A year in blogging 🔗︎
I started this blog in May of last year. I don’t mean to brag, but by last April, after less than a year of blogging, I was pulling in upwards of 20 visitors per day, several of whom were not spam bots. That number reached as high as 50 visitors on days when I made a new post and begged for readers through every social media channel at my disposal.
The size of my audience changed a bit in May 2017. The sharp-eyed reader may be able to spot the subtle shift in my traffic graph:
As you notice from the chart above, my numbers went from “too insignificant to appear in a graph” for most of the first year of the blog’s existence to over 9,000 readers per week starting last May. From that point on, when I published a new post, the blog received up to 40,000 visitors per week.
If I compare by month, the blog grew by more than 20x month over month, and by more than 450x over a two month period:
|Month||Unique visitors||Growth (one month)||Growth (two months)|
|May 2017||5,572||2,119% / 22x||—|
|June 2017||113,121||1,930% / 20x||44,968% / 450x|
What changed? 🔗︎
Just before I went to bed on May 13, 2017, I posted a job for a blog editor on Upwork, a site I use regularly for hiring freelancers. Not a permanent position, just a one-time gig to read through my already posted articles, identify weak patterns in my writing, and suggest improvements.
When I woke up the next morning, I had already received applications from 10 different freelancers. Several of the matches seemed strong. The applicant pool included PhDs, journalists, and writing teachers.
Some of the matches were… not so strong. The lowest bidder, at $8/hr, told me she was, “well-equipped with knowledge how to teach writing.” Another freelancer mentioned in her cover letter that, “editing and writing are [her] forte’s [sic].”
The strongest applicant was an editor named Samantha Mason. At $55/hr, she was almost twice as expensive as the next highest bidder. But her response was the only one that showed that she had actually read any of my writing. In her cover letter, she pointed out that I had a habit of diluting my sentences with helper verbs. “As you can see in the graph below,” instead of simply, “As you see in the graph below.”
Samantha was also a great match because she had a background in engineering. She told me that she was a programmer as well, so I thought this would give her additional context into my more software-heavy posts.
I offered Samantha the job that same morning. By 10 AM, she accepted. The entire process from writing the job posting to completing the hire took less than 12 hours.
Why hire an editor? 🔗︎
When I publish a blog post and it flops, I don’t get much feedback about why it was unsuccessful. To date, none of my readers have written to say, “Hey, you had great ideas in that post, but I never read them because your repetitive sentence structure lost my attention, and I closed the tab.” An editor actually can give me that kind of feedback.
I felt that my writing was pretty good but definitely had room for improvement. Changes to my style could have tangible benefits like a larger audience and readers gaining a better understanding of the content.
Beyond my blog, investing in my writing would pay dividends in many aspects of my life. Writing is a highly transferable skill, much like public speaking, time management, or knife juggling. Techniques I learned to better my blog writing would likely carry over into design documents I write at work or even emails I send to friends.
My other reason for hiring an editor was the most important: to give my friends, family, and co-workers a misleadingly grandiose perception of my blog. Before, when I told someone that I wrote a new blog post about using Selenium to test Ansible roles, they nodded politely and changed the subject. But when I started saying things like, “I’m rewriting my new post because my editor thinks that the introduction is too weak,” people became intrigued. “Your editor?”
Learning from my mistakes 🔗︎
A few days after I hired her, Samantha sent me detailed feedback on two of my blog posts. As soon as I read her notes, I knew that hiring an editor was a good decision. She identified several mistakes that I had no idea I was making. It started with small things, like incorrect use of commas or overuse of parentheticals (I used to have a habit of inserting them into sentences to cram in information that wasn’t worth mentioning).
One surprising insight was how frequently I made the assumption that my readers shared my frame of reference. Samantha noted that in one post, I mentioned Seamless without explaining what it was. Seamless is a food delivery service: extremely popular in Manhattan, not so popular in Wisconsin, where Samantha lives. When I mentioned it in the post, it never occurred to me that someone might not know the company. Samantha’s note made me realize how frequently I was alienating my audience when I could easily avoid this by being conscious of potentially unfamiliar references.
What are you trying to accomplish with this story? 🔗︎
The most valuable advice Samantha gave me was in response to a post where I described using an odd job service to hire a private chef:
What are you trying to accomplish with this story? If it’s just the facts, you’ve done that, but I think you can do more. This is creative writing. Have fun with it. Make the reader laugh. Make the reader want to keep reading.
