The Blog Improvement Project

I signed up for the blog improvement project this year because I have the least time to blog that I’ve ever had over the past four years, and yet I still want to use this space to the best possible effect. And I always want to give the bloggers who arrive in the Reading Room the best book-related time possible.

The first task set is to decide on our aims for the project. Easier said than done, of course, although we’ve been given the link to Chris Brogan’s post 50 ways to take your blog to the next level to help us out. So I’m following his headings and hints for the first 40, as with the best will in the world, I cannot figure out how to turn the Reading Room into a business.

Make Your Goal and Target Audience Clear

This is the first of Brogan’s sections and he suggests that whatever it is you want to do, you should be clear about it and consistent.  He’s quite keen on all personal content being split off and put somewhere else altogether. If I judge by stats alone, the biggest difference I could make to this blog would be to stop talking about books altogether and just give you funny posts about my family.  However, not that much happens around here, which is the way I like it, and I do read a lot. So I think things will have to carry on much as they have done in the past.

I’ve spoken before about the fact that the reading room is neither a properly academic lit blog, nor a more normal kind of brief review blog. To sort out my target audience, I really ought to get off the fence. And yet, my whole interest in blogging was to make more literary critical ideas available to general readers. I do believe that everyone can understand even the most complex ideas if they are presented in the right way. I may not have figured out exactly the right way to use ideas in a blog, though.

The other area of improvements Brogan highlights concern the blogging community. I don’t think I do enough in a community way, and one easy improvement I could make is to include links to other bloggers who have reviewed the same book. I like it when other bloggers do that, but need to find the search engine that locates those reviews for you. Anyone know where I can find it?

Beauty Is More Than Skin Deep

O God, design. Now you see my problem is that I barely understood what Brogan was talking about in this section. He referred to all sorts of things that were a mystery to me, technophobe that I am. One of the biggest problems for this blog is its look. Clicking through to a sea of dense type is NOT what people blog for generally. What I would like to do is include an image of the cover of books I review, and it would be nice to add a few more pictures generally. Thing is I have no idea how to do this. I still need help when posting a picture taken on one of our cameras. And instruction pages assume you are fully cognizant with all the technical terms – that’s if you can find the right instruction page. I really need to learn how to do this, but my lack of intuitive understanding is at such a level that it ought to be termed a disability.

It would be nice to have pictures of books in the side bar, but that sounds like such an advanced level of computer skills that I might think about it again in another three year’s time.

Make Your Content Top Notch

Concision, says Brogan, is a virtue. Ahh. Oops. By now, as ever, I’m wondering what possessed me to blog at all when I am so naturally unsuited to it.

Lead with your main point, he also suggests. Or, in other words, have a good snappy opening. Think about having better titles – ha! If he knew how long I spend pondering titles when the maximum I can fit in is about three words. See above for problems with concision.

Vary the length of your posts. This is worth quoting. He says: ‘If you write a “feature length” post have something brief next to avoid reader fatigue (unless you’re writing an essay length blog all the time, and hey, good luck).’ Well, here we come to the crunch. I have an essay length brain. I think in paragraphs rather than bullet points. I would love to be able to write shorter posts, particularly as I’m time poor at present. But how is it done? When I start to review a book, I have so much I want to say about it. And explaining ideas and concepts takes the time it takes. I am thinking about how to vary my post length, though, and maybe some inspiration will occur.

Post regularly, is his final piece of advice.  Out of term time, I can return to every other day posting, but while teaching’s happening, I think it has to be every three days or so. I’ll always post when I can.

Promoting Your Blog

Always a good idea this, and something I haven’t done since I first started blogging in 2006. Again, the problem with technical terms strikes. Use social bookmarking plugins, Brogan suggests. I’m sorry, come again? What are they? Check you’re linked to Google, Yahoo!, Technorati (check, check, check) and… DMOZ. And what is this, please? Nor do I twitter – see above for problems with concision.

