Effective blogging (for lawyers)

By Nick Holmes on October 2, 2007
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Filed under Articles, Blogging

Adapted from an earlier article and published September 2007 in the Axxia Newsletter.

In the last issue we looked at reasons why lawyers should blog. Here we consider the “how to” of effective blogging.

Blogging services provide the forms and templates that enable you to publish a blog site with little or no expertise: you can set up an account, select a template and start publishing your blog within minutes, just by “pressing buttons”.

It is so easy to set up a blog that little planning is required: you can just start your blog and make decisions as you go along. However, it is sensible to opt for an initial phase, during which you will learn the mechanics of blogging, investigate the features of your blogging service, develop the tone and content of your initial posts and review other blogs in your field of interest. After review and reflection and tweaking your blog site, you’ll then be in a position to go public with confidence.

Effective blogging is a commitment. You will need to find at least a couple of hours per week to maintain your blog and keep it fresh with new posts. This time will more than be paid back, but if you really feel you can’t afford the time, don’t blog. There is little to be gained and much to lose from a stale blog.

Initial decisions

Most decisions relating to your blog can be changed once you have set it up; there are just two you do need to make beforehand:

Choosing a blog service

Googles’s Blogger, Six Apart’s TypePad and WordPress are the three leading blog services, all offering hosted services – ie your blog is published and managed on their servers, so you need not worry about the technical infrastructure. Blogger and WordPress hosted services are free, while Typepad charges a small monthly or annual fee, with three levels of service.Millions of blogs are published using these services and many thousands of these are well-respected and popular. There is a wide range of templates available for each and in the main they offer similar features; there are technical differences which may sway your choice, but they are all continually developing.If a full feature set and more control over your blog publishing databases and templates are important to you, then you will want to consider services which can be hosted on your own server. These include the installable, open source, version of WordPress

and Six Apart’s Movable Type . For most, though, the hosted services are the hassle-free way to go and all will serve you well. My personal recommendation would be WordPress.

Choosing your sub-domain name

When setting up your blog on a hosted service you will choose a sub-domain name and your blog URL will then be in the form yoursubdomain.blogservice.com. You will not be able to change this later without effectively starting a new blog, so for obvious reasons you should give this careful thought. You will be limited in your choice of sub-domain as your preferred name may already have been taken, so line up a few variations before you start. The services do also offer the option to point your own registered domain name to your hosted blog account.

Your blog title can be changed later, but it is preferable if your blog sub-domain directly reflects your title.

Setting up your blog

Initial set-up

To set up your blog you’ll first need to create an account with the blogging service, specifying your email address and choosing a password (your login details) and choosing a username (your name or a nickname by which you’d like to be known). You’ll then use your login details subsequently to access your account and manage your blog or set up new blogs.

When first setting up an account, you will be prompted to create a new blog. You’ll need to choose a sub-domain name and a blog title (see above).

From your blog “dashboard” you can then access your blog(s) and manage your posts, comments and settings, using a set of easy-to-use forms. The dashboards also display other information related to your blog: recent incoming links, recent posts and comments and your blog statistics.

Creating and managing posts

The blogging services provide two modes for creating posts: in a WYSIWYG editor or as raw HTML code. Naturally you’ll opt for the WYSIWYG editor! The toolbar provides buttons for most basic formatting, so you can just type away and then select the appropriate paragraph or character style from the toolbar – there’s not much to learn.

Inserting links and pictures will take some practice. You’ll need to get used to cutting and pasting URLs into the link dialog. Pictures of course need to be uploaded and positioned.

You’ll also need to select the category(ies) to which you wish to assign the post (called “labels” in Blogger), creating new ones as necessary and remembering to uncheck the default category.

You can save your post as a draft rather than immediately publishing it and it’s generally a good idea to do so unless you’re an old hand; there will always be some errors to correct or things you’d like to say differently.

From the list of posts you can view, edit and delete posts and, when you’re ready, (re)publish them. If you edit a previously published post other than to make minor changes, it is good practice to indicate this in some way so that those who might previously have viewed the post are aware that it has changed. Of course, if you have something new to say, write a new post, don’t update an old one.

Templates and themes

The look and feel of your blog is governed by the template you have chosen (called a “theme” in WordPress) and it is worth spending some time reviewing the alternatives. You’ll probably be primarily influenced by the overall graphic designs. But you should look carefully at the detail of the layouts. The templates present the various components of the blog – the elements of the posts themselves, the sidebar links to post collection pages and so on – in different ways, so it is important to choose a template that arranges the components the way that you want, not necessarily the one that is most visually appealing to you.

