Phoenix Writing Clinic: What to Expect

As a story wrangler on the editorial team at Automattic, I read a lot of writing published on WordPress.com, discover new blogs and bloggers every day, and am always looking for great posts to feature on Freshly Pressed, The Daily Post, Hot Off the Press, Longreads, and our new, soon-to-launch destination site called Discover.

At Press Publish Phoenix, I’ll be leading a one-hour session called Writing 201: Clinic, where I’ll talk a bit about what makes a great post and what catches my eye, and then open up the discussion to conference attendees who have specific questions about their writing or would like feedback on a particular piece, whether previously published or not.

The bulk of this session focuses on sharing storytelling and self-editing tips and offering peer-to-peer feedback with one another, pulling from our own writing experiences as well as the ideas and techniques from our Writing 201: Finding Your Story workshop-style course on Blogging U. If you’re interested in attending this workshop, you’ll benefit the most if you come to the session with a draft in hand or in your dashboard — but please note that this isn’t mandatory, and all are free to attend, listen, and ask questions.

For those looking for concrete feedback, you’re welcome to share a piece of writing in advance and drop a post URL below in the comments section now. I’ll select a few examples that we can talk about together as a group. I’ll also have a piece or two on hand to discuss if the group is more interested in observing and talking about other examples of writing.

Looking forward to meeting you and chatting about writing!

Come to the Writing Clinic in Portland and Get Some Feedback!

Mark and MikeLongreads founder Mark Armstrong and I will be leading a one-hour writer’s workshop where we’ll be giving some tips and constructive criticism on how to improve your writing.

The two of us have spent several years editing writers with a wide range of experience, and here’s your chance to get some one-on-one time with us. Having a second pair of eyes on your work will help you become a better writer. No writer is perfect — the majority of your favorite writers have editors who make sure their copy is clean and that their work is structurally and narratively strong. We’ll do the same for you by looking at grammar, tone, style, introductions and endings, and how to write concisely and avoid meandering.

If you’re interested in attending this workshop, you’ll benefit the most by preparing some writing for us to look over and critique. Have a specific blog post ready for us to look at, or better yet, drop a post URL below in the comments section now so we can prepare some critiques in advance. We’ll also have a piece or two on hand to go over as examples if you’re more interested in observing.

Either way, we’re looking forward to seeing you and your work!

Who Inspires You?

When I started blogging at Wine Scamp, I had a number of topics in mind. I wanted to write about wines I was drinking, to encourage people to become their own wine authority, and to post about wineries I found interesting. But once I had written about most of those things (a couple times), I hit a bit of a wall. I was a little bored with my topics, I wasn’t getting many readers, and I couldn’t think of interesting new material. Argh!

I’m very glad that I didn’t just throw up my hands and quit blogging at that point. (Lots of people do.) Instead, I did a quick search for “wine blog” and started reading other people’s stuff. I commented on the articles I found interesting or funny. Sometimes a comment conversation would inspire me to write a post. The bloggers whose work I had commented on visited my blog and commented on my posts, too. I’d even make notes about types of articles that didn’t really engage me, and resolve to write about those subjects differently, or not at all.

The more I read other people’s work (like Vinography and Good Wine Under $20, for example), the more ideas I had percolating in my head. And the more I interacted on other people’s sites, the more visitors I had at my blog. I even started to make friends with other wine bloggers, which definitely made blogging more fun.

I don’t blog about wine as regularly as I used to, but reading other people’s work continues to inspire me. Reading the blogs by our fantastic Press Publish speakers (both Portland and Phoenix) has definitely inspired me to post more often on my personal (mostly photo) blog!

What bloggers do you read regularly? What sites inspire you to blog more?

 

On Blog Comments

Comments from readers are some of the most gratifying parts of blogging. Someone’s reading! Someone felt compelled to send a note!

Even more gratifying is when a lurker de-lurks and identifies him or herself. Those are times when I’ve re-read my post to see what on earth it was about THAT post that got someone to shed their anonymity, and introduce themselves.

