A literary explorer’s guide to blogging

In October 2011, I registered the domain name ayearofreadingtheworld.com and started this blog. I didn’t know it then, but the website would change my life.

The original quest to read a book from every country in the world in a year turned out to be mind-blowing in ways I’d never anticipated: it reconfigured my imagination, reading and writing, and brought me into contact with authors, translators and readers around the globe. What’s more, the international following this blog received initiated a stream of thrilling invitations and opportunities that continues to this day.

Highlights from the past eight years include speaking at TED Global and the launch of my career as a published author, now with three books to my name.

With much of the world on lockdown for the foreseeable future as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it strikes me that many people might use the time at home to start a blog. As such, I thought I’d share some tips gleaned from my experience. Feel free to add yours at the end!

  • Choose an obvious name It can be tempting to be funny or clever with website titles. That’s fine if you’re setting up something just for yourself, but if you want to create a site that will appeal to a broad range of people, you need to make sure that no-one feels excluded by in-jokes that don’t translate. A simple, clear name that gives some idea of what your blog’s about is good. It also means that if someone searches for your subject area, your site will have a chance of featuring in the results.
  • Be specific There are hundreds of millions of blogs out there and an awful lot of them are brain dumps. Again, that’s fine if you’re just looking to make a site for your amusement (and of course there are some blogs like this that draw huge numbers of readers), but if you’re keen to develop something with greater reach, this approach will make it harder for your website to find an audience, at least at first. A better strategy is to pick a specific interest, goal, or issue and focus on that. You can always broaden out further down the line.
  • Keep it simple It’s possible to spend hours and a lot of money on designing your blog (and most platforms offer technical guides and support with using their tools – also, often, for a fee). However, my advice would be to avoid unnecessary embellishments – at least until you have more of an idea of whether blogging is going to become a habit. Select a basic template and start drafting your first post. Use (properly credited) pictures to illustrate your posts if you have them, but don’t worry about sticking to text if no obvious illustrations suggest themselves. If you want, you can add more images and upgrade the site once you’ve got a better idea of what works and how people use it.
  • Start small When you launch a blog, it can be tempting to contact everyone you know and tell them to check it out immediately. Indeed, this is what I did when I published my first AYORTW post in October 2011. If you’re not launching a project that needs participation, however, try to resist this urge, at least for a few days. Even if your subject matter and approach is clear in your mind, it’s likely that it will take a little time for the tone and format to settle. Be prepared for a few lonely days when you hardly get any clicks and make getting some good, consistent posts in place your first focus, so that, when the readers do flood in, they’ll have plenty of great content to enjoy.
  • Be boundaried Think carefully about how much of your information you want to give away on your blog. If you’re writing about sensitive or personal subjects, you might want to consider anonymising references to the people in your life or even giving yourself a pseudonym. One of the earliest ever blooks (blogs-turned-into-books), the now-defunct Diary of a London Call Girl, took this approach with great success.
  • Keep it accessible The language of the internet is informal and conversational. If your blog takes off, it will get readers from around the world, many of whom may not speak fluent English. As a result, it’s best to avoid unnecessarily complicated expressions and to explain references that may not be obvious to everyone.
  • Edit obsessively Conversational does not mean sloppy. The best writing often reads simply but communicates complex ideas. It has precision and power. In most cases, this comes from painstaking reworking. I’m a big fan of reading aloud. Once I have a complete draft of a post, I always read the whole thing out. It’s amazing what your ear catches.
  • Credit borrowed content properly Lots of people don’t do it, but I think it’s important to credit any images or other elements you use that are still in copyright and weren’t created by you. (You should also make sure that the picture in question has an appropriate Creative Commons licence, which you can filter for on photo sites such as flickr.com.)
  • Be kind to yourself Even with meticulous editing, reading aloud and double-checking, you are going to make mistakes. In my time, I have published posts about the non-existent countries of Dijibouti and Cormoros. I have misspelled writers’ names and made countless other slips. It feels awful when you realise you’ve messed up like this (and, if you’re unlucky, someone out there will leap on it as an opportunity to give you a good kicking). But try not to worry about it. As my time sub-editing for newspapers and magazines has taught me, not even the best writers are immune to bloopers. And at least with a blog, you have the opportunity to correct your mistakes after you’ve hit ‘Publish’.
  • Have a policy on changing published posts One of the lovely things about blogging is that it is an extremely forgiving medium. If you spot a typo or a missing word once a post goes live, it is easy to fix the mistake. I don’t think there’s any issue with correcting technical slips like this. The journalist in me, however, does have a bit of a problem with changing the argument or factual written content of posts after publication without being clear about what you’ve done. I think we bloggers have a duty to be transparent about what we publish and so, if I have to alter the content of something I’ve written after I have pushed it live, I will add a note explaining what I have changed. An example is the entry I wrote describing how I decided which countries my year of reading the world would involve: midway through 2012, I altered the list to include Palestine, so I changed the post accordingly and added a sentence in bold at the end to explain this.
  • Accept that not everyone will like your stuff I’ve been incredibly lucky that almost every interaction I’ve  had as a result of this project has been positive. All the same, it’s inevitable that when you put yourself out there in the way blogging requires, some people won’t like it. When you get unpleasant feedback, bear in mind that some of it will be valid (and will give you an opportunity to improve what you do). Some of it, however, will say more about the person who wrote the comment than about your blog. It might take a while to work out which category applies, so resist the urge to fire off a barbed response until you’ve had a bit of time to process what you’d like to say. If nothing else, a nasty comment is evidence that what you’ve written has made an impact.
  • Feel free to ignore me It’s your project, after all. The joy of a blog is that it’s your own free space to do with as you wish. Who am I to tell you how to arrange yours?
  • Have fun If this blogging thing takes off, you could be doing it for a long time, so you might as well enjoy it!

