Stop thinking that you are such an incredibly wide-ranging thinker with so many interests and insights that you cannot be pinned down to just one topic. The top bloggers are all wide-ranging thinkers. That’s why they are interesting. The more information and angles you can draw from, the more interesting your insights are.

I challenge you to think of a popular blogger who lacks focus on their blog.

In the history of writing, everything has a focus. It’s a contract you have with the reader. You stay within the bounds of the reader’s expectations, and if you do that, you can write surprises that seem to stray from your topic, and the reader stays with you. Because surprises are fun. But if there’s no contract because there is no focus, then there are no surprises. Every great piece of writing works this way.

Think about it: Canterbury Tales. The topic is getting to the end of the trip. Or Moby Dick. Melville can write about everything—God, the American dream, fishing boats, marriage, mental illness—and he gets away with it because his topic is totally solid: Nailing the whale.

I challenge you to find a great piece of writing with no topic.

Even columnists stick to their focus. It’s part of the fun. When you audition for a print-based column, you submit ten sample columns to show that you can be interesting in a variety of ways while still sticking to the main topic. Because it’s hard to do.

You can write about any topic, but you have to link it to your focus. Look at my howto posts. Most of them are only tangentially about how to do some career thing. Most of them are actually about something else. That’s why they are interesting.

Look my blog: Do you need me to tell you to use bullets instead of paragraphs on your resume? No. Do you need me to tell you to stand up when you do a phone interview? No. Because there are 400 other writers who will tell you that. So I need to do something else.

But I can only get you to read me if you come knowing what you expect. So I always relate what I’m writing to careers. Sometimes, it’s easy. I knew I wanted to write about my bed bug trauma. And I knew, quickly, that it was also about financial stress, which is, of course, a topic that’s fair-game in the career world.

Sometimes you just need a little patience: I knew for years that I wanted to write about abortion. I listen to Brick, by Ben Folds 5 all the time, and I love his contribution to the discussion about abortion. I wanted to make a contribution like his, but I couldn’t relate it to careers. Until I could. And then I wrote it.

Please do not tell me that you are just going to write whatever you want and you don’t care who reads it, or if anyone reads it. You are lying to yourself. Of course you care. We each have a limited amount of time in our lives, and blogging takes some of that time. Your blog is not your journal. Believe me. I know. I”?ve been keeping a journal since I was five. I have seventy-five volumes of handwritten journals, and it is totally different than blogging because it’s not public. The nature of a blog is that you are choosing to write publicly, so it is, by definition, for other people to read.

So, show some respect for people and pick a topic.

Also, show some respect for yourself. There are so many benefits you earn from blogging that do not require tons of pageviews. Here’s a list of them. Mostly, the list is driven by being known for what you are good at. But for that to work you need to know what you’re aiming for. What do you want people to know you for? Where do you want to go next? Answering those two questions is what will inform your blog topic and give you the focus for your blog.

Don’t tell me you can’t decide. Everyone knows where they want to go next. Even if it’s probably wrong, you know, right now, where you’re leaning. So write to that. Sure, it might change, but you need to commit to something, right now. Each day you have to wake up and do something. So you have to guess where to aim. We are all just guessing. Make your best guess and keep going in that direction until you find something else. And your blog is an expression of that commitment to yourself to have direction, even as you doubt it.

117 replies
Newer Comments »
  1. Chuck
    Chuck says:

    The best thing about blogs without topics is that they lead to blogs with topics.

    It’s easy to pick wrong; you talk all the time about how bad we are at knowing what we’ll like. So begin writing, get the clutter out of your head, and soon you’ll hone in on what really interests you. It’s an easy step from there to name that thing in a way that gets some attention.

  2. Nestor
    Nestor says:

    That depends on whether your blog is to be successful with it or not. If the blog is an utilitary means, then you’re right. If it’s for friends and/or fun, not. But I guess you talk about the first type I mentioned.

    I think you’re pretty much right and I have decided to drive all the posts from one category to a more specialised blog. Just for the sake of clarity. Maybe I can make something useful out of this specialised blog, and leave my reflexions about everything for my trash blog.

