How To Start Blogging

Get writing!You know when a theme is developing in your life when the same sort of thing keeps cropping up. Well, I don’t know if twice in succession qualifies, but I’m going to go with it anyway. Yesterday I was catching up on my podcasts, and listened to a Grammar Girl episode entitled “How to get started blogging”. Then today I ran my blogarizer spreadsheet and was directed to an article entitled “10 must-use tips for beginning bloggers”. OK, enough already: I can take a hint.

Both articles are pretty good, in a general sense. Mignon Fogarty, the “Grammar Girl”, deals with knowing your audience, finding good, and reliable, information, and how to build your audience. Melissa Tamura, author of the 10 tips post, also talks about knowing your audience and, in essence, how to grow it.

I’d like to come at this from a different angle or, to be more precise, to emphasise different aspects of blogging. Here goes:

  1. Start blogging. That’s right, just start. Stop navel-gazing, second-guessing the universe and playing “what-if?” games. Just start. Creating a new blog in something like Blogger takes all of five minutes. In fact, the most difficult part is thinking of a witty and memorable name.
  2. Definitely define your audience, but start with yourself. What I mean by that is, write the kind of articles that you would find most interesting/enjoyable/useful to read. Then your blog will probably go one of two ways: either extremely eclectic, which stands a good chance of attracting a wide variety of people, or extremely focussed. Those two are not mutually exclusive, by the way. I think that latter possibility warrants a bullet point of its own…
  3. Be extremely focussed. I mean extremely focussed. From time to time I receive comments from people along the lines of they have nothing unique to blog about. That’s plain wrong, because everyone is unique in some way. For example, you might be the only art teacher in your town who takes their class on a virtual art gallery tour every week. How does that work? How does a virtual gallery visit stack up against a real life one? I don’t know from first-hand experience what the answers to these questions are. But you do.
  4. Put your audience first. I think if you’re going to write for an audience, you should at least try to make reading your work a pleasant experience. This is all highly personal and subjective, of course, but for me the two things I really can’t abide is swearing or implied swearing, and writing which is about as interesting as the list of ingredients on a packet of cornflakes. There’s no need for the former, and you can improve on the latter by analysing what it is you like about the writing of the blogs, magazines, newspapers, authors you read on a regular basis.

But the most important one of these, if you’ve decided or almost decided to start your own blog is the first one: just do it!

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How to Randomize Your Blog Reading

OK, I know it's ridiculous, but I am currently subscribed to 829 blogs. That means if I checked one per day it would take nearly three years to get through them all. What I ought to do is go through them, and be absolutely ruthless about weeding out the ones I don't read as often as I should. Erm, that would be all of them then.

Or perhaps I should ditch the ones I don't like too much. But I often read blogs I don't like because they are useful sometimes.

So I've decided that the only answer to a ridiculous problem is a ridiculous solution: I have decided to experiment with randomizing my blog reading. Here's how it works, using Excel.

Setting up the random blog post generator

Extract from my blog list

  1. Open Excel and start a new workbook.
  2. Open your RSS feed reader.
  3. Export your subscriptions to what is called an OPML file. This option will be found somewhere in the menu system of your blog reader. In Google Reader, for example, you click on the link at the bottom of the screen called 'Manage your subscriptions', then to Import/Export.
  4. Next, open the OPML file in your web browser.
  5. Select all the text in the file.
  6. Paste it into the Excel file. You should find that each blog you subscribe to lands on a row all to itself.
  7. Get rid of any extraneous text at the top of the worksheet, ie any text which is clearly not an actual blog. Make sure that the first blog is in row 1 or, if you wish to be prim and proper and give your columns headings, row 2.
  8. Get rid of extraneous text at the beginning of each line, such as 'outline text'. Use the Find and Replace tool for this, replacing the offending text with nothing.
  9. Next, we need to assign a number to each blog. The easiest way to do so is by using the formula =row() in the column to the immediate right of your list of blogs. For example, in my spreadsheet the blogs are listed in column F, so I have placed the row formula in Column G. Don't worry about obliterating some of the text in the blog list: you can always widen the column just enough for you to be able to read the name of the blog. If you have started your list on row 2 rather than row 1, amend the formula to =row()-1. You only have to enter the formula in the very first row of data.
  10. Place the mouse pointer on the bottom right hand corner of the cell with the =row() formula in it, and double-click. This will copy the formula all the way down.
  11. Next, we need to place a random number generator somewhere near the top of the worksheet. The best formula to use is Randbetween: =randbetween(bottom,top). Thus in my case this has to be =randbetween(1,829).
  12. Save the spreadsheet with an impressive sounding name. I've saved mine as 'blogarizer'.

Using the random blog post generator

Putting this 'blogarizer' to work is simplicity itself.

  1. Just press F9, and a number will appear where the Randbetween function resides.
  2. Scroll down your blog list to find the blog to which that number has been assigned.
  3. Go to your RSS reader and go to that blog.

Some awkward questions

I'm about to start experimenting with this myself. If you decide to try it, let me know how you get on. Although this is an interesting approach to having too many blogs to read, a few questions spring to mind:

  • Does each number really have an equal chance of being generated? I have my doubts, but I think I will have to assume it does, unless someone proves to me otherwise.
  • Although each blog (we assume) has an equal chance of being chosen, is this actually a fair, in the sense of equitable, method of doing so? Would it not be more fair to weight the randomizer in some way, perhaps to reflect the fact that some people really contribute to the education community and therefore 'deserve' to have their blog posts read?
  • Is this actually a sensible way of approaching the problem? It means, in effect, that someone who writes about every aspect of his/her life, and only occasionally about educational technology, stands an equal chance of being read as someone who posts exclusively about educational technology -- and whose posts might therefore be deemed to be the more useful of the two.
  • Is it ethical? I mean, there are people whose blogs I follow because their posts never disappoint -- which is pretty good going if you think about it. Yet here am I saying, in effect, "Thanks a bunch for all the great work you are doing, but you have only a 1 in 829 chance of being read by me on any given day." Is that right?

I think it's interesting that although this approach may be fair in the purely mathematical sense, it could be grossly unfair in other ways.

So what's your opinion?