What would be great would be to find more bloggers who are interested in that crossover place where the general reader meets the more specialized critic. People who are as keen as I am to take their reading to the next level (and not just their blogs). But how to find such an audience?

Okay, so now I’m supposed to put together an achievable to-do list.

1. Find that search engine that focuses just on book blog reviews.
2. Learn how to post pictures and images without fear.
3. Think about what I could write in a short length blog post.
4. Try to figure out what a social bookmarking plugin is and whether I might ever be able to use one.

And if you have any comments or suggestions for improvements, please do say so. Goodness knows it’s hard enough to figure out what to do with one’s own blog, let alone anyone else’s, but if anything strikes you and it’s within my (extremely limited) capabilities, I’ll be glad to hear it. I’ll let you know how I get on with the above…

33 thoughts on “The Blog Improvement Project

  1. the reading room is neither a properly academic lit blog, nor a more normal kind of brief review blog. To sort out my target audience, I really ought to get off the fence. And yet, my whole interest in blogging was to make more literary critical ideas available to general readers

    I feel that my own blog is on pretty much the same fence, as I post some short(er) reviews, and some lengthy reviews, of more general reading, as well as thoughts on academic work and issues and scholarship, and on my teaching. As my life, including my reading life, involves all of these things, it would feel artificial to me to sort it out into categories, I think. I think you’re right that complex ideas can be presented in accessible language, too. It may be that as a result we don’t fit as easily into blogging niches (my own blogroll, which is in constant flux, reflects some of my own confusion about which community I am supposedly part of!). But that’s OK: the internet is large, it contains multitudes. 🙂

  2. Agree with above, I realy enjoy the cross over aspect and the way you break down concepts for us all via the discussion of one particular book.

    I did parts of the project last year and it was very helpful, but the outside resources on posting style would sometimes perplex me as I think book blogging has a very differnet community of readers from other blogging communities. We like to read things and many of us enjoy the longness. That said I have tried to put in short and bulletty posts a bit more. Any way so yes keep the essays up.

    As for design the simplicity of your blog is what I cling to everytime I think about how much design work needs doing at mine, if you start adding flash bits I’ll feel obligated to try and make a new banner! As for putting book cover images in a post I can probably help you learn the fast way if you’d like me to drop you an email (you’re wordpress and I’m Blogger, but for a bit I contributed to a wordpress site).

  3. It’s always good to step back now and then and re-evaluate what you’re doing so I admire you for that! I like the fact that you are not quite just reviews and not quite academic. So please don’t change that! If you are worried about the length of your posts you could always write one “essay” and then find a place where you could break it in two and post one half one day and the second half the other day. You can even get wordpress to schedule the second post’s appearance so you don’t have to worry about it the next day.

    There is no book blog search engine that i know of but google can be limited to search just blogs. Then you just search for the title of the book and it will pull up blogs that have mentioned it. This link should work

    As for other techie stuff you’d like to do, I’d be happy to help. I’m quite good at creating step-by-step easy to follow instructions with pictures 🙂 Used to do it all the time at my pre-library job for training materials and cheat-sheets and they always got raves. Just email me and let me know.

    I’m thinking the social bookmarking plugin is one of those “share this” things that lists twitter, email, facebook, delicious, digg, etc that people can click on to make it easy to link to you in various social networking sites. I’ve not paid attention as to whether wordpress has it already as a widget or if you have to find it elsewhere and do some code copy-paste. It shouldn’t be too much trouble to figure out.

    The most important thing though is not the technology or the look of your blog, but wonderful you and your delightful, kind voice 🙂

  4. Attention-getting gestures, based on my own experience:
    1. Write about golems for a week – the downside: this was a lot of work.
    2. Attack the notion of sympathetic characters for a week – this was also too much work.
    3. Host an adle-pated reading challenge – a ridiculous amount of work.

    To drive a good chunk of the audience away, write about poetry, or Adalbert Stifter.

    Actually, I don’t keep track of any statistics, so I could be wrong about all of this.

