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October 18, 2008  |  Blog class, Part 3  |  6488 hit(s)

As I noted before (Part 1, Part 2), an interesting aspect of teaching blogging is that there are no formal rules. This does not, as further noted, prevent people from coming up with all manner of guidelines and opinions. In most cases, the guidelines are sensible; in fact, they are often the same guidelines you’d have for any sort of writing, blog or otherwise.

And there are what seem to be a pretty common set of guidelines for blogging specifically. For example, pretty much eveyone who dispenses advice about blogging suggests that you keep blog entries to a reasonable size – say, 500 words. Similarly, pretty much everyone agrees that you should post frequently; you’ll see suggestions like daily or several times a week. The idea is to keep the blog fresh so that return visitors are rewarded, and to not tax your readers with oceans of text. In both cases, this is good advice, I think, for someone who’s still developing their blogging persona, let’s call it.

But. Counter-examples abound. Steve Yegge writes lo-o-o-ong (5000-word) essays, really, that he posts maybe once a month. And people love his stuff, because it’s fantastic. Scott Guthrie posts full-length articles on the latest and greatest in ASP.NET, and he's in approximately the Top 1 of Microsoft bloggers.[1]

And those are counter-examples to just the stuff that people mostly agree on. Other advice, pfffft. Careful study of the recommendations of professional bloggers will get you ideas that are, how you say, completely contradictory. Here are a few of the couplets I’ve run across (trust me, there are more):
  • Plan your blog carefully before you start.
  • Blogging is like swimming – to learn it, you need to jump in and do it.
  • Stick strictly to your blog’s theme/topic.
  • It's your blog, post about things that interest you.
  • Post frequently or you'll lose your readers.
  • Post only when you have something of real value to say.
  • It's important that your posts be grammatically perfect.
  • People forgive occasional typos and mistakes, lighten up.
I also had a most interesting email conversation with Eric Lippert, who gave me some thoughts that, sure enough, were 180 degrees off what I was reading elsewhere. I’ll severely truncate Eric’s much more extensive (and quite convincing) thoughts, but the dichotomy was:
  • It’s important that you develop a comments policy and post it.
  • (From Eric) Lippert’s Prime Directive Of Comment Policy is "never state the comment policy anywhere on the blog."
All this contradictory advice. You might think that this would make the job of teaching blogging much harder.

But here’s the odd thing: everyone is right. Every situation is different. If someone says A, it can make sense in situation A or for person A or for blog A. If someone says, nope, Z, well, that probably applies in situation Z or for person Z or for blog Z.

I figure the only thing you can do is just lay things out for the students. You tell them that lots of people recommend 500-word posts, but that you’ll find many excellent long posts. You tell them that people say you should post frequently, and then note that some of the best blogs have weeks or months between posts. You tell them that lots of people advise a comments policy, and then you lay out Eric’s cogent arguments against it.

As I say, there are no rules, really[2]. The best you can do is give people guidelines, contradictory or otherwise, and do your best to explain the reasoning and context for each one. From that point, the aspiring blogger has to take over and figure out what works for him or her.

Next time: canvassing the community for input.

[1] The motto on the site (not really blog) of the amazing Maciej Ceglowski is "brevity is for the weak." Ha.

[2] For the record, I have one rule I consider unequivocal: you must enable comments. No comments, no blog; you’re just posting essays.