Embracing the medium: what makes a successful cultural blog?

oldcompThe following article is a slightly amended version of the speech I gave during the Emerging Writers’ Festival panel The Revolution Will Be Downloaded, May 2009.

In my reading of cultural blogs (particularly literary blogs), and through a growing audience for LiteraryMinded, I have found that some recurring elements exist in blogs which could be deemed successful. My measure of success isn’t necessarily a huge number of hits, but a loyal, returning audience of readers that grows over time.

I’ll first give you a bit of background on LiteraryMinded. I started the blog on Google’s blogger platform in May 2007. I was living in (coastal Australian small city) Coffs Harbour, I worked in a bookstore, and I was studying film and literature. As much as I was surrounded by great people, there weren’t many who shared my passion for literature. My conversations about books basically occured over the counter at the bookstore, or with my fellow employees. After I’d started doing the occasional freelance review, author interview and article for Bookseller+Publisher, I started the blog as a bit of an outlet for my passion. B+P gave me permission to reprint content on the blog, and I found it then also acted as a bit of a publication record, or literary CV.

I moved to Melbourne in March 2008, started working full-time at B+P and by now had figured out (basically from reading lots of blogs) that combining the semi-personal and the literary was beneficial in growing an audience. I blogged extensively on the Melbourne Writers Festival (both serious events and authors-in-the-bar stuff), and Antony Loewenstein mentioned me on his blog, which led to the attention of Crikey. Crikey chose me as their literary blogger because they felt I had enthusiasm and a ‘finger on the pulse’ of the literary world. I was now contracted to write, and have found the rhythms in which I like to work in. More and more I have learnt what makes a cultural blog readable, accessible and interesting, and I’m sure I’ll continue to learn, but for now I’ll share with you six points:

1. Embrace the medium

Only by embracing cultural blogging as a different medium in both form and style to cultural work and cultural criticism in print can we create innovative, interesting content that stands on its on, not necessarily in comparison. What we can embrace is the fact that the blog is a narrative. That it is transient and linear (the blog grows as does its writer), but the pieces also exist permanently (possibly) to be recalled in google searches or through links from other sites and backtracks on your own. And while it may be linear, in a sense, it is also incredibly rich and multifaceted, in terms of the links, feeds, appropriations, communication and references one can use in single posts or threads.

So a blog is a narrative, it’s a journey, and there has to be an embracement of this, then there is potential for innovation in the medium.

An example I would use, where I’ve attempted to utilise the richness of the internet, is my ‘responsive’ interviews (links to them here). I send the authors a set of ‘prompts’, and they send back ‘responses’. These may be words, images, sounds, videos or links, basically whatever can be found at their disposal. In this, I am trying to embrace the medium, and also embrace the creativity of the respondents. I want them to enjoy the experience as much as the reader. Another example, which other people are doing well, (unfortunately I don’t have the equipment) is video blogging, which embraces the immediacy of the medium.

So, a cultural blog doesn’t have to try and be ALR, ABR or any other print publication. It is a different medium, and I don’t think there has to be a war between them. I think they can and should coexist. And note here I’m talking about cultural content, not news and journalism, where it is becoming hard to know how journalists of the future will get paid to write quality content online. But that is a whole other article.

2. Personalisation

I think it’s important to embrace the fact that the ‘personal’ and the ‘confessional’ are becoming simultaneous with many successful forms of internet writing and interaction. But this does not mean inane writing, or even necessarily personal detail.There has to be a balance. The personal should be related to the blog’s theme and content, which I’ll get to.

It doesn’t mean that one can’t write an objective, quality review or article; but regular readers like to know where it is coming from, and how (through getting to know your blog personality) they might stand in relation to this review.

The personalisation and connection means that the blog, which is a narrative and journey, will be joined by readers if honest discovery, personality, insight and interest are incorporated into the blog – this is what I mean by personalisation.

3. Persona/Character

Personalisation relates to the third point I find in successful cultural blogs – a maintained persona or character. To call it a ‘character’ is not to say it isn’t a genuine self – but it’s more a projected set of quirks, interests, a personality, to which the blog readers can relate.

Blog personality may be a representation of the critical/intellectual self and not the actual day-to-day person you see in the mirror. Similarly it may be the satirical self, the sexual self, the emotional self, or as mine is, the literary-minded self. Either way, it’s still a genuine self, but in its consistency, the blogger is more likely to draw a sustained, regular and loyal audience. The cultural blogger must not fear esotericism.

