How to… figure out what to write about

figs, bannetons, green chillis

Gill the Painter said  that more people look for “How to” posts than anything else. Well I haven’t got a “How to” up my sleeve right at this moment, so here’s an essay instead on the noble art of blogging.

One useful analogy, for me at least, is that it resembles a game of tennis. You lob your ball over the net and in the general direction of the person standing on the other side.

If you hit it so perfectly that it bounces on the line and hits the back wall, the person on the other side of the net can’t return it and while they might just stand there and say

Wow, what a shot!

that is it, the conversation is over.

Hit the same ball again and again straight to their racquet and they will tap it back, but eventually their mind will wander and they will start looking at the flower beds or watching a little puffy cloud in the sky, you’ve lost them there too.

impressive zoom Lumix

So vary your shots, make some direct, some asking for a little hop, skip and a jump of imagination, some slow and some fast, smile in between games, wave at the crowds and if you lose a game, well, you know what, when all is said and done, it’s only a game.

I’ve read some stuff which says you should stick to one subject on your blog, otherwise you will lose readers, but I credit people with a bit more intelligence than that. If you want to write about something different from usual, something which lets the readers find out a bit about you that you are comfortable sharing, then why not?

Do you recognise that moment when you think you’ve written a brilliant post, pressed publish and then no one comments for days. You look sadly at the post, thinking,

Why?” What did I do wrong?

The thing is, by definition, no one is going to tell you. Most commenters are incredibly polite too and, if they like you, are unlikely to say,

That last post my friend – you know, the one about the racehorses, that was rubbish mate.

Why would they? Chances are they’re bloggers too, and bloggers who live in glass houses never throw stones.  It could be that you just wrote a perfect post, and there was nothing to say, you aced it. That’s great if that’s what you want. Or it could have been the one about the racehorses that no one wanted to read that day. You will never know for sure.  Best advice, write something different next time, that is if it matters to you.

Some simple suggestions to get going with.

  • Choose something you like doing, something you know how to do quite well and something you are interested in finding out more about. If you are passionate about it, even better, but even something you are simply curious to find out more about is a good starting point.
  • Choose something you like looking at and take a photo or two of it and explain why you like looking at it. You could do the same for any of the senses, touch, sound, smell, etc
  • Choose something special about your environment, it could be an unusual shop, a statue, a river, a park, a museum, just something that you think makes your world a better and more interesting place and write about it.

If you are unsure about the tone to take, ask yourself who you are writing for and just write it as if you are writing for one person, you don’t have to say who it is of course!

So many people say

I’m writing for myself

and then wonder why no one comments. It’s kind of self explanatory to me, no one talks to you either if you mutter in your mother tongue looking into your handbag.

I write as if I am writing for friends, for people who live too far away for me to meet up with on a regular basis, but who I want to stay in touch with and share the interesting stuff that’s going on in my life.

In the same way as the RSPB built a landscape to encourage the bittern to nest and breed down on the Somerset Levels, you can build a landscape on your blog which will encourage the people you want to read it to feel cared for and safe when they write comments.

A word of caution

Not everything interesting is necessarily happy stuff and you can share worries and concerns if that helps you. Just remember that it is quite easy to misunderstand someone’s intentions when your only cues are the words on the screen so re-read what you write at least a couple of times before you press the Publish button.

Ideally leave any post a day before posting it. That way you get a bit of distance from what you have written and can edit it almost as if someone else has written it.

Read sentences out loud or at least under your breath and check it all makes sense.

Check that you haven’t repeated a word over and over, that’s my worst habit that I am aware of. I use the same adjective three times in one paragraph, or I write ‘and so on’  (and so on).

Anyway that’s all, a lot of thoughts in one blog post. Keep it short and to the point. I am not sure I did. It’s like when you know you should have yoghurt and fruit for breakfast and someone puts this in front of you.

So here I am batting the ball towards you once again….

