A Caffeine Inspired Interview with Jeff Atwood from CodingHorror.com

I’m nearing my one year blogging anniversary.

That is just long enough to know that I enjoy it and want to continue doing it for the long term.

It is also long enough to make me start wondering about what comes next. For example, will I find blogging more or less enjoyable a year from now? Will I ever run out of things to say or start to feel burned out after the newness has thoroughly worn off?

I also wonder what it would be like if I ever became a popular blogger and if that is even something I would like to happen. Although it is still thrilling for me to see one of my posts be widely read, my recent experience with a relatively popular post left me feeling as though I wouldn’t scale well in this respect if the number of comments I received on average ever changed from a half dozen to a couple hundred.

My curiosity led me to take a chance and ask Jeff Atwood, the author of codinghorror.com, his thoughts on the subject. Besides being one of my favorite bloggers, Jeff has been a role model for me whenever I think about how I would like to approach my blog in the future. With over 80,000 subscribers, 4 years experience as a blogger, and an amazingly consistent schedule for publishing posts, he is also in a unique position of authority to offer insight into these issues.

On a whim, I emailed Jeff last week and included a list of questions that are in bold below along with a request to publish his answers in an interview style format on my blog. To be honest, I really didn’t expect him to respond given the huge number of emails that he probably gets on a daily basis, so I was more than thrilled when I got a friendly email from him the other day that was not only encouraging, but also contained some incredibly interesting and well-thought out responses to my questions.

Without further fanfare, here are Jeff’s thoughts on blogging. Enjoy.

1. Do you think the style and content of your blog has changed much over the last four years?

I have gotten better over time at writing, simply through the sheer force of doing it every day. That’s one of the biggest reasons I encourage other developers to balance writing code to satisfy the compiler with writing code to satisfy other people. The latter is much more difficult, but it can get you places in life you’d never be able to go using code alone.

As the audience for the blog has grown, I have found it increasingly difficult to justify posting about small, specific, technical problems that I run into. You’ll find quite a few of these in my older blog entries. I naturally tend to enjoy the larger “why” questions anyway, so it’s not much of a limitation.

Honestly, the only difference between good and great blogs is that the good bloggers kept writing until they became great bloggers.

Do you think the blogosphere in general has changed much over that same time period? If so, has it been for the better or for the worse?

I was technically late to the blogging game, only starting in early 2004. Even in the last four years, I’ve seen wide mainstream acceptance of the word “blog” and the idea that random people writing random stuff on the internet can actually influence what happens in the world. It’s a big deal. People take you seriously when you say you have a popular blog. I can’t believe it myself, and I’m not entirely sure how it happened. I think it’s generally a change for the better, in the sense that average people with blogs can have measurable effects in the world.

2. Has your enjoyment of blogging changed any since you started? Did you enjoy it more in the beginning when it was new or later in your blogging career as you became more proficient and your subscriber count grew? Do you think you’ll still be blogging 4 years from now?

I think blogging was unusually natural for me, because I was a decent writer to start with, never shy about sharing my opinions, and I truly enjoyed digging into research for whatever subjects I was infatuated with at the time. I’d say my enjoyment level is the same as it was four years ago, but there’s a deeper sense of satisfaction in knowing something I enjoy doing is interesting (and ideally helpful) to so many other people in the world.

About a year in, I realized that if I hadn’t gotten sick of writing blog posts or run dry of topics by then, I probably never would. The world is an infinite source of inspiration and insight; if you can’t find one interesting thing worth talking about every day, you’re not looking hard enough. Don’t get me wrong, though– writing it up in a meaningful way is still very real work.

3. Have you ever gone through periods where you’ve felt burned out on blogging or felt like you were in a writing slump? If so, what did you do to reinvigorate yourself?

I don’t think I’ve ever been burned out. I sometimes wish I could take a two or three week hiatus from writing for scheduling reasons. My wife is, shall we say “not fond” of the way my laptop is a constant companion with us on vacations so there’s not a long gap in blog posts.

On some level, the blog becomes a part of your personality, an expression of who you are and what you’re interested in. So then not writing blog posts feels unnatural, too. You can’t win.

4. How much time do you spend blogging per week? What percentage of your time do you spend researching vs. writing vs. reading & responding to comments? Do you have a particular schedule you follow?

