I wrote my 500th blog on this site a couple weeks ago.
In case you’re wondering, it was the one about the Stalin Museum in Georgia.
You can search my archives by clicking the little hamburger icon in the menu up top. It’ll open an entire world of options.
Anyway, I thought I should take a look back at what I’ve learned from doing this — if anything. Perhaps other writers might find it useful.
I started my blog in 2009.
I’d begun creating and selling online training programs related to martial art conditioning methods the year before as a way to earn money to travel.
That led to teaming up with another colleague on a larger fitness product which sold surprisingly well in its first month. I invested my half of the money in my writing website, and he signed up for a mastermind on affiliate marketing with his half.
This was before WordPress, so I had to hire a company that made websites for writers to create mine. It looked like this:
I didn’t update my original site to a new template for 12 years. That’s the mobile-friendly version I’m using now.
Creating the person I thought I wanted to be
Looking back, I can see how I was creating a persona during those first few years.
Some of it was semi-conscious, and some happened by natural accretion, just as my 22 year obsession with martial arts came to define both how others saw me in high school, and how I saw myself.
In time, that persona no longer suited me, though the worldview I acquired from those early martial art years continues to shape my understanding of people, situations and events.
By the time I started my blog, I’d already been writing long narrative feature articles for a travel magazine for four years. They were available in stores across Canada, and I had been interviewed on CBC Radio and on a primetime entertainment show on CTV.
None of it paid much, but it had finally started to look like a real job.
In the years before my first feature article was plucked from the slush pile, I’d worked a succession of dead end post-university jobs for a temp agency. It was depressing to feel like a failure, and frustrating to feel trapped by lack of money from doing the sort of journeys I wanted to write about.
Sure, I’d done a few long solo journeys to exotic-sounding places like the Mosquito Coast of Central America, the steppe of Mongolia, and China’s far west Taklamakan Desert. But I knew anyone could reach those places just as easily as I did with a little patience, a lot of time, and some tolerance for discomfort. They were just a series of flights, chicken buses or railway trains away.
While I was doing minimum wage contract jobs at places where the people I worked with couldn’t be bothered to remember my name, and writing at night and on my lunch breaks, my friends were buying their first houses. They drove nice cars and had jobs that paid reasonably well. I had accomplished next to nothing, and I was reminded of it every time we got together.
I can see now that by writing about my early travels on a blog, I was shaping a picture of a person I wanted to be — or to be seen as: someone worthy of respect who had done something worthwhile, rather than someone to look down on.
We all create personas, I suppose, as we try to find meaning in a narrative of our lives.
Such things stopped influencing my blog long ago. I’m too busy following my curiosity. I enjoy going to distant places and coming back to the blog to say, “Look at this incredible place or story I found. Isn’t the world fascinating?” But that desire for some sort of approval or legitimacy was definitely there in the beginning.
Another insight that jumps out at me when thinking about 14 years of blogging is something I’d offer as a piece of advice…
Don’t write for an audience
I’ve often seen bloggers advise people to write for an audience. And I suppose that makes sense if you’re writing a ‘service’ blog about fitness tips or financial advice.
I don’t do that.
I’ve never written with an audience in mind. Sometimes I write to figure out what my experiences meant. Sometimes I write for the enjoyment of capturing something that happened to me in words. Sometimes it’s to follow my curiosity.
And sometimes I write about my travels here because otherwise I’d just write them in notebooks that sit in a box in my room.
If I tried writing about what I think might interest some hypothetical reader in the hope of being popular, it’d fall flat.
I haven’t got a clue what other people like, or what they find interesting. I haven’t watched television for years. I’ve never subscribed to a streaming service. And I can’t relate to the current obsessions over identity narcissism or invented gender or systemic grievances or weather-related apocalypticism. I’m utterly uninterested in any of those things.
All I can do is write what I’m curious about.
And because of that…
You never know who’s reading your stuff
My most popular articles of all time are a blog I wrote about whether or not aperitifs and digestifs really work, and a rant about German pillows.
It can lead to some strange requests.
A journalist from the Hong Kong edition of the Wall Street Journal contacted me for an interview about that pillow rant last summer.
And a producer from the Science Channel in the US asked me to appear in an episode of Engineering Catastrophes after reading a blog I wrote on a strange concrete relic from the Nazi period that was down the street from my flat. (It was Season 6 Episode 6, and the Berlin story starts around 32:30, if you want to check it out.)
The blog has also led to some really interesting emails sent to me via my website contact form.
Writing is a solitary occupation, and putting words on a website feels like talking into a void. I’m always surprised when something I’ve written moves someone enough to tell me about it. And I’m always happy to hear from them.
Follow your own interests — ignore the rest
I searched ‘what I learned from blogging’ before writing this to see if I missed anything, but everyone seems to be saying the same things.
You won’t find any pithy comments on SEO here. I don’t think about it at all. Gaming the system is a waste of time. Shortcuts are temporary.
Stop worrying about that crap and write every day, instead. Those articles will pile up, and you’ll end up dominating search results simply because you’ve been around so long and so consistently.
I have nothing to tell you about ‘monetizing’, either. I’ve never sold anything through my blog. I did try running Google Ads on my site for a few months this year as a way of reimbursing my costs, but the pennies they pay aren’t worth the annoyance to my readers. I shut it off.
I’ve recommended my book, and I include Amazon affiliate links to other people’s books when I write a book review. But my website, like my Personal Landscapes podcast, costs me money rather than earns it.
I write blogs and record podcast conversations because I enjoy doing both. I hope you enjoy it, too. And I hope what I’m doing might interest you enough to buy one of my books.