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Advice for 1Ls Considering a Blog: A Very Long Part One

Dear Wormwood:

Who is this Scrimgouge whose email address you've forwarded me? It's certainly very flattering that he's asking you to ask me for advice on starting a law school blog. Nevertheless, there's no good reason for him to ask me at one remove. [1] You know full well I'd speak at the opening of a Doritos bag, and give away advice just as profligately.

Since your friend has asked, I'm happy to oblige. This particular project has run for over three years, and I'd like to think that in that time I've learned a few things that might help out a beginner. Of course, with the start of the fall semester, there is currently no shortage of advice for new law students, and I'm sure that similar wisdom about blogs is a dime a dozen. Hopefully your friend Scrimgouge will find one or two chestnuts here that he hasn't managed to gather elsewhere. Sadly for him, however, whatever angels generally look over my shoulder and force me to be brief have taken a tea break. What follows is quite lengthy indeed.

To help out a bit, I've divided the post into five sections that continue after the cut:
First, the commonplace.
Second, decide what you want to do.
Third, learn a bit about the technology.
Fourth, connect, connect, connect (to the Web).
Fifth, connect, connect, connect (to other bloggers).
Finally, have fun.

I hope it helps.

First, the commonplace
A few pieces of advice are so hoary that they're hardly worth mentioning. For instance, be yourself. But take that that idea a bit deeper. "Being yourself" doesn't mean flinging one's soul upon the internet. (Indeed, when you meet a blogger in real life, he or she usually isn't much like the blog.) Every blogger is an exhibitionist to some extent, but even the most skillful wordsmith will get only a facet of himself down in his entries. It helps if you have some idea, at the beginning, what part of yourself you want to put on display. The pundit? The explorer? The wide-eyed but uncertain neophyte? The sarcastic party guy? Knowing this will help you focus your entries (and come up with topics on days that you're feeling dry).

Another piece of common, and mostly useless, advice: write well. If you don't do that, you're unlikely to attract (or keep) readers. Yet how much does that help young Scrimgouge? If his writing isn't up to snuff, there's nothing that you or I can say that will help him. His blog will serve as an online diary and memoir for him and his closest friends, of course, but if what he wants is a broader readership, then I would think that decent writing is the sine qua non. [2]

Here's the good news: Scrimgouge doesn't have to write that well to attract a broad readership. Throughout the legal blogosphere, there's quite a few "buried gems," brilliantly written blogs that no one ever sees. Similarly, there are underserving sites like this one that get far greater than their share of traffic. So presuming first that Scrimgouge wants his site to "get noticed," and second that he can write passably well, I think the advice that follows the cut might be more the kind of thing he's looking for. You've not told me how experienced Scrimgouge is, however. This post paints broadly and covers the basics, and a later one will deal with more law school-specific advice.

Second, decide what you want to do
Hundreds of writers, most of them lazy, have started sentences with the words, "Blogs are." "Blogs are beginning to challenge the mainstream media's monopoly on truth." "Blogs are journalism, art and editorial rolled in one." "Blogs (like DailyKos) are crashing the gate, kissing the big jock's girlfriend and drinking enough to be the first to get the lampshade on their head." Sounds majestic, doesn't it?

It's also crap. At the heart of them, blogs are diaries with hyperlinks. As an "art form," blogging's precursors go back the The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, and that esteemed lady's been dead for over a thousand years. An astute blogger can use the medium to do any of the things mentioned above (well, maybe not the lampshade), but you don't get there just by starting a blog. So before you start, think a bit about your goals and readers:

Why are you doing this?
Assuming you want to blog all the way through law school, it's going to take some time. Not a lot of time, and you'll enjoy it, but writing something each day will devour one of your most precious commodities. So are you trying to make a name for yourself a pundit? Do you want to polish your debate skills? Meet people you otherwise wouldn't? A little of each? Do you want to make money? (Strangely, it can be done.)

In my case, I started the blog for three main reasons. First, I wanted a memoir that would still be here in ten years, to remind me who I was. (I suspect I'll cringe every now and then, looking back on this a decade from now.) Second, I wanted to keep my marketing and technical skills--things one doesn't use much in law school--in some kind of shape. And finally, I wanted to use the blog to extend my network. Much of the design of TYoH reflects these goal: the overly-complicated (and currently broken) blog roll, for instance, or the catchy features like ExamWatch or Sins Of The Week. I probably make no more than fifteen dollars a quarter from my Amazon partnership, but it let me play about with XML.