  5. Seconding the suggestions that you not change too much! I love the crossover appeal of your writing as I don’t have the time or inclination to read heavy literary criticism, but I do like something that goes deeper than “this book was interesting/enjoyable because…”

    As for long vs. short posts, I think Jodie is absolutely right. A lot of the articles out there about blogging are about making blogs appeal to non-readers, but book blogging is geared toward people who like to read. I have found, though, that the online format does seem to require shorter paragraphs tha print, and subheads can help on really long posts.

    And I’m another fan of nice simple design, without a lot of flash plug-ins and widgets. But some images in posts are nice. If Jodie isn’t able to help you figure out how to put book covers in your posts, I’m happy to help. Just send me an e-mail. Ditto if you ever want to do a custom header. (You’d probably have to choose a different template, but WordPress has several nice ones.)

    The Book Blogs Search engine is at I’ve found it very helpful, and even if you don’t end up using it, you should probably get your blog added to it. I will add that when I’m looking for blogs to link to I start with the blogs I subscribe to in my Google Reader, only because sometimes Fyrefly’s search engine gives me more results that I can deal with.

    For social networking, Twitter has been great for me, but I’ve had to learn to limit the amount of time I spend with it! It can be a fun way to just mention to your followers what you’re reading right at the moment and to find out what other folks are up to. It’s also nice for asking quick questions and getting immediate help. (That’s how I got help setting up the index on my blog.) Even if you didn’t want to spend time on Twitter, it’s simple to have your posts fed into Twitter automatically. You can also have your tweets fed into a widget on your blog, but that’s probably only worthwhile if you plan to do something more that automatic tweets. Again, e-mail me if you’d like help on that.

  6. I love Tales from the Reading Room just as it is. It really is a perfect blend of high quality literary criticism and everyday life and humor. There are posts of yours, Litlove, that I admit go way over my head. But the weak link there is with me. It’s been a long time since I had to think in an academic way. And I’ve said before, I wish I had the pleasure of taking one of your classes. Okay, enough gushing. Thank you for this post, though. Anyone with a blog can and should strive to make it as enjoyable as possible. I am also very technically challenged. I still haven’t learned how to post a link. With lots of effort, I can now post pictures (but seldom can put them where they belong within the post.)

  7. I think about this stuff a lot, both because of my own blog and also because it has to do with my real job. I think it’s very hard to apply a lot of “typical” blogging advice to litblogs, other than ones focused more on the publishing industry than on actual books. If you’re going to critically evaluate a book, it’s going to take some space. And unless you’re only interested in the latest publications, it’s not going to be newsy or “timely.” I think if you wanted to change that and make your blog more like a blog is “supposed” to be, you would not be writing the blog you want anymore.

    Of course, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a nontraditional blog, and I’m more concerned with doing what I like than things that might make it more “successful” but feel inauthentic to me personally. And you never know what people will hit on–some posts you think will flop turn out to be hits, and vice versa. Ultimately, humans are irrational and unpredictable. You do have a brand even if it doesn’t fit into a cookie cutter, and that’s important to your readers (as you can see, we mostly wouldn’t want you to change).

    That said, I think it is great to focus on things like design, categories, navigation–things that will help the people who already like your brand to use your blog more easily, or things that will help new visitors to easily find the best of your stuff. And to make your blog look the way you want it to!

  8. Please do not change too much – most importantly your beautiful way of writing. I love your long posts. I love to read your essays. Your blog is elegant and in my opinion does not lack any pictures or “bits and pieces” type of information.

  9. As an educationalist I understand your wish to encourage as many as possible, but I’m not sure how you can do that without somehow adjusting the very personal sense I get from your blog. Other blogs offer other things, but this particular mix is not so common and one I especially like. It’s more than just a review blog with its forays into ideas and philosophical concepts, it’s more than just a ‘how I am’ blog, but its comments bestride the two and offer much more besides. So please proceed with caution. There’s a huge surge around style and substance these days, makeovers, instant fixes,etc., but book people are for the long haul, and besides which I love your style and envy your substance.