    Greets

    PS: hell it’s funny how much identified I felt, in fact I never comment but now I felt I had to !

  3. C.J.
    C.J. says:

    “Please do not tell me that you are just going to write whatever you want and you don't care who reads it, or if anyone reads it. ”

    Exactly right. If you say that you don’t care who reads it then then nobody will read it. Then you will get depressed that nobody reads it and you will stop writing. So saying this is saying that you don’t really want to write.
    Look, nobody wants to stand next to the guy at the party who’s just rambling incoherently. The most popular person at a part is the one who can tell the great story, and even relate it.

  4. Vicki
    Vicki says:

    Good post. I’ve been struggling with this ever since I started my blog almost a year ago and I think I’ve found a niche. For me, the hardest part is switching from personal to professional topics, particularly because I blog under my own Googlable name, even though, as you point out, you don’t necessarily need to shield the two from each other.

  5. John
    John says:

    “I challenge you to think of a popular blogger who lacks focus on their blog.”

    Scott Adams. It’s called “The Dilbert Blog”, but he only talks about Dilbert 2-3% of the time.

    I challenge you to find a great piece of writing with no topic.

    Napoleon Dynamite? Well not many people would agree with that one, even though I enjoyed it. Robert Fulghum wrote a collection of essays with no particular focus. HHGTTG came close, especially in the last book.

  6. J (the regular poster one)
    J (the regular poster one) says:

    I haven’t thought of Brick in forever. I’ve always loved that song too. Thanks P.

  7. Grace
    Grace says:

    Scott Adams has a topic. The topic is “Scott Adams” and he has a devoted following that just want to read whatever he finds interesting at the time. When you become really famous for something OTHER than your blog, you too can start to write about nothing and have people read your posts. However, an unfocused blog will not send you to superstardom.

    • John
      John says:

      I wasn’t saying that his blog made him famous. I just said that people continued to read his blog, even though it didn’t have a topic. The blog’s connection to a minor celebrity may bring people there in the first place, but I don’t think it’s enough to keep people reading.

  8. Ann
    Ann says:

    Blogs are most interesting, I think, when they have a couple of topics that collide in interesting ways.

    Your blog is about career strategy, but also about a pretty interesting person – Penelope Trunk.

    The Other End of the Leash is about animal behavior, but also about farm life in southern wisconsin.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh. I think that’s totally true – about the collision. I always hope that each blog post is a collision of some sort (in a good way :)

      Sometimes I think about, why do I love Michael Arrington so much? He basically writes about companies that I will never care about (well, until he wrote about Brazen Careerist — that was a good one!) But anyway, I love Arrington because he adds tidbits that are off-topic that become on-topic when he writes. It’s fun to watch the collision.

      Penelope

  9. jrandom42
    jrandom42 says:

    So, the weekly series dealing with Asperger is only a two part series? Disappointment doesn’t begin to cover it, after waiting a year and 10 months for you to say anything about it.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      For the last week my blog has received hundreds of thousands of visitors because of the miscarriage tweet.

      I decided that a series of posts about Aspergers was a bad way to introduce those people to the blog: Bad slant for the blog and the miscarriage conversation.

      So I have a couple of other Asperger posts. They will have to come a little later.

      Penelope

  10. Cesar in LA
    Cesar in LA says:

    Big P,

    I follow your blog because I hear a voice that is intelligent, honest and sometimes flawed. You have the courage to show your humanness/duality/uniqueness.

    -THAT DARLIN TAKES CAJONES ! ! !

    So, Big P, keep on keeping on…

    Oh, and if I simply wanted interview/career advice folks I could easily get that from any basic ABC book/blog/blah,blah,blah…

    Best,

    Cesar in LA

    • Neville
      Neville says:

      Yep. Can you imagine the cajones it takes to go on the Jerry Springer show and REALLY make an ass of yourself?!?

  11. Donna
    Donna says:

    Oh goodie, the miscarriage “conversation” (as you put it) was so much fun…can’t wait for the rest of the Asperger’s series. It should be a real barn-burner.

