, especially when providing writing examples for tests, that’s probably for the best. But you should know that out in the real world, nobody writes that way. There may be sentences in a paragraph that serve the purpose of a topic sentence, but a paragraph is just as likely to be a collection of loosely-related thoughts. Sometimes writers start a new paragraph just to break up a large block of text to make it easier for readers to scan the page.
Keep the Structure Light
There’s a famous piece of speechmaking advice which goes something like “Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, and then tell ’em what you’ve told ’em.” That’s not really good advice. I’ve seen too many speeches where the presenter begins with an overview that takes 20% of the allotted time and never gets to the “Tell ’em what you’ve told ’em” part because the clock runs out.
In a blog, you should keep the “Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em” part really short. It’s only there so readers can decide whether it’s worth their time to read the rest of the post. For example, from the first sentence of this post, you know it was going to be an anniversary post.
If You Haven’t Blogged Anything in a While…
Don’t post an apology, not even if you promise to post something else real soon. Nobody wants to read that, and it’s a disappointment to anyone who came to read it because their feed reader said you posted something new (and it can make you look silly if you never post again). The way to end a dry spell is to post something people will want to read.
Developing A Style
Good professional writers understand their craft well enough to bend and shape their prose at will to achieve the style they want. I’m not that good, so in creating the style of Windypundit, I follow the best advice on style I ever heard: Just keep writing and your style will emerge.
Strunk & White
Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is probably the single most influential book on writing ever published. It’s an eccentric little work, full of rigid little rules. You should know these rules. You don’t have to obey them to be a good writer — and for certain types of writing you must disobey them — but when you break the rules, you should know which ones and why.
The style reminders I’ve found most helpful are “Be clear” and “Omit needless words.” My regular readers may be surprised to hear that, but trust me, it would be much worse if I didn’t spend time making my sentences shorter. If you can say the same thing with fewer words, or fewer paragraphs, it’s almost always an improvement.
(The word I most need to kill is “just”. It always sounds good when I’m writing it, but when come around and read it during revisions, it always turns out not to be doing anything useful.)
Some of the rules just don’t apply to what I’m doing. If I followed style reminders 1 and 17 — “Place yourself in the background” and “Do not inject opinion” — it would reduce all of Windypundit to a few random sentences on a single side of paper.
Quote Everything You Need
When you want to comment on another blogger’s post — or anything else on the web really — it’s not enough just to link to it. The web is filled with transient ephemera, and a page you link to today could be gone tomorrow. Make sure you quote enough of it that your post still makes sense when your readers can’t get to it anymore.
Stupid Writing Tricks
I’m a terrible proofreader. I get caught up in the subject of the text and stop paying attention to the text itself. On top of that, after so many years of reading stuff on the Web — after seeing so many grammar errors, so much misplaced punctuation, all that bad spelling — I just skim right over it without noticing.
This applies to my own writing as well. I more-or-less know how English text is supposed to be written, but once I make a mistake, I have a hard time spotting it. My mind just skips right over it, making the correction without my being aware of what’s really on the page. Sometimes I’ll be looking at a sentence, and I’ll get this feeling of vague unease. After three or four passes, I might realize I was seeing a typo.
In Latin, so I’ve heard, the infinitive conjugation of a verb is usually a different form of the word, in much the same way that the English past tense conjugation of “break” is “broke,” so Latin writers can’t split an infinitive by putting another word in the middle. In English, the infinitive conjugation of a verb is simply the main word with “to” in front of it: The infinitive of “walk” is “to walk.” The infinitive of “break” is “to break,” and so on. This means we can put additional modifying words in the middle of the infinitive conjugation, as in “to quietly submit” or “to loudly object.”
For years, grammar police have objected to such split infinitives, presumably because English is derived from Latin, where such constructs were impossible. That seems silly to me, and I see no reason not to use split infinitives whenever I feel like it. As proof that split infinitives aren’t a bad thing, I offer for your consideration the most famous split infinitive in all of English writing: “To boldly go…”
The rules say you shouldn’t use “like” as a conjunction, so it’s technically wrong to write a sentence such as “They treated me like I was a celebrity.” It would be more correct to write “They treated me as if I was a celebrity.”
After decades of hearing people use “like” instead of “as,” I find that “as” sounds stilted and mannered, and “like” sounds more natural, so I use it a lot.
I always use the serial comma, so I prefer “bell, book, and candle” to “bell, book and candle”. I won’t hate you if you prefer to do without it.
The general rule with quotation marks and other punctuation is that you should always put the final punctuation mark inside the quotation:
He yelled “Look out!”
“Be quiet,” she whispered.
This causes a problem for me. I’m a computer programmer by training and trade, and in computer programs the punctuation is very important. In particular, quotation marks usually set aside a literal string from the rest of the program, and you can’t casually move something inside the quotes that doesn’t really belong there. This is very important, and if you get this sort of thing wrong, your software won’t work.
I can break the rules of programming punctuation when I’m writing about someone talking, but I have a very hard time when quoting something written, especially if it is about computers. For example, my inner programmer is screaming at me to correct this:
Save the spreadsheet in a file named “Spending.”
That period does NOT belong in the filename. I would have to rewrite it this way:
Save the spreadsheet in a file named “Spending”.
The other way just looks so wrong.
Beyond my Control
I know the difference between “its” and “it’s”, between “principle” and “principal”, between “capitol” and “capital,” yet I still catch myself misusing them all the time. My brain knows the difference, but my fingers type the wrong thing anyway.
Too Many Connectives
Oh,… I mean,… Actually,… Of course,… Really,… However,… Make no mistake,… Don’t get me wrong,… On the other hand,… In some sense,… For the most part,…
As I’m writing, it feels natural to drop those little connectives between sentences and paragraphs, because it seems more like natural speech. But when I read it back, I realize I overdo it. I am forever editing these phrases out of my writing, and I still leave too many in.
(I’ll bet you thought I’d never get here.)
The Future of Windypundit
Unlike certain other bloggers who quit on their anniversary and got tons of accolades in the comments, I’m planning to stick around. Your accolades in the comments are welcome nonetheless.
My big project right now is mostly technical, in that I’m planning to get off Movable Type and switch to WordPress. It’s a big job, because I want to move over all the posts without breaking links. I’ll also need to create a whole new custom WordPress theme, probably using Hybrid as a base.
In terms of content, I’d like to start including more photography again. I’ve been holding off on that because of technical issues, but once I’m on WordPress, publishing photos should go a lot more smoothly.
I’d also like to get back into doing some real journalism from time to time, reporting on local events or interviewing people. That takes a lot of time, so we’ll see how it goes.
Also, there will be more catblogging.
Without readers, I would just be a another madman ranting on the internet, and I would have given up on blogging long ago. With you, at least I know someone is listening. Thank you for encouraging my behavior.
No, wait, we’ve come a long, long way together, and “Thank you” is not enough…