My first thought was, “What story? This is just an explanation of what I did.” I wrote the post because I had told a few friends about how I hired my chef. People seemed amused by the process, and they were interested in the logistics of it: “How much did it cost? How did you pick the chef?” It seemed natural to me that a blog post would simply answer those questions.
After letting the suggestion roll around in my head for a few days, I thought, “Why can’t it be a story? People love stories.” I had a backlog of ideas for article topics, so I thought about whether I could write any of them in the form of a story.
Telling it like a story 🔗︎
A few weeks later, I was browsing reddit when I saw a user post a corrupted version of their password. The password was protecting a large sum of money they held in cryptocurrency, so they posted it in frustration because a corrupt password effectively meant they lost their money. I figured out a clever way of reconstructing the correct password and used it to steal their money. Don’t worry; I gave it back.
The technique I used was unusual, so over the following week, I thought about how to write it up for the blog. Then it hit me: this could be one of those “stories” that Samantha had been telling me about.
I wrote the article on a Thursday night in a non-stop, four-hour writing session. I never had so much fun writing a blog post. It was silly and self-effacing and included tongue-in-cheek pop culture references — all qualities that my previous blog posts lacked. I knew that presenting it in story format might make it more compelling to read, but I hadn’t anticipated how much easier it would make the article to write.
The next morning, I published the article, “How I Stole Your Siacoin," and posted the link to reddit and Hacker News, two popular link-sharing sites. By the end of the day, it was the most upvoted story of all-time on two of reddit’s subforums, /r/siacoin and /r/cryptocurrency (though a few days later, I was shamefully bumped from the #1 spot on /r/CryptoCurrency by a picture of a sign). It had also gained enough traction on Hacker News to make it to their front page, an enviable accomplishment for tech bloggers.
I also noticed something interesting about the comments on the article. Many of them specifically praised the style of my writing:
I browse reddit frequently, and I don’t recall seeing many users compliment submissions on their writing — though it should be noted that I don’t recognize praise unless it’s directed at me. The feedback seemed like such clear validation of my decision to hire an editor that I almost had to wonder if Samantha was surreptitiously posting these comments herself. [Editor’s note: There is no evidence to support this allegation.]
Before and after 🔗︎
You’re probably thinking, “That’s just one article. He probably got lucky.” Or at least that’s what I thought after the article got much more attention than I was expecting. But the next article I published received a similarly positive response. I certainly don’t think every article I write will be a hit, but it’s clear to me that receiving expert feedback has made such popularity possible, when it previously was not.
If you compare the visitor statistics for the three articles I published before working with Samantha to the three I wrote after, the difference is unmistakable:
Before working with an editor 🔗︎
|Article||Readers (First 24 hours)||Readers (First 30 days)|
|“Automated Prosper Investing with ProsperBot”||21||95|
|“Adventures in Outsourcing: Cooking with TaskRabbit”||15||88|
|“Building a Homelab VM Server”||414||1,103|
After working with an editor 🔗︎
|Article||Readers (First 24 hours)||Readers (First 30 days)|
|“A Beginner’s Guide to Mining Siacoin”||709||27,871|
|“How I Stole Your Siacoin”||38,808||62,425|
|“GreenPiThumb: A Raspberry Pi Gardening Bot”||27,908||38,683|
As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t set out to hire someone to edit my articles on an ongoing basis. At ~$110 per article, the cost was too high to have every new blog post I write professionally edited. Instead, I wanted a one-time review of my writing so that I could apply the techniques myself.
I feel that this plan worked. Of the three articles I wrote after I started working with Samantha, she only edited the GreenPiThumb post. The others, I edited myself based on what I had learned from her previous feedback.