I’d say a blog is probably closer to a TV series than another textual format, due to the linearity and development. Think of something like Seinfeld, for example. Viewers continue to tune in, get to know the characters, and see how they react to different situations etc. In a similar way, readers will return to a blog whose ‘character’ they relate to and are entertained by.

Even of cultural blogs that are more informational, the ones I enjoy have a selectivity of content which displays a personality and interests. One that is carefully controlled and aware. Again, there is no fear of being esoteric. As a quick example, both Beattie’s Book Blog and the film blog CelluloidTongue are like this. We don’t know a great deal about the writers’ personal lives when reading, but due to the selectivity of content, the occasional aside, and the writing style, both blogs have a strong, sustained persona.

4. Theme

Theme is another essential element which is related to character. To go back to the TV series analogy: Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine don’t suddenly find themselves in a noir setting dealing with a murder mystery, with a bleak ending. Audiences would be confused and resentful. It goes back to the esotericism – a blogger can’t be overly ambitious and try to appeal to everyone. By having a thematic focus – such as books, like mine, readers with similar interests or curiosities will visit and then (combined with the other factors) return.

Thus we’re seeing cultural blogs that have their own genres – litblogs, filmblogs, foodblogs, feminist, political, and so on. Sometimes there are a few themes combined but to pull this off, the character or persona really has to be strong. And of course, the writing itself.

5. Blog for the love of it

Don’t blog because you think you should. Don’t even bother writing a half-assed blog. You have to love it. You have to want to write it as much as you want to work on a book (or a screenplay, any other cultural product). You have to want to record, express ideas and interact.

It’s okay to have motives. Of course, I want people to be familiar with my writing, but why the hell would they be if I just tried to shove it down their throats? I’m instantly turned off blogs that are obviously egotistical exercises. Same with Twitter feeds. The reader has to get something out of it. You need to want to give that reader something. Why else do you write overall? Bloggers should blog because they love to write about what they’re writing about. You have to enjoy the process.

6. Interaction

Communication with your readers, through the comments and through other social media is highly beneficial. And fun! Facebook and Twitter especially. Some people don’t like to comment in a public forum, so being accessible by email, Facebook messages, Twitter @ replies etc. will provide you with valuable feedback, a loyal audience (again) and even allow you to meet like-minded souls.


Let me just use Rachel Hills and her blog as an example. It has a sustained readership, and thus has a level of success. On the first point – Rachel embraces the medium, embedding videos, linking to people she writes about etc. Secondly, it is personalised – one of her recent posts was about her excitement for the Emerging Writers Festival. Third, she maintains an accessible persona as a politically aware, feminist, pop culture interested, woman and commentator. Her own personal interests like fashion and her own navigation of the cultural world are personalised and intelligent. Fourth, her blog has a balanced, broad but selective theme of cultural, political and pop cultural comment and reference. Fifth – she definitely seems like she enjoys doing it, and this gives her professional CV more meaning. And finally, her Twitter feed very much complements her blog, in all these areas.

Let me also say that multiple-author blogs can still possess the above qualities. Think again of Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine and the way they complement one another, the way their reactions and adventures are intertwined.

In conclusion…

Blogging is different from print media, though just as viable, but you have to love it and you have to embrace the medium, which is narratival, and also utilises the multifaceted nature of the internet. Personalisation is apparent in the majority of successful cultural blogs. A consistent character and theme are essential. Good, engaged writing is essential, and communication and the utilisation of other social media is essential. In short – be enthused, engaged, consistent and embrace in order to innovate.

36 thoughts on “Embracing the medium: what makes a successful cultural blog?

  1. You’ve raised some good points here. In terms of cultural blogs, and from my own journey with a growing blog of a similar nature, personalisation is so important. You’re not only promoting your own writing or your subject matter, but yourself. It’s so intertwined. So much of the whole thing is a journey – I know I’ve changed so much since I began, and it’s been quite organically. Blogging is different to other mediums of writing because of the immediate connection the audience has with the author. Personalisation is essential to setting you apart from the millions of other blogs out there, and being able to embrace that really non-linear growth I think most bloggers experience, as well as being able to bring the audience along with you. I find that kind of growth is the most exciting part of blogging. Starting a little nook which contains something I was completely passionate about seemed fairly inconsequential. Having people respond to my work, to my ideas and to appreciate my writing for it’s personality has been more satisfying than I can describe. And from that, I’ve grown so much as a writer, and also as a businessperson – so many opportunities have presented themselves. I’m not sure if this makes sense at all – I could write so much on this!

