Earlier this week I was invited by a work colleague whom I had never met to have a coffee and talk about my blog. I was flattered. We had a lively conversation and at the end of it I was glad to have met someone else with an interest in plants and gardening. My colleague is taking a sabbatical and has enrolled in a course at Chelsea Physic Garden. She is starting her journey toward horticultural enlightenment and considering how she might document it.
I tend to live my life on autopilot, so our chat turned out to be a good opportunity to remind myself of why I started blogging and consider what motivates me to continue. When I started out with The Frustrated Gardener I knew a little about gardening but nothing about blogging. I jumped straight in at the deep end, launching my site within hours of having the initial brainwave, and learning on the job. It is not a bad way to start, but perhaps not appropriate for the more cautious. Almost six years on I still know a little about gardening, but sufficient about blogging to have accrued almost 1,000,000 views. This post will be my 870th.
Using WordPress made my foray into blogging more straightforward than I had anticipated. It is instinctive and simple to use; you might also say fun, even if you’re not technologically minded, like me. I would recommend WordPress, whilst at the same time admitting it’s the only platform I know. I have hesitated to write this post as it does feel a little self-indulgent; after all I am not an ‘expert’ and I only have experience of writing one blog on quite a narrow subject. Nevertheless I believe I have something to offer other amateur gardeners or plant lovers who are exploring the idea of starting their own blog. Here are my top ten tips:
1. Be Authentic
Let’s be honest, there is no shortage of text books available to tell you how to garden the text-book way. They are largely written by people far more knowledgeable than you or I will ever be. People subscribe to blogs to get a different, personal and slightly more informal angle on a subject. My advice is to write about what you know and what you love. If you don’t have first hand experience of a subject, what are you going to offer that isn’t documented elsewhere? If you don’t love what you are doing, how are you going to stay motivated? Consider what insight you can offer that others cannot – perhaps you have experience of growing a certain group of plants, work or garden in a unique location? When you write, do so from the heart; for better or for worse, your readers want to hear about your unique thoughts and experiences, not read a regurgitation of Wikipedia.
2. Have a set of guiding principles
I have found it helpful to decide a set of principles to guide what I write and how I present it. Many relate to these tips. For example, if I finish a post and I don’t think it’s good enough, I won’t publish it, regardless of the time it’s taken me. I want there to be a feeling of quality and originality about my blog which won’t be enhanced by rushed, inaccurate or flimsy posts. I also use my own images unless I really don’t have anything appropriate in my archive, in which case I ask permission from the photographer (or, rarely, buy a stock image). In settling on your principles it’s helpful to be clear what you want to get out of your blog. In my case I wanted an outlet for my passion for plants, and a reason to stretch myself horticulturally. I make myself research the plants I write about and gain knowledge for myself whilst sharing it with others. I also wanted an identity that was not related to my work. Blogging gave me a new lease of life at a time when my job felt all-consuming. It still is, but I now have a better work/life balance. I check in with myself occasionally to make sure I am being true to my principles and consider if they need updating.
3. Be Relevant
This piece of advice is especially pertinent to gardening blogs, and you can take it or leave it. I recommend you write what’s relevant to the season or the next few weeks, rather than looking backwards. My observation is that people visit gardening blogs looking for inspiration and information about what to do right now, rather than see what they have missed. My draft folder is chock-a-block with posts that I started and then the moment passed. I leave them there and occasionally resurrect them eleven months later. In the UK we live in a country which is blessed with defined seasons. Use them to guide your posts and your readers will find your writing instantly relevant …. unless they reside in the Southern Hemisphere, in which case they will enjoy the stark contrast! If you are offering practical advice, then do this shortly before the task you are writing about needs doing. Your readers will appreciate the timely reminder.
Whilst being relevant, be aware that your followers will be most active during the growing year …. so from March until October, probably peaking in late May, when coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show converts even the most plant-phobic types into wannabe gardeners. You will need to sustain yourself and your readers through the autumn and winter months, so plan topics you can write about when the garden isn’t at its finest: posts about bulb planting, seed purchasing, Christmas decorating, hellebores and snowdrops fuel many a gardening blog through the winter.
4. Be Accurate and Literate
Your blog is an extension of yourself and a source of information and inspiration for others. Don’t appear slapdash by making simple grammatical mistakes and spelling errors. I agonise over grammar and sentence construction constantly, having left of school with little or no understanding of either. I won’t pretend I don’t make mistakes, but I make a concerted effort not to. When referring to plants by name, make sure they are accurate. It takes no time at all to check a name using Google or the RHS website. If nothing else, you can use this exercise to confirm your brilliance or your fallibility. In my case, it’s generally the latter.
