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More Thoughts On Finding Your Blog’s Story

More Thoughts On Finding Your Blog’s Story

I’ve been thinking about how to give people more guidance on figuring out their stories. It strikes me as kind of a sticky issue, now that I really think about it.

For example: there are cases when a blogger has been doing their thing for a while — and I’m going to just say right now I am NOT TALKING ABOUT ANYBODY IN PARTICULAR — but because they have been doing it for long enough, they will get to a point where a story emerges whether they like it or not. This is not true for every single long term blogger, but I thing the longer you go without self-consciously crafting your own story, the less control over it you will have.

Because as I was thinking about it, I was forced to reflect that yes, there are a few people who I could say, “Look, this is your story. This is your thing.” But I really don’t want to do that, because: 1) it feels like it’s definitely not my place to do it; and 2) it seems way, way too personal and defining of a thing to do, even if somebody asks you to do it. I really think that people should define it for themselves as much as possible, while they still can.

Now, with newer bloggers, it’s much more difficult to figure out the thing, because there is just so much less text to work with. You can go through back posts, watch them on Twitter, Facebook etc. but it’s much harder to see a pattern emerging. They are still figuring out the landscape, and maybe they haven’t really gotten past the honeymoon period where they are on their best behavior yet. But one thing that occurred to me after reading Julie“s comment (i.e. all personal bloggers have a story, and but the best ones know what their story is) is that not only do the best bloggers know what their story is, they don’t try to fight it — they aren’t in denial about it. In other words, the best personal bloggers might be stuck with a story that is not always flattering, and they might be totally conscious of that fact, but they go with it anyway, either because they don’t know any better or because well, it’s their story and their sticking to it.

Example: Penelope Trunk. Technically speaking, not a personal blogger. However, as people who have been reading here for a while know, definitely one of the best bloggers out there in my opinion. Her niche is career advice, which is something in which I have zero interest, but I never miss a post of hers because her thing is “the beautifully writing blogger who gives career advice despite never really being employed (in the strictest sense of the word) and who might also have Asperger’s but it’s hard to say because you are never sure how much of what she says is actually true.” If that’s not a story, then I don’t know what one is.

Have a look at Penelope’s latest post, in which she talks about how she needs to get a “workplace spouse” in order to fill in the gaps in her real life marriage, because her new husband really does not want to talk to her. Yeah. Now, listen. I am not suggesting that you need to write about stuff like this in order to have a popular blog. What I am saying is: Penelope knows what her story is, and she doesn’t bother with trying to make it into something it’s not — she doesn’t exaggerate to make it better or to make it worse. It’s just her story, in all of its craziness, and nobody else could write it. That’s why people love to read her blog.

The vast majority of bloggers have not figured out what their story is yet. But for people who have been blogging a while, I think there may already be a story that has emerged and they just are not realizing it. With those cases, there’s probably less of a need to self-consciously brand yourself. Probably what you need to do in that case is to learn how to make peace with how people have already come to think of you, and figure out to what degree you can spin that perception to your best advantage. I’m not sure that everyone has it in them to handle it as well as Penelope Trunk does, but for those that do, she’s a great model on that front.

What do you think? Could you embrace a story that had emerged about you, even if it wasn’t particularly flattering, if you thought it had market potential?

Comments (51)

  1. Dec 9, 2010

    As a relative blogging newbie (with this blog, at least), how does one define their story without it becoming a gimmick (e.g. caring for an infant, green living, PPD)? As a mommyblogger/memoir(ish)-blogger, I find it hard to come up with any story beyond “stuff that happens in my life”.

    Also, I’m trying to rectify this statement: “you are never sure how much of what she says is actually true” with this statement: “she doesnโ€™t exaggerate to make it better or to make it worse”. ???

  2. Dec 9, 2010

    Well, I believe that Penelope believes what she writes is true. I’m just not sure that if I were there, witnessing what is going on in her life, that I would have the same perception. You know, it’s not a lie, if you don’t believe it’s a lie, kind of thing.

    Re: becoming a gimmick, I’m not sure I quite understand. This whole thing is, basically, a gimmick — it’s a means of making yourself more easily and quickly accessible to people who are just passing by. It’s not meant to be all encompassing or to define you permanently. It’s just supposed to separate you from the crowd. It’s different from genre (green living) a topic (caring for an infant, PPD). It’s what people would use to describe you to differentiate you from everyone else. What do you do that nobody else does?

