A personal take on various topics

Tips for Software / Programming Blogging

This post appeared on on July 23, 2008 on my software development blog : /var/log/mind. It is one of two posts I decided to cross post into this blog as well.
Just realised, have been blogging for more than 6 months now (actually I had started another blog ages ago .. but that tapered off soon then). Over this period, I believe I learnt or adopted a few practices. Just sharing them here. Feel free to comment. YMMV.
  1. Treat your readers like a jury not as customers :By jury, I mean a jury as in a academic thesis not as in a court. Whats the difference ?
    • With customers you sell, with a jury you defend your perspective. You may think you are selling your views, but a jury doesn’t shell out any money to buy them. This makes a typical sales process a much more harder and onerous task than just defending. Most readers aren’t out to buy, they are out to learn more and interact more.
    • With customers you assume they may not know all about your product, so you focus on educating them in general towards making a pitch. With a jury you assume they already know far more than you do in general, but you attempt to educate them and draw them into a discussion into something specific that you have spent your time on, on something specific that you are presenting.
    • In a defense, the onus is on you to provide credible backing evidence. In a sales pitch the onus is on the customer to verify your pitch. Most readers would prefer to not carry the additional overhead of having to verify your statements. If you have provided the rationale for your statements clearly and supported it with available evidence if relevant, you have made the readers job much easier. You have increased the chances of the reader wanting to come back to your blog.

  2. Make a strong statement. Avoid taking strong positions : Allow me to define this. By position I mean making absolutist statements without providing a sufficient context or a frame of reference or assuming ones own frame of reference as the only valid one. There is a wide diversity of readers out there. Some are into client side, some into server side. Some are into high usability, some into high speed processing. Some are doing graphics algorithms, some others are into CRUD and business validations. A large majority of your readers are likely to have a different frame of reference than yours. If they can’t understand where you are coming from, they will assume you are coming from the same context that they do. And they are likely to feel confused when what you say doesn’t end up matching their world view. A statement like “I found X more suitable than Y under a context Z” rather than a position like “X is better than Y” is more helpful since :
    • You get to describe your context. Your statement is a statement within a context. It is not treated as a blanket position. Readers with different contexts and divergent views can sometimes trace the differences to the context. Such readers can still suggest alternative views within other contexts easily without appearing to contradict you. Readers with similar contexts and divergent views can still choose to take you on.
    • You have lesser chances of being misinterpreted. You don’t want to get caught in an interview a year down the road when you are changing your job from writing a forms based application to one where you might be required to build say a graphics processing engine, where your interviewer might have just read your blog, and your posts actually do not make sense in the newer context.
    • When you make a strong statement without taking a strong position, readers record their agreement / disagreement with the post rather than you or your blog in general. I personally find that a much more comforting thought than readers choosing to agree / disagree with the blog in general.

  3. Be prepared to update your blog soon :There is a large number of smart people out there, often a lot smarter than us, or having a difference experience set than us. As the comments start coming in, you start learning things you wish you knew before you wrote the post. If the comments indicate something useful and relevant to the post that you would’ve wanted to include in the post had you known about it earlier - go ahead, add it into the post. A convention I have seen is that all non trivial changes after the initial posting should be prefixed with the word “Update:” or “Updates:” so that readers can make out you’ve changed something after your initial post. A comment or two may be especially relevant. It helps to be able to review the comments regularly and update the post if relevant soon. If you are going to be traveling soon, either submit your post a little earlier or post it a little later - but post it when you know you will be able to review the comments and will have the flexibility to take 5 to 10 minutes off your regular work to update the blog if necessary.

  4. Be prepared for surprises : Even if you write carefully you will end up making a small set of readers either happy or disappointed with you in a manner that will leave you puzzled. However hard you try there is a good likelihood someone is going to misquote you or take you on strongly in an unanticipated way. Some of this may be unavoidable and needs to be factored into your assumptions. However some of it will be avoidable, and do follow up such incidents to figure out if there are any learnings that you can apply the next time. A great way to do so is to write a mail back to the commenter or to the blogger who may have linked to your post and get a better understanding of his/her viewpoint.

  5. Don’t title spam your readers : Every so often I come across a post with a provocative title, but which does not live up to the title at all. I prefer call this title spamming, since lot of the spam I receive has a provocative title, but often irrelevant content. Title is important. It influences readership strongly. But if you title spam regularly, it might help you get 2-3 posts higher readership, but its going to hurt in the longer run.

  6. Understand how blog aggregators and networks work :It is important to understand the demographics of different blog aggregators. If you would like your blog to be read by larger number of people, be clear in your mind which demographics you are targeting when writing your post. Some aggregators like javablogs.com and artima.com will target specific programming languages and work off an RSS feed. Explore your blogging software and see if it offers category / tag based feeds. If it does use the categories / tags to ensure your rss feed registered with these aggregators sends only relevant posts to them. I use wordpress and it supports tag / category based RSS feeds. Networks like dzone.com, news.ycombinator.com, reddit.com, slashdot.org, digg.com have very different demographics. Don’t blanket post to all networks. Register your post with those networks where the readers are likely to find your post helpful. I have occasionally come across people wondering whether one should register one’s own posts to a network. My opinion is that it is an acceptable activity.

  7. Ensure you have blog analytics enabled : Over a longer period of time you will start gleaning useful information about your readers. eg. what part of the world do they come from, which links do they come from (eg. you can get statistical information about the referrers such as google reader (RSS), blog aggregators, blog networks etc.). You can also get information about what searches led the search engines to your blog. I prefer wordpress.com stats plugin for wordpress and google analytics. The former is better at providing more immediate feedback, whereas the latter is more comprehensive.

  8. Pay attention to search engines as well :Most blog aggregators and networks will drive substantial traffic to your blog for the first 24-48 hours. Search engines will send a small trickle initially. However there is a big difference. Traffic from aggregators and networks will dry up after a few days for any post. But traffic from search engines will keep on coming. Over a sustained period of time, search engines can start driving a substantial traffic to your blog. Read up about Search Engine Optimisation and see if you can help your blog. I would recommend however that you use such optimisation fairly and only to the extent that it is not misleading.