It’s been a long day here, a happy day, with barking dogs, lots of walking and talking, a little eating and lots of thinking and now it’s time to rest. I’ve read this one through three times and made it shorter, hard to believe I know… but I’m going to press Publish!!!!

How was your day?

37 thoughts on “How to… figure out what to write about

  1. sallybr

    Joanna, what a lovely post! Not much to add, it was a pleasure to read, I caught myself with a smile as I went through your line of thought

    it’s been a nice day, but I’m glued to the computer full time writing these days – an article from our lab to be published hopefully still this year. It is boring, getting references ready and all – so I get tired easily. An email informing me of a new post from you was all I needed to take a little break, and go back, re-energized!

    Absolutely wonderful read… thank you!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Really pleased that I gave you a little break Sally :) Keep up the good work and I hope the writing process gets into its groove and is less tiring soon. Roll on publication day!

  2. heidi

    I always smile at your humor, my friend. And now I am bowing to your wisdom.
    Comments are nice- but I try not to add mine when people have a whole slather of them- or when they don’t ever interact with you.
    I have found that a lot more people read and come back and read more but just DON’T comment. In fact, this summer I met several people who have been reading my posts for several years and actually feel like close friends but have NEVER spoken up- ever.
    And that’s fine. I used to read a Canadian blogger’s rants and writings and ALL of her followers were cheerleaders. If you even questioned something she said they would turn on you and act like you were the enemy. I write because I like the venue- I have somethings I’d like to share- and I like the community of bloggers. And I comment because I am standing here with a racquet ready to hit the ball back!
    Thanks for the post, Joanna, and for the smile. :)

    1. Joanna Post author

      Hi Heidi, I don’t know why the tennis metaphor, because I haven’t picked up a real racquet in years!

      Personal friends and relatives rarely comment though I know they pop in from time to time. It’s just the way it goes. Some people are put off by the comment moderation I suspect, and worry that they can be identified by putting their name on a comment or that they will get lots of spam email from it. However, all a would be commenter has to do (on this blog, at any rate) is put a name, could be anything, and a valid email address (that won’t be shown when the comment is approved) and then once I have approved their first comment their next comments will appear automatically. I do reserve the right not to publish comments – it is my blog – but apart from the ones that get trapped in the flypaper of the spam filter that we all get which do not relate to the blog and have their ‘own agenda’ I haven’t had to not publish a comment yet.

      There are so many fine people writing out there and so little time to give them serious reading attention that one has to pick and choose a little too. Glad you liked the post :)

  3. Celia @ Fig Jam and Lime Cordial

    Great post and wise words, thanks Joanna!

    I really do write for myself, idealistic as I know that sounds. I once had a friend say, “you’re brave to post about nasal irrigation on a food blog!”. That surprised me, because I didn’t really think I was writing a food blog, but obviously I am. I actually do feel like I spend a lot of time “muttering in my mother tongue and looking in my handbag” (love it! :)).

    I don’t think I can pick my audience, and I’ve long given up trying to. Apart from knowing that a giveaway post will attract a lot of comments, I haven’t really been able to pick any other trends. But I’ve made true friends like you and Heidi and Sally via my blog, and I adore waking up in the morning and chatting with you all via your comments and your blogposts. And when I post, I really do feel like I’m talking to you, and therefore I tend to write whatever comes into my head – “oh, I’m pouring saline through my nose today” or “I’ve made hazelnut praline this morning” or “I’m addicted to David Attenborough dvds”. :)

    Lots of love! xx

    1. Joanna Post author

      Hi Celia, We all view the blogging process differently but I love that you feel that you are talking to us when you post and I think that’s what keeps me coming back, that I know there is a real person tending the chickens and making meals, going to work and doing all the other things that don’t get blogged about. I can’t imagine you muttering into your handbag, but maybe you do? xx back at you! That was a reference to my mother by the way, who specialized in doing that :)