Settings

Using the Settings section of your blog service you can modify the overall settings for your blog: its title, your preferred date format, how many posts should appear on a page, what type of archives you wish to maintain, who is permitted to leave comments and so on.

Going public

Having set up your blog, familiarised yourself with creating and managing posts, settled on a suitable template and settings and developed the tone of your initial posts, you can feel confident about going public. Basic steps to take include:

  • Complete your Profile (or About page) to tell your audience about yourself and the blog, with contact information if appropriate. First-time readers of your blog will then immediately get a feel for who you are and what the blog is intended to achieve.
  • Add other bloggers with like or overlapping interests to your blogroll and contact them directly by email to advise them, requesting a reciprocal link.
  • Submit your blog for inclusion in the infolaw catalogue of law blogs which I maintain.
  • Submit it to other specialist law blog directories such as Blawg.org, a US site with a World Blawgs section.
  • “Claim” your blog at the specialist blog search engine Technorati.

But the best way to promote your blog is to write frequent and useful posts, so readers keep coming back, and more importantly to link in your posts to other blog posts that interest you. This will gradually get you recognised in the blogosphere, earning you inbound links and improving your position in the search engines.

Developing your blog

Once your blog is up and running you can turn your attention to improving its overall structure and features to suit your needs. Matters to investigate and implement or improve are:

  • editing your template or theme
  • developing your blogroll
  • configuring your blog RSS feeds
  • developing your categories (labels)
  • adding static content pages
  • adding appropriate “widgets” to your sidebar.

Effective blogging

We’ve covered the mechanics of blogging above, but achieving the full potential for your blog is more about how you blog. After all, a blog is just a publishing format; it’s what you put into it that counts. So here are some top tips for effective blogging.

Keep it fresh

Post often – a few posts a week is probably the minimum necessary to sustain the interest of your readership. Sometimes you won’t have time for a longer, more thoughtful post. In that case just post a one liner, linking to something that has caught your attention, with a brief comment.

Blog about what interests you

Don’t let blogging become a chore. You may have started out with the intention of covering a particular topic comprehensively, but you’ll soon find your interest in some aspects of it waning. Just post about the aspects that interest you – your blog will have a narrower focus, but will be the better for it.

Keep on topic

Don’t use your business blog to post about your family, pets or other personal interests! The odd reference is fine to show you are human and give a glimpse of your life outside, but off-topic posts will be of interest to only a small minority of your readers and may start to alienate the majority.

Blog smart

“Blog smart” is a term coined by Microsoft and is apparently the only blogging guidance it gives its employees. By this it means, think of the consequences of what you are posting and rein yourself in where necessary. Because posting is so easy, you risk publishing comments or information which on reflection you should have kept to yourself. Always have in mind not just potential legal liabilities – as to copyright infringement, defamation, breach of confidentiality, privacy and so on – but also simple good manners and respect for other bloggers. If you do blog something you later regret, edit or delete it immediately; if more than a short time has elapsed, damage may already have been done, so post a suitable apology or retraction.

Link, link, link

Links to other blogs and other sites are helpful to your readers and beneficial to you. As already mentioned you should develop your blogroll. More importantly, use links extensively in your individual blog posts to reference and credit the sites where you have gleaned information or where more information is to be found. Linking connects you to other bloggers; using a system known as “trackback”, implemented by the blogging services, the other bloggers will quickly discover you have linked to them, perhaps contacting you or linking to you in consequence. Your network will expand; your visibility will increase.

Excerpt and attribute

An effective and quick way to write some of your blog posts is to excerpt a quotable passage from another site and comment on it or add something that develops the argument or topic. Using your post editor, style it as a block quote and edit it if appropriate to make it more compact, using the usual conventions for omitted or [amended] wording. Always credit it to its source with a link. If you are not quoting but rephrasing and following up on something you picked up from another source, don’t claim ownership; credit the source.

Converse

Don’t just talk to your audience: ask questions; venture opinions; stir things up! Do not be upset if you receive few comments; your readership may be reticent, but they will become bolder as they become more used to the blogosphere.

Don’t be goaded

By blogging you are inviting comments. If you do get comments, these will usually be constructive, but there will be some that are badly expressed, ill thought through, or otherwise negative or even hostile. Don’t respond immediately. Catch your breath and decide on a considered response – which may sometimes be silence.