  3. Dec 9, 2010

    Although, I do think your story changes over time. For instance, my “thing” started out as Humorous High-Risk Pregnancy. But then it evolved into Humorous Parenting. But I am still working the “pregnancy” angle in that I am working with a literary agent on a memoir about my experiences. Hopefully my next books will be able to jump off that and move into the parenting thing.

    I guess what I am saying is that I knew my strength was in the funny pregnancy genre, but you can really only work that for so long (i.e. nine months) and you have to evolve. Which is what any good blogger should be doing. You can’t do funny cat captions for six years and be successful.

  4. Dec 9, 2010

    But there are lots of humorous pregnancy and lots of humorous parenting blogs. How do people tell you from all of the other ones? That is the concept of “story” I am talking about here.

  5. Dec 9, 2010

    Could it be that the people who have what we perceive as a better “story” are really just better storytellers, i.e., better writers?

    If someone is a really good writer, they can write about anything, and I’ll read it. No matter if it fits into their previously-observed genre or not. Sometimes it’s even better when it’s not within the realm of their expected subject matter.

    I personally would find it difficult to write about something I didn’t really want to write about, even if it had market potential. For example, I once did a guest post on another blog, all about my son’s food allergies. A friend told me it was one of her favorite posts of mine, because it was personal (I write food — not as personal — on my own site) and that I should explore the topic more on my own blog. But I don’t want to be an allergy mom — even if it would mean loads of traffic/revenue. It’s just not what I’m interested in writing about. And I think that lack of passion would come out, eventually, to my detriment.

  6. Dec 9, 2010

    You’re totally right.

    In my case, I worked a specific niche: i had an incompetent cervix, did four months of bedrest with multiple complications and then successfully birthed a full-term baby. I built a readership on that high-risk pregnancy and then added to it by evolving into the funny parenting realm. But I don’t think it would have worked for me if I was taking the “doom and gloom” or even serious tone that most women would when faced with that situation. I took a snarky tone and made it work for me.

    I think if you really want to be successful, you definitely have to work your niche. And if you really don’t care how you get there, then embracing a story, even an unflattering one, will get you noticed. Now that’s the question: do you really want to be “famous” for being the woman who did XYZ questionable/horrible/disgusting thing? Good fodder for thought.

  7. Dec 9, 2010

    The unflattering thing, I think it would depend on a few factors. Firstly, whether I liked it or not. I struggle to write about things I don’t like or have no interest in, regardless of whether people would prefer that be my story. If I was interested, or it was an unflattering EVENT that was a part of me, like it or not, then I’d probably write about it, whether or not other people thought it was flattering. I’m pretty sure cutting heads off poultry doesn’t make me popular in some circles, but it’s what I do, so I write about it sometimes.

    Marketing isn’t at the front of my mind though when I write. It probably should be and god knows I’d love for my blog to become suddenly big and well trafficked, but I think I’d struggle working a line, just for the marketing ease it would give me.

    I am also pretty sure I’ve made no sense. I’m going away to think some more.

  8. Dec 9, 2010

    It would have to have a hell of a lot of market potential. I can think of a couple aspects of my “story” that might draw readers as if to a train wreck, but the risks of writing about them would be too great. The first risk is that my wife would kill or leave me or make me go into inpatient counseling or any combination of those things. Of course, I could make it completely anonymous and not even let my wife in on it, but that would create another constellation of difficulties.

    The second risk is that if I pursued that storyline on the blog, it would dictate how my real life would proceed to some extent (can’t have a careening train in Act I without a wreck in Act III after all), and whether it was anonymous or not wouldn’t affect that.

    So, no, I probably wouldn’t focus on unflattering aspects of my story if I thought I could make a couple bucks from it.

  9. Dec 9, 2010

    wait? i can’t just be naked? i have to have a STORY, too? after nearly eight years of baring my soul to the internet you’re telling me this now? ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. Dec 10, 2010

    Well, I *thought* I was the mom who wrote about kids with bipolar and living on my little farm, but apparently now I’m the feminist nutbag who encourages her daughter to punch people in the junk…so its true. Sometimes the story you think you have isn’t the one that gets you noticed.

