Not that you're going to feel any real sympathy for your Blawg Review host, but I want you to know that I faced a difficult task: finding great law-related blog posts to highlight from a week in which many weblogs weren't posting at all. For several days, I was stumped. But then I found a way around the problem. First, I realized that although a lazy blogging week, it also coincided with a time of year that comes with its own built-in theme: resolutions. Too bad if it's a theme that's both overused and annoying. I was getting a little desperate.
Second, to get around the difficulty that there weren't the usual gob of posts to choose from, I thought of a way to frame my blawg review in a way that would allow me to highlight, in some cases, entire weblogs, as opposed to specific posts.
And that's how my list of Ten New Year's Resolutions for Bloggers was born. I realize it's a stretch as blawg-review themes go, but I hope you won't mind. The resolutions are based, in part, on my recent talk at BlawgThink 2005 in Chicago, titled "Writing Weblog Posts to Engage Readers and Build an Audience: The Secrets of Legal Underground, Revealed."
Resolution 1: Mix It Up
We'll start our New Year's Resolutions with one of the most important for bloggers who want to attract and keep readers: mix it up.
Even if your weblog is narrowly focused, it's okay to give your readers a break from the single-topic posting monotony. Here's a practical tip that's helped me out a lot in my goal of mixing it up: think of your weblog as a magazine.
a. Think of Your Weblog as a Magazine
Rolling Stone gives its readers more than music. It also serves up politics, tech news, and movie reviews. Most magazines follow a similar mix-it-up philosophy. Why can't weblog authors do the same?
Example At the popular weblog Althouse, Professor Ann Althouse didn't write very much about law last week. Does it mean she doesn't run a "blawg"--a law-related weblog? Not at all. Professor Althouse regularly writes great stuff about law-related topics such as the Alito nomination and cameras at the Supreme Court. Her 27th podcast featured an interesting discussion of that recent intelligent-design decision (just after an enlightening discussion of King Kong and bestiality). Professor Althouse might be a wide-angle blogger, but this doesn't make her weblog less appealing to her readers. I'd argue just the opposite.
b. Provide Both Information and Opinion
In mixing it up, weblog authors instinctively know they should provide relevant, quality information. But what about opinion? Some lawyer-webloggers seem afraid their opinions will offend readers or generate unwanted controversy. But if you can say it on an Op-Ed page, you can say it in a weblog. Besides, in the blogging business, controversy is good.
Example At Crime & Federalism, Norm Pattis isn't afraid of sharing his strong opinions. In "Just Move Padilla," he chastises both the Bush administration and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals for their handling of the Jose Padilla case. "All this pussyfooting around creating special rules, precedents and issues relating to the so-called war on terror devalues the currency of liberty."
Example Colin Samuels of Infamy or Praise is another strong writer who isn't afraid of sharing his opinions on a weblog. In "You Can't Spell Sedition Without I,D,I,O,T, and S," Samuels defends the right of citizens to engage in unpatriotic speech in wartime while at the same time recommending against it. Says Samuels, "As an American, you have the right to root against your own nation in time of war, but doing so does not make you a good American."
Example Legal webloggers are notable for using their expertise to create posts containing analysis you just can't find anywhere else. Considers these two recent Enron-related posts by Tom Kirkendall at Houston's Clear Thinkers: "Causey plea deal expected today" and "Causey pleads to seven years." Another site that contains great analysis is The Volokh Conspiracy. Did you see Orin Kerr's recent post, "Legal Analysis of the NSA Domestic Surveillance Program"? Wow.
c. Link Freely to Other Weblogs
Many weblog authors criticize the type of post that does nothing but provide links to other sources. But if you have a sense of what your readers want, you are providing an editorial service by choosing and selecting posts you think will interest them. As Dave Winer wrote recently, "the fundamental law of the Internet seems to be the more you send them away the more they come back. It's why link-filled blogs do better than introverts."