  4. Nip it in the bud

    I have blogs in my reader tagged as ‘gardening’, ‘cooking’, ‘sewing’ etc but they’re all more than that. I like the variety that comes with someone starting out with a passionate hobby but not being afraid to reveal a little of themselves through their blog. I guess I connect with the person behind the blog and if I like how they write I’ll keep coming back even if it’s nothing to do with what they first started blogging about. I’d be hard pushed to say what the main theme of my blog is these days but perhaps that’s just because I post so infrequently now. Actually no, it is still mostly-about-gardening but there’s so much to do in the real world of the allotment that I rarely find time to share it!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Hi Nic, thanks for your comment. I am very fond of your blog and the lovely photos you take, it always seems like a very calm and meditative space to visit. Hey, guess what, for one week I am going to be visiting an acquaintance’s allotment and being allowed to harvest some of her fine produce as she is going away and doesn’t want her hard grown veggies to go to waste while she is away. What a treat for us :)

  5. bagnidilucca

    You have given some excellent advice there – and it is very well put together. I don’t always understand why some post get lots of hits and others don’t. I was really happy with my posts on the Carnevale in Via Reggio, but they weren’t all that popular and the Spain posts didn’t attract all that much attention. The Bagni di Lucca ones get lots of comments. My blog started out to give information to my visitors about the village and surrounds, but I discovered that I am a gas bag and really like writing the blog. I agree that the posts need to be varied – for my own sake as well as offering readers something reasonable interesting. I love the comments, but I have readers who say they read every post but have never left a comment. Anyway, I love your blog. Keep on blogging!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks Debra, I could have summarized more and waffled along less. I am sure you could see a pattern if you looked closely at your posts. I see a pattern in how many visitors I get which seems to follow the days of the week which doesn’t relate particularly to when I wrote the posts, who knows why that is? Maybe it is right that people just want to read about one topic on a blog and I have got that completely wrong, but I shall carry on doing what I do for now and I hope that you do as well.

      I can tell you that I love the stories about the people in Bagni, you write about them with such love and really capture the personality of the place and its inhabitants. I also really like the ones about dealing with Italian administration and the traffic jams and the wonderful flower posts and the pictures of the beautiful bridges and buildings. I enjoyed the Spanish posts and the Carnevale ones too and couldn’t wait for your Cordoba post to come up. Yours is the only ‘travel/holiday blog’ what a category! that I read regularly so it must be you keeping me coming back. x

  6. Amanda

    Loving the new look, Joanna.
    Blogging – really more art than science and who can say what will hit the mark with whom? I’ve frequently found that posts I’ve written quickly when in a hurry have attracted far more attention than words I’ve polished lovingly for hours!
    I guess what I really appreciate is the discipline it brings to my writing, giving me cause to actually sit down and put pen to paper (or, actually, fingers to keyboard)!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Hello Amanda, glad to hear the new look blog is going down well with everyone. Like Celia says, you can’t pick an audience and who knows who or what people are looking for when they land on your blog. That’s very interesting what you say about quick posts getting more response that essays, I’ve noticed that too. I’ve also noticed that quick posts with just one main thought or point do the same. It might be to do with attention spans, apparently ours are very short these days. It’s all too easy to click away from a page and if the writer is going on and on, that’s probably what people do. Thanks for staying the distance with this one! It was much longer than usual :)

  7. drfugawe

    Love that I’m not the only one that does long posts – and yes, sadly they are the result of waiting 24 hours, and for the most part, they are the rewritten shortened versions – but thank god, I do have the ability to delete and start over again; this is an important writer’s skill – maybe the most important.

    Yes, my dear, you have captured the angst of the blogger well – Nice job.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Hi there Doc, there is a small graveyard of started and abandoned posts in my Dashboard which I always mean to visit and never get round to, a bit like the pile of papers on my desk that needs sorting out. I delete them from time to time. I read that some people delete old posts too, but then I would be deleting people’s comments and while I know that I can do that, I think that would be unfair to the people who have taken the trouble to write them. I’m really pleased you like the post !