It is very much like inviting guests into your home, and making a connection. And sometimes, making very good friends as they return repeatedly for your hospitality, and you in turn, invite them to return for their good grace.

So how do we make our home and blog inviting? And what it is that keeps people returning?

I’ve found that it’s about making your blog safe–and curating the comments, should people disagree and escalate disagreement into barbs. It’s starting a dialogue in your own post, and then facilitating the comments. It’s acknowledging their comments. Saying thank you. Common courtesies, even if you disagree, even if the commenter has hurt your feelings.

Chances are that if people have come around to write something on your blog post, their intentions are good. I’ve found (and maybe I’m wrong) that people tend to be more courteous on personal blogs than on larger sites, for instance Salon.com.

Do you enjoy your comments? What is the best comment you’ve ever had on your blog? What have you done to welcome comments?

Suggest questions for Portland’s Blog to Book panel

Do you ever dream of publishing a book? If so, you’re not alone — getting published is a dream shared by a lot of bloggers (including me!). So I’m especially jazzed to be moderating the From Blog to Book panel discussion planned for Press Publish Portland, considering how many of our featured bloggers either have already published books or have books coming out this year.

Jerry Mahoney, ready to sign his book
Here’s Jerry Mahoney, signing his book Mommy Man: How I Went From Mild-Mannered Geek to Gay Superdad.

Mary Laura Philpott, Cecilia Gunther, Jerry Mahoney, Christine Lee, and Ananda Leeke will join me on stage in Portland on Saturday, March 28 to talk about how each of them came to publish a book (or books) and how blogging influenced their journey to publication. From self-publishing to multiple book deals with major publishing labels, these bloggers will share about a lot of the ways books are born in this new age of print media.

I know I’m dying to ask these folks a bunch of things, but I want to know what you’re curious about, too! If you would like to suggest questions for the panel, please leave them in the comments — note that we won’t answer them here, we’ll save it for the panel discussion at the Portland event.

By the way, if you’re in or near Portland, tickets are still available for Press Publish, and they come with a WordPress.com Premium upgrade or VaultPress Backup Bundle — a $99 value!

Get your ticket!

And don’t forget to RSVP for the free Longreads Story Mixer on March 27, so we can make sure to have enough snacks and libations for everyone.

RSVP for the free mixer!

We can’t wait to see you soon at Press Publish!

Join us for a Longreads Story Mixer in Portland on March 27

We are very proud to host a Longreads story mixer in Portland!

Photo by Johannes Jansson/norden.org [CC BY 2.5 dk]
Photo by Johannes Jansson/norden.org [CC BY 2.5 dk]
In the evening of Friday, March 27, please join Press Publish and Longreads at the Embassy Suites for a free mixer, featuring stories from some of our favorite writers:

nathaniel-friedmanNathaniel Friedman (“Bethlehem Shoals”) is a writer living in Portland. He’s a founder of FreeDarko.com, the co-author of The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac and The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, and a regular contributor to GQ.com.

* * *

meaghanMeaghan O’Connell (author, “A Birth Story”) is a freelance writer and a columnist for New York Magazine’s The Cut. She just moved to Portland from Brooklyn, New York, and is working on a book of essays about new motherhood.

* * *

author photoNancy Rommelmann writes for The Wall Street Journal, the LA Weekly, the Los Angeles Times and other publications. She is the author of The Bad Mother, a novel, The Queens of Montague Street, a digital memoir of growing up in 1970s Brooklyn that was chosen as a Top 10 Longreads in 2012 and excerpted in The New York Times Magazine, and the story collection, Transportation. Destination Gacy, about her trip to interview serial killer John Wayne Gacy, was released as an ebook in 2014. She is currently at work on To the Bridge, the story of Amanda Stott-Smith, who threw her two young children from a bridge in Portland, Oregon. Her website is nancyrommelmann.com

* * *

aaron_scottAaron Scott recently started producing Oregon Public Broadcasting’s weekly arts and culture show, State of Wonder. Before joining OPB, he was a senior editor at Portland Monthly, orchestrating the magazine’s arts coverage and reporting narrative features. He has also filed award-winning stories for Out Magazine, Radiolab and This American Life. He has only told one story before a live audience, about his first relationship, which lasted a whole weekend in a D.C. hotel during a youth activism conference. Somehow, Ani DiFranco lyrics were involved.