Who are your readers?
Your readers will determine a lot of your content. Do you want an audience of fellow students and friends? (That was always the goal of TYoH.) If so, matters less formal will take up a great deal of your time. If you're hoping to join in on the discussion between the Bainbridges, Althouses or Volokhs on a regular basis, you'll probably want to avoid talking about things like the state of the law school cafeteria.

Who are you?
I've always advised against anonymity, and I've never changed my opinion. Writing with a pseudonym may seem romantic, mythic or historically appropriate, but it provides a false sense of security. It seems "safer" to blog without telling anyone who you are, but there is nothing more illusory than anonymity on the internet. Let your shield against offensive writing be the fear of opprobrium of those who you respect. Don't be one of these people afraid of your own name.

Third, learn a bit about the technology
Once the goals are determined, it's time to worry about tools.

If your friend Scrimgouge wants, he can start up a blog in less time than it took him to email me.
Livejournal, Typepad, MSN Spaces, political sites like DailyKos, or the ubiquitous Blogger are quite happy to pave the way for you. Some of these sites, like Althouse, will attract a lot of readers. However, these mass market sites are very limited in what they can do. For the free package, you generally get little or no image hosting, you'll have to customize their particular set of templates and add-ons, and if you want to do something a little different, odds are it won't be in the standard toolset.

On the other hand, hosting your own blog, installing all the software and keeping it up to date can be quite a pain in itself. There's no magic to it: if you have a lot of patience, can read simple instructions and are not afraid of a bit of guesswork, most people who can write simple HTML can buy a domain, find a host, set up the software and then start tweaking the templates to fit them. Yet as a 1L, time is precious. If you're not already skilled, you may soon feel like your 1L course schedule is Torts, Contracts, Civil Procedure and Moveabletype.

(Or Wordpress, Textism, Drupal, etc. etc.)

If I had it to do over again, I might choose another path: something like Blawgcoop. You see, most blogging software will let you set up multiple blogs, and many web hosts will host multiple domain names on the same account. A team of bloggers can thus install a piece of software once and split the cost of hosting and the administrative tasks. If any blogger adds new features to the software, it's available for all. Better yet, membership in something like Blawgcoop immediately provides you with some associates, and possibly a few initial readers. It's such a brilliant idea, I wish I'd gotten there first.

I don't know if Blawgcoop is still accepting new members. If they aren't, someone else should start something like this for the coming "generation."

Fourth, connect, connect, connect (with the Web)
Remember my comment that Sei Shonagon was the prototypical blogger? Well, that's true, but she didn't have access to the little blue magic that makes blogging more powerful than online diaries: hyperlinks. Those "buried gems" of blogs that languish unread? More often than not they live in a self-imposed hyperlinkless exile. I assume that Scrimgouge wishes his writing to avoid such a fate: here are two technologies that will help him out.

Believe it or not, many of your readers may never visit your blog as such. The most voracious blog-readers may keep tabs on dozens or hundreds of websites a day, and the sheer act of clicking through to them takes up too much time. Instead, they use feed readers (something like Google Reader) to aggregate blog posts from innumerable sites, making them all readable on the same page.

Scrimgouge surely doesn't want to exclude these blog-happy readers, so he needs to make sure that his blog produces feeds that work with the two most common technologies, RSS and ATOM. Most blogging software will provide this for him automatically. If not, he can see my instructions for setting up third-party services like Feedburner.

Subscription feeds should impress upon your friend one very important rule of blogging: catchy and well-planned titles. Feed readers skip through hundreds of blog posts a day. Are they more likely to be stopped by "My Critique of Roper" or "Why We Should Whack The Young'uns: Kennedy's Misstep in Roper." [3]

2. Search Engine Optimization
Search engine optimization isn't a "technology" as such, but if you blog, it's one of your most important skills. Better news for Scrimgouge, it's a skill that most law school bloggers aren't that good at, so it's easy to be competitive.

Most legal blogs will get much, if not most, of their traffic from search engines, especially when they're starting out. It's a great way to get noticed, and the better placed your blog is, the more traffic it will attract. Bad news: search engine optimization is complex enough that some web developers make a living advising clients on it. (Many of those would disagree with my advice below.) Good news: the basics are very, very easy. Here's Tony's Five Step Painless Plan For Quick Search Engine Quasi-Optimization.