I’m trying to take my own advice at the moment because, nearly nine years since I launched this site, I have just started a new blog project. It’s still at a very early stage and I’ve no idea how it will develop, but if you’d like to take a look, I’d be delighted to know what you think.

Postcard from my bookshelf #2

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The second translated book I am sending to a stranger this year goes to someone from a group of people who kept me going during my 2012 quest to read a book from every country in the world. The project was a wonderful voyage of discovery. However, reading and blogging about a book every 1.87 days for 12 months when you’re working five days a week can be tiring and sometimes lonely.

As such, I came to depend on the support of an initially small but growing band of people who helped to cheer me on. These were the folk who followed the project from the early days and let me know through comments, likes, tweets and personal messages that they appreciated what I was trying to do. Many was the morning when I stumbled bleary-eyed to my computer and found welcome words of encouragement from someone I didn’t know waiting to spur me on.

Several of these long-term followers left comments on the Postcards from my bookshelf project post. All of them deserved a book. However, in the end, I decided to choose simonlitton (or Simon, as I’ll call him from now on) because his was one of the names I remembered cropping up several times in the early months of my year of reading the world, in the days when each comment did a huge amount to boost my determination and confidence.

Simon’s Postcard entry didn’t give me much to go on when it came to selecting a book he might like:

I loved AYORTW and would definitely be interested in reading something you sent. My tastes are pretty broad but I’m especially interested in anything which opens a window on another culture. I read fairly regularly in French and Italian too, which gives me more options.

Luckily, however, his name linked to his blog. And there I found a connection to his Goodreads page – a goldmine of information about his reading habits.

As he claims, Simon has extremely broad taste in books. I was delighted to see a good number of African works listed among the nearly 400 titles he has reviewed on the site, along with a range of classics, and a glut of contemporary bestsellers and lesser-knowns, including a healthy spread of translations, as well as the French and Italian works he mentioned. There was also an impressive array of non-fiction books, along with a strong showing of sci-fi and fantasy titles.

What struck me most of all, however, was Simon’s approach to star ratings. A number of internationally acclaimed texts met with relatively short shrift at his hands. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace both scored a middling three stars, as did Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Here, clearly, was not only an adventurous reader, but a bold and independent one too – a person who liked to make up his own mind rather than being led by hype.

I thought long and hard about what to choose for Simon. In the process, I found myself returning repeatedly to what he had said in his comment about books that open windows on other cultures.

Many of the titles I have read during and since my 2012 project could be said to open up insights in this way. Often, they are among the best-written and most compelling books to cross my desk.