    People don’t always resonate with what you think they will.

  11. Rayne of Terror
    Dec 10, 2010

    Well, THAT’s a compelling one line story. I immediately clicked over to find out what that’s about.

  12. Dec 10, 2010

    I think people are confusing this one-line bio thing with their actual selves. It’s not meant to sum up who YOU ARE. Nobody can be summed up in one line. This isn’t that. This is a marketing thing, about your blog (which may be about you…but the one-line thing isn’t). Totally different story.

    So my one-line bio doesn’t REALLY tell you who I am. Of course not. It tells you who I am in terms of my blog, which is totally different. Your blog can’t be about EVERY aspect of yourself (well, it can…but marketing-wise, not so much). Usually, your blog is about one or two aspects of yourself…and this one-line bio thing sums those one or two aspects up.

    At least, that’s my interpretation.

    As far as embracing an unflattering story with marketing potential…no, I don’t think that would be a fit for me. But I think the definition of “unflattering” is different for everyone. I’ve had people ask me what possesses me to be a mouthy crankypants on my blog, because they perceive that as unflattering. I don’t. I think it looks pretty good on me, actually. I bet Penelope Trunk thinks her style is flattering on her (and it is, because nobody does it better than her…although I like her well enough to worry about the impact on her real-life relationships sometimes).

  13. Dec 10, 2010

    Re: Penelope – I’m assuming it was just artistic license. I don’t think there’s any blogger out there who reports 100% of the truth. Those two sentences just struck me as funny.

    And I think your point about the whole of a blog being a gimmick is spot on. Thank you for the clarification, although in my case it’s not so reassuring. What do I do that nobody else does? Um, nothing. Maybe I should just call it a day.

    Thanks for the reply. =)

  14. Dec 10, 2010

    I have muddled along blogging for years documenting my boys, law school, and getting my career off the ground. I started in 2004. I’ve had it private for a few months because I wondered if it was getting in the way of my job hunt. I had a second blog for a couple years that had a great one line bio – I’m a tourist in my town – where I traveled around central Illinois reviewing all kinds of small businesses, restaurants, attractions, festivals. It quickly got a lot of attention, but it also took a TON of time to research and write, so it fell by the wayside while I was working full time, driving 3 hours a day to my clerkship, raising a toddler and studying for the bar. Lawyers are still so blog averse, but judges always enjoyed asking me where to get the best pie or which pumpkin patch they should take their grandkids to.

    Earlier this week on FB I wrote a response to the child abuse cartoon meme that was going on that I’ve had a very good response to. A lot of people said my writing was brilliant, eloquent, amazing, tragic. In 6 years of online writing no one has ever said that before. I wonder if I might use that 20 year old “event” to springboard a new blog direction, my story being woman whose child cousin murdered her other child cousin and went on to be a lawyer for both children and criminals. But I still need a job.

  15. Dec 10, 2010


    I know what a lot of people say my story is, and I refuse to embrace it because it deals with my marriage and my family and subjecting both to some very harsh criticism.

    In the end, all the blog traffic in the world isn’t worth that.

  16. Dec 10, 2010

    You just haven’t figured it out yet, is my guess.

  17. Dec 10, 2010

    If you’re a better writer, sure, that’s always going to be an advantage. But does it mean that all of the people who have a well-defined “thing” or “story” are, by definition, better writers? Definitely not. There are some truly excellent writers out there who are unknown because they haven’t been able to find a means of marketing themselves. And similarly, there are some not so great writers who have been able to succeed because they have found a way of marketing themselves to the right people.

    Success is a marriage of talent and marketing. You cannot do it without both. People think that it’s all about talent, when really talent is like 10% of the equation. Talent is like, the least important part really. Packaging is what is important. Finding a thing is just a technique for packaging. It’s just a way of making it easy for people to find you, it’s not about really defining who you are.

  18. Dec 10, 2010

    You hit the nail on the head for me I think. If I’m honest I know exactly what my story isโ€”I’ve been hesitant to put it all out there because of people in my real life who read my blog. I think I was less self-conscious and less likely to censor myself when no one I knew read my blog.

