In case you haven’t seen it, “Julie and Julia” tells two true stories. The first one, about Julia Child, reveals how she became a chef and came to write her classic book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The second one tells us about Julie Powell, an office worker involved with the aftermath of 9-11, who one day decides to give herself a year to cook her way through every recipe in Child’s cookbook – and blog about it. It’s actually a lot more interesting than my quickie synopsis might indicate; both women go through a number of trials as they try to reach their goals.
It’s Julie’s story that concerns us here. How did a woman who’d only ever written half of a novel go from nothing to publishers seeking her out with book offers? The answer is in her blog, which you can still find online, from the very first entry on forward. Julie was in search of a challenge to pull her out of “secretary ennui,” as she describes it in one of her entries, and boy, did she pull it off!
The answer is also in the move, of course, distilled by Hollywood. So what lessons can we learn to help make our own blogs great? Watching the movie, and thinking about it later, I found eleven. Four of them I’ll cover here, with the remainder to come in the second part of this article.
Be passionate about your subject. Julie described herself in her first blog entry as a “government drone by day, renegade foodie by night.” In the movie, when she’s discussing a possible topic for her blog with her husband, they’re eating – and actively enjoying – a delicious meal. As with Julia Child herself, you can sense her love and passion for food permeating the atmosphere.
If you want your blog to sing, you need to bring that kind of spirit to it. Hint: if you love doing something enough that you’re determined to do your best with sub-par equipment until you can afford the good stuff, you may be onto something. Bonus points if it’s something you actively make time for on an already-busy weekend.
Julie stated her goal in the very first entry of her blog. “365 days. 536 recipes. One girl and a crappy outer borough kitchen.” Right away, you know what she’s trying to accomplish and what her obstacles are – and if you like rooting for the underdog, you almost can’t help but be on her side. You want to come back regularly and see how she’s doing.
You might have a goal that you don’t want to reveal quite so blatantly to your readership, especially if your blog is for your company. Maybe you want to work your way up to 100,000 visitors and 100 conversions a month. Fine. You don’t have to reveal your goal, but keep it in mind.
Meanwhile, you might consider coming up with another goal that isn’t directly dependent on your visitors – something that you can do by yourself. You can then write about the process and the results. It should be a goal that excites you, so you’ll infuse your writing with your passion.
It might even help if it’s a little “out there.” For example, there’s an old country song titled “One Piece at a Time,” about a guy who worked on a Lincoln assembly line for 30 years and always wanted "one that was long and black" – so he stole the parts, one piece at a time, over the entire time he worked there. When he retired, he put it together with the help of his friend and an adapter kit.
Is it even possible to do that? I have no idea. But say that you write a blog for a Lincoln car dealership. You wouldn’t want to encourage theft, of course, but wouldn’t it be fun and interesting to do some research to find out just how many different years of parts you could combine in one car?
One last point I want to make about Julie’s goal: she had set herself a specific task to accomplish, within a specific time limit. It’s important to be this specific with the goal for your blog. It will help to keep you focused. And, to make an even more obvious point, you’ll know when you’ve actually achieved your goal.
In the movie, it seemed as if Julie wrote a new entry nearly every day detailing the cooking she did. I can’t emphasize the importance of reliability strongly enough. We’re all creatures of habit; we like to know what we’re going to get. If you want to encourage visitors to keep coming back, you need to create certain expectations and continue to fulfill them.
If you’re writing a blog about cooking, for example, does it make sense to suddenly start talking about auto repair? Not without a good excuse; maybe you tried a technique for cooking a meal on your car’s engine while it was running, and something went drastically wrong. But the point is that the blog is still really about cooking; the repair is just a side effect.
Does this mean that, once you’ve chosen your topic, you can never talk about anything else? Of course not. But when you choose your topic, you should choose one that’s broad enough to embrace what you really want to talk about, while being narrow enough that it isn’t a blog about everything. I’ll talk more about topics in the next section.
While you’re staying focused on your topic, think about how often you can write entries. Can you write three times a week? Five? Every day? However often you choose to write, stick with that schedule, and don’t let anything get in the way.
Your readership, and Google’s spiders, will get used to seeing new content arrive at a certain rate, and adjust their habits accordingly. Let them down and you risk losing readers.
Also, try to keep your entries to a certain length. You can vary the length based on how much you need to cover, but on average, readers will appreciate knowing that they’ll spend, relatively speaking, the same amount of time reading what you’ve written each time they visit.
What exactly does "find your niche" mean? Well, if you want to emulate Julie, you should try to write in a niche with broad appeal, but find a special interest within it. Okay, that probably sounds like contradictory advice. Be broad, yet fit in a niche with a special interest? You must think I’m crazy, right?
Well, let’s look at Julie’s blog again. She’s a foodie. There are tons of foodies out there; heck, I’m a bit of a foodie myself. Put “food blogs” into Google without quotes around it and you’ll get 322 million hits. You are never going to rank for something that broad (though if you do, let me know; I love to be proven wrong).
But Julie chose to focus on French cooking. Specifically, she chose to focus on cooking a la Julia Child. Put “Julia Child blogs” into Google without quotes and you still get more than two million hits, but Julie Powell’s “Julie/Julia Project” is the first result the search engine returns. The large niche is food, but Julie found a special interest within it that spoke to her, to which she could write with passion.
So take a close look at your field and consider what aspect of it you love the most. Say you’re in real estate, and you really love matching people to the houses that suit their needs the best. You could write about the different kinds of houses buyers need at different stages of their lives.
Not exciting enough? Perhaps you could talk about how those with different interests find different house features important. Maybe one couple needs a room that gets a lot of light because one of them is a crafter, or a growing family needs a big backyard for the dog, and so forth.
Or maybe you’re in the business of restoring cars, and you have a soft spot for rebuilding 1960s muscle cars. You could talk about what it takes to do a complete restoration of a 1967 Ford Mustang convertible (a gorgeous car, by the way). Get the picture?
In the next part I’m going to discuss some things you can do to make sure you’re on the right track, encourage visitors to stay, and help keep yourself on track to achieving your goals. So be sure to check back tomorrow. Until then, bon appetit!