Chris Higgins

Portland-Based Author of "The Blogger Abides"
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Cover art - The Blogger Abides: A Practical Guide to Writing Well and Not Starving

My New Book is Here!

My new book, The Blogger Abides, is out for Kindle. Want to be a professional writer? Like, a writer who gets paid for writing? Perhaps buying my book would be a good first step.

Praise for The Blogger Abides:

“Don’t go telling your friends about this book. If it’s too successful he’ll stop writing for us. Panic attacks will follow.”
— Jason English, Editor-in-Chief, mentalfloss.com

“The world needs this book, and I am glad it exists.”
— Ransom Riggs, New York Times Bestselling author of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

“At the risk of empowering the competition, I wholeheartedly endorse this book. Blunt, honest and useful guidance for freelance writers. Absolutely worth a few bucks.”
— David Wolman, contributing editor at Wired and author of The End of Money

“Chris Higgins is one of the smartest people I know, so it’s no surprise that he’s written such a smart, practical, and comprehensive gem on professional blogging. If you’re thinking of finally getting serious about writing online—or are just curious about what pro blogging entails—buy this book. Higgins translates his wide-ranging career into unique insights on the business of wordsmithing today that you won’t find anywhere else. Even if you consider yourself more of an ink-and-paper writer, The Blogger Abides will pay for itself many times over.”
— Karla Starr, contributor to The Atlantic, Slate, Popular Science, and The Believer

“I’ve been interviewing humans for fifteen years, and this book finally told me why I suck so bad. Damn you, Chapter 26.”
— Carl King, Documentary Filmmaker, Author of So, You’re A Creative Genius… Now What?

Sample Chapter - The Blogger Abides

Here’s Chapter 27 of The Blogger Abides. When you write blog posts for a living, it’s crucial that you know whether you’re writing material that is intended to be consumed as the flavor of the day, or a classic piece of work for the long term — while this distinction may seem obvious, it’s actually very difficult for some writers to spend their time and attention on the right kinds of material. Read on…

Chapter 27 – Stock and Flow

In the web trade, there’s a notion of “stock” and “flow” as applied to articles you post on a blog. If you haven’t read Robin Sloan’s Snarkmarket blog post on this, do that now – Sloan adapted these terms from Economics to the practice of online writing, and deserves a lot of credit for doing so. Briefly, stock is the stuff you write that’s just as good two years from now as it is today, and flow is interesting largely because it’s fresh and new but it likely has no shelf life because it’s just pointing to some new neat thing. You write stock content so that people will find it via Google or links from other sites, and so you can add it to your awesome roster of well-written material. You write flow so there’s something new on the site.

When you work for a big blog, you see writers assigned to creating both kinds of content. Flow is all that daily stuff, often the sort of “link blogging” that points to other blogs – this is usually what we think of when we talk about reblogging and the currently-hip “curation” (see the chapter “Noticing Good Content (“Curation”)” for more on this). Flow is typically paid as a beat (you get a defined amount of money for writing flow every day), and you might find part of your flow-writing job involving posting links to social media throughout the day. Stock is generally the pay-per-article material that’s more like a magazine – it’s stuff with a specific angle that, while perhaps timely (like a post about the Super Bowl) is likely still interesting later, even if it’s just every time the Super Bowl rolls around.

It’s important to know which kind of thing you’re writing, and it’s important that you find a way to write some of both (see the chapter “Bite-Sized or Book-Length?”). If you spend your life in flow (which is tempting for many bloggers, especially those who like to live inside social media worlds like Twitter), you develop the skills of curation, but you neglect the skills of in-depth writing – those latter skills are what you’ll need when you trade up and find yourself needing to write long articles or books.

I have been very lucky to be assigned, for the most part, an undefined blogging job. “Just go do good stuff,” my editor says, and for me that’s mostly flow, with the occasional stock thrown in. In this sense I’m sort of like an editor-at-large, and I do stock assignments in addition to my regular work.

Why Stock Matters (to Your Boss)

Search engines and social media discovery sites (today this means StumbleUpon and Reddit; in prior years it was Digg) will point readers to your site. The more well-written stock you have, the more readers you have over time. Hell, I wrote a post about wacky variants on the Garfield cartoon that continues to get stunning traffic, because somebody (or some algorithm) decided that it was great stuff. That post, and some other perennial favorites-of-the-social-media-machine often outperform my new stories in any given week. From the site owner’s perspective, this stock content was relatively cheap to produce (a one-time fee paid to me), but continues to produce ad views and bring in new readers. Perhaps the best example of this that I’ve written is “He Took a Polaroid Every Day, Until the Day He Died,” which has brought in millions of readers over the years. That post is worth some real money to my publisher, and it repeatedly flares up in popularity as new people discover it. It is the job of an editor to try to create this kind of content (as well as taking care of flow and dealing with new stuff), so the site grows its base of stock posts over time. That stock means ongoing revenue for the publisher.