This is no coincidence. In my experience, enabling readers to understand societies different from their own requires great storytelling: we need that narrative pull to sweep us over the inevitable bumps and obstacles that arise when we venture into ways of looking at the world that diverge from our own.

Consequently, I had a bewildering wealth of beautifully written works in mind. I might have chosen Burmese writer Nu Nu Yi’s Smile as They Bow with its engrossing depiction of the life of a transgender temple dancer. I could have plumped for Jamil Ahmed’s exquisite The Wandering Falcon, my choice for Pakistan. Or Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s By Night the Mountain Burns – only the second novel from Equatorial Guinea ever to be translated and published in English (the first, by the way, Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of your Black Memory, is also well worth a read).

In the end, however, one book kept nagging at me. Less a window on a culture, it is more like a door blasted open to reveal a post-culture – a portrait of a society destroyed by a catastrophic event that many of us might like to imagine is remote but which affects us all (and which will be evident in the world hundreds of thousands of years after pretty much everything else we know now is gone). A sort of real-life sci-fi, if such a thing were possible.

The book I’m talking about is Chernobyl Prayer by the Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. I read it and posted about it last year and it has stayed with me ever since. Harrowing, human, insightful and mind-scrambling, it is one of the most powerful texts I’ve ever encountered.

But of course, Simon, you’ll have to make up your own mind. Thank you.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on March 15.

Messages from authors


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One of the great things to have come out of this project is the fact that I have been in touch with many of the authors of the works I have read during and since 2012. Some of these people, like Juan David Morgan (whose novel, The Golden Horse, I picked for Panama) and Ak Welsapar (whose Tale of Aypi was my read from Turkmenistan), sent me unpublished translations of books not available to buy in English.

Others, including Marie-Thérèse Toyi (Burundi), Hamid Ismailov (Uzbekistan) and Cecil Browne (St Vincent and the Grenadines), were gracious enough to allow me to interview them at length for Reading the World, the book I wrote to explore some of the bigger themes and stories behind this quest.

In a number of cases, these contacts have led to lengthy correspondences and friendships. Pictured above is a collection of postcards showing the artwork of Honduran writer Guillermo Yuscarán. He posted these to me after I wrote about his short-story collection, Points of Light, along with a letter telling me that if I ever wanted to visit him, all I needed to do was get the bus to his town and ask for ‘El gringo Yuscarán’.

As time has gone by, the dynamic has shifted slightly. Whereas I contacted most of the people above during or shortly after my project, in the years that have followed more and more authors have found their way to me. Often, they do this by leaving comments on the posts about their books. For example, Barbadian author Glenville Lovell popped up with the following: ‘Wow! Thank you! I think I’m going to read my novel again.’

Then there was this from the writer of Kenya, Will You Marry Me?: ‘Philo Ikonya the author here, i saw this review months after it was published. Time flies… I enjoyed it and the fact that this project found my book! No greater thing than feedback! Thank you. :-).’

Luís Cardoso from East Timor left a note in his native Portuguese: ‘Ann, gostei imenso da tua apreciação. Muito obrigado. Eu sou o autor.
Luis Cardoso.’

And Olinda Beja (whose short-story collection A casa do pastor was translated by nine volunteers especially for this project so that I could read something from the tiny island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe) contacted me to tell me about a new volume of tales set in her birthplace.

There have also been some touching interactions with people connected to the authors of many of the books I’ve read. As recorded in Reading the World, I spent a moving hour sharing a drink with Jens Nielsen, the former partner of Swiss author Aglaja Veteranyi, who drowned in Lake Zurich in 2002. Unfailingly open and generous, Nielsen told me about their extraordinary relationship, the trauma of Veteranyi’s depression and suicide, and the work he has done as executor of her estate. Once Reading the World was published, he even arranged for a copy to be deposited in Veteranyi’s collection of work in the Swiss National Archive, where my writing will stay alongside hers for at least the next 300 years.

Now and then, comments from authors’ and translators’ friends and acquaintances pop up on this blog too. I was delighted with the following message from Ahmed in response to my Maldivian read: ‘Hi, Ms Morgan, I am from the tiny islands of Maldives. You chose one of the best books to read about our beliefs, culture and lifestyle. Just now informed Mr. Abdulla Sadiq of your choice. He was delighted. What a great idea!’