      1. drfugawe

        Oh, I hope you never delete any of your published posts! You never know what the future will bring – I know of sev fellow bloggers who have turned their posts into a book – really. And then there’s the potential that one day you may be a famous author and respected sage whose words are a legacy to the world – and we all would then regret that any of your work had been lost to the world.

        “One never knows, do one?”
        Thomas “Fats” Waller

  8. jan trounce

    Lovely post, Joanna – almost as if we were rambling, side by side, and you were talking. I think that is what I most like about your blog – genial, intelligent and always interesting, stimulating conversation with sometimes photos that I can gaze at and fall into and by following the links from the commenters I can visit other similar people – a bit like Alice in Wonderland disappearing down the rabbit hole. Talking of Alice in W’land – I made myself coffee to take a break from chasing dust motes and washing line philosophising and got so engrossed in your post and the comments – I forgot to drink it! I need a mug with “drink me” on it. I smiled at your and Celia’s comments about looking into your handbag and muttering – I could do a blog on the contents of my handbag and what I never leave home without – a couple of notebooks and various things of interest to me, always a book in case I have a moment to absorb myself in it. Time to go back to my real world and make a racket with the vacuum cleaner. – might sing a bit:)

    1. Joanna Post author

      Now you are teasing me, I want a detailed description of what is in your handbag…. Lovely to hear from you Jan – I would be enchanted to ramble along with you anytime looking for white rabbits and picking blackberries :)

  9. Keely

    A great post with some great tips. I especially like how you described who bloggers should be writing to. It makes me think that maybe the ‘lost art’ of letter writing isn’t so lost at all – maybe it’s just taken a different form (blogging). Think of how many ‘pen pals’ that means you have!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Great to hear from you Keely! Bloggers and their audiences are really varied and I can only write about how I view the process. I am sure that if I was trying to promote a service or a product then I would write differently on the blog, but I write as if I’m writing to friends. The ‘pen pal’ analogy is a very good one!

      The one thing I try not to do is write like the ex-teacher I am, though she creeps in from time to time and I can hear her voice being bossy and a bit shouty, No, no do it this way….

  10. cityhippyfarmgirl

    So loved this post. Nothing to add what so ever, but I’m still smiling from your words, and especially “muttering in your mother tongue and looking into your hand bag”.
    You are brilliant. Love your words.
    (ps. yoghurt and fruit is strictly for home breakfasts, and I’m going to presume that Brian didn’t lay that menu on your freshly turned down bed… but if he did. Hooray!!:-)

    1. Joanna Post author

      Brydie, thank you for the compliment :) I think I have to credit my sister for the handbag muttering quote, I am sure it is her phrase. If she ever blogged it would be incredibly funny!

      That menu ? 6 Castlegate Cockermouth, Cumbria. A lovely old building, immaculate B and B, genial hosts, fabulous full English breakfasts, requiring walks up Cumbrian hills shortly afterwards! Our one get away weekend so far this year.

  11. gillthepainter

    Good morning everyone, and Joanna.

    Knäckebröd for breakfast please,

    Oh, I must write a “how to” themed blog post this morning!
    I’ve got one lined up for the end of the week that I’ve been taking pictures and notes for,
    but I think I have a suitable subject for today.

    I often question why I blog,, whether it’s important, or even, why do I bother.
    And I find that gentle self reply that, “I like to blog, me”, is sufficient.

    Maybe some people out there do read what I post, but I don’t really know how many, and don’t go out of my way to find out.

    I’ve always been told I lack ambition, but I like it that way.

    Keep up the writing Joanna. You’re excellent at it: a natural born blogger.

    1. Joanna Post author

      God Dag to you to Gill! I had no idea I was going to write this till I sat down and thought about what you said and then out it popped. I allow myself one of these rambles from time to time, and am glad it didn’t read like too much of a handbag mutter.