  12. LPC
    LPC says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I only recently realized that my readers wanted me to write a style blog. Now, it’s not a how to wear what’s on the runways, or how to find blue shoes at a thrift store blog. It’s a High WASP style blog. I figured it out when I realized the biggest search term bringing people to me was, “What shoes to wear with navy blue…” Turns out my upbringing left me with some valuable information. I, of course, also want to talk about the meaning of life. So I do that. I figure it’s a bargain. I will tell my readers what I know about how to be appropriate, they can indulge me in my occasional rapture. The focus has been both liberating and a tough task master. Lots more work when you find you want to actually deliver value, not just say what you thought of five minutes ago.

    • Diana
      Diana says:

      Thanks, LPC, for that link to cool…
      "Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing." Benjamin Franklin

      The best bloggers do both.

      @P Thanks for reminding me why I started blogging in the first place.

  13. Anna
    Anna says:

    Yep – pick a topic and don’t mix and match unrelated stuff. Asperger and career and what to wear have a common theme – but so many of these Blogger Hero types mix and match work stuff, Pro Whatever Application Usage Hints, something else, something other else, and their family or kid stuff. Umm – how about create different blogs, when the users who are interested in the pro whatever stuff aren’t going to be interested in the family stuff…

  14. Dan
    Dan says:

    Your blog lacks focus, is it a career blog, a personal reflection blog, a train wreck blog, a therapy blog?

    One never knows for sure. Strange advice given this is the pot calling the kettle black. One who wants career advice knows that this is not the best place to go, but if one wants advice on a life falling apart, a marriage going bad, or treating babies like chop liver to be aborted, then sign me up!

    • Jacqueline
      Jacqueline says:

      “if one wants advice on a life falling apart, a marriage going bad, or treating babies like chop liver to be aborted, then sign me up!”

      So why do you spend so much time here, Dan? Got plans for all that in your future? Or are you just an obnoxious jerk?

      • Dan
        Dan says:

        I stumbled here via mistake from yahoo finance. “I am whatever you say I am, if I wasn’t, then why would you say I am.”

        Just telling it like it is.

    • STEPHANIE
      STEPHANIE says:

      I’ve read this blog for a while and its one of my favorites. All blogs have a topic even if they’re nothing more than a rambling stream of status updates. They’re written for the same reason they’re read…a glimpse into the thouhts of others and how they view the world. IF YOU DON’T LIKE THE BLOG
      OR THE TOPIC, DON’T READ IT!
      To others, my blog really stinks….the posts random and chaotic as my mind (a reason for the topic lists by the way) but my blog was created for me…..not for you, as the header plainly states. You do it your way…I’ll do it mine, and let’s refrain from bashing others’ because we don’t like the layout or style they choose to use or the topic or thought they decide to post that day.
      ST

  15. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Very good post. I like the link to Click and Clack – good diversity and humor – similar to this blog.

  16. Nisha
    Nisha says:

    I agree with your general point — my question now is: what sparked this post? You clearly had someone or some blog in mind when you wrote this. I’m interested in what blog you’re secretly hating on enough to write this post…

  17. Kirk in Indy
    Kirk in Indy says:

    Reading a blog by my favorite blogger about writing blogs.
    Hmmm, think I’ll tweet that…  @EASTeam

    People can say what they say, think what they think, right or wrong, whatever. What cannot be denied is talent. You take blogging to another level. For this, I am grateful.

  18. saad
    saad says:

    Wow, great timing for this post, or specifically the link to “stand up during a phone interview” – I have one in two days and I’m thinking, what do I do? make sure phone is charged, have notes in front of me, aaahhhh!

  19. Vincent
    Vincent says:

    I think theme is a better word than topic. I’ve had three themed blogs: my personal blog on myself, a food/retail blog, and a technology/business blog. Topics were what individual blog posts ended up being about, e.g. a wedding, a restaurant, why I like Ms. Trunk’s blog. Sorry to nit-pick.

  20. Don
    Don says:

    And the topic of this blog was topics? I have always thought this blog was just Penelope being Penelope and how career and life are all in the same pie pan.