The Longreads Story Mixer will be held on March 27 at the Embassy Suites in downtown Portland, OR at 319 SW Pine Street.

The event will open at 5:30 with snacks and libations, the storytelling will begin at 6:30pm, and the event will close at 8pm.

This mixer is free, but please RSVP so we’ll have enough libations and snacks for everyone.

RSVP for this free event!

What’s In a Blog Name? Picking the perfect title

When I started my blog, I was amazed at how quick and easy the setup process was… except for one big thing.

The title.

I stared at the blank title box on the signup form for what felt like hours. The title is the first thing people see when they come to your blog, and very often it’s the thing that makes them decide whether or not they want to visit at all. How do you convey your personality and point of view in one catchy, easy-to-remember moniker?

No pressure.

So I picked something I thought was clever. I called my gay dad blog, “Where Do Gaybies Come From?” I spent months writing provocative posts, promoting myself and building a following. And then I decided I couldn’t stand my title.

“Gaybies” is such a confusing and off-putting word, to so many people both gay and straight. It wasn’t clear to some readers who was gay — me or the kids. And the whole thing was so long and unwieldy. It was useless as a Twitter handle or hashtag, because it took up too many characters.

So I did the hardest thing I’ve done with my blog. I changed the title.

I liked my new title, “Mommy Man,” because it not only expressed my theme in two words, but it leant itself to a fun superhero graphic that would give my blog more of an identity. I was worried I’d lose readers, that I’d have to build up a whole new following or that people wouldn’t “get” the new title. Thankfully, the risk paid off. I put up a post announcing the change, then got back to writing exactly the same blog I always had, and my follower count continued to grow.

There’s still some confusion and a bit of controversy at times. Some people wonder if I’m selling gay dads short by suggesting we’re just mom wannabes… or on the flip side that I’m belittling what moms do by turning them into cartoons. Overall, though, most people who enjoy my blog get what I’m going for with the title, and the questions people occasionally ask add to the discussion I want my blog to promote.

So I’m sticking with Mommy Man… for now, at least.

I’d love to hear other people’s stories. How did you choose your blog title? Have you ever regretted it or changed it?

Speaker Spotlight: Mary Laura Philpott

Mary Laura PhilpottMary Laura Philpott has definitely not written every *single* word in the English language. Probably she hasn’t even written 80% of them — there are loads of words out there that just aren’t used that often — like “smaragd” and “stibnite” — so including them in your article isn’t necessarily a good idea (unless you’re writing about minerals).

That said, Mary Laura has written a lot of words in a lot of different combinations, sizes, and flavors. Articles, essays, book reviews, advertising copy, style guides, interviews, columns, blog posts, listicles, poems… she is prolific, and her publishing experience is robust. Also, she draws penguins in a very endearing way.

Mary Laura is the editor and producer of MUSING — the online literary magazine from Parnassus Books, the legendary independent bookshop in Nashville, TN. She’s also the co-author of Poetic Justice: Legal Humor in Verse, so it’s pretty clear she can see the humor in just about anything.

A rough sketch of a penguin holding a pen and a pad of paper
Or can they?

Lots of people get to enjoy Mary Laura’s sense of humor on her blog I Miss You When I Blink, which features her “on deadline, off topic” writing, including tips for ladypersons, interpretations of fashion ads, and our friends the Random Penguins, who have a book coming out. (A book about them. Not by them, by Mary Laura. To the best of my knowledge, penguins can’t write.)