  2. Some good points Angela. I know with my own efforts, my biggest struggle is trying to decide just what my blog is. Mostly it is political, but I have found that having a few “regular” features on more cultural aspects – film, literature,music and sport have brought in quite a few readers that otherwise wouldn’t have found me (inlcuding you!).

    My problem now is to balance the themes – I would like to write more ‘cultural’ blogs, but the political topics are more urgent and fleeting – there’s little point writing about something said in Question Time 2 weeks after the event – and so I find my “regular” cultural features become less regular, given I only have about and hour or so an evening to write something.

    It is hard to try an be a one person Time magazine, but at the end of the day as you say you have to write about what you love writing about, and i like writing about a lot of things! 🙂

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  4. Hi Grog, as a regular reader of yours I must say I skip over some parts, and am engrossed by others. Did you ever consider having it as two blogs? One cultural, and one political? I think you might find more sustained audiences for both that way… just a thought. You do write very well about both things, and obviously enjoy writing about them. 🙂

  5. thanks, this was some interesting thinking about cultural blogging. i’ll try to comment in a brief manner.

    i think you’re right by placing the ‘narrative’ of a blog as important. the way your writing & posting trajectory plays along with, or bucks the expected trend of, blog-narrative conventions creates the reader’s interest. & of course people can & will search your archives to find the real you. luckily you construct this as you see fit on a blog.

    despite only reading cultural blogs, i think i lean towards favouring the personal element. for instance, my favourite posts of yours are the run-downs of what you’ve been doing, drinking, reading, listening to, thinking. i must admit i often skim through the reviews, & sometimes even the interviews (tho this in no way suggests they aren’t necessary). i think this just highlights the importance of the personal element though. blogs that only present reviews or critical material seem detached, & often uninteresting. just as utterly personal diaries can be (‘today i did a bit of gardening. must get some new azaleas…’ (although, having just written this, it sounds damn interesting…)). we desire a blurring of this boundary perhaps, in life in general, & online writing is peculiarly suited to allow it.

    just one question – has syndication has made things different for you? or has it really just been an extension of one of the implicit aspects of blogging, the necessity to upload content (content of a certain type, & quality) consistently. i know making your work, your name, & your persona diffuse has actually happened for you. but what happens now if you want to live some of your writing life privately? do you simply post ‘back in 3 months’?

  6. Hi Derek,

    food for thought! Many people enjoy the personal posts, they’ve said, but what draws people initially to the blog is often the critical work. Others love the author interviews, and probably skim the personal stuff… like I said, I think the balance is important. And if you read into it, there is a lot of the personal ‘character’ in my reviews, and the kind of questions I ask authors, maybe even more that I give away in the commentary…

    Your question – I believe, that if you do post regularly in general, your (loyal) audience will understand if you ever take a bit of time off, as long as you explain that that is what you are doing. It’s true that my content should be of a certain quality and consistency, but that is my own personal expectation – Crikey has never, ever asked me to write about anything/change anything/write more or less etc. I am very free in what I do. If there comes a time when I want to live my writing life privately for as long as three months, I’m not sure what I would do – I would think about it then. I enjoy sharing for the moment, and don’t see a long time off happening any time soon!

  7. Interesting points, A. Blogging is a high-wire act, no question. Here are four points that kinda relate to yours.

    First, you have to be able to attract readers by either offering them entertainment or information, or hopefully both. Tick that.

    Second, you have to keep a regular schedule. I don’t care if a blog only updates once a week, as long as it says that up-front. Nothing worse than a blog that goes daily, then two or three times a week, dead for a fortnight and then a big apology post – wow, I’ve been really busy, but I promise this time, etc – back to daily for a fortnight, then the blog unofficially dies. Tick deux.

    Third, you want commentators, that’s lovely and keeps the blogger’s ego up and running. But I’ve seen (semi) celebrity blogs paradoxically fall apart because they attracted too much attention. For some reason, whenever the population of an internet locale goes up, the average intelligence begins to drop. People turn on each other and the comment threads turn into flame wars, every time. Not so much a sin as a matter of pest control.

    The fourth problem is blog spam: hey, I’ve seen interesting post at Site X, can’t be arsed writing a post tonight, so I’ll just link to it. It’s the blog equivalent of handing in someone else’s essay. At least if you’re linking, add your own take on the matter.

    Of course, you come out with ticks on all four points. But it’s almost like someone needs to write a Ten Commandments of Blogging, to let people know it’s bloody hard work.

  8. I have thought about two blogs Angela. But I like the one blog aspect, even though I know the common theme is the usual advice to bloggers. If I had two blogs I’d only feel more pressure to write twice as much. And the politics stuff I write is pretty much linked with the sitting periods, so during the other times I can be a bit more light.