      Enjoy the Knäckebröd (shamelessly cut and pasted to get the accents in) and hope to see you soon. I’ll look out for your ‘how to’ post with great pleasure. x

        1. Joanna Post author

          Yes I read it earlier this evening ! I get those emails from WordPress when they put out a new theme or generally want to communicate with us. I read it with interest. One thing I don’t do is post to a regular schedule and probably never will. I’m not a newspaper. There is a certain element of spontaneity for me in the posting business which I am happy to stick with. I am happy with the numbers of visitors I have. Numbers are also skewed or jump up if you post on something that is then linked to or mentioned by someone who is listened to. So if a famous chef tweets that he likes something you did with a recipe of his, then you will get traffic from that, but it is not lasting traffic. The same with “Freshly Pressed” on WordPress. Those readers come and go, looking for the next fashionable thing, worrying that they are missing out on a trend or something that is ‘hot’. You can’t predict who will read your posts, sometimes the traffic jumps because you have used certain words in the title of the post. I remember once posting something called Volcanic Dust or something or other and got loads of hits, but no one commented, because they were all looking for pictures or information about the Icelandic Volcano and my post was nothing special at all.
          It’s a lottery unless you are a professional blogger with a finger on the pulse of the world :)

  12. rivertems

    I actually enjoyed this a lot. When blogging, I’m always aware of my “audience” (I think about 3 people total have read my blog) but sometimes I feel that my overly casual, aggressive and admittedly on occasion vulgar, tone can scare people away from commenting.

    I’m not sure how to tone it down without making the blog dull or cumbersome. Any, “how to” tips for that?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Hi Rivertems, thanks for visiting. I think it’s impossible to know who reads ones blog. I would suggest looking at blogs which write on similar areas of interest to yours, which you enjoy reading and try and figure out what they are doing that you like and see if you can incorporate style elements that you think are good. The wordpress post which Misk referred to above has lots of practical tips as well that are worth considering too.Hope this helps!

  13. Abby

    I feel like there’s not much I can say that hasn’t already been said above, but I still have to repeat that your post made me smile. :) You are such an inspiring blogger, Joanna…reading your thoughts makes me feel like I should/could do more with my food blog to open the conversation more and put more of myself out there. I love how you and Celia always turn the commenting section into a conversation…wish the other blogging platforms (like Blogger) would make that process less cumbersome.

    Anyway, sitting in a cabin at a lake, relaxing and watching the birds…makes me feel like I stepped into one of your garden posts!

    1. Joanna Post author

      You are very kind Abby, as is everyone who has commented here and I am very grateful that you make the time to write back. I don’t know what it is about these ‘how to’ posts, but I think Gill was right and it must be to do with how we use the search bar to find out everything these days. Maybe once in a while we should all try writing a ‘how to’ post on something that is currently occupying our minds?

      Sounds like you’re on holiday! Have a wonderful time :)

  14. C

    I read this when you published it and just couldn’t think what to say. I think that the interactive aspect of blogging is the best bit – the comments and the conversations that follow. I’m under no illusions that I blog for myself, I do it for the interaction. I sometimes wonder whether I even want to eat what I’ve made so I can talk about it….I’ve learnt loads by reading other people’s blogs, and always try to comment with a question, or something like that, but don’t always manage.
    Often the posts I’ve spent the most time on, or the ones where I really want feedback, or the ones where I’m most proud of what I’ve made are the ones that get ‘ignored’ and I get some total surprises with what attracts people.
    I love your posts because they always get me thinking, even if I don’t say anything.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks for coming back to chat C. I wonder if you would like Brydie’s recent ‘Seven’ Post on her blog Cityhippfarmgirl, in which she revisited some of her older posts and discussed how she felt about them. Maybe doing a similar round up post would be an interesting exercise. I might do one when I am out of the alphabet thing I am doing at the moment.

      You are a lovely reader to have :) I find it hard sometimes to think of what to say as a comment too. It’s not quite the same as a conversation is it? The comments stay there forever after all and other people read them. I have a very poor memory and sometimes I am very surprised when I arrive on someone’s blog, go to write a comment and realise that I have already commented. (oh the shame, the shame).

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