  21. Dale
    Dale says:

    Penny,

    This was one of your more informative and revealing posts. It wasn’t sensational in the sense that you shocked anyone or ruffled feathers. It is most valuable to me because of the collision of the idea that to have a successful career, you need focus. Just as it is needed for a blog post.
    Thanks for repeating this valuable insight.
    I’m surprised you didn’t get more comments, but then not really.

    You really need a broadcast outlet for pursuing your career goals. I hope you are seeking to put that between your personal crosshairs:)

  22. Suzy
    Suzy says:

    You are right! Your blogs are a collison of some sort and in a good way. I love your topics, connections, honesty and insight.

  23. Party Girl
    Party Girl says:

    I only blog about one topic over on mine because that is all the focus I want my blog to be about. But also I think all readers have time for instead of just scattered posts about random topics.

  24. Monicarolevans
    Monicarolevans says:

    Somehow I feel that I’ve been chastised.

    When I set out writing Life in the Middle Lane, I meant for it to be a summer project to keep my friends and I entertained while I was away. It’s been over a year, and the blog has changes somewhat…but I couldn’t honestly say that I have a solid topic- other than myself as I muddle my way through life.

    Your post gave me some food for thought.

  25. Jim
    Jim says:

    There’s a creative tension between what a blogger wants to write on and what people want to read. But it certainly helps if you choose topics on which you’re passionate or have strong opinions. What I’ve learned is to speak with your own voice and to be authentic. Readers can smell a phoney a mile away.

  26. Mitch Wagner
    Mitch Wagner says:

    I’ve been struggling with this one myself.

    When I launched my Copper Robot interview program in January, my goal was to simply do one interview every two weeks about a subject I’m interested in. I’ve had you, Penelope, on, to talk about careers. I’ve talked about robots in the military, same-sex marriage, the economy, and interviewed a couple of my favorite science-fiction writers.

    I’m thinking that, to broaden the audience I might have to narrow the focus. But if I narrow the focus, I risk turning the show into something I’m no longer interested in doing. And since I’m not getting any money for it, if the show becomes less interesting, I’m just not going to want to do it.

    Any suggestions?

    Maybe the interview format inherently gives the program a focus, and I don’t have to worry about focusing the subject matter. My role model going into this was programs like Fresh Air and Charlie Rose, and they interview a broad range of people from business, politics, and the arts. Likewise, I also admire CBS News Sunday Morning, The Daily Show, Boing Boing, and of course This American Life, and they go all over the place. Maybe *tone* and *format* can focus a blog–or podcast, or video program–making a subject-matter focus unnecessary.

    Personal blogs are inherently focused in subject matter–they work best when the person doing the blog has a single role in life, and views everything through that filter. Heather Armstrong is a young mother of young children, and when she talks about politics or music, she’s a mommyblogger talking about politics or music. Same thing for Daring Fireball: He’s a Mac developer and enthusiast, and when he talks about Stanley Kubrick or baseball, he’s a Mac developer/enthusiast, etc.

    • Liddy
      Liddy says:

      Thanks for the link Sherlock. This is my opinion of the blindly worshipped Miss Trunk:

      She is exactly like a car accident – so horrible you can’t help but look to see how mangled the next body is that they pull out of the wreckage. I have been to this site several times over the last few months and each time I think “why should I take anything this woman writes seriously? What credentials does she have to give me advice about anything except how to live a life full of drama?” Most normal people out in the real world, not cyberspace, dislike people who’s lives are all drama or smoke and mirrors. People connect and relate to people who are genuine, honest, willing to put forth real effort to make something of their lives, caring and empathetic without being a pushover – people who are real. I don’t understand at all the pedestal people like her are put on like they should be emulated. Are employers and customers/clients (if you own your own business) really looking to employ/do business with people who are all flash and no substance? If that’s the way it’s going – personal brand is everything, even over actual skills, intelligence, work ethic – then I’m in trouble and shouldn’t hope for sucess or financial rewards. If Gen Y and the generation behind them are going to advance their careers and eventually run the working world based on who can craft the best comic book character persona and BS their way to money and success without actually providing anything else of value in this country, I’m moving to a primitive tribe in the jungle and live with the real people, not the cyberspace generated cardboard cut-outs.