  19. Dec 10, 2010

    People who have EVENTs are kind of forced into this decision: they are sort of forced into making this into something they can work with, for good or for bad. Longterm bloggers who do not decide for themselves what their thing is going to be might find themselves in the same position. It’s kind of like these politicians who are caught doing corrupt things and then decide to do things in the public eye — the Blagojevich guy from Illinois who went on Celebrity Apprentice, for example. He definitely did not want to embrace his thing (trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat), but he’s enough of a marketer to know that this was it, that was the only thing he was ever going to get, so he took it.

    Not everybody is able to do that. But some people are. They would rather take their one shot, even if it is bad, then not take it. Then there are the situations where maybe there is somebody who has a thing that looks bad initially but if they spin it right, it can actually be good. You see that kind of thing all the time with celebrity scandals and then subsequent PR campaigns.

  20. Dec 10, 2010

    But if you haven’t written about it, there’s no way it would have emerged as your thing organically anyway. I think there are people who are doing this without realizing it, creating whole audiences for themselves based on a storyline that paints them in an unflattering light.

  21. Dec 10, 2010

    Sorry, I just thought of it a few days ago.

  22. Dec 10, 2010

    That’s pretty good, I have to say.

  23. Dec 10, 2010

    Yeah, exactly, it’s all about marketing. If you try to talk about everything you are in one line you get lost. This is like — take yourself out of the equation. Picture two people who don’t know you personally, one person who reads you, and one person who doesn’t. What would the person who reads you say to the one who doesn’t in order to describe you, quickly? That is what this is. The most ideal, quick, description of a blogger. That’s what we are trying to figure out here. Because people are going to come up with that description for you, on their own, whether you like it or not. So now is your chance to spoon feed it to them, to make it as flattering as possible. Do that before they do it for you. That’s all this exercise is about.

  24. Dec 10, 2010

    Yes! That clearly touches on your passion, since you followed it to your career. It must be coming out in your writing, too, no? I mean, I didn’t read the post (I tried to, but I’m not allowed to click through), but my guess is that is why people would respond to it.

  25. Dec 10, 2010

    Well, I think you’re right on that front. I don’t think that is your thing, anyway. I don’t think that it’s clearly defined at this point, but I’m still thinking on it.

  26. Dec 10, 2010

    I’ll admit that when I think about some people reading my blog it makes me less comfortable. Like, with all of the people I see regularly, I’m OK. But there are some people who I remember might occasionally read it and it annoys me to no end that they can, occasionally, check in on my blog. I kind of wish I could take that power away from them, like it’s not safe with them. But, unfortunately, that’s not really the way it works. So, mostly, I just try to forget about those people as much as possible when I’m writing.

  27. Dec 10, 2010

    I’m stuck back at Trunk, because I’m fascinated to hear that you think she’s one of the best bloggers out there. I think a huge chunk of her appeal is what I would refer to as the trainwreck factor, not that she’s such a tremendous writer. I’m not saying she’s not smart (she is) or that she’s not interesting (lots of times she is), but her “thing” in my mind is the cringe-factor. To me, reading her blog is like watching The Office, only I cringe harder because her blog is theoretically real life.

    I am still chewing on the “which very special snowflake are you” question at the heart of this, because the very thing that draws me to many of my favorite blogs is a quality of spirit (sorry), for lack of a better word, rather than a plot description. I’m not sure that sort of thing can be quantified or summarized in a sentence. And I think that’s probably okay.

  28. Dec 10, 2010

    I actually started a new blog in order to (among other reasons) clarify my storyline for myself and others. It has helped, but I’m still fuzzy on what has the potential to distinguish me from others. I probably need to actually sit down and hammer out what I’m going for, but then I fear I’ll constantly be self-editing to fit the profile. And I know from experience that that’s the kiss of death for my writing. Tough decision.

    The question you pose about going along with an unflattering storyline is interesting, because I feel like a blog I read is doing just that. Her situation has changed, she’s clearly reset her goals and target audience, and the tone and feel of the blog is completely different. It’s fascinating to watch in a disconcerting kind of way.

