Five years ago, just before the 2012 London Olympics, I started a casual blog to keep my friends updated on my coaching adventures abroad and document my experience at the Olympic Games. To my surprise, “TheFencingCoach.com” wasn’t taken, so I jumped on the opportunity to register the domain name. I soon discovered how much I loved writing about Fencing, and dove into the almost non-existent Fencing blogosphere.
In the time since I launched the blog, I’ve had the honor to write for various publications, including The Washington Times, Fencing.net, Tim Morehouse’s Fencing University, and have gotten a few million reads on my content while amassing 10,000+ “Likes” on my Facebook page.
Reflecting on the first five years, I wanted to reflect upon what I’ve learned, what I haven’t learned, and share my journey with other aspiring bloggers. I think a lot of these lessons are applicable, even to the non-fencing blogs.
Lessons & Reflections
Lesson I: If You’re Not Provoking your Readers, You’re Boring Them- This isn’t a suggestion to be deliberately offensive in your writing; rather, it’s to write in such a way that challenges your readers’ ideas to gently guide them out of their echo chambers. How many times have you browsed Social Media and found vaguely written clickbait articles that aren’t firm in their point of view? They’re boring. One of my favorite articles I wrote was “Why Fencers Yell (and Why People Should Stop Being Whiney Babies About It).” It was something I felt passionately about, and I wanted both the title and the article to reflect the intensity of my opinion. It’s a divisive debate in fencing (yelling after you score a touch), and the ensuing discussion around the article was far more interesting because of the pointedness of the article. Provocative is more fun.
Lesson II: Be Personal and Reveal Yourself- I write a Fencing blog, but if I have life experiences that digress from the topic of Fencing, I like to discuss them candidly with my readers. I’ve always appreciated the writing of James Altucher and tried to channel his candor in how I write as well. I’ve written about domestic violence issues, what it feels like to watch a friend go to jail for life, and the Trump Administration’s travel ban. Sometimes, being candid means offending your readers (see Lesson I). You may have readers who say “Stick to Fencing!” which really translates to “This ruffles my feathers!” but at the end of the day, your blog is about your voice. The more genuine you are, the more compelling the read.
Lesson III: Engage Your Readers and Embrace Disagreement- One of my favorite parts of watching the blog grow is that I’ve established a lot of great relationships with my readers over the years that begin with virtual discussion and then often result in a pint or two in person at a tournament. Once you share your article on Social Media, the job is halfway done. Through discussion, I’ve gathered amazing insight and feedback from readers in 102 different countries, gotten some vocal regulars, and made new friends (maybe some enemies too) along the way. Most importantly, I’ve seen a lot of bloggers get rattled when readers regularly disagree with them. (Respectful) Disagreement is what challenges you to make your writing better, it keeps the dialogue interesting, and it’s likely to change your own opinion as the blogger from time to time! And one final rule as you moderate the discussion: with the exception of racist, homophobic, or misogynistic comments, never delete your readers’ comments or ban them from commenting. Censorship shows intellectual weakness.
Lesson IV: Keep an Open Ear for what your Readers Want but Don’t Let Them Control Your Voice- When I read other people’s blogs or columns, it’s because I want perspectives that are different from my own. “Different” can mean contrary to my own opinions and beliefs, it can mean a new perspective on a topic I never considered, or it can mean I outright dislike their viewpoints but they write well enough that I keep coming back. When I’ve come to a point where I don’t care for an author anymore or I’ve outgrown them, I have quietly unsubscribed.
Remember how I mentioned I’ve made some great relationships with readers over the years? As my blog began to grow in the beginning, a reader named Al suggested I tone down some of the more abrasive language. He had a point, and I’m grateful he made it. My blog was gaining younger readers, and referring to things as “douchey” was not setting a great example. Those who know me know I tend to not have much of a filter, and sometimes that’s to my detriment.
On the other hand, I’ve had readers who will see something they don’t like, and rather than discuss it, their impulse is to demand it be taken down. You might be surprised to hear this happens fairly often. My response is the same each time: if you see something you don’t like, unsubscribe. As the comedian Stephen Fry said: “It’s now very common to hear people say ‘I’m rather offended by that,’ as if that gives them certain rights. It’s no more than a whine. It has no meaning. It has no purpose. It has no reason to be respected as a phrase.” Listen to reader feedback when given, but if it doesn’t feel right, don’t apply it.
Lesson V: There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You- When I started the blog, it was just me. I’ve since had the honor to bring on some amazing writers that provide far more interesting perspectives than I ever could, including Hannah Provenza (one of the most dedicated and hardworking epeeists in America), Leland Guillemin (a Canadian Olympic hopeful), Annamaria Lu (a gifted and upcoming referee), James Weiss (fencing pop culture expert), and Monika Aksamit (Olympic Bronze Medalist). I’ve learned a great deal from all of them, and they’ve helped grow the blog’s audience while providing insights to readers I’d never have.