Writing Is Hard

Writing isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. There are a lot of times that people sit down to pour out their thoughts onto virtual paper and nothing happens. Or they spend hours and hours researching a topic only to put something together that falls apart because of assumptions about a key point that aren’t true.

The world is becoming more and more enamored with other forms of media. We like listening to podcasts instead of reading. We prefer short videos instead of long articles. Visual aids beat a wall of text any day. Even though each of these content types has a script it still feels better having a conversation. Informal chat beats formal prose every day.

Written Wringers

I got into blogging because my typing fingers are way more eloquent than the thoughts running through my brain. I had tons of ideas that I needed to put down on paper and the best way to do that was to build a simple blog and get to it. It’s been eight years of posting and I still feel like I have a ton to say. But it’s not easy to make the words flow all the time.

I find that my blogging issues boil down into two categories. The first is when there is nothing to write about. That’s how most people feel. They see the same problems over and over and there’s nothing to really discuss. The second issue is when a topic has been absolutely beaten to a pulp. SD-WAN is a great example. I’ve written a lot about SD-WAN in a bunch of places. And as exciting as the technology is for people implementing it for the first time, I feel like I’ve said everything there is to say about SD-WAN. I know that because it feels like the articles are all starting to sound the same.

There are some exciting new technologies on the horizon. 802.11ax is one of them. So too is the new crop of super fast Ethernet. We even have crazy stuff like silicon photonics and machine learning and AI invading everything we do. There’s a lot of great stuff just a little ways out there. But it’s all going to take research and time. And learning. And investment. And that takes time to suss everything out. Which means a lot of fodder for blog posts as people go through the learning process.

Paper Trail

The reason why blogging is still so exciting for me is because of all the searches that I get that land in my neighborhood. Thinks like fixing missing SFPs or sending calls directly to voicemail. These are real problems that people have that need to be solved.

As great as podcasts and video series are, they aren’t searchable. Sure, the show notes can be posted that discuss some of the topics in general. But those show notes are basically a blog post without prose. They’re a bullet point list of reference material and discussion points. That’s where blogs are still very important. They are the sum total of knowledge that we have in a form that people can see.

If you look at Egyptian hieroglyphs or even Ancient Greek writings you can see what their society is like. You get a feel for who they were. And you can read it because it was preserved over time. The daily conversations didn’t stand the test of time unless they were committed to memory somehow. Sure, podcasts and videos are a version of this as well, but they’re also very difficult to maintain.

Think back to all the video that you have that was recorded before YouTube existed. Think about all the recordings that exist on VHS, Super8, or even reel-to-reel tape. One of the biggest achievements of humanity was the manned landing on the moon in 1969. Now, just 50 years later we don’t have access to the video records of that landing. A few grainy copies of the records exist, but not the original media. However, the newspaper articles are still preserved in both printed and archive form. And those archives are searchable for all manner of information.


Tom’s Take

Written words are important. Because they will outlast us. As much as we’d like to believe that our videos are going to be our breakthrough and those funny podcasts are going to live forever, the truth is that people are going to forget our voices and faces long after we’re gone. Our words will live forever though. Because of archiving and searchability future generations will be able to read our thoughts just like we read those of philosophers and thinkers from years past. But in order to do that, we have to write.

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Why Do You Still Blog?

After recording an excellent session on social media at Cisco Live with The Network Collective (@NetCollectivePC), I started thinking about blogging and where it stands in the grand scheme of information sharing. With the rise of podcasting and video blogging now in full swing, I was even asked by my friend Michael Stump “Do you see blogging as a dying form of content?” For obvious reasons, I said “no”, but I wanted to explain two major reasons why.

Needle In A Haystack

One of the major reasons why I still blog through written form is searchability. When I started blogging almost seven years ago I wanted to create a place where I could put down my thoughts about topics and share them with everyone. More by accident than design, many of those thoughts became popular topics of conversation. Even today, some of my posts are being used to help people figure out problems and address issues that aren’t well documented in other places.

But why? How can posts many years old still be relevant to audiences today? Because of searching. Use of Google, DuckDuckGo, and even Bing allow people to search for specific error messages or topics and find things that I’ve written down. That’s because text on posts is easily indexed by web crawlers. Even when my posts are excerpted on other sites it just drives more people back to my blog to find my content. The power of being able to find something can’t be understated.