Example At Crescat Sententia, Will Baude provides readers with two links on First Amendment issues in his post, "... Shall Make No Law ..." Says economist David Friedman boldly in one of the linked pieces, "the existence of public schools is inconsistent with the First Amendment."
Example Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit. Need I say more?
Resolution 2: Prove You Have a Personality
Professionals should be writing a "professional" weblog, right? You know, no joking around. No funny business. All work and no play.
It's what a lot of professionals who run weblogs say. Could any blogging philosophy be more wrong-headed? I can't think of any.
a. Reveal Something About Yourself
It often feels uncomfortable to provide personal details on a professionally-oriented weblogs, but you'll gain a lot if you do. Readers are more likely to return if they feel like they know something about the weblog's author. Think of yourself not as a reporter but as a columnist. The ability to easily provide personal details is a feature of weblogging that's easy to use and free for the taking to anyone who recognizes its value.
Example Among law-related webloggers, it's law students who seem to have the easiest time revealing their personalities on their weblogs. Examples abound, but I enjoyed the fun of waiting with Matt Schuh last week for the cable guy in his post at Matt Schuh Online, "Liveblogging Waiting for the Cable Company."
Example Critics say Howard Bashman's How Appealing is nothing but a law-news aggregator that could be fully automated with the right technical know-how. Not true. In addition to providing an editorial service for his readers (see "link freely to other weblogs," above), Bashman often sets up his news links with jokes that reveal he's much more that just a link-generating machine. An example is his recent, characteristically short post, "For this he left a life-tenured judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit? "
Example Did you see Matt Homann's Holiday Card at the [non]billable hour? And to think I knew him when he was just a lawyer in "a small town in Southern Illinois," as he describes his roots on his weblog.
Example There are many personal things, of course, that would be foolish to reveal on a weblog. How do you strike a balance? Scheherazade Fowler of Stay of Execution (a longtime legal weblogger who recently took a job outside the law) had a recent post on this very topic, titled "Private Journals and Real-Name Blogging." Key quote: "If I were trying to use this blog to appear professional and accomplished, I wouldn't write half the things I do."
b. Don't Fear the First Person
Even those weblog authors who just can't bring themselves to share details about their personal lives can write in the first person. While we were told in high school that the first person has no place in "real" writing, don't believe it for a second. The occasional use of the first person can add a touch of pleasing informality to even the most institutional-feeling weblogs.
Example McGlinchey Stafford's CAFA Law Blog is one of those big-firm, institutional weblogs that risks being too dry for its own good. But in "Season’s Greetings to all from the CAFA Law Blog," its six authors offer New Year's greetings in a post that also highlights some of the year's important class-action events and provides a "personal note" about McGlinchey Stafford's New Orleans office.
Example In a post that comments on Sen. Jay Rockefeller's handwritten letter from 2003 about NSA wiretapping, Bob Coffield of the Health Care Law Blog illustrates how the use of the first person need not detract from the import of a blogger's message. The post: "Senator Rockefeller and the NSA: Law, Politics, Privacy and Technology." Sample first-person content: "I am not at all surprised that the NSA is capable of such detailed and thorough searches of electronic communications, especially when comparing this to the capabilities of Google Earth."
c. Don't Neglect Your About Page
Almost every weblog features an "about" page that provides biographical details about the weblog's author. It's the best way to provide basic information readers can use to judge the reliability of the information being provided in a weblog. I rarely return to weblogs that don't have an informative about page.
Example The weblog Patent Baristas uses cartoon renderings of its authors to create an informal feeling that causes you to linger on the about page even though it contains a lot of professional information about the authors. Recent post from the weblog: "Should Drugmakers Be Made Bulletproof," by Stephen Albainy-Jenei.
Example Lawyer-weblogger George Wallace, proprietor of the weblogs Declaration & Exclusions and A Fool in the Forest, has an about page that provides a brief biography that does its job of underscoring Wallace's credentials to write about California insurance and tort law. He does just that in his recent interesting post, "'Insured Location' Provisions Have Winemakers Over a Barrel." And here's another recent Wallace post that shouldn't be missed: "Pleasures of Lawyering: Attractive Courthouses."