    When I started my blog I read somehere that the biggest key to success was to have a theme. So I decided pffft! I’ll do what I want to do.

    If I were really interested in trying to build up a bigger readership I would go single theme, but I know would get bored just writing about movies and books just as I do when I’ve done a few politics threads in a row. In the future I will be trying to mix things up a bit so that people who come on will find that at least once or twice a week there’s something of interest to read whther they come for th epolitics or the cultural/sport stuff.

    But the last thing I want writing it to become is for it to feel like it is a job that I’m doing to keep up my readership – I’d want someone to pay me to do that!

    But enough of me – it’s your blog, and while I haven’t been posting much of late, I certainly pop in here each day to see if there’s anything new.

  9. Grog, yes, if it made you feel pressure, then that would be taking away the ‘loving it’ aspect, and that would be no good. And it sounds like, in general, you’re happy with the audience you have, and the way it works – but like you mention – experiment with mixing things up – see how you go 🙂

    People will have different intentions for blogs too, they may not be after the kind of ‘success’ or ‘readership’ I have pointed out – this post relates to those that do seek that.

  10. Absolutely agree Angela.

    The one thing I think anyone who wants to be a success at blogging needs to also make sure they do is to not think “oh it’s only a blog, it doesn’t matter”. I notice some journalists who have a blog as well sometimes slip into pretty slack writing that they would never have in their “real columns”.

    That said I have let through my share of typos, so I am probably a bad one to judge!

    The other thing to avoid (as marmalade has noted) are those types who just do posts such as
    [Interesting story in today’s SMH: URL link].

    Sorry, but we can all Google or surf news sites. Quite a few news.ltd bloggers do little more than that – obviously they’re not getting paid by word count!

  11. I liked your point about embracing the medium. Too often I’ve seen people from old print media try to blog, or blogger blogging like you’re writing a book or essay. I know it goes beyond length, but keep your posts succinct is one of the first things I learnt.

    I tend to break the mould of the genre thing. I write a blog across a few themes, namely writing and politics. The problem being I attract too kinds of audiences and can be put off by too much of the topic they didn’t come for. Occasionally you find people interested in both, but it comes back to doing it for me. And I’m enjoying it whether or not I’m becoming famous from it.

  12. I think we’re in the same camp Benjamin – but geez, you’ve been going since 2005! (Makes you a geriatric in the blogosphere)

    And Angela I see from your tweets you’re giving Ulysses a go – nice timing given next Tuesday!

  13. I will reply further to these after work today…

    Grog – yes, taking my time with it and loving it. I won’t have it finished by Bloomsday (!) but will read as much of it as I can in celebration.

  14. As a relative newcomer to the blogging world I found this article extremely insightful and useful!
    I am intrigued, though – especially following marmalade’s comment above- as to what online audiences expect in the way of frequency of posts. Is a weekly update *such* a length of time if a blog is more focussed on meatier articles and/or reviews- which obviously require a higher degree of behind the scenes work? Do blogs need to be pithier to be able to captivate the modern audience?

    On the question of the personal in the blog, I’m curious as to the thoughts out there on linking to other blogs. Is it essential to add friends for the sake of friendship? Does a variety of blog reading emphasize the “roundedness” of the person behind the blog? Or is it more a marketing exercise where only blogs of complimentary themes and/or ideas should be associated with your own?

    • Oh, fantastic questions.

      I agree with marmalade that ‘regular’ doesn’t have to be every day/week or whatver, but does have to be consistent, so readers know when to expect posts and get into the rhythm of a blog. Here’s that TV show analogy again – don’t you hate it when you go to watch your fav show and they’ve substituted it one week with sports or something?

      I feel differently than some on how long posts should be – I think for online content to have quality and be sustainable, there has to be room for longer posts. But I have been turned away from blogs that are needlessly wordy. Short is sweet, for sure, but it also depends on your aims. If you want your blog to exist as a cultural product, in the greater existence of things, you can’t be too ‘brief’ (as then there is no room for ideas/discussion etc. in the intellectual sense). Does that make sense? But it is very true that it is physically difficult to read from a computer screen for too long. Many say 1000 words is too much, I say 2000 is too much, and the 2000 words ones should not be your only content.

      On linking – I don’t think it’s essential to add friends, it is courteous, I suppose. I’m lucky in that the friends I have who do blog really do write well, and I read their blogs. In fact, that is my criteria for the blogroll – those are blogs and sites I actually read and interact with. Thus, you have a great point about it ’rounding’ out the blog personality. The blogs with complementary themes and/or ideas are certainly helpful for a reader who might enjoy LM, but they’re also ones I can ‘vouch for’, as I read them too.