With Samantha’s permission, I’ve included below the exact cost of the work she did with me and the notes that she provided for each article:
|“Running Sia on a Synology NAS via Docker”||$110 (2 hours @ $55/hr)||Detailed notes|
|“Adventures in Outsourcing: Cooking with TaskRabbit”||$110 (2 hours @ $55/hr)||Detailed notes|
|Various articles||$55 (1 hour @ $55/hr)||High-level notes|
|“GreenPiThumb: A Raspberry Pi Gardening Bot”||$110 (2 hours @ $55/hr)||Detailed notes|
|Total||$385 (7 hours @ $55/hr)||—|
The twist is that Samantha tricked me. I didn’t anticipate how effective her feedback would be, so now I do want to work with her on a recurring basis. I can’t afford to hire her for every article, but I do plan to check in with her regularly. My strategy remains the same. I don’t want to offload editing to Samantha, but rather learn from her feedback on each article so that I can focus on different areas to improve.
Suggestions for working with editors 🔗︎
If you’re a blogger and are considering hiring an editor, here are some recommendations based on my experience:
Pay for quality 🔗︎
If you post to a freelancing site like Upwork, you will invariably receive cheap offers from people willing to take any job they can get, regardless of their ability to deliver results. Do not be tempted to save money by hiring a cut-rate editor.
If you go to the trouble of hiring someone to critique your writing, hire an expert who can give you excellent guidance. If you needed surgery, would you hire the cheapest person to approach you with a scalpel? An investment in expert feedback on your writing will pay dividends for a long time, so invest well.
Screen carefully 🔗︎
Freelancer sites show you ratings and reviews of potential freelancers from their past clients. Read through these reviews to see if the editor has the qualities that are important to you. Prefer applicants who have completed at least 10 previous jobs with a success rate of 90% or higher. Samantha, for example, has a success rate of 99% and 39 completed jobs, which are excellent indicators of her quality. [Editor’s note: This is an astute observation.]
Require applicants to submit a cover letter, and scrutinize it carefully. For an editor, it’s essentially a sample of their work. Did they send you a form letter that they blast out to everyone? Or did they customize it to address the areas where you need help? The grammar in their cover letter should be impeccable, and the wording should be clear and easy to understand.
Look for subject matter familiarity 🔗︎
Find an editor who can understand and appreciate your writing. They don’t have to have the same level of expertise that you do, but they should have familiarity with the subject on par with your potential audience — someone who might read your blog even if you weren’t paying them.
If you have a blog about pop music, you don’t need to hire a professional music critic, but you should look for someone with enough appreciation for music to understand your terminology and references. Similarly, if you write a mommy blog, don’t require potential editors to hold a graduate degree in child development, but they should at least be familiar with the concept of children.
Catch the easy stuff yourself 🔗︎
You’re paying a premium for an expert’s time, so there’s no sense in squandering that time on simple mistakes you could identify yourself. Before sending your writing to an editor, run it through a tool like Grammarly or Microsoft Word to catch spelling and grammatical errors.
Part of your proofreading process should also be reading your posts aloud. My editor encouraged me to do this, and I was amazed at how effectively it catches careless errors and unnatural wording.
Don’t take it personally 🔗︎
Your editor is critiquing your writing, not you. If your writing is very personal, the two can feel one and the same, but you’ll get the most out of your editor’s notes if you can separate yourself from your writing and approach their feedback without defensiveness or ego.
You don’t have to accept every note 🔗︎
Notwithstanding the previous suggestion, remember that it’s ultimately your writing, and you have to decide what feedback to accept and decline.
[Editor’s note: Pay no attention to this suggestion.]
There have been several instances where my editor suggested a change that I recognize is clearer or more eloquent, but it doesn’t sound like my voice. In those cases, I try to rewrite the passage to move closer to the suggestion. But occasionally, I’ll wrestle with the note and reach the conclusion that what I wrote is what I want.
Make a checklist 🔗︎
Every time I complete the first draft of a new blog post, I check my editor’s notes on the last article she reviewed. For mistakes I find myself repeating, I keep a separate checklist that I run through at the end of my writing process. My checklist has reminders like, “make sure you’re not overusing the word ‘really’,” but you’ll find patterns to add to your own list. Really.
Write posts that succeed on Hacker News
Over the past three years, I've written 17 posts that reached the front page of Hacker News, with five of them reaching the #1 spot. Over the same period, many of my posts absolutely flopped and went nowhere.
Now, I'm sharing lessons from years of success and failure in blogging to teach you how to choose topics, write articles, and iterate on your results to gain traction with technically sophisticated audiences on Hacker News, reddit, and Twitter.
Special thanks to my editor, Samantha Mason, for volunteering her time to edit this piece.
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