Winning at Blogging: Lessons from Rowing

“Half, half, three-quarters, FULL!”

This was the formula we used in rowing to give ourselves a flying start from a dead stop. Anticipating the start of the race, we’d be in position: leaning forward at the catch, blades precariously poised over the water — balancing — as though in pantomime.


Then, on indication, we’d cut our blades into the water, driving our legs to do the majority of the work, power straining against our footholds. Half, half, three-quarters, FULL. The fractions indicated the length of our strokes — how far we could allow ourselves to move up our slides, the two tracks which our seats were attached to on wheels. Two quick, one medium, then one full stroke, each at an accelerated rate to get our heavy, eight person boat moving through the water.

We continued with quick, successive pulls, bringing our boat up to racing speed, then settled into a rhythm of around 36 strokes per minute.

When I began my blog, I wanted to have a clean, powerful start. Though I’d never undertaken one before, I knew that the beginning of my blog would, like a race, be crucial to its success. I researched how often to post in order to optimize getting traction, and found some sound advice on Jane Friedman’s site, with her post “How to Start Blogging: A Definitive Guide for Authors.” “Ideally,” she advised, “starting out, you should post 3-5x per week. The longer you blog, and the more of an audience you build up, the more you can ease back on frequency.” Never intending before finding this to post so often, I opted for three.

The first week, I published on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday.

I began my blog at a rowing start — a pace not intended to be maintained for the long haul. Rather, like in rowing, it was to gather momentum, get me up to speed. But the difference between my former rowing days and my blogging practices was this: instead of starting from a stop like in rowing, with my blog I was already in motion when I began. With the bulk of my boat — which was my blog — already moving with momentum through the water as I crossed the start line when making my site live, I was not working up to full-speed: I’d already begun with it.

In a rowing race (a regatta), each muscle strains. When you row hard, your entire body feels like it’s screaming. There is a chemical reason for this: your body cannot supply the oxygen sufficient to what your muscles are demanding fast enough. This is called “oxygen debt.”

But at the beginning of a race, you have the advantage of lungs full of air to adequately supply your muscles. You have an oxygen reserve, at least for awhile.

Before I ever published my first blog post, I did a fair amount of work generating creative content. I didn’t want to run out of ideas three days into making my blog live! So by the time I began publishing, I had a small reserve of blog posts already written.

At the beginning of a race, besides the sound of your own heavy breathing, the slide of your seat on its tracks, the release of your blade, and the click of eight oarlocks rocking in time, you hear the surprising sound of a trickle of water rush beneath the shell of a boat that’s thin enough to put your foot through if you were to stand on it at full weight. It’s a beautiful thing, hearing that trickle through the thin shell separating you from the water.

Inside the boat house, on the ergs, we were urged to practice rowing slowly, deliberately, powerfully, by following the pace and power of another rower. She sat at the front of the room with her back to us, facing the same direction as we were, as though we were in a boat. Each of her strokes was a masterpiece of precision, control, and power.

Rowing slowly and deliberately like this was, for me, difficult: more difficult than rowing your heart out in a regatta. I liked the immediate reward of seeing the meters flash past with quick successive strokes. But at 20 strokes per minute, in a practice like this, each movement was controlled. Technique, consistency, efficiency, frequency, and finesse were all concentrated. Instead of seeing a steady flow of meters like when you have a rapid rate,  when rowing slowly your pace surges with each drive of your legs, and then slows during the recovery. On a rowing machine, the fan roars and slows every few seconds; on the water, the trickle accelerates, then lessens, as you inch your way up your slide — controlled — before another powerful drive of your legs.

Though my blog was never intended to be a race, I got caught up in the excitement of it  and decided to give it its best shot at a good start, with three posts for the first week, and following. My game plan was to post three a week for four weeks: the first three posts in quick succession during the first week, with the others at equal, rhythmic intervals on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for the remaining three weeks. Then I would settle down to a pace of two per week.

Two weeks ago, following my plan, I cut it down to two posts a week, publishing on Monday and Thursday. This reduction was harder than I thought it would be. There is, after all, that initial reward of seeing the more-or-less steady trickle of traffic, with a little boost after each post — each fast stroke — and then more trickle the days following. Bringing the count down to two posts per week, I saw the numbers dwindle, the trickle effect lessen and lessen.

In rowing, most people only see the outcome: the races, the muscles, the medals. They do not see the rowing practices in the cold or the rain; the running practices when the water is too choppy to be deemed safe; the weightlifting, the squats, the jump roping; the waking up for 5:30 a.m. practices, followed by training after work or school; the permanent blisters on the palms of your hands.

I wondered, against my better judgement, if I hadn’t better pick up the pace again to  three posts a week. I say “against my better judgement” because I knew that, for me, this was unsustainable. It would be like rowing in a 2k regatta while my muscles fought to    breathe. Only, this would be longer.

I thought of a blog I follow where the writer goes against the convention of posting short, pieces, quick in succession, which don’t amount to much, with the intent of generating traffic. Rather, his posts are few and far between. But they are substantial — powerhouses in thought, length, and quality. When he posts, there is a surge of activity on his site: hundreds of comments, to say nothing of likes, or the traffic that goes completely unnoted. Days, even weeks after a post has been published, he still receives comments trickling in.

Now, I am no powerhouse. In fact, in the rowing world, I am a lightweight: someone  whose strength lies not in powering through, but in technique. My posts do not generate a huge wake, or following. And while I do love to see that my posts are being viewed and read and liked, that’s not why I write.

As much as I loved the sound of water trickling beneath me during a race, and the sensation of rowing in time at full racing pace, I came to realize that regattas were not why I rowed. I trained, I competed, yes, and sometimes I even won. But the real reward for me was the practicing — the act of rowing — day in, day out. And the same is true