Considering I am writing this response at 4:23 am, I can assure you that I am not the person you want to ask about scheduling in any way, shape, or form. I’d say as a rough guesstimate that I spend about 3 hours every day on the blog, so perhaps 21 hours a week on average. Sometimes more, sometimes less.

5. Do you ever set subscriber goals for yourself? Do you think that you can scale yourself in terms of comments if you were to double or triple your current subscriber base? Do you always read all of your comments?

I don’t think subscriber goals are helpful. You should have one goal: write to satisfy yourself first and foremost, otherwise you’ll quickly burn out. If you’re even the slightest bit self aware you’ll inevitably be your own worst critic anyway, so if you can satisfy yourself, you’re doing better than most. The audience will come when it comes.

I always read every comment, absolutely. If someone is going to invest the time to post their thoughts on my blog, I can at the very least return the favor by reading their comment. Some of my best blog post ideas come from comments. It’s an open secret in the blogging world that the comments are the best parts of any blog, so ignore comments at your peril. I’d no sooner want a blog without comments than I would want Amazon sans user reviews. They’re incredibly useful.

There is a “web gardening” aspect to comments, where you have to weed out (literally) the occasional evil. A flat, linear list of comments– although pleasingly simple– doesn’t always scale to very large communities, either, and I fear Coding Horror is getting close to that point. The gardening tax gets pretty high as the community grows. I may need industrial farming equipment, and government subsidies. We’ll see.

6. Who has been the most influential blogger for you? In your opinion, what are some of the key differentiators between technical blogs that are just good versus those that are great?

I’d definitely have to cite Joel on Software as one of the key “just one of us programmers” guys out there blazing a trail for quality writing about software engineering and small business since the dark days of 2000. Every technical blogger finds Joel at some point early in their career and takes something from that well, simply because I think he was one of the first to do it really well.

But beyond that, there are so many influences. I love the diversity of the internet, the many voices, the fact that strong writing from any blog is every bit as good writing from one of the anointed “influential” bloggers. I’m constantly stumbling across blogs (not to name drop, but like yours, for example) that pair excellent writing and strong insight. They’re all influences, including you. It’s a two-way street.

That’s one reason why I’m reluctant to maintain a “blogroll”. The world is a big place, and there are lots of smart, interesting people in it. I’d rather people blaze their own trail and discover what they find interesting rather than relying on my recommendations. And then share what they found with the rest of us, of course.

It might be unfair for me to comment on what makes a good vs. great blog. I’m like one of those people you see on television advertising weight loss pills. Look at me, I lost 200 pounds in three months! And then there’s that little teeny-tiny asterisk: results not typical. My results from blogging, I think, are not typical. I wish they were, because I desperately want everyone else to have the same level of success that I have had with my blog.

Once again, I want to thank Jeff for taking time out of his busy schedule to do this.

11 Comments

  1. Max Pool March 25, 2008 4:02 pm 

    Great interview Russ! Keep up the good work!

  2. Fervent Coder March 25, 2008 10:00 pm 

    Awesome! Another great question would have been how to handle an identity shift for your blog (or web presence). Have you ever experienced this with the early days of Coding Horror? Do you change the blog or start a new one? This is the primary identity and would mean stopping one to start the other. In this case it is not something I consider an alter ego.

    FakePlasticRock.com is something I would consider an alter ego to codinghorror.com.

    I recently (today) switched my identity to something more fitting. Being the RobLog didn’t really convey what I am excited about and what my web presence is all about. Being Robz is still something I see happening, but in the interim I feel the shift will be slightly difficult. Who knows? I may be pleasantly surprised and find it is flawless.

  3. Chaitanya MSV March 25, 2008 10:55 pm 

    Nice interview. Thanks for posting.

  4. Catto March 26, 2008 8:54 am 

    Hey Now Coder,
    e4, That was really oustanding. Coding Horror is my favorite blog & that is how I first visited your blog. I really enjoyed the interview & thought it’s a great concept.
    Thx 4 the info,
    Catto

  5. Russell Ball March 27, 2008 8:33 pm 

    @Fervent Coder (Rob) – You may want to ask Max from codesqueeze for some advice. He’s very knowledgeable about internet marketing and would probably have some advice for you.

  6. Adam Kahtava April 3, 2008 7:36 am 

    Great post! Interesting interview.

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