So, that blog of hers? Well, it wasn’t always possible to connect Mary Laura Philpott, author and editor extraordinaire, with I Miss You When I Blink, because she started that blog anonymously as a side project. Do you want to hear the really interesting story of how she went from anonymous blog to many-professional-opportunities-plus-book-deal? Lucky for you, she’s agreed to tell you all about it at Press Publish Portand on March 28!

In the meantime, here’s your chance to get to know Mary Laura a little better by reading an interview:

Q. What made you start blogging on I Miss You When I Blink?

A. I started I Miss You When I Blink in 2012, right after finishing up a big project that had eaten my life for two years. I found myself with a bunch of time on my hands all of a sudden, and I didn’t want to immediately hand that time right over to another work project or volunteer endeavor. So really, I guess I started blogging as kind of a placeholder. It was a fun little side project that I thought might keep me occupied until I decided what I wanted my next big thing to be. Blogging wasn’t much of a stretch at the time — it was fun and easy. Writing is what I do naturally (and what I do for a living), and I’ve always enjoyed making people laugh, so a humor blog just made sense.

Q. What kept you (and still keeps you) posting regularly?

A. I Miss You When I Blink is a space for the things I create that don’t have a place anywhere else. That’s not to say it’s a place for my writing that’s not good enough to be somewhere else, or that I’m not editing and composing what I put there — I am — but it’s a good spot for more casual, more silly, sometimes more bizarre writing and illustration. Some days, I’ll work for a few hours on a professional project and then do another little bit of work on something else, and then I’ll work on something kooky for the blog and think, “Now this one’s just for me.”

a picture of a champagne cork dressed as a duchess
Cork, the Duchess of York.

If I were a painter instead of a writer, I guess it would be like coming home at the end of the day after painting a bunch of portraits and landscapes and doing a finger painting of a monster with five eyeballs. It’s fun to let loose a little bit. And because this site is entirely my own creation, I decide what goes in. Maybe one week, I write about something I read in a magazine, and another week, I post pictures of Champagne corks that I’ve dressed in tiny outfits.

Having a blog also takes the place of those really long email threads that used to go around, where you send something funny to a friend, and then they respond and forward it to more friends, and then before you know it, you have 100 emails in your inbox with “Fwd: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re:” as the subject line. With a blog, it’s all in one place, and it’s much easier to share and comment.

Q. What’s your most popular post? Is that also your favorite post? If not, what are a few of your favorite posts, and why?

A. The most popular posts on I Miss You When I Blink are the ones about fashion ads. I actually love fashion — I can get lost in an issue of Vogue for hours, and I love to dress up — so it’s not really that I’m saying, “Boooo on this industry.” I just love to take a moment and look at those ads literally, to imagine what they’d be telling us if they were part of an actual how-to guide for life. When you look at them that way, they’re just so hysterically bizarre. The most recent post on that theme, “How to Be a Ladyperson at the Holidays,” went a bit viral. I think it was shared on Facebook almost 100,000 times? The posts along those lines — or like this one, where I studied the J. Crew aesthetic — are among my own favorites, too.

Some of my other favorite posts resonate with smaller groups of readers, but are just as rewarding for me. As a lifelong reader and writer, I’ve always loved talking about books. I used to post little book reports on the blog about what I’d read lately, and those didn’t exactly go viral, but they did spark some really fun, nerdy conversation when they were shared. And eventually, those led me to start writing for outlets like the Barnes & Noble Book Blog and Book Riot, which then led me to what I’m doing now, which is editing and producing Musing, an online literary magazine for the indie bookstore Parnassus Books (which, of course, we built with WordPress.com). So in a way, those less popular posts are my favorites, because they helped me make a shift in my professional writing life that has been really fun and rewarding.