Resolution 3: Be a Better Writer
It's an oft-noted benefit of blogging that it gives bloggers an opportunity to improve their writing skills. But practice alone doesn't make perfect. In stringing together words and sentences to make a post, it's very easy to forget those pesky technical rules that if too often violated will send readers away, never to return.
a. Get Rid of the Clichés
You might not be aware of the cliches in your own writing, but I bet you notice them in others. It's almost an unconscious reaction, that unpleasant feeling you get reading a cliché-ridden weblog that you've been there before and didn't ever intend to return. Rather than saying something in an original way, the cliché-loving writer merely apes phrases found on a thousand other weblogs. Teach yourself to spot and recognize your own clichés. Otherwise you'll be marked as a lazy thinker, and who wants that?
Example Although I see many cliches in my rereading my own weblog (cliches are a weakness of mine that I'm trying to overcome), I see few clichés in Ron Coleman's post at Likelihood of Confusion, "Standards? We Don’t Need No … er … Stinkin’ Standards." The post concerns the French Connection clothing company's controversial FCUK trademark and begins "There will always be an England, I guess, but the land once known for its stiff upper lip seems to be slouching along with the rest of us toward that slack-jawed permissiveness so popular among us Western infidels."
b. Omit Needless Words
It's an injunction we all know from Strunk & White: "Omit needless words." It's so important that it should be tattooed on our writing hand. I'll even go a step further and request it as an epitaph on my own tombstone, as in, "He omitted needless words." I hope I'll be worthy. As with clichés, I'm working on it. In the meantime, just imagine how much more peaceful, relaxed, and manageable our world would be if we all took this simple rule to heart.
c. Seek Out Models
Writing is hard work. So is finding a unique voice in the babble of the blogosphere. If you want to spiff up your writing style, seek out writers you admire and study the way they make their writing work.
Want to write a punchy opinion post? Read fifty newspaper Op-Eds first and you'll have a great head start. Your first sentence will be more snappy, your analysis will be more concise, your conclusion will be more apt.
Example Even other weblogs can serve as writing models. If you want to write a polemical opinion piece (a favorite type of writing I used to do regularly for newspapers), there's no better web-based model than the posts you'll find at Overlawyered and Point of Law.
Resolution 4: Write for the Computer Screen
Your readers are even busier than you are. If you don't make things as easy as possible for them, they'll find another weblog author who does. Tailor your message to the medium, that is, the computer screen. It's easy to do.
a. Use Short Paragraphs and Bullets
Make your writing easy to scan by breaking up your posts into short paragraphs. Use bullets as a way to present related information.
Example Here's a post that could be recommended for many reasons, only a minor one being its use of bullets: "'Behavioral Economics' & Strategic Decision-Making," by Bruce MacEwen of Adam Smith, Esq. One of my New Year's resolutions unrelated to weblogging is to make use of MacEwen's metaphor of "portfolios" of routine decisions. Reading MacEwen's post, the light bulb really went off for me.
Example At f/k/a, David Giacalone spends a lot of time making his posts easy to absorb on a computer screen. Short paragraphs and bullets are the rule. See, for example, the post "thanks a lot (for all this pressure)," in which Giacalone tells his readers what he really thinks about receiving the Blawg Review Award for "Creative Law Blog."
b. Stick to One Topic Per Post
There are some very good practical reasons for the convention that limits blog posts to a single topic. The hyperlinking that forms the warp and woof of the Internet just wouldn't work if links terminated in ambiguous locales. And here's another reason: sticking to a single topic allows your readers to choose to skip a post based on its title and first few lines alone. Ironically, that simple courtesy might be all it takes to get them to return.
Example As far as I can tell, two recent posts about an attempted appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of an Illinois class action involving State Farm include only a single topic. Read about the news in "A constitutional duty to recuse" (Lyle Denniston, SCOTUSblog), and "Avery Plaintiffs Ask High Court to Give Some Justice," (E.L. Eversman, AutoMuse).
c. Work on Your Titles
Though there are exceptions, the best titles work like newspaper headlines to announce the topic of the post that follows.