  29. Dec 10, 2010

    Are those people “big,” though? Because this is about if you want to make it “big.” It’s not about whether you want to be somebody’s favorite blogger or whether you want to be a good blogger or not. It’s about whether you want to make it big. We can debate actual quality if you want, too, but I think that is something different.

    Also it’s not special snowflake either. It’s what are you going to make “yours”? It’s like with the fucking tutus. I hated the fucking tutus, but you know what? The fucking tutus are a thing. Those are a thing. A stupid thing, and not one I would ever have chosen for myself, personally, but they are definitely a thing.

  30. Dec 10, 2010

    You’re talking about me, aren’t you?

  31. Dec 10, 2010

    I’m not sure we have the same definition of “big,” necessarily, nor do I want to start naming names, but… yeah, I think so. Will think some more on it.

    (Or maybe I’m just saying that because I’m not sure I have a thing. Crap!)

  32. Dec 10, 2010

    Would I want to be identified with the negative story? Probably not. Would I want someone to tell me that’s how everyone else see’s my story? Probably. To me that’s a matter of awareness–if the whole world thought I was one thing, and I was trying to be something besides that one thing, I’d want to know.

  33. Dec 10, 2010

    Heh. No. Not remotely.

  34. Dec 10, 2010

    Well, I think of big in terms of pageviews. Trunk is big in terms of pageviews. But I also think of her as really interesting to read. I mean, come on: she is an interesting blogger — call it what you want, trainwreck, whatever. It’s interesting. I have a feeling that some of the people you are talking about might be the people who make me want to throw my computer against the wall. Please tell me those aren’t the people you are talking about, Mir? Please?

  35. Dec 10, 2010

    That’s good. I think that means that you will be successful. I don’t think you can always 100% dictate what the thing will be, incidentally. Like, I didn’t sit down and say, this is what my thing is to be, and blam! that’s what it was. It just happened that way, and there are definitely positive and negative aspects to it. I embraced both sides to it. I did that because I saw it as my thing and figured that it was the thing that I could do that nobody else could do, and that it was my shot. I think maybe some people will not be able to do that, or they will be hesitant to take the opportunity when it is presented because it doesn’t come in the package that is ideal. I think that is a mistake — it doesn’t mean it has to be a horribly unflattering package, or a damaging package, just that it might not be exactly what you thought.

  36. Dec 10, 2010

    Every time you mention Penelope I go and waste time reading her fascinating posts :-).

    How do you see the idea of the blogger as character tying in with the blog as story? Does the blogger need to be a hero — to follow the Hero’s Journey — in order to be big?


    I think it is easier to think about the character’s journey than the story because when the character is well defined the story tells itself.

  37. Dec 10, 2010

    Sorry about the link glitch. If you go to http://www.thewritersjourney.com/ and click on Hero’s Journey in the left side bar it goes to the correct page.

  38. Dec 10, 2010

    I don’t think those are the people I’m talking about, no. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Though, again, a lot of the people who I presume make you want to throw your computer are big on pageviews for the trainwreck factor rather than because they’ve got a particularly meaningful “hook” outside of being cringe-worthy.

  39. Dec 10, 2010

    Well, it’s the same thing, pretty much. It’s a one-line bio. You’re the blogger who ____________. Do you need to be a hero, as in do you need to progress as a character in order to be big as a blogger? No, absolutely not, if the current captains of the mommyblogging industry are any indication. In fact, if you do progress as a character, you might put your whole franchise in jeopardy. Unless, of course, you’ve built the franchise from day one on the idea that you’re always changing.

  40. Dec 10, 2010

    But don’t you think your own story is one of you evolving as a character?

    I was thinking that the progression pulls people in, like when they latch onto a character progressing in a regular story. I don’t think of the character as ever changing in the blog, but maybe looping around the same character narratives over and over. Like the way Penelope loops around marriage-divorce-dating-marriage, start-up success-then failure-then success, happiness–stir up drama–happiness, and so on.

  41. Dec 10, 2010

    I immediately clicked too. Hehe.

  42. Dec 10, 2010

    I originally wrote it as a note on facebook, but I just made my blog public again and reposted it there.