#PenguinsWithPeopleProblems
#PenguinsWithPeopleProblems

I very rarely write about my family, because my spouse is a much more private person than I am, and I also want to respect my kids’ privacy and let them tell their own stories whenever and however they’re ready. (Also, I just feel like there are so many people doing such a nice job writing about parenting already that I can’t see that there’s much for me to add on that topic.) But occasionally, I will post something family related. This was a favorite of mine, based on a weird experience we had in an elevator.

And then every now and then, I’ll just throw something together in the moment and post it purely because it makes me giggle, like this. And that’s actually how the little “random penguins” characters started out — just a one-time joke, which then become a recurring thing, and then a spin-off site of their own, and now a book, Penguins with People Problems. I love when a spontaneous thing like that grows legs.

Q. How have readers responded to your writing?

A. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how positive all the feedback is. I really love to make people laugh; so when someone comments that a post made them laugh or is the funniest thing they’ve seen all week, that’s music to my ears. I’m sure there are people who’d think the stuff I post on my blog is ridiculous, but I guess they aren’t looking. Or they aren’t commenting, in which case I appreciate their restraint.

There was a reader once who wrote, simply, “This is stupid.” That’s all. It was tucked in among a bunch of positive comments from other people, and it was so understated and simple, I just loved it. Now at the bookstore where I work, whenever someone does something that everyone’s fawning over and calling brilliant, one of my coworkers will deadpan, “This is stupid,” and it makes us chuckle. Not everything is going to please everyone. Frankly, I’m surprised whenever anyone I don’t know even notices that this blog exists.

Q. Is there anything you’re hoping to share with the Press Publish audience? Is there anything you’re hoping to learn at Press Publish?

A. Well, I’m happy to share any experiences I’ve had, to the extent that they might be helpful, or at least entertaining. I’m also looking forward to seeing what other people are doing. There’s some great undiscovered talent out there. It’s so fun, when you’re just wading through the muck online, to stumble upon something brilliant or hilarious. And oh yes, there’s plenty I’d like to learn. I manage a few different WordPress sites, and I’m sure there are lots of things I’m doing wrong, plus cool features I have no clue about. I’m bringing a list of questions for the Happiness Engineers. Thanks for having me!


Want to see Mary Laura speak at Press Publish Portland on March 28? Get your ticket!

Rules are Made to be Broken

In the weeks after my blog first went viral, I had no idea what to do next. It’s a strange sensation — looking at your blog’s statistics, seeing the traffic climb higher and higher, and wondering what to do about all of it. I googled phrases like “Tips for a Successful Blog,” and took careful notes, ignoring the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. So much of the advice out there is common-sense, and one of the biggest “golden rules” seems to be: narrow down the focus of your blog. Keep your blog clear, direct, and specific.

It’s great advice. And continues to be great advice. Only problem is: I completely ignored it. 

The most popular post I have ever written, by far, was a semi-drunken rant in which I used the f-bomb fourteen times and encourage everyone to fart more. It’s pretty funny, and I’m proud of it.

My second-most-popular post was about racism in America and the events in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s not at all funny, and it grapples with extremely challenging and deeply sensitive issues. I am also pretty proud of it.

In between, I’ve blogged about anything from fashion and boyfriends to social justice issues and depression. I’ve experimented with format — some posts are almost entirely pictures and images, while others are lengthy three-thousand-word affairs. It makes my blog difficult to categorize — am I a humor blogger? A feminist advocate? A graphic designer? A satirist? A memoirist?

To be honest, I think in some ways I am all of those things, and I’m so grateful that my blog can be a platform for my voice, no matter what forms that takes on any given day. Maybe it’s just that I was a really straight-laced, rule-oriented kid and this is my adult act of rebellion, but sometimes … I think rules are made to be broken.

Weigh in! Have you ever ignored or broken a rule about blogging? 

Speaker Spotlight: Christine Lee

Christine H. LeeTo say Christine is a veteran blogger is an understatement. She’s had a website since 1993, and has been blogging since before WordPress — heck, since before the term “blog” was coined! With more than 20 years of online writing under her belt, Christine says, “Blogging kept me writing.”