Example At The Trademark Blog, Marty Schwimmer usually summarizes the post in its title, as in "GooglePrint Hack to Read 'Most Of' A Book." He also uses titles, however, as a way of informing readers that a particular post is partly in jest, as in "I Know You Are But What Am I?" (In jest or not, I'm going to use Schwimmer's idea for sticking it to sploggers.)
Resolution 5: Use Photos
Photos don't work well in novels and aren't necessary in newspapers, but who would object to a nice photo on a weblog?
It's easy, too, which is why photos, graphics and illustrations are becoming more and more common on weblogs. I first read the advice to use photos in Tony Pierce's well-known post "How to Blog." As Pierce said, "People like pictures." He's right.
Counter-Example If you're going to use photos, make sure you understand the copyright issues. The black-and-white above is an old photo of my daughter Zoe of "moral turpitude" fame; I own the rights to the photo. You can also find free photos online. Violate the copyright laws and you might get a cease-and-desist letter or worse from, say, National Geographic. Don't expect their lawyers to be polite, as explained by Anthony Cerminaro at BizzBangBuzz in "Lawyering in the Dark."
Resolution 6: Don't Be Obscure
There's nothing worse than feeling like you're too stupid to understand what's going on in a weblog. But that's exactly how a lot of weblog writers make their readers feel, whether intentionally or not.
a. Don't Run a Private Club
What's wrong with providing some context for the new readers who come to your site through Google each day, perhaps not even realizing that they're reading a "weblog"? Don't refer to your weblogging pals by their first names without providing their last. Whenever possible, avoid weblogging jargon. What in the hell is a "blawg," anyway?
Example Rather than pick on the private clubs, I'll provide a counter-example: that is, a law-related weblogger who is never obscure. It's Robert Ambrogi of Robert Ambrogi's LawSites, whose background as a professional journalist and writer shines through in his writing style. A typical post: "A must-have add-in for Outlook users."
b. Provide Context for Your Links
Unless you're Glenn Reynolds, it just doesn't work to add a hyperlink to a word like "heh" and expect your readers to blindly follow your link. Tell readers where they'll end up so they can decide whether or not to click. The alternative is to risk irritating your readers by unnecessarily wasting their time.
Example: At Jim Calloway's Law Pratice Tips Blogs, you're unlikely to find any "hehs!" In his recent post "Sites of the Week: Two Adobe/PDF," you won't have to worry about ending up somewhere you don't want to be, for example, looking at a silly photo of a blog author's kid.
c. Make Your Site Easy to Navigate
Most weblogging software makes it easy to create a simple layout that can be understood and absorbed by new readers with a minimum of confusion. From there, strive to make things even easier. If your software provides categories, use them. If you take up a topic in a new post that you've written about in the past, provide links to the old posts for new readers who want to catch up. Create a list of favorite posts for readers who want to explore your archives.
Example Carolyn Elefant's My Shingle weblog is a complex site with a simple interface. The weblog is complex because it sits on top of a gigantic Online Guide to Creating a Law Practice, which is integrated on the front page with an easy-to-see link. Elefant also follows all of the other rules listed as subparts to Resolution 6. It's why My Shingle could serve as a model of law-blogging style--and has, for me at least.
Example Another way to make your site easy to understand for new readers is by spending the time on your weblog's tagline. My own--where most of the fun is in the comments--isn't very descriptive. It's meant to serve another purpose. But a tagline can also be used to describe a site, as at my Illinois Trial Practice Weblog, i.e., "Tips and techniques for trial lawyers, appearing for the plaintiff or defense." An outstanding example of this technique can be found at Jeremy Blachman's Brand New Weblog, where Blachman has the following Blachmanesque tagline: "I had a weblog before (click here). This is my new one. I went to law school. But now I'm writing a novel. It's based on this other blog I've been writing (click here). This blog is to talk about that process, and whatever else I feel like writing about. I'll try to make it worth your while. I'm sometimes funny. Sometimes. Thanks for stopping by."