  10. I feel like I don’t comment as often as I really, really enjoy your posts. I hope you have a good time doing this project, but like the other commenters, I enjoy your blog very much as it is. 🙂

  11. Ah yes, questions every blogger probably confronts at some point… LL, it’s tricky. Blog-as-business overhauls are all well and good, and people who have blogs dedicated to one clearly articulated and maintained mission do appear to be the success stories of this sphere, but personally I just stall every time I think about it. I would have thought you’d be in a much stronger commercial position, though, because you have huge numbers, a dedicated following, and a clear focus on book reviews (though you know how I love Tales of Litlove). Your best bet may be selling advertising, and your best potential advertisers may be book publishers and book sellers. If that strikes you as an unpalatable and vaguely unseemly prospect, well, I’m afraid business is business, and that’s probably where things start getting a little murky. I’ll be interested to hear more of this as your thoughts and strategies take shape. I think it’s a tough nut to crack, so best of luck!

  12. I have to get into college so will answer individually tonight, but just wanted to say – group hug! – to you all. I am so lucky to have such a wonderful set of blogging friends. Aww, bless you all – and yes, please to the tech support!

  13. I like the mix just as it is but agree that a few book covers would be nice and headings can often be helpful. Pictures are very easy. I’m sure Stefanie and others will give great advice. Basically: 1) find the pic you want and right-click to save to computer; 2) click on the picture icon when you’re writing a post and add your pic; 3) check the size (medium is good).

    Good luck with the blog-reworking. I admire your energy and methodological zeal. If you ever reach the stage where we can download podcasts of your reviews then I’ll be super-impressed. But just to add that you are already an inspiration so you can be satisfied with your quiet brand and loyal following.

  14. Thanks for the link to The Blog Improvement Project, which I hadn’t heard of. I’m planning a blog relaunch, after the past very scrappy year when I hardly blogged for several busy months and thus lost all but a small and faithful core of readers. So some of the areas tackled by the Project will be very useful, though others are just not what I’m interested in.

    Picking out a just a small list of things that may be worth spending some time on, as you have, is the way to go, I think. Like all the other commenters, of course I adore Tales from the Reading Room with, and indeed for, just its current mix of intellectual and personal, serious and quirky, and I’m sure you won’t change that. I have no problem with the amount of dense text, since your writing is so very readable. But, yes, a few photos of book covers, authors etc and more hyperlinks to other reviewers and material would be nice. So, I think, would an index of posts by category as well as by date – being able to get quickly to everything you have written about a particular writer or topic would be lovely. Compiling this retrospectively for several years of blogging would be a lot of work, though.

    I’m just like you when it comes to learning even the simplest technical procedure. Perhaps the most frustrating part of this is the inability to distinguish between what is quite complicated to do and what really is not. Posting photos from the web is not difficult (I have no knowledge of WordPress myself, but I don’t think it is any more difficult in WordPress), so I hope you’ll consider taking up the offers of some guidance with that.

    Finally, I wonder if you would consider doing the occasional podcast? I’d be surprised if you don’t have the same light and communicative touch in talking about books as in writing about them. And I can imagine you beeing a wonderful interviewer. The idea of digital recording technology is daunting, if you’re anything like me. But I believe the tools available now are actually very user friendly and perhaps you could get an experienced user to guide you.

    Anyway, I look forward very much to Tales from the Reading Room with even more to make me happy.

  15. Litlove, I don’t know if this has been mentioned or will help, but if you use the Google Alert system you can get told by Google weekly, daily, as it happens, or some fourth way when the book you’re reading (or the author) has been trackd by their system; this may help you hear about other reviews or readings of the books you have in mind, especially if they’re new. David Markson readers are everywhere, for example .

    Just a thought. Not sure how effective it would be.

    “…include links to other bloggers who have reviewed the same book. I like it when other bloggers do that, but need to find the search engine that locates those reviews for you. Anyone know where I can find it?”