And this note from the tiny island of Vanuatu, left under my post on Sethy John Regenvanu’s wonderfully exuberant memoir Laef Blong Mi, made me smile: ‘He’s still as young as ever.’

Given that it’s now more than three years since I officially stopped reading the world (although I continue to read widely and select one book to review here each month), I had assumed that these comments had probably come to an end. It turns out I was wrong. A couple of weeks ago, the following message was left by author Sarah Mkhonza under my post on Weeding the Flowerbeds, my pick from Swaziland:

Thanks for the review. The school and mission were celebrating 100 years and I felt compelled to write about their contribution to our lives. I am grateful that you were able to give the book an honest review. I never really thought it would be read beyond Swaziland and the mission. Most of the teachers have passed away. It makes more sense to have written something about their contribution to our lives I am grateful that you were able to have something to read on a country which is struggling to create writers and give the people a voice. Political parties are still banned and journalists are still being imprisoned. Thanks for mentioning some of these facts in the review.

Nearly four years after this project began, its ripples continue to spread.

A special message

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A rather lovely email arrived in this morning. The message was from Rafidah, the generous stranger who, four days after I first asked the planet’s booklovers to help me read the world, left a message offering to go to her local English-language bookshop in Kuala Lumpur and choose and post me my Malaysian book.

Rafidah’s kindness was a great inspiration for me at the start of this project and so, when Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer was published earlier this month, I emailed her to ask if I could send her a copy in return for the books she once sent me.

The photograph above shows my book and the card I enclosed in Rafidah’s apartment, where my parcel has just arrived. More than three years after her act of generosity kickstarted my quest, the book that it led to has found its way to her. I’m so pleased.

Meet the bloggers

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Bloggers are a strange breed. We spend hours in front of our computer screens when other people are out partying, seeing friends or asleep (I, for example, am writing this at 6.50am – why on earth?). We obsess over details (when normal people are thinking about dinner or plans for the weekend, we will most likely be agonising over which photo to choose for our next post or wondering if the ‘and’ in the third sentence should really be a ‘but’). And we know an alarming amount about sometimes extremely niche areas of life.

So when I was invited to take part in Blog10’s inaugural social event, bringing together a group of bloggers from a variety of fields over dinner and wine to discuss ‘The Changing Face of Blogging’, I was both excited and apprehensive. Could a handful of us webby weirdos really sustain intelligent conversation over the course of several hours, I wondered. Would there come a point where we all became jibbering wrecks muttering in corners, our fingers twitching from keyboard withdrawal?

As it turned out, my fears were groundless. From the moment I arrived at Book and Kitchen (a beautiful bookshop with a café and events space in London’s Notting Hill, loved into being by director Muna Khogali), I knew this was going to be a good evening.

One of the most fascinating things about it was the range topics we covered on our blogs. From flower writer Rona Wheeldon’s award-winning Flowerona to Mark Sheerin’s art blog Criticismism, and eclectic sites such as Katie Antoniou’s London Plinth and AnOther magazine blog represented by Mhairi Graham, we hailed from a huge variety of virtual worlds. In addition, our ventures ranged in size from those with a few hundred hits here and there to Abimarvel by superstar fashion blogger Abisola Omole, who – six years after she started her blog during her GCSEs at school – employs a full-time staff member and an intern to help her run the site.

I was particularly interested to meet fellow book blogger Kim Forrester and hear about her ten years of experience writing Reading Matters – which makes A Year of Reading the World seem like a flash in the pan.

As the evening went on, topics of conversation included how blogging changed our lives, how we used social media, and potential threats to freedom on the web such as the issue of net neutrality. The debate was ably led by Kate Baxter of Fabric of My Life and the whole thing was helped along by some fabulous food prepared by Muna and her team (you can see the scrumptious chicken biryani on Mark’s plate in the photo above). And although everyone looks quite serious in that picture, there were plenty of laughs.

I’m told there will be a podcast of some of the discussion, which I’ll share here when I can. But in the meantime, I’d be very interested to hear about your experiences. How has creating and running a blog been for you?

With thanks to Marmalade PR for the invitation.