Resolution 7: Build a Community
a. Get a Blogroll
Lately, blogrolls don't get any respect. With so many people reading weblogs through news readers like Bloglines, the thought is that blogrolls, which can't be seen in your raw feed, have become unnecessary. Not true.
A blogroll is one of those important social-networking mechanisms that helps to distinguish a weblog from other sorts of less dynamic websites. A blogroll defines your weblogging community for your readers in a public way that sends a positive message to those weblogs you've included.
There's more. If you remember to read the weblogs in your blogroll by clicking through from your own site, the other weblog authors will see your own weblog's url in their referral logs. It's a clever way of advertising your weblog that I learned from Rebecca Blood in her Weblog Handbook.
b. Encourage Comments
Comments don't work on every weblog. If your readers are willing, however, there's no better way of giving your readers an ownership interest in your weblog than to allow them to post comments.
Example At ProfessorBainbridge.com, Stephen Bainbridge was once opposed to comments. He began to warm to the idea when some of his blogging colleagues broke down and allowed comments. Now comments are nice feature of his weblog. Last week, Bainbridge's post about democracy and war, "What Would Tocqueville Do?" was made all the more interesting by the many perceptive comments.
Example One benefit of comments is that they can be spun off into new posts, as in the post "The Silliest American Lawyer" at The Greatest American Lawyer. It illustrates another important feature of comments: when necessary, the weblog author can always have the last word.
c. Be Generous to Other Weblogs
Are you one of those competitive webloggers who thinks that linking to other weblogs foolishly drives your readers away? If so, you may not understand weblogs. They are part of a worldwide social network in which the generous thrive and the isolated die on the vine.
Example At the long-running weblogs Inter Alia and Bag and Baggage, authors Tom Mighell and Denise Howell both run regular posts in which they welcome new weblog writers to the blogosphere. It's an act of generosity that has helped them build huge weblog communities.
Resolution 8: Experiment with New Weblogging Ideas
What's the fun of a weblog if you don't spend a little time experimenting with the form? I've taken this weblog through a number of experiments: paying proofreaders, turning over the weblog to a fictional guest author, regular real-life guest posters, a very popular (lucky for me) correspondent, long comic essays, the law-school roundup (now returning as a joint project with Energy Spatula), a week-long Central European travel series, fictional advice columns, short stories, and more. All while maintaining my day job as a hard-working take-no-prisoners plaintiffs' lawyer!
These days, most of my experimentation can be found in my podcasts. What's the next big innovation on the blogging horizon? It seems to be video-blogging, though probably not from me. The graphic illustrating my point about experimentation is from Tiki Bar TV. It's some video-blogging experimentation that I find so entertaining I just don't feel the need to try it myself.
Example Craig Williams of May It Please the Court is another podcasting lawyer who's not afraid to experiment. Last week he gave us "The First Annual Legal Louie Awards," in which he chose some of the legal profession's highs and lows over the past year. Worst Legal TV Show? Nancy Grace. Worst Will Contest? Terry Schiavo. Follow the link for more.
Example At DennisKennedy.blog, Dennis Kennedy is also an innovator. Examples are his "By Request" posts and the way he incorporates advertising into his weblog feed. Kennedy also gave out some blogging awards recently, which he calls The Blawggies. You find them here: "2005 Best of Legal Blogging Awards."
Example Blawg Review is itself sort of an experiment, and certainly began that way when the Editor, who is still anonymous even to me, asked me to help him launch the project. The other contributing editors, Mike Cernovich and Kevin Heller, both established and respected law-related bloggers at Crime & Federalism and the Tech Law Advisor, also saw the value in the experiment when the concept was still unproven. Without a willingness to take some risks, the Blawg Review concept would have failed. (And if you haven't become involved by submitting posts or hosting, why not? Instructions are at Blawg Review. If you're thinking of hosting, keep in mind that the weekly posts are never as long as this one, and really shouldn't be. I'll agree be the David Foster Wallace of Blawg Review; you can be the Raymond Carver. Carver was the better writer anyway.)