  43. Dec 10, 2010

    It might be easier to find if you think of different niches rather than personal blogging. Because they are often really well defined – I’m the Science Mum, I tell parents how to do fun science stuff with their kids and realise that there’s a lot of science around them already. But obviously that has nothing to do with who I really am. It’s my passion and something I’m turning into a business, but it isn’t me.

    Even personal bloggers aren’t showing them on their blogs, they are choosing the bits to write about and the bits to leave out. So if you approach it as more a question of ‘what am I the consultant in?’ If people were going to hire me as an expert in xyz, what would it be? Or read through your archives and see what book it is – The Personal Blogger’s Guide to ???

  44. Dec 10, 2010

    This is really interesting. Is this the same thing that many call “personal brand” or is it different in your mind? I proposed a panel to BlogHer along these lines (or at least it has some elements of this if I am misunderstanding “story” and “personal brand.”) The jist of the proposed panel discussion is that your online persona or “personal brand” can evolve without any directed intention on your part and that it can be very different than the story you would have chosen because people are taking into account ALL of their interactions with you or that they observe you in on the internet. It would be interesting to take that one step further and work with people at BlogHer to come up with a more focused story for them.

  45. Dec 10, 2010

    I forgot to mention – I think I might be the blogger with way too many little kids who rights about painful adoption outcomes. Hmmmmm.

  46. Dec 10, 2010

    Shit. Now, I’m the blogger with way too many little kids who doesn’t understand the difference between “right” and “write.” I give up. Kill me now.

  47. Dec 10, 2010

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It’s clearly struck quite a chord, eh?

    I went through a major “rebranding” (gah) when my daughter was about a year old. After all, I started as an infertility blogger, and after I lost the twins (my “event”) and had my daughter, my life simply wasn’t about that anymore.

    When I decided to change the name of the blog, I asked my readers for suggestions, and then picked my five favorites and let them vote. Uppercase Woman was the winner (ironically, it was the one suggested by my husband). I liked it because it did NOT have “mommy” “mom” “mother” or any other similar thing in the title.

    Honestly? I think that’s my thing. I’m an Uppercase Woman. I live my life out loud, I write about it, and I’m kinda crazy about the world of blogging. Lots of folks describe me as being “raw” and I actually like that. It’s so much better than “edgy” which comes up a lot too.

    Thanks for this. I’m glad you’re inspiring me to really think about this. And maybe you SHOULD come up with my story. ๐Ÿ˜€

  48. Dec 11, 2010

    i’ve been blogging now for coming on 2 yrs next month. but i feel like only within the last 6 months have a started to figure out the direction of my blog and what i potentially want “my story” to be. but i look forward to continuing to write and having a story finally emerge (if i don’t already have one)

    and maybe it wouldn’t be a terribly bad idea for someone to tell me what my story is. because that way i can see it from the perspective of the reader. and maybe if its not the story i feel i want to tell than maybe i can figure out which direction i need to take it in.

  49. Amy
    Dec 12, 2010

    I’m utterly amazed how many people find the blogger of Penelope Trunk credible. This is a woman who blames all her inappropriate behavior on Asperger’s yet she’s never been clinically diagnosed. I have no idea how she markets herself as a career and business guru when: she owes the IRS money due to her “business savvy”, had her electricity shut off because she had no money to pay the bill, but yet employed a “house manager” at $50,000/ year and flew to New York City (or was it LA?) to get a hair cut and brows waxed.

    She mocks everything decent in order to get page views (The Veterans Day Post. twittering during a board meeting that she can cancel that abortion because she’s miscarrying, and is outraged when one of her “conquests” wouldn’t “go down on her”). She actually posted a detractor of hers home address and called his home to have it out with him: David Delafield. I guess it’s not stalking when you have Asperger’s.

    Wake up people….it’s not genius or brillance….she’s just out for the traffic

  50. Dec 12, 2010

    Thanks for your contribution, but unless you actually have anything to add on the post’s actual topic at hand (i.e. finding your blog’s story), I’m going to go ahead and put you on moderation until further notice.

  51. Dec 13, 2010

    That reminds me of someone I used to read. She wrote about her life and suddenly changed to be a ranting, bitter person. It was such a 180 that it really surprised me. Now I love a good rant, but she was so full of vitriol for everything she had once professed love for. I watched for a little bit, but grew tired of it fairly quickly.

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