But what about audio and video content? How can it be searched? Sure, you can write down show notes. But show notes are like network and systems documentation. At first, they’re very detailed and useful. But after time passes, they are essentially the bare minimum necessary to be able to move on. That makes it difficult to search for specific content inside of an episode. In fact, the show notes from most podcast episodes would be content for two blogs!

Additionally, the banter and discussion during the episode are hard to capture in text format. If the show notes mention that the guests spend 3-4 minutes talking about some topic, realize that most people speak in conversation at around 125 words per minute (wpm). With two guests debating the topic for 4 minutes, that’s 500 words or more on a topic! How can you capture the essence of the discussion in a single line show note with perhaps one or two links to outside material? Blogs allow all of that to be tracked, indexed, and referenced at a later date without needed to scrub through the audio to find out exactly what was said.

Can I Have Your Attention, Please?

If you’ve been reading along to this point so far, you know that I prefer writing my thoughts out. That is, if you’ve been paying attention. I also prefer reading words instead of podcasts for the most part. Why? Well, that has to do with my full and undivided attention.

When I’m reading something, I’m using my active reading skills. I’m focused the content in front of me. I use my attention to absorb the words and concepts. It does take a lot of concentration to do this. Since part of my job is reading blogs it’s easy for me to set aside time to do this task. But it does take away from other things that I’m doing. I often find myself shutting out other conversation or ignoring things going on around me while I try to digest new topics or evaluate someone’s opinion on a subject.

Conversely, when is the last time you actively listened to a podcast? I mean, you sat down with a pair of headphones and really listened to it? Not just put it on in the background and casually listened to the discussion while you went on with work or something else. I’d bet the answer is that you frequently find yourself splitting your attention. I know I do it. I even split my focus when I’m recording podcasts if they aren’t on video. It’s very easy to lose track of what’s going on without a visual focus point.

Podcasts are active. They project the conversation you. Likewise, the consumers of podcasts are passive. They aren’t seeking knowledge. They are being fed knowledge via an audio (or video) stream. But written words aren’t that aggressive. They require someone to consume them actively. You don’t accidentally click on a link and find yourself full of knowledge ten minutes later without having put in the effort to read what was on the page. You can’t read blog posts without paying attention. If you do, you find yourself missing the point and reading them all over again to find out what you missed in the first place.


Tom’s Take

I love to write. I never did when I was in school or when I was first starting out in technology, but as time has worn on, I find myself growing to love using a keyboard to share what’s in my brain. I’ve recorded podcasts and videos as well, but I keep coming back to the written word. I like the ability to have other people find my content useful years after the fact via a search or a referral. I also enjoy the idea that people are focused on what I’m saying and ingesting it actively instead of having it fed to them via a speaker or headphones. Maybe it’s because I use other media, like TV and music, to provide background noise to focus as I write and do other things. At the end of the day, I blog because it’s the method of communication I most prefer to consume.

Blogging By The Refrigerator’s Light

Blogging isn’t starting off to a good 2017 so far. Ev Williams announced that Medium is cutting back and trying to find new ways to engage readers. The platform of blogging is scaling back as clickbait headlines and other new forms of media capture the collective attention for the next six seconds. How does that all relate to the humble tech blogger?

Mindshare, Not Eyeshare

One of the reasons why things have gotten so crazy is the drive for page views. Clickbait headlines serve the singular purpose of getting someone to click on an article to register a page view. Ever clicked on some Top Ten article only to find that it’s actually a series of 10 pages in a slideshow format? Page views. I’ve even gone so far as to see an article of top 7 somethings broken down into 33(!) pages, each with 19 ads and about 14 words.

Writers competing for eyeballs are always going to lose in the end. Because the attention span of the average human doesn’t dally long enough to make a difference. Think of yourself in a crowded room. Your eyes dart back and forth and all around trying to find something in the crowd. You may not even know what you’re looking for. But you’ll know it when you see it. Your attention wanders as you scan through the crowd.