      Bye Trunk, good luck converting the masses into drones of bad behavior. When you’re done being their pseudo-god they will all be ready to drink the Kool-Aid so don’t sweat about the flavor you pick.

      • Stephanie
        Stephanie says:

        ******
        Regarding the post by Liddy on 10/08/2009

        “I have been to this site several times over the last few months…..” reminds me of a troll who travels through chat rooms to find ways to cause controversy and start drama.

        IF YOU DON’T LIKE THE BLOG OR ITS POSTS, DON’T READ THEM.
        ******

        “…and each time I think “why should I take anything this woman writes seriously? What credentials does she have to give me advice about anything except how to live a life full of drama?””

        Your post, along with your numerous visits and current presence (along with the flaming posts Of others), only serve to increase readership of the blog you mock, if for no other reason than to view responses, such as this, of those that love the blog.
        ******

        Difference of opinion and tastes aside, your intellectual snobbery, and attempt to make the readers of this particular blog appear foolish…sheep following where they’re led…only cause you appear childish and petty.

        AGAIN:

        IF YOU DON’T LIKE THE BLOG OR THE POSTS, DON’T READ THEM.
        ******

        In response to:

        “…..advance their careers and eventually run the working world based on who can craft the best comic book character (personality?) persona (let’s not forget kissing the right back-side) and BS their way to money and success without actually providing anything else of value in this country,” (parenthesis mine)….

        I agree (shocking isn’t it)….you should have moved to that primitive tribe the minute you were allowed to travel on your own. ….(and if you have a DEFINITION of REAL PEOPLE, I’d love to hear it…).

        Read Atlas Shrugged? (Ayn Rand; 1957)

        It’s been a known fact that the world’s been headed in the direction you describe since before the beginning of the last century, not just with Gen Y….

        In society and in business, strength of character, ethics, and hard work alone mean nothing…charisma and the “personality ethic” (phrase borrowed from Stephen Covey, 1989) are necessary prerequisites to popularity, success, and professional promotion…of which I, unfortunately (or fortunately?) lack.

        Since the beginning of time, those with charismatic personalities and good PR have achieved success, “borrowing” the produce of those with real intelligence, and riding on the backs of those doing the real labor that runs the world.

        But this is more off topic than the topic of the original posts’ topic.
        ******

        A short end to a (much too) long post, I’ve followed, and enjoyed, this blog for a long while.

        The posts I don’t relate to, I don’t read.

        Although I don’t particularly enjoy this post, I LOVE THE BLOG AND AM A FAN OF IT’S WRITER.

        While not a particular fan of yours (given the tone and presentation of your post), I RESPECT YOUR RIGHT TO HAVE YOUR OWN OPINION, although I don’t agree with it.
        *****

        (I could make a very funny observation about opinions, but I’ll refrain, due to your seeming distaste of anything humorous – in your opinion – (there’s that word again), frivolous, and/or unnecessary, I’ll leave it out…..)

        ST

  27. Chris Coyier
    Chris Coyier says:

    It is definitly rare to have a popular blog without a fairly narrow focus (I think Jason Kottke is the one example I can think of being popular without focus).

    When it does happen, it’s because the person has been around forever or is already popular in some other way. So even rarer is to be able to start a NEW blog and have any success without focus.

  28. Ayrton D'Silva
    Ayrton D'Silva says:

    I agree with the focus part and the most inspiring example is Penelope’s blog. While other career advisors give “vanilla” advice, you have covered abortion, miscarriage, dating, relationships – at first one might think now how does that relate to careers? Then again all of our lives impact careers.
    Also, the blog is at the “intersection” of life and work – so pat!
    What makes this blog so inspiring is that through all of life’s trouble how we can make our life’s work stand out.
    Thanks for the great blog – I was inspired to start my blog “on the brink of life and love” and focused on writing for women.
    I look forward to more from you!

  29. Sid
    Sid says:

    Thanks for your ur all information. i was trying to find the that kind of information to start before my website blog.
    I have website related to Freshers Job, Student jobs, Graduate Jobs, under-graduate jobs.

