Saturday, September 16, 2006

Leveraging the Internet for Your Writing

From my notes for a presentation this afternoon at the Western Reserve Writers Conference at Lakeland Community College:

Every writer, novice to master, should maintain some form of web presence, the more substantial the better. At the very least, that should include a page or two with your credits, background and contact information. It should provide a sense of your style and distinguish you from others who wield a pen or word processor. If it also includes a handful of examples of your best work, published or not, so much the better. I can promise you this: it will make you feel more serious about your own writing aspirations and invite others to do so as well. Through the power of search technologies such as Google and the web’s unique linking structure, you will also substantially increase your likelihood of serendipity. You’ll find that, done right, even a modest web strategy will help writing opportunities find you rather than you always having to search for them. Not a bad idea in any line of work, but especially helpful in writing.


Weblogs, or blogs for short, are an excellent way to establish that web presence. These easily updatable online journals or sites allow anyone to instantly publish to the web, and you needn’t have any particular Internet skills to do so. What do they do? Whatever you want them to do. You can use it as a way to stretch your muscles and try new things. Experiment with new topics, new voices or approaches. If you’re a fiction writer, you can take a stab at nonfiction, or vice versa. If you’re a journalist, you can try some poetry. You can choose to tell people it exists, or wait until you feel ready to unveil it. You can be more ambitious, treating it as your own online publication, written for an audience. Even if you’re an advanced writer with decades of experience, blogs are a way to steadily widen your audience, engage more people (including new editors) and show more of what you can do and have done. You can share links to new articles and other publications, maintain an archive of earlier work, announce and sell your books (or even branded merchandise, if you like) and inform folks about your workshop appearances. In short, it’s a great method for building a community around your work. Unlike a static writers’ website, it screams out for readers to return periodically to your site to read about what’s new.

Other Benefits That Will Surprise You
If you want it to, having a blog will instantly connect you to a dense network of fellow writers, thinkers, readers, doers and seekers. This group of highly engaged people can become a community of practice for you and your writing that will sustain and support you in your efforts. That’s critical for every writer, from the greenest novice to the most experienced master wordsmith, because writing can be, but need not be, the loneliest calling/profession/hobby/pursuit (choose one or more that applies to you). Through blogging, you can, should you so choose, join a large ongoing discussion, or many discussions, that will stimulate your curiosity and imagination, challenge your intellect and ultimately inform and nourish your writing. It will stretch your writing horizons and possibly erase geographic boundaries. It could bring you a few (or perhaps many) international readers, and might just even get you hired for a writing gig simply because someone liked what they read and wanted more.

My friend and fellow blogger, Sandy Piderit, a professor of management at the Case Western Reserve Weatherhead School of Business, once explained to her students why she recommended they blog. It remains one of the best explanations I’ve seen of why smart people should experiment with the form, and it applies doubly for those who write, or who want to begin:

Reflecting carefully on your own thinking is a very important skill to cultivate. Whether you are planning to enter management or any other professional field, your learning will not end on the day you graduate from college. You will need to engage in lifelong learning, which involves developing a sense of how to sort through different sources of information and distinguish between facts, well-reasoned judgments or conclusions, and poorly supported opinions. To encourage you to develop this skill in reflecting carefully on your own thinking, this course blogging assignment will challenge you to go beyond simply stating your opinion, or quoting a source that you respect and accepting its assertions at face value…Developing your skill in articulating and advocating for your beliefs will help you become a more effective manager or professional.

Just substitute “student” for “writer” or “aspiring writer” in that passage, and you have all the reasons you would ever need to begin a blog. Because, after all, writing is essentially a form of lifelong learning, in which you learn about a subject (through research and reporting) before sharing the fruits of that learning with others, through the vehicle of your writing.

Getting Down to Brass Tacks
Okay: so let’s say for the sake of argument that I’ve convinced you to consider beginning your own blog. How do you do it? There are a number of online publishing platforms through which you can publish your blog. But perhaps the best, easiest one can be found at It’s owned by Google, is simple and generally reliable, and best of all, it’s completely free (though they’ll be happy to sell you upgrades with more bells and whistles). Actually, believe it or not, there’s something even better than the fact that it’s free: you don’t have to know a thing about web technology to set one up yourself and to maintain it. If you can figure out the Microsoft Word program, you can follow Blogger’s highly intuitive prompts and in about 10 minutes set up your own blog. You’ll just have to give yourself a password, decide the look you’d prefer by choosing from among several page templates, decide what to call your blog and if you’ll want to allow visitors to post comments. And bingo--you’ll be in business, ready to become your own publisher. If you need help, just ask. I’ll be happy to walk you through the process.

