Blogging for 'Huffington Post': Writing for a New Audience

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Blogging started for me with the desire to enter our vast digital public square for conversation. As a writing teacher, I love watching my students’ fearlessness as bloggers. They understand the blogosphere as an open, experimental space, where they can self-publish, posting their passions and opinions.  As a writer, I wanted to experiment with new subjects, improvise with new forms, and write to the world to see what the world has to say back.

When given the chance to blog for Huffington Post’s lifestyle page—“Life Begins at Fifty”—I started, tentatively, writing more of a 600-word exploratory essay than a blog.  And, mostly, I got blogging wrong, in that first post, by violating the first principle of composition—know your audience! But I was immediately hooked—hooked on the freedom of the form and the opportunity to test and try out ideas.

My subject, in that first blog, was choosing a name for myself as a grandmother. It turns out, in the world of grandmothers, you get to choose an affectionate name for yourself, a name like a stuffed animal with comforting sounds—Granny or Gammy, Bubbe or Omi—names that didn’t fit comfortably when I tried them on.  As I started thinking about the subject, it occurred to me that my knowledge about grandmothers comes less from my memories as a granddaughter and more from the decades of reading students’ essays about their grandmothers.

I wrote the blog in the familiar voice of a composition teacher who loves reading students’ essays about their storybook grandmothers handing down family history while standing at the stove.  And I wrote to an audience I know—my fellow composition teachers—who have also read hundreds of grandmother essays and understand why students don’t easily revise essays about grandmothers: grandmothers aren’t a venue for critical thinking.  What I didn’t do is to write to Huffington Post’s lifestyle audience or shape the purpose of the blog to meet audience expectations.  It would take further experimentation to learn how to write to the thousands of anonymous readers on the other side of the screen.

Since that first post, I’ve blogged about a range of topics— family and food, birth and death, exercise and health. What I’ve learned is that successful blogs convey one point, a single idea clearly, concisely; they do not begin mid-conversation, as essays often do. They are ephemeral, intended to be read in a minute or two, and to vanish from the Huffington Post within a day or two.  And to be successful, they need to create a role for the audience to participate in the blog—whether as a reader who likes and links it, giving it thumbs up, and passing it forward to friends, or a more basic, human role to converse with a writer whose voice and sensibility are simpatico.  Without an active role for readers, there is no conversation around a blog. Readers move on.

Yet something quite wonderful happens for a writer in those few moments when a blog is most alive.  That something, it seems to me, is the essence of why I write. It is the pleasure of finding an audience who will run with my words, add their own, amplify and expand my story.  Blog readers want to participate in this public, collective, conversational form of writing. And as a writer, I want to create roles for them to participate.

At CCCC, on April 8th, 2 PM, I will be talking about blogging  and what I’ve learned as a writer from the freedom of the form and the pleasures of writing for a new audience.  I look forward to seeing you in Houston!

About the Author
Nancy Sommers, who has taught composition and directed writing programs for more than thirty years, now teaches in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. A two-time Braddock Award winner, Sommers is well known for her research and publications on student writing. Her articles “Revision Strategies of Student and Experienced Writers” and “Responding to Student Writing” are two of the most widely read and anthologized articles in the field of composition. She has also created three films—Shaped by Writing, Across the Drafts, and Beyond the Red Ink—to bring the voices of student writers into a larger discussion about writing instruction. Nancy Sommers is currently the coauthor of Diana Hacker’s best-selling handbooks: The Bedford Handbook, A Writer’s Reference, Rules for Writers, A Pocket Style Manual, and Writer’s Help (see Her newest instructor resource, Responding to Student Writers, offers a model for thinking about response as a dialogue between students and teachers.