Christine’s experience of interacting with the community built online is unique. In 2006, she started a blog under a pseudonym.  A few months later, at the age of 33, she suffered a stroke. She didn’t recognize her symptoms as a stroke, but she knew something was off. A few days later, she wrote:

something in my brain burped. most of what i want to do is just out of my grasp. i feel like i know how to do them, but then when i go to do them, i just…CAN’T. day by day, i’m regaining my abilities, so i hope this is just temporary.

Her readers urged her to seek medical attention, in comments on the post as well as — for the few readers who knew her personally — in emails. A day later, she commented from her hospital bed:

I had a stroke! Will be better.

She continued to blog at jadepark.wordpress.com through her stroke recovery, for the next two years. Throughout her blogging, she maintained that close relationship with her commenters.

Eight years after her stroke, Christine wrote an inspirational personal essay on BuzzFeed, and that post went viral. Again, commenters reached out — this time in overwhelming numbers, creating — notice a theme here? — yet more connections. In a post about the essay going viral, she wrote:

When I was going through stroke recovery, I felt incredibly alone. Each stroke is unique, so that just furthers the isolation. And while recovering, I basically sat shiva for the person I lost, unready to face the person I’d become. So if this piece eases that solitary for others, I’m so happy.

Christine recently signed a deal with Ecco Press, an imprint of Harper Collins, to publish two books: WHOLE, based on her BuzzFeed essay, chronicling the debilitating stroke she suffered at the age of 33 and her subsequent transformation; and THE GOLEM OF SEOUL, which follows two Korean immigrants in 1970s New York City in search of a lost relative who take a cue from Jewish mythology and make a golem from Korean soil. We’re so happy for her!

Christine will be speaking at Press Publish Portland on March 28, delivering a talk entitled “Comments Saved my Life.” (Tickets are now only $150get yours today!)

Get to know Christine a little bit better by reading the traditional Speaker Spotlight interview:

photograph by Kristyn Stroble
photograph by Kristyn Stroble

Q. What made you start blogging at jadepark.wordpress.com?

A. While my current main WordPress blog is part of my author website, and relatively new, and I had a blog before that at czilka.wordpress.com, I’ll define my main blog as jadepark.wordpress.com, where I blogged anonymously in the wake of my stroke. I started blogging at “Writing Under a Pseudonym” as a place where I could write without judgment, without high stakes, and where I could chronicle my recovery. I didn’t have an agenda other than it be a semi-private space where I could be honest and frank and speak my mind in the wake of trauma.

Q. What kept you (and still keeps you) posting regularly?

A. Engagement with my readership. The writing. There’s twitter, but I’ve always blogged, because it’s the blog where I feel I have more liberty. Also, my blog is key to refining my voice as a writer, especially with my nonfiction.

Q. What’s your most popular post? Is that also your favorite post? If not, what are a few of your favorite posts, and why?

A. When I first had my stroke, I put up a blog post. It was an aphasia-ridden nonsensical post, and it was a very short post. It has since become my most popular post—and in a sense, it is also my favorite. In so many ways, it is genuine, because I lost the ability to organize thoughts and filter information.

Q. How have readers responded to your writing?

A. The response to my writing has been phenomenal. I have made lifelong friends from my blog once I came out from behind the curtain—and it has driven so much support for my narrative.

Q. Is there anything you’re hoping to share with the Press Publish audience? Is there anything you’re hoping to learn at Press Publish?

A. Well–! I’ve got a literary agent now, and I’m writing a memoir about my stroke. Jade Park; Writing Under a Pseudonym has been an invaluable resource as I write my book, because my memory was very affected in the wake of the stroke. That I wrote everything down has been helpful in recovering facts. At Press Publish, I just hope to connect with others, and promote blogging.

Come see Christine speak in Portland on March 28!

Get your ticket!