Examples of Good Writer’s Sites

For writers, a static website and a blog need not be, in fact should not be, thought of as either-or propositions. Ideally, they work together, complementing each other. Consider these examples: (prominent New Yorker writer whose simple but attractive site is often copied) (local writer – note the similarities to Gladwell’s site) (accomplished local writer with an especially attractive site) (local writer with an enthusiastic international following) (writer Virginia Postrel’s site, which nicely highlights her many sides)

* Please note: Malcolm Gladwell and Kristin Ohlson have both recently begun a blog, a link to which you’ll find on their sites. Michael Ruhlman includes a link to a prominent blog on which he has posted as a guest blogger. And Virginia Postrel, who has maintained a blog for years, is one of the better examples of a writer who uses simple but elegant design and site architecture to visually differentiate the many facets of her writing life, while simultaneously emphasizing how they converge.


At 9:48 AM, Anonymous ruhlman said...


thanks for mentioning my site and the others, didn't know about the dynamist. And did you know that gladwell's brother, geoff, designed my site as well?

I'd like to emphasize for those who begin to blog that they learn to edit themselves. Blogs can be flabby and unweildy if the blogger is not critical of his or her words and the overall shape of the post, and tries always to be as concise as possible. You can't improve as a writer if don't edit yourself. Often blogs read as if the blogger himself hasn't even read his own post.

That said, blogging is exactly as you say, John, a great opportunity. Glad to read this post!

At 3:54 PM, Blogger Sean Santa said...

i love this post. blogging has really helped me


At 9:09 AM, Blogger Chris McVetta said...


Sometimes I feel we are "The Fugitive" and "The One-Armed Man" of the blogosphere ...because, week after week, we always seem to narrowly miss bumping into one another.

I'd like to tell you I was busy helping George Clooney save Darfur, but as you might guess ...I'd be lying.

Good stuff, nonetheless.

At 12:33 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Good of you to stop by. I'm sorry to have missed your group appearance last week at PWLGC, but I hear it went quite well. That's interesting about the Gladwell tie. Not too surprising, though, given the look. It's nice and clean, with lots of white space.

Gladwell is an interesting model for writers in thinking about the web in another way. He was innovative insofar as he had his material online far earlier than his magazine put theirs on the web. Years before the New Yorker had a website, he would just ask them for the PDF version of his stories, and stick those up on his own site, so that he had a full archive of his magazine work available for anyone who wanted to see it. It was a nice innovation, by a guy who often writes about innovation.

You're of course right that too many people who blog don't pay attention to their own material. I shake my head sometime over how people want to be taken seriously as writers and yet have the most egregious stuff up there, and they leave the errors and typos in long after they (or someone else) must have caught the problems. But then, they're only shooting themselves in the foot.

Sean, thanks to you also for visiting and leaving a comment for the first time. I've never come across your blog, but will now stop by and visit occasionally. As for you, Chris, we've only missed crossing paths because you've chosen not to take up my invitation to meet. Here's hoping that eventually happens.

At 1:02 PM, Blogger GrizzBabe said...

I am encouraged by your post on blogging. It's good to know I've been doing something right.

I also want to say a public thanks for your comments on my article at For Your Success. They were very kind.

At 11:10 PM, Blogger Chris McVetta said...

Master Yoda,

I couldn't agree with you more...

At 9:48 AM, Anonymous Jennifer Gaglione said...

To Michael Ruhlman's comment about blogs being flabby and unweildly without the benefit of brisk editing: the most compelling blogs include posts that are written spontaneously and truly read like a conversation, rather than sounding highly contrived. I realize that writers need to represent themselves well online, however I don't know if daily posts should be subject to that kind of scrutiny.

John: thanks for the post on blogging. Launching my own has been on my to-do list for too long. Today, it moves to the top!

At 3:34 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Well said, Jennifer. I'd have to agree, except when it comes to outright typos, which I persist in thinking are worse than fascism, to borrow an immortal phrase from some smart person whose name escapes me now. Glad to hear you'll be beginning your own. I look forward to that, and I was happy to finally put a face to your name yesterday.

At 12:59 PM, Blogger K-Oh said...

Thanks for mentioning my blog, too, John!

When you first urged me a couple of years ago to start a blog, I couldn't imagine why I'd want to spend my energy on something that no one would read. I'm glad I finally got to it-- it's really been fun to write and fun to connect with bloggers around the world.

At 1:53 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

K, I don't recall so much urging you to begin one (because I'm not one of those obnoxious writers who insists it's for everyone) as I do trying to convince you that there are no rules attached to it if you did. I know you seemed put off by the notion of having to write something for it every day, or every other, and I did want to leave you with the freeing message that the only rules attached to it (about frequency or anything else) were those you would yourself impose. In any case, I'm just happy you've done it, because it's a valuable addition to my reading diet. But I'm still counting on that next book from you.


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