  1. Figure out the terms you want to "own": You can't do this before you've decided what your blog is about, but once you know that, figure out what words someone would use to stumble across your site. For instance, TYoH is targetted mostly at law students, specifically at students going to Columbia. So since its inception, I've wanted to be at least on Google's front page for the terms Columbia Law Student Blog, law student blog, and to a lesser degree student blog. There were other terms I wanted to own at one point or another, but those have been key since near the beginning of the site. Each month, I get plenty of hits from people searching for what I want to provide.
  2. TITLE tags are your friend: Whatever system you're using, learn how to alter the TITLE tags for your site. The terms that you want to own should be near the beginning of the title of every page. This site, for instance, is titled "A Columbia Law Student Blog - Three Years of Hell to Become the Devil."
  3. META tags: A good start on what you need to know is here.
  4. Catchy Titles, Part II: As with your site title, so with your post titles. Search engines give more weight to terms in post titles than terms in the body of your post. Make sure that your stylesheet uses one of the heading tags (in my case H3) for your post titles. And when you write your titles, keep in mind terms that might bring you readers. (I get quite a few hits, even now, for the term kritarchy, for instance.)
  5. Experiment and modify: If your host doesn't provide a way of tracking your visitors, it's very easy to set up a service like Sitemeter. These programs will tell you who's searching for you (which can lead to amusing blog posts in and of themselves) and foster some thoughts on how to improve your search engine standing. Remember: the best way to get noticed is to get people to link to you, but that only comes with time and good writing. An SEO strategy will get the ball rolling.

You can do a lot more to optimize your site. On the other hand, take a look around at the various law student blogs. Very few do any of these things, so five painless steps should help you out a lot.

3. Design is Inseperable from Technology
Think carefully when you're designing your site. If you know Flash, remember that not everyone's browser uses Flash gracefully. Ditto with Javascript. (TYoH's menus, for the longest time, broke in just about every non-IE browser.) And one hint: three-column designs are a real pain for mobile devices like the Motorola Q, because you have to scroll down through an entire column of static junk before you get to the content you want to read. Best practice is to come up with a separate, stripped-down template for mobile bloggers (like Instapundit does), but that's a fair amount of work.

Fifth, connect, connect, connect (with other bloggers)
Connecting to the Web is all about making it as easy as possible for your readers to get to you. It's a start: you want it to be as easy as possible to get to your site. After that, you want to cement your place in the blogosphere by connecting to other people. A few ways to do this:

Links form the circulatory system of the blogosphere. The best piece of advice I ever received from a blogfather (and one which, you might notice dear Wormwood, I did not follow), was this: "For every entry, you want to link to at least two sites, and preferably two other blogs." Especially when starting out, this is the best piece of self-promotion possible.

As I said above, you can't be a blogger without a bit of exhibitionism. We like to be linked, and we keep track of who's talking about us. We check our web statistics, our Sitemeters, or Technorati to make sure that we're not just speaking to ether. Someone who links to us is an instant friend. Now, if you're Instapundit, you've got more friends than you can name already. And just being added to a blogroll--especially for a blogger bigger than yours truly, dear Wormwood--isn't such a thrill. But to see that we've got a reader: now that's interesting.

So if you come across something online that piques your fancy, link it with a compliment. [4] If you think someone's stating a case badly, post a critique. Write about other people, and they--and their readers--become interested in you. (Needless to say, it helps to do all of this well.)

Comment and Trackback
All the best writers are also voracious readers. The real cost in running a blog isn't really the time spent penning your latest thoughts. It's the time you'll spend reading other people. (Fortunately, after 1L year you'll have some truly dull courses, and you'll have learned that not every second needs to be spent paying attention.) Comments and Trackback pings are how you cement your writing to other authors on topics that interest you.

For instance, I write a great deal here about my opinions on (for want of a better term) judicial activists, and particularly how that is playing out in the context of homosexual rights and gay marriage. For that reason, I read blogs like Chris Geidners or the Republic of T, both because they keep me informed of the latest events in those areas and because they're interesting (read: non-vitriolic) commentators. Every so often, I leave a comment. While you might not expect it, a good comment drives quite a lot of traffic from their sites to mine. Similarly, if I write a post on one of their topics, a trackback ping makes sure that their interested readers have the chance to see what I've said. One or two out of a hundred then become my interested readers. Every little bit helps.