5. Be Adventurous
I began blogging because I wanted to stretch myself technologically and horticulturally. You will have different reasons for writing a blog, but for it to be interesting over a long period you need to be adventurous. This does not necessarily mean trekking to the top of Kilimanjaro, although this will certainly earn you followers if you write eloquently about the experience, but it does help to seek out new and different subjects for your readers. I have certainly visited gardens and delved into the undergrowth where perhaps I might not have normally, in order to have an interesting anecdote to write about. When possible, go the extra mile to gain original material and insights to share. For example, if you’re visiting a garden and spot one of the gardening team at work, ask them what they are up to and which plants they think are looking their best. Go beyond the guide-book and your followers will lap it up.
Being adventurous may also be a case of taking an interesting angle on a subject. If you’re going to be controversial, just be aware that not all your followers will necessarily agree with you. And, of course, stay safe. How ever ravishing that orchid on the cliff-edge looks, it’s not worth risking life and limb for. Get a zoom lens instead.
6. Don’t become a slave to your blog
This is a trap I think many bloggers fall into from time to time. If you become too attached to your statistics page then you will soon feel pressure to respond to the number of visits and visitors. Blogging can be addictive, and like any drug that’s not healthy over a period of time. Do post regularly as your readers will appreciate keeping in touch, but don’t feel forced to write to order. I have found myself on occasion getting out of bed during periods of serious illness to post, and staying in my hotel room whilst on exotic holidays to get a piece published. This is madness. Life really is too short. Unless you are using your blog to make a living, let it go and live in the present.
7. Understand how to attract an audience
If you are thinking of writing a blog I can only assume that you would like other folk to read it. There are millions of blogs on the Internet so it’s highly unlikely that people will stumble over your little masterpiece on their own. You do not need to be a computer nerd or marketing guru to start building up a following. In the early days, encourage friends and family to sign up and, in turn, tell their friends and families. If you have a Facebook or Twitter profile, set your blog up so that posts appear in your feed. Ensure you have a ‘follow me’ button installed on your home page. Most importantly, do not be shy. The more interconnected you become, the more your audience will grow.
Once you become established as a blogger, start to heed the posts and topics that your audience enjoy most and write more on the same theme. Keep popular posts updated. A basic understanding of SEO (search engine optimisation) will help you write posts that will be surfaced by the likes of Google. Search engines value the type of unbiased, ‘rich content’ generated by bloggers, so don’t be surprised to see one of your posts returned at the top of the list, especially if it’s about a niche subject.
8. Be interactive
Attention breeds attention. Read other blogs, like posts and leave comments. You will learn and be inspired by what others blog about and quickly build up a virtual community of followers who will also read, like and leave comments on your posts. I need to follow my own advice here and devote more time to reading other blogs. I always reply to comments, even if it’s just with a simple ‘thank you’. A blog operated in splendid isolation will be slow to grow. There are groups you can join on Facebook which will connect you with other like-minded bloggers. Occasionally they may even arrange pleasantly old-fashioned events where bloggers can meet face to face rather than via their computer keyboards.
9. safety first
Cyber security is a hot topic at the moment. Alas, I am no expert here; it’s something I need to investigate further. Once you’ve chosen which blogging platform to use, check for help on how to protect your blog from hackers and viruses. WordPress comes with a piece of software, Jetpack, a ‘plugin’ that protects the site from most sources of danger. You may imagine that a gardening blog would be of little interest to a hacker, but it may not be your botanical knowledge they are after. Set a secure password and change it often. You can also download and save a full copy of your blog periodically just in case the worst should ever happen.
10. enjoy IT
Blogging was not invented as an addition to our everyday portfolio of chores. How ever you decide to approach your blog, make sure it fits with your lifestyle otherwise it will not last very long. If, like me, you are inspiration-rich and time-poor, don’t set yourself up with the task of blogging daily at length. Chances are it will make you stressed and miserable. Make writing fit with your schedule and tailor your posts to the time you can devote to them. Quality always wins over quantity. The moment blogging becomes a chore, seek to redress the balance or take a different direction. You make the rules.
Blogging has made me a better writer and, to an extent, a better gardener. I have learnt to take reasonable photographs, although I’d always like to do better. It has brought me into contact with many wonderful new people and garnered occasional media attention. But, most importantly, it has made me more than someone who just works, eats and sleeps, which is why I began. By that measure alone I count it as a success. Heed these tips and hopefully the same will be true for you. TFG.
If you can add to these tips, embellish or refute them, or if you’d like to share your own experiences of writing a blog, I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below.