  16. Oh dear, I have now noticed that you do have a categories archive, which I am too stupid to have recognised as such despite it being headed ‘Categories’. Having noticed this, I also see listed there that you once did a podcast and am about to listen to this.

  17. Mark – have I told you how much I like you? 🙂

    Rohan – I’m really glad to have you visit, as I do think we do similar things – and there aren’t that many of us about! But as you say, the internet is large and thankfully there are readers out there who want to read us – which is continually surprising and gratifying. 🙂

    Jodie – I’m so interested to hear that you did the project last year. And I’m reassured by your saying that readers do, after all, want something to read when it comes to book talk. And I always think your blog looks lovely, so I can’t possibly do anything that would push you into new banners! 🙂 Bless you for the offer of support – I’ll email on the weekend.

    Charlotte – hugs to you. And your blog is lovely, you’ve just been writing a novel, oh and bringing up three children and writing for work…. I think that would account for any brief absences! 🙂

    Stefanie – first of all, one big virtual hug coming your way. What a good blogging friend you are. I love the idea of your easy to follow instructions and I am more than prepared to rave about them. I like the idea of splitting an essay over two days – I’d have to find a good cliffhanger moment in the argument. 🙂 And yes, that ‘share it’ thing is what I’m talking about – I should check the forums for that. I’ll email you on the weekend!

    Amateur reader – lol!! And thank you, too. Did I read your posts on Stifter? Surely I did, I LOVE Stifter. But I do understand why golems unsympathetic characters and that spectacular use of adle-pated would catch the reader’s eye. 😉

    Teresa – thank you, that is SO useful. I will look up the search engine now that you have given me the link, and I really like the idea of using twitter in that limited way. If that’s okay I will contact you about that, as it seems sensible and not too demanding. I’m really glad you also support the idea of readers liking more book chat, and you make a good point about paragraphs and headings. I should break up my paragraphs more – that I could certainly do.

    Grad – you are doing better than me as I have been told once already how to post pictures and I’ve forgotten again. Getting them in the right part of the post is an ideal I can only dream about. But what a lovely comment and thank you so much. I really wish you were in my classes – I am sure you would have me in stitches half the time!

    nicole – it is always good to think about these things – and I would like to make sure that this blog offers readers what they want (in terms of navigation tools or design) and I couldn’t agree more – I never guess in advance which posts are going to go down well. I really like your blog because it is so original. I don’t comment often because I usually don’t know the books you discuss – but I always learn something, which is great!

  18. Chris – thank you! Oh that is just so lovely and I will cherish your comment.

    Bookboxed – that is also a wonderful comment. I’ll bookmark that and read it when I need my morale boosted. Thank you, my friend.

    Lilian – thank you so much! I’m sure it won’t change masses, but it would be nice to include a book cover from time to time.:)

    Jenny – oh that is lovely too! Thank you so much! Your blog always makes me laugh so – I wish I could be as witty!

    Doctordi – ah I fear a remark early on may have led you astray, my friend. It’s okay, I’m not overhauling the Reading Room as a business in any way. I couldn’t manage the technicalities, let alone live with the ethics! No, pure altruism will have to guide my footsteps. But it’s really nice of you to think that I’d have something to offer – thank you for that! With a bit of luck, I might get a book cover posted occasionally. 🙂

    Pete – oh thank you – that’s so kind! Yes, a book cover or two might make a bit of a change, and I’m really glad everyone thinks its simple (it’ll need to be!). I would love to be able to offer podcasts to download – that would be wonderful. I will consult computer support here and see whether the possibility might ever arise!

