6 February 2014

Write about what you do

This is the third part of my series about personal branding. It started with some advice for a friend but the content kept growing and growing. This is supposed to be a step by step guide for software developers to build their own personal brand. The first steps are branding all accounts and defining a motto. The next steps to get some reputation are sharing content using Twitter and contributing to Stack Overflow. Now it is time to talk about writing.

Dear DiaryMaintain a Technical Blog
Blogging is a huge area and many things have been written about it. I am no social media expert nor a professional blogger so I recommend you first do some research about how to write blog posts. Start with Scott Hanselman's excellent article how to Keep Your Blog from Sucking. And yes, I feel badly promising information about blogging and then sending you STFW. Instead I will only comment on a few rules you will find.

Blogging Frequency
I have seen advice to create at least eight blog posts a month, or even more, to keep readers engaged and attract new ones as well. But let's face it, blogging is hard work. Even if you are a natural writer you still need to collect the information, maybe add code samples, put it all together and format it nicely. This takes time and unless you are writing blog posts on company time, you likely do not have that much spare time. Compared to sharing on Twitter, blogging is more heavy-weight and therefore more likely to be postponed. If you are disciplined you could set up a time in your weekly schedule to work on the next blog post. I am not and I barely manage to write two posts per month. I keep telling myself that a blog posts needs as much time to write as it needs, there is no point in forcing it. I would rather not publish anything than a poorly written or badly formatted post.

Content is King
Obviously content is king, so what should you write about? If there is something you want to say, just write it. While being authentic, you write mainly for yourself. For example write a rant to get over something that made you angry. (But blog rants should not be most of your writing.) Next write for your readers and for search engines. Dan North once said: "If you did something and it worked, then write about it. If it did not work, write about it as well, you never know how other people will use it." Following this advice creates the most useful articles which share insight or teach new skills. Especially how-to posts are helpful to people and get a lot of traffic from search engines.

WritingSome other things you could write about are recaps of conferences or events, reviews of books or a little fun post from time to time. A great source for blog content is your mailbox. Some of your email-conversations do not need to be private and might be useful for other people as well. In such a case just write a blog post. Even if you need to write the email, you can always reuse the content and put it on your blog, too. I used this technique while working for a past employer. Whenever I wrote some technical email or wiki page, I considered reusing the content on my blog. For example here is an email I wrote to the whole team some time ago. Companies like IBM even encourage you to cross post internal content to your public blog, but you really need to be careful about sharing internal information.

Size Does Matter
More content is not always better. I got feedback from one of my readers that he likes my posts because they are short and he is able to read them quickly. Although I do not mind longer articles myself, I do not read them immediately when checking my feeds. They stay in the list of articles to read, but this list is ever growing and there is a probability that I might never read them at all. So a total of 500 words seems to be a reasonable size for a blog post. 500 words equal 3500 to 4500 characters, which is exactly the average size of my blog posts and this one is at this very sentence crossing the boundary.

Focus on Quality
As while sharing, while writing never focus on the number of followers. There are plenty of articles in the web promising you to attract many followers. Do not waste your time with these. Instead care for the quality of your blog, e.g. come back to update your blog in case of mistakes. Also focus on the overall interaction. Answer comments timely and follow up on questions.

Write a Technical Article
If you enjoy writing, you could consider writing full blown articles for technical magazines or developer portals. These reach a different audience and are more reputable because they are real publications considered in an academic sense. But they are also much harder to create. First your topic needs to fit the current theme of the magazine. Not all ideas are welcome, if the editor thinks your topic is not of interest to many readers, your proposal will be rejected. On the other hand, on your blog you can publish whatever you like. So given your area of specialisation or interest, finding a publisher might be difficult. Publishers have strict guidelines for the content and (the ones I worked with) expect at least 2500 words per article, so five times more work than a regular blog post. You might have to revise your article several times until it is accepted. The articles I wrote some years ago took me between 20 and 30 hours each to get them published.

That ends my description of the basic steps you should take to build your own personal brand. There are some more advanced topics you could do, e.g. public speaking, but I will leave them for another time.

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