      Hope that answers your questions.

  15. I’ve been actually going since 2004 😉 I had a blog with blogger.com before switching to my own. But you should compare my first posts to those now. Practice makes a world of difference.

    I’d hate to see my blogging drop when I get a job that I can’t away with blogging because my boss is in another state.

    Jo, I tend to link to who I read regularly. Actually my Google Reader subscriptions are almost identical.

  16. Thanks, Benjamin and Ange. Definitely food for thought there!
    The tv show analogy is a very appealing one. I believe in the past my attempts at blogging have been too introspective. Yet at the same time I am afraid of the commercial aspect- of targeting a particular audience, of attempting to be a “broadcaster”. (And similarly of shaping a blog to meet some kind of en masse audience).
    I think this article highlights the need for focus and balance (and the difficulty in obtaining it!), rather than just screaming into the online abyss.

  17. Hey Angela, the Crikey door bitch just let me in. I’ve been wanting to add my two cents worth all day. One of the greatest things about your blog is that you have a gift for striking up a conversation and welcoming those who want to join in. That inclusiveness is a very attractive characteristic and it plays a big part in building your loyal following. You are a generous blogger – one who shares, encourages and facilitates multifaceted online communications. You deserve that No. 1 slot in Copywrite’s Top 50 Australian Writing Blogs and I gotta tell you posting topics like this one is going to keep you there.

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  19. This is lucid, thoughtful stuff, Angela – thanks.

    I’d only add one thing: humility.

    With blogging, the author can easily become too cosy, arrogant or puffed-up (I began this way, so it’s a real struggle). The blog loses its combination of intimacy and illumination, and becomes a soap-box.

    Now, some readers like this – so be it. But the blogiverse is filled with rants and raves – the best blogs (like yours) mix personality, expertise and enthusiasm, without being up themselves, aggressive, ungenerous.

  20. Are there any questions I haven’t answered? Please nudge if so.

    Chris *blush* You’re too kind. Your blog is ten times more well-written than mine though. And you also encourage conversation!

    Damon, I agree about humility. Blogs that ‘rant’ too much may get read by a few, but in the end will turn away those they most wish to target! Aggression is a big turn-off for me, when reading blogs. Though many of my favourite bloggers will genuinely have an angry, ranty or aggressive moment, they know what it is, and will consider the comments in a generous way.

    Thanks again all! Sorry if I haven’t replied directly to anyone. Was at work all day yesterday and of course, had to get work done!

  21. Ange, as many have said, this is a fantastic post and it’s great to see the ensuing conversation. I’m curious what you define as a ‘cultural blog’; do you mean one that is reflexive to existing culture, or would you include those that attempt to contribute new elements to culture as well? I would argue that many do both, as a valid response to culture is a form of culture itself, but am curious to hear your thoughts.

    I find with my own blog it would never work without the persona it uses, but because it’s a satirical news format that persona is a faux-journalistic third-person one, and thus has very little of my own personality. I’d like to interact with my readers but I can’t break the fourth wall as I feel it would detract somewhat from the overall impact of the blog. I have a few ideas of how to get around this, but I hadn’t really felt motivated to pursue them until seeing this post, so thank you! Now I just have to get around my lack of regular posting…

  22. Hey Mr latebreaker,

    What do I define as a cultural blog? I think it could encompass both those that are commentators on culture, and those that are creators – many are an incorporation of both. It really is a broad term, but when I first had these ideas, I was thinking about literary blogs, then realised it expanded to other types of blogs I read – eg. film, political, humour, music, food etc. So I gave them the umbrella term of ‘cultural blogs’, but I suppose some would have a more specific definition of this?

    I’ve often wanted to comment on your blog, even to write ‘Ha!’ I think you could maintain the persona in the response to comments… you’d just have to think about how you would do it.

    Thanks for commenting!

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  27. Damn, I wish I’d noticed you were speaking at the Emerging Writers Festival, I would have enjoyed to hear this talk!

    One small nitpick – we didn’t hear about you online, but by good old fashioned word of mouth. 🙂 Antony Lowenstein mentioned you to me in conversation, not on his blog. 😉

    I’m glad you’re still going strong! 🙂

    • Hi Sarah! Thanks 🙂 Oh, well he’s lovely anyway. I owe him one for sure. He did mention me on the blog as well, called me ‘engaged and engaging’ which was sweet.

      Thanks so much for dropping by, I hope you’re well!


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