Blogging, on the other hand, is like finding a good conversation in the crowd. It engages the mind. It causes deeper thinking and engagement that leads to lasting results. The best blog posts don’t have thousands of views in the first week followed by little to nothing for the rest of eternity. They have active commenters. They have response pieces. They have page views and search results that get traffic years after publication.

The 3am Ah Ha Moments

Good blogs shouldn’t just be about “going viral”. Good blogs should have something called Fridge Brilliance. Simply put, the best blogs hit you out of the blue a day after you read it standing in front of your fridge door. BANG. Now you get it! You run off to see how it applies to what you’re doing or even to give your perspective on things.

The mark of a truly successful blog is creating something that lasts and is memorable in the minds of readers. Even if all you’re really known for is “that one post” or a series of great articles, you’ve made an impression. And, as I’ve said before, you can never tell which post is going to hit it big. So the key is to keep writing what you write and making sure you’re engaging your audience at a deeper level than their corneas.

That’s not to say that you can’t have fun with blog posts now and then or post silly things here and there. But if you really want to be known as an authoritative source of content, you have to stay consistent. One of the things that Dave Henry (@DaveMHenry) saw in his 2016 wrap-up was that his most viewed posts were all about product announcements. Those tend to get lots of headlines, but for an independent blog it’s just as much about the perspective the writer lends as it is for the news itself. That’s how you can continue to engage people beyond the eyeball and into the brain.


Tom’s Take

I’ve noticed that people still like to write. They want to share thoughts. But they pick the wrong platforms. They want eyeballs instead of minds. They don’t want deep thoughts. They just want an audience. That’s the wrong way to look at it. You want engagement. You want disagreement and argument and 4,000 word response posts about why you’re completely wrong. Because that’s how you know you’ve hooked the reader. You’re a splinter in their mind that won’t go away. That’s the real draw. Keep your page views. I’d rather have memories and fridge brilliance instead.

Nobody Cares

Writing a blog can be very fun and rewarding.  I’ve learned a lot from the things I’ve written.  I’ve had a blast with some of the more humorous posts that I’ve put up.  I’ve even managed to be anointed at the Hater of NAT.  After everything though, I’ve learned something very important about writing.  For the most part, nobody cares.

Now, before you run to your keyboard and respond that you do indeed care, allow me to expound on that idea just a bit.  I’ve written lots of different kinds of posts.  I’ve talked about educational stuff, funny lists, and even activist posts trying to get unpopular policies changed.  What I’ve found is that I can never count on something being popular.  There are days when I sit down in front of my computer and start furiously typing away as if I’m going to change the world with the words that I’m putting out.  When I hit the publish button, it’s as if I’m launching those paragraphs into a black hole.  I’m faced with a reality that maybe things weren’t as important as I thought.

A prime example is the original intent for my blog.  I wanted to write a book about teaching people structured troubleshooting.  I figured if I could get a few of those chapters down as blog posts, it would go a long way to helping me get everything sorted out in my mind.  Now, almost three years later, the two least read posts on my site are those two troubleshooting posts.  There are images on my site that have more hits than those two posts combined.  If I were strictly worried about page views, I’d probably have given up by now.

In contrast, some of the most popular posts are the ones I never put a second thought into.  How about my most popular article about the differences between HP and Cisco trunking?  I just fired that off as a way to keep it straight in my head.  Or how about my post about a throwaway line in a Star Trek movie that exploded on Reddit?  I never dreamed that those articles would be as big as they have ended up being.  I’m continually surprised by the things that end up being popular.

What does this mean for your blogging career?  It means that writing is the most important thing you can do.  You should invest time in creating good quality content.  But don’t get disappointed when people don’t find your post as fascinating as you.  Just get right back on your blogging horse and keep turning out the content.  Eventually, you’re going to find an unintentional gem that people are going to go wild about.

Despite the old adage, lightning does indeed strike twice.  The Empire State Building is hit about 100 times per year.  However, you never know when those strikes are going to hit.  Unless you are living in Hill Valley, California you can never know exactly when that bolt from the blue is going to come crashing down.  In much the same way, you shouldn’t second guess yourself when it comes to posting.  Just keep firing them out there until one hits it big.  Whether it be from endless retweets or a chance encounter with the front page of a news aggregator you just need to put virtual pen to virtual paper and hope for the best.