Example I wanted to make sure to say it before someone else pointed it out: my ten resolutions are made to be broken, and you might find yourself breaking them (nine of them at least) if you engage in blogging experimentation. Weblogs seem an unusual place for complex, scholarly essays, for example, but who's to say that it can't be done? The Becker-Posner Blog seems to be doing just fine no matter what I think about it. And at Shandean Postscripts to Politics, Philosophy, & Culture, Jerry Monaco also writes long, complicated essays, as in his recent post, "The Utopian Mask of WIlliam O. Douglas: Law and Anticipatory Illumination." Here's how Monaco's post was explained to me in an email: "An appreciation of Justice Douglas's doctrine of standing in his dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton, where he claims that inanimate objects should have standing to sue the United States Government for possible environmental damage. I use the philosopher's Ernst Bloch's notion of 'anticipatory illumination' to show that a Supreme Court Justice in dissent can be hopefully utopian." You won't be reading anything like that on Underneath Their Robes!
Resolution 9: Don't Let Your Weblog Make You Crazy
Even if you're justified in the extreme pride you take in your fledging blockbuster of a weblog that you started only last week, it's still just a weblog. The good news is that six months from now, when you've burned yourself out by posting every day and by having to deal with the carpal tunnel syndrome caused by obsessively exploring every nook and cranny of your referrer logs--the good news is that you can quit. Just like that.
If you get burned out, you're probably just posting too much. Take a break. The world won't end if it doesn't hear from you for a couple of days, and neither will your weblog.
Example It was Ernest Svenson of Ernie the Attorney who first told me it wasn't necessary to post every day. I was a little skeptical, but now I rarely post on the weekends . . . and have suffered no ill effects. Ironically, I could now give the same advice back to Ernie: I see that he's posting more frequently than he usually does, perhaps inspired by a recent surge of praise by non-lawyer readers like Dave Winer. Here's one of Ernie's recent Katrina-related posts, "Waiting to return to New Orleans," in which he notes, "Maybe it's because I speak spanish, but I hear a lot of new voices in New Orleans that came here for no other reason than because they heard rumors that jobs were plentiful."
Resolution 10: Learn from Other Weblogs
Every new weblogger has to make scores of decisions about his or her weblog. Blogging isn't as easy as it looks, and the choices can seem overwhelming: How frequently should I post? Can I make a joke if I'm trying to project the image of a bigshot lawyer? How much personality can I reveal? And so on.
One thing is certain: even the most popular webloggers had similar questions when they started their weblogs. An entertaining and informative exercise is to browse the archives of your favorite established webloggers. Look at their first post, then their second; then all the posts from the first month; then all the posts from their second and third months--and so on, post by post. You'll see the weblogs develop as the authors head off in new directions after coming to forks in their weblogging roads and choosing one path over another.
Example My first post was January 1, 2004. It was titled "EasyMusicDownload.com = Scam!" Although it wasn't indicative of everything which was to come, I'm proud to say it's still getting regular comments.
Example I started with Professor Althouse, so why not end with her too? The first Althouse post was just a few days after my own. Check it out:
This blog is called Marginalia, because I'm writing from Madison, Wisconsin, and Marginalia is a fictionalized name for Madison that I thought up a long time ago when I seriously believed I would write a fictionalized account of my life in Madison, Wisconsin. There is nothing terribly marginal about Madison, really, but I do like writing in the margins of books, something I once caused a librarian to gasp by saying. Writing in a blog is both less and more permanent than writing in the margin of a book.
This New Year, I suggest you go forth boldly and write in your blog, if not in the margins of your books. Blawg Review has information about next week's host, and instructions how to get your blawg posts reviewed in upcoming issues.