  30. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I agree! I love reading blogs, and I’m a bit of an online stalker. I like to see what random people are doing in random places, but I do get bored so easily of blogs that are like a stream of thought and random.

    It may not be a specific topic, but it needs to make sense and feel intuitive as I explore it.

    P.S. I’m surprised by the amount of flack this post has gotten. Why is it so offensive to say that you need a topic when you write something??? Have we ever been taught otherwise? Even writing in a private journal serves the purpose of finding out the causes of your emotions and views on life.

    MissMentor

  31. Playstead
    Playstead says:

    This exact post is something that I’ve been wrestling with for a few months. I know guys that deal with my subject are dealing with all kinds of other stuff as well. The problem is coming up with a flexible enough topic (theme) that allows you to write about different things. Like the career theme — you can write about the office, getting a job, family, style, funny stories, money, commuting, shitty bosses … that’s the key. Finding a broad enough topic and writing around it.

  32. Phil
    Phil says:

    Your overall point is good. But Canterbury Tales isn’t about the journey – he doesn’t get them there, and he doesn’t provide the promised number of tales. It really is just about the stories they tell. You could say it is based on the “topic” of “medieval English society” (or even more broadly “human nature”) as a satire. So it does have a topic. And I think your point is valid. But it would be nice to see accurate data pointing to that conclusion.

  33. econobiker
    econobiker says:

    Who ghost wrote this blog posting for Penelope Trunk’s bloggerstisment? Since it covered nothing crude,crass, or related to her personal observations, it could not have been Penelope Trunk.

  34. Godfrey Coppinger
    Godfrey Coppinger says:

    Thank you! I just started a blog last week. It is focused at the moment because I am preparing to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I have many interests, but most of them revolve around creativity of some kind – writing, storytelling, painting and music. So, I suppose, creativity, using ones creative potential in all areas of ones life is my focus. I keep changing the name of the blog. But it’s only a week old. There’s time.

    Thanks again for your insight.

  35. Nathan
    Nathan says:

    This post meant a lot to me. I started my blog to get myself in the habit of fleshing out my thoughts instead of letting them die in my head. I used the social pressure that comes from it being public to force myself to write 1) often, and 2) the best I can.

    I struggled with the “what’s my blog about” question for awhile. Eventually, I even wrote a post about it (indirectly). http://thisisnathansblog.blogspot.com/2009/09/why-must-my-interests-define-me.html

    I didn’t want to pin myself down, it was scary. I rationalized it by arguing to myself that I didn’t care if people read it, but clearly I was wrong. Why else would I obsessively check Google Analytics and Feedburner?

    I still don’t agree with the Gary Vaynerchuk’s of the world who think it’s natural for human beings to have obsessions for random niche things. Most people are pretty typical, and resist narrowly defining themselves.

    Here’s what made me realize it’s OK to limit the focus of my blog: great writing often results when the author sets a topic and then breaks the whole thing wide open. You are right: Moby Dick was about a whale.

  36. Van
    Van says:

    Thank you for this post. I’ll re-visit it every time I’m tempted to go off track with my personal blog.

    I maintain 2 blogs for work which ALWAYS stick to one subject. The “personal blog” had a theme, but I went off track and the space became more like a personal journal- not my intention. After I read this post I’ve kept my blog on track. The writing has improved, and so has the quality of the feedback.

  37. Hairka
    Hairka says:

    I have always wanted to write, and I have never felt so connected with a blog. So much so that I have covered about 80% of your blog in what must be a week (not in a creepy way). You’re right about having to focus on a topic. But how long is too long is my question. And is there a specific procedure for me to go in that direction? (Like ask myself legit questions/Write a list of things I THINK I could blog about etc)

    Thanks
    -H

  38. diabkoxp546
    diabkoxp546 says:

    So I just got a letter from my girl friend that she has been cheating on me with another guy!!! So like any upset boy friend I have decided to download every sexy clip I have of her to the net. I have uploaded the pics here: http://www.GF4Free.com/
    Just search for sexyerica344, enjoy!

Newer Comments »

Comments are closed.