Why Stock Matters (to You)

You mainly care about writing stock because it makes you a better writer, which is something you’ll need as you head into magazine writing and other such markets that are “bigger” than blogging. It’s also pretty great to see a post you write get a nice (and ongoing) reception from readers – that can be a fun ego trip, and it’s often expressed through comments. Finally, stock posts are a great place to put little tags like “Follow me on Twitter” at the end, so that those thousands of people who come back to read it every week might actually sign up to read more stuff you write. You might be surprised at the number of people who read a post and never comment on it; that Garfield thing I mentioned is only visible as a big-deal post if you look at traffic numbers (which many bloggers can’t access) – almost no one comments on it. But I do get people following me on Twitter based on various stock posts, so that’s something.

When Flow Becomes Stock

If you get really good at writing flow, you can experiment with turning it into stock on the fly. For example, to me the post “The Easter Island ‘Heads’ Have Bodies” was flow – I was posting something I saw on Twitter, and being quick about it. But that post became stock immediately, and to date has been viewed half a million times. It continues to be news to readers in a way that “Here’s a new video by the Auto-Tune the News guys” cannot be. So that’s one trait of flow-as-stock: a story about something that’s old (and thus seemingly more timeless) is more likely to become stock. Another example is when I’ve done posts about Sesame Street. I did a series of posts about musicians appearing on Sesame Street that were big hits with readers. The posts were quick to write but became big reader favorites. Similar to those posts, I did a fairly quick-to-write piece (that I knew to be stock at the time, albeit quickly-created stock) about Jim Henson’s Memorial Services (he had two), which was a gut-wrenching series of videos of Muppeteers sobbing and eulogizing Henson. Nostalgia is a powerful force (see the chapter “Mining Nostalgia for Fun and Profit”), and now I can point to that post every time I write about Henson, as well as every year when Henson’s birthday or any Henson-related anniversary rolls around.

The Long Tail

Chris Anderson applied a similar concept (originally from the world of Statistics) in a Wired article called The Long Tail (later a book). The core idea is that you can create niche content (like one or two good stories – or songs, books, you name it) and that stuff will find its audience due to online distribution. Even if it’s not a pop hit, there’s probably somebody out there who’s interested in your topic. The availability of search engines and stable online publishing platforms (so your blog post sticks around for years or even decades) makes this feasible. I wrote blog posts in 2007 that still get comments in 2013. Not many, and not at a scale that’s meaningful to my publisher. But in aggregate, the tiny streams of traffic to a whole bunch of posts is actually pretty good, and the publisher can base a business on it. At the very least, the cost of retaining a post from long ago is next to nothing, but there is some possibility that it’ll bring in revenue when someone reads it and is served a few ads.

Related Blog Posts:

7 Hilarious Garfield Variants
Jim Henson’s Memorial Services
The Easter Island “Heads” Have Bodies

More About “The Blogger Abides”

Cover art - The Blogger Abides: A Practical Guide to Writing Well and Not StarvingThe Blogger Abides is an ebook for freelance writers, written by longtime freelancer Chris Higgins. If you want to get paid to write, this is the book for you. But let’s be clear: this is not about getting rich, or even getting paid particularly well; it’s about how to find and manage your first gig, how to incrementally improve your work and your paycheck, and how to manage both the business and creative aspects of a writing career.

The Blogger Abides

On April 12, 2010 I wrote a post on my (now defunct) personal blog, noting that I had passed the three-year mark as a professional blog writer, and offering suggestions to fellow online writers.  It’s true that when you do something every day for a long time, you get pretty good at it. It’s also true that when that thing is your job, you’re motivated to do it well.  So I figured it was time to share.

A lot of people emailed me because of that post, and an editor even pitched a print assignment to me based on it.  I updated the post on February 22, 2012 when I passed the five-year mark as a professional blogger, and noted that “I’ve decided to write a book on this topic.”  That book became, of course, The Blogger Abides.