    Jean – thank you for your lovely comment. I quite agree that a photo every now and again would make a nice change – although alas I will never have any quite as beautiful as yours! You found my categories – isn’t it hard to arrange a blog in such a way that it’s easy to find what you’re looking for. I do think the amount of text on my page can make it difficult to see the wood from the trees sometimes. You’re right, I did do a couple of podcasts a while ago, and I loved doing them. They were such fun. But the process was very complicated and entirely dependent on the goodwill (and several hours of time) of Mister Litlove, and then the podcast host we were using went all wobbly and we couldn’t make the downloading work anymore. But I would love to do podcasts again and will definitely look into it. So thank you for that suggestion.:)

    Jeff – I had never heard of google alert, so thank you for that, my friend. I’ll look into it, as it would be fun to track other reviews at the same time. 🙂

    apiece – sweetie, thank you so much for that! May I never fatigue you! 🙂

  19. I always enjoy my visits here. I’m one of those general readers who would like to learn/know a bit more and I like how you may talk about challenging subjects but always in a way that is accessible. I nearly always learn something new here. Good luck on the blog improvement, I’m sure it’s only a matter of minor tweaking (I like it just as it is personally). And if you figure out that social bookmarking plugin stuff let me know–I’m pretty hopeless with it myself!

  20. Just thinking about a blog improvement project makes me weary, so I admire you for jumping into this! I love your blog as it is, to echo all the people above. The combination of academically focused posts and more general-reader type reviews, with a little bit of personal stuff mixed in, is great. My attitude lately has been that I’m going to do what I want and to hell with everybody else (I appreciate my readers, of course! but I still want to do just what I want). I suppose what I mean is to hell with trying hard to attract new readers. It’s not very good for the stats, but who cares? But I admire those who do make more of an effort, and I’m glad you got some good advice and feedback here.

  21. I like your blog the way it is – thoughtful and considered, with the essay style suiting a leisurely exploration of ideas, and the lack of visual distractions (in my opinion) giving weight to those ideas. Teresa’s comment about on-line format requiring shorter paragraphs and sub headings is spot on and strikes me as a simple but effective visual improvement which would help readers without compromising your style.

    As for short blog posts,a segment on re-reading or re-visiting specific books might be a prospect. The idea that even though the book doesn’t change, the reader is a different person each time.

    The improvements you are looking at sound good to me, especially linking to other book blog reviews.

  22. I love your blog just the way it is! The blend of academic and general topics, the presentation, your voice. I always, always leave here having learned something, and also having smiled, if not laughed outright. You have charm, erudition, and wit. What more could anyone ask? I am very glad you’re here, litlove, and I would follow you anywhere, with or without alterations.

  23. Thank you for joining the Blog Improvement Project!

    This is the first time I’ve been to your blog and I’m impressed by what I see. I would agree with the other commenters who say not to change much. It looks as though you have built up a great following, so you don’t want to alienate them by altering too many things.

    I do agree with you about adding photos though. I hope that someone has shown you how to add them, but if you still don’t know then please send me an email and I’ll take you through it. It isn’t that hard and once you’ve done it your site will be easier on the eye.

    I hope that you find BIP useful. If you have any questions, just let me know. Good luck with it!

  24. Pingback: Creating a Blogging To-Do List Wrap-up Post « The 2010 Blog Improvement Project

  25. I’m coming to this rather late, but for what it is worth, would request you to (blithely) reject the advice on concision. Yours is one of the few remaining blogs with long form writing – a nice old-fashioned reading experience that is such a joy. Please don’t change!

    As a frequently late arrival to many of your blog posts, I do feel that it would be awesome if you can provide a page that contains a list of all past posts. It also helps when there is a sudden “Oh, I really want to read that wonderful post litlove wrote a year ago.”. Currently, one has to guess the month, go to archives and click backwards until one reaches the post, or use the search box. Fortunately, WordPress provides a easy way to create a page with a link to all posts. Here it is:
    1. Make a new page, and call it (for example) “All posts”.
    2. In the text field, type the following: [archives type=postbypost showcount=true ]
    3. Save the page.

    That’s it! I discovered this recently and have done it for my blog. For your blog, this might be a long list of hundreds of posts, but they would all be just one click away. Happy blogging for a long time to come!

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