Two key points on both trackbacks and comments: (a) be fairly polite and (b) have something to say. You're a guest in someone else's community, so (a) is not only good manners but good politics. And (b) ensures that someone will want to click through the link to go to your site. "Me too!" or "That's a good point!" won't get you very far.

Of course, you knew that.

Real, personal connections
Finally, remember one other thing: bloggers are by definition people with a bit of free time on their hands and people who like to chat. Most of them include an email address on their site. If you have reason, use it.

Note the caveat: if you have reason. Don't send emails saying, "I love your blog, link me please." But don't be afraid to send an email if you have something to say that goes beyond a comment. You may not get a response, but sometimes you will. When you do, it's a positive boon.

If TYoH has done anything for me, dear Wormwood, it's been allowing my reach to exceed my grasp. I know a handful of professors at Columbia well enough to ask for a recommendation. But while I was starting this blog, Prof. Solum was trying to get RSS feeds to work on his site, and I got to play a hand in that. Through mutual affinity with H.P. Lovecraft, I've gotten to chat with one of the best minds in corporate scholarship. If I ever want to know about sailing and bankruptcy, I know where to go. I can claim a good friendship with a soon-to-be mover and shaker in the Ohio gay rights movement, and thanks to the help of Heidi Bond and Professor Yin, I have the tools and the topic for a funny piece of academic legal writing.

"Blogs are" may be a lazy way of starting a sentence, but what is Three Years of Hell about if not the occasional urge to succumb to sin? So slothfully, let me say: Blogs are conversation. Blogs are communication. And blogs are a 24/7 worldwide party, koffeeklatch bitchfest that will let you meet some of the strangest, most interesting and simply fun people ever. The first part of this missive, Wormwood, was all about technical interaction, but at heart blogs are about human relationships.

Finally, have fun
Which brings me to my last point: tell your friend Scrimgouge that when it comes to human relationships, don't forget his own. Sure, there may be days when he doesn't want to blog: he's feeling down, everything in his life is too private, or he just doesn't have the time. If that's the case, simply don't.

But more importantly, don't be afraid to put the blog down. For almost all law students, the blog will be a project or a hobby (or maybe a way to vent). It's nothing more. If you're looking at your significant other saying, "Hey, can we see the show an hour later? I'd like to finish this blog post," well, you may be obsessive (and in risk of needing a new SO), but the blog itself is healthy. If you ever catch yourself sincerely saying, "I'm sorry, honey. I'd like to go out with you this evening, but I have to finish this post," then either your relationship or your blogging has gone sour. Quit one or the other.

That's as good a place as any to end. As one of my favorite professors used to say--repeatedly--and with that and a dollar, you can get a cup of coffee. In a separate post, I'll cover a few details on the writing of legal blogs, things that might not be so obvious. I apologize for the length of my response. Given the fact that I won't be able to add anything to it after tomorrow, I felt it was best to be encyclopedic. Please tell your friend Scrimgouge that I wish him well as he embarks upon his own three years.



[1]: [Ed. Note: As my frequent readers will know, Letters to Wormwood is the advice column for students here at TYoH, and is modelled off of C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters. There is no Scrimgouge, though I've received the odd email asking advice.]

[2]: Indeed, I would guess that I'm the drop dead last student blawger of my "generation" to whom one would turn for writing. Wings and Vodka makes himself into more of a character. Heidi gets more emotion into two paragraphs than I get into a post. If would stress to young Scrimgouge that he should probably avoid my overdone and vaudevillian style: it doesn't pull in the readers.

[3]: Sometimes this works better than you'd expect. For instance, put the name of a case going up for appeal in a post title and you may end up cited in a federal court opinion. OK, you'll probably be cited by mistake, but titles can have unexpected consequences.

[4]: The really tech savvy are figuring out how to multiply the effectiveness of my advice. You now know, from my earlier writing, that my blog is trying to own the terms "Columbia law student blog." Now imagine you're sending me a link. Am I going to be happier if you link to me using "Anthony Rickey," "a Columbia law student" or "writing about Goodridge" as the anchor text? If you notice that a blogger is trying to own certain words (and you don't want them for yourself), use them in your link text. Your target blog will appreciate it.


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Congratulations. This is about to be passed to the assembled digerati of Greenpeace as required reading. Truly your work is done :-) And having had the opportunity to review my student blogs at a few years remove you're right, it can be cringeworthy :-) It's been a great read for ! 3 years and I've enjoyed it. All the best Martin

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