Here’s the original post; you might enjoy comparing it to the book to see how these themes developed after several years of chewing on them.  The most remarkable thing to me is that back in 2010 I had so few high-traffic posts to point to.  Now (as you see in the book) there are tons of hit blog posts that I came up with after writing the material below that seem to prove my points (a good example is Did Blowing into Nintendo Cartridges Really Help?).  Plus, there was that time I reported a story for This American Life — a few months after I wrote the below.  Anyway, let’s get on with it:


It just occurred to me that I’ve been writing mentalfloss.com blogs for over three years now (156 weeks, by my count). In my weekly roundups, I only count weeks in which I actually wrote — there have been about two months of vacation across those years; my start date at the blog was actually February 5, 2007. That was post number 3,913 on the site — now we’re up at 52,613. The blogging staff has been busy!

So what have I learned in all this time? I’d actually like to write a short book about it, but thought I’d collect a few quick thoughts here first. Hope it helps.

Headlines Matter Most

If your goal is to get people to click on something, you need a killer headline. It has to be interesting, short, and hopefully provocative without being bullshit linkbait. The headline (and blog post) I’m most proud of is He Took a Polaroid Every Day, Until the Day He Died. That headline poses multiple questions — Why did he take a photo every day? How did he die? Who is he? — but it also gives you a big “spoiler” by revealing that whoever this post is about died at the end of his project. I would argue that the spoiler is the biggest hook of the whole thing. It’s also short enough to be forwarded via Twitter with room for added commentary.

You know what’s funny? I wrote that Polaroid post in forty minutes, after probably an hour of research the night before. I chose the photos in a hurry (random clicking of dates until I saw something more or less appropriate, with particular attention to the very beginning and end of the series) and wrote up my notes as quickly as I could, because I had to get to a meeting for my day job. I wrote the headline just as quickly. I had no idea this post would be such a big hit. (One million people have read it, I was interviewed for CBC Radio about it, and it was picked up by zillions of media outlets. A Guardian article about it is now a standardized test question in Spain, so I’m told.) This brings me to my second point:

You Don’t Have to Write That Much

It’s better to write one sentence than a huge article.

If I were Strunk and/or White, I’d stop there, but it’s worth repeating for new writers and bloggers: avoid the instinct to catalog and obsessively cover the subject. Get in there, write the most interesting part as quickly as possible (you want the subject clearly explained in the first sentence), and if you really want to write more, put it below the fold (after the jump, so to speak) or just point people to further reading.

I’m also constantly surprised by what strikes a chord with readers. Often the most slapdash efforts cranked out in mere minutes get the biggest responses. Examples: Gotta Read ‘Em All which was written in less than ten minutes on a Thursday morning before I started work (and received 224 comments); What Books Can’t You Put Down? which was written in five minutes at most (and received 157 comments). Having this happen over and over (and having posts involving hours of labor get no response), I’ve finally realized what’s going on here — if the subject is immediately understandable from the headline (see above), if the subject itself is interesting, and the post is short enough to be approachable, people will read it. It’s not rocket science, but it took me a long time to figure that out.

Side note: interviews, at least in the pop blog market, are almost never worth doing — they take a lot of time and people don’t read them that much. Save your interviews for print. For the web, it’s better in almost all cases to post a short video about something than to do a detailed written interview. An exception might an interview with someone super-famous, but that’s rarely the kind of interview I’m offered.

You Need a Thick Skin

People who comment on my blog posts are usually pretty nice, just saying some variant of “oh, cool” or “check out this related thing.” That’s great and sweet and validating. On the other hand, there’s an unstoppable army of jerks out there ready to jump on you. Grumpy people love writing blog comments. Pissed-off people are a lot more motivated to leave a comment than people who are simply enjoying your stuff.

I haven’t developed a very thick skin over these three years. It still really hurts when someone yells at me via a comment. On the other hand, I get a genuine charge when I get a positive comment. Often people will post corrections to problems with the post (typos are a common problem). I’ve actually had good luck; most of the people who post these are actually very gracious, and I make sure to thank them in the comments. Sometimes they’re jerks, but so it goes.

The Jerks Come Back

You’d be shocked how many commenters (particularly trolls) bookmark a post and come back later in the day to continue the fight. Disengage. Post comments on your own posts only to clarify something missed in the post but raised by another commenter (if you dare), point to other sources, and/or acknowledge making corrections to the main post in response to a comment.

Ask Commenters to Contribute

This is very, very important. Whenever you make a list of things, end it by asking readers what you left out. This makes the inevitable “You left out xyz awesome thing!” comment a happy collaboration rather than an indictment of the blogger’s intelligence. I can’t tell you how many times people have commented: “I can’t believe you didn’t include [some obscure nerd thing], furthermore [you are an idiot] and [should be fired].” But when I invite people to contribute, they do so gladly.

Such a simple lesson. Worth so much. Do it. Also, you’ll often get people giving you links that lead to new posts down the road.

Lists are Stupid

Somewhere in the middle of the last decade, the Internet List became a common blog format. I assume this is because they’re easy to write, easy to click on (headlines are obvious), easy to link, easy to browse, and invite comments (even if they’re of the angry you-left-something-out variety). Having said all that, I hate the format. It just seems stupid to me; it’s almost always linkbait. What’s weird is that sometimes the format, when used well, actually results in great work (check out “The Quick Ten” on Mental Floss). I guess a good writer can’t be stopped by a dumb format.

The Past: There’s Always More of It

Credit to John Hodgman for the headline here.

When I started blogging, I sat down and wrote a long list of interesting trivia: topics I knew something about, interesting historical tidbits, lots of computer nerd stuff. Literally a big long bulleted list, in a file on my desktop. I then proceeded to write a blog post for every single one of those items. When I ran out, I panicked. What would happen? How would I keep coming up with a new thing every day forever? I had run out of interesting stuff!

When it’s your job to find and highlight one interesting thing every day, you quickly become a specialist at spotting interesting things. If you have any human interaction, and you keep your eyes and ears open, you will constantly encounter topics. You just need to notice them, then write about them. Go to the post office and listen to people talking in the line, look around the room, look at what’s for sale — something about that experience is almost certainly bloggable. (Forever Stamps, anyone?) So my job as a blog writer changed when I ran out of ideas in my back catalog — I became a finder of interesting things, and worked to become good at briefly describing those things. The finding skill can be harder; you need to develop a clear sense not just of what’s interesting to you, but what’s interesting to your audience, and also what can be briefly described.

(For what it’s worth, there is a school of thought that says you should write only for yourself. I get this, but when you’re writing a blog that’s being read by tens of thousands of people a day — and your continued employment depends on popularity as measured by pageviews — you should probably think about the audience too.)

Credit Where Credit is Due

Always, always cite your sources. If you found a topic via a blog, link to that blog (the specific post, if possible) at the end of your post. If you’re quoting something, say so and use the HTML blockquote tag. Don’t steal photos — Flickr has a great Advanced Search feature which allows you to find Creative Commons licensed photos (including those licensed for commercial use!).

Also, be sure you’re conversant with the FTC’s Guidelines for Bloggers. In short, don’t be a shill.

If you aspire to write for print but are starting in the online world, you’re going to need to learn how to deal with citations and footnotes. Better to figure that out while you’re blogging than when you’re on a deadline for a print assignment. (I’m not suggesting that you need footnotes in your blog posts, but you definitely should keep a list of sources and, wherever possible, include them in your post.) Also, as much as I love Wikipedia (and link to it all the time), beware of basing a story on something you find there — there’s plenty of bogus info floating around, and you’ll look like a sucker for buying it. Run everything through a Snopes filter or at least a Google filter with the word “hoax” attached.

Don’t Blog Something That’s Already Been Blogged

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of a great idea, only to find that it has already been covered by other bloggers on my own site. Now, I do read the site, but the volume of posts is insane — and my memory is short enough that I don’t remember what people were posting about three years ago. Use the site search. If you don’t, people will yell for reposting stuff. Also, get familiar with the Google site: syntax (example: site:www.mentalfloss.com “chris higgins” will turn up posts including my name from that site).

That is All

Drop me a comment if you have any questions, or send me an email.


Cover art - The Blogger Abides: A Practical Guide to Writing Well and Not StarvingThe Blogger Abides is an ebook for freelance writers, written by longtime freelancer Chris Higgins. If you want to get paid to write, this is the book for you. But let’s be clear: this is not about getting rich, or even getting paid particularly well; it’s about how to find and manage your first gig, how to incrementally improve your work and your paycheck, and how to manage both the business and creative aspects of a writing career.

Woman plays The Oregon Trail on a vintage Apple computer

On September 30, I spent a geektastic day at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo. I arrived early and got a look at many booths before they opened (later, they would be swarmed by thousands of attendees). For much of the day I was one of several referees for the Classic Tetris World Championship. The whole day was a joy — a convention hall filled with classic games, from Atari to Zelda, with pinball in between. And, this being a Portland event, there were game-themed crafts everywhere.

Check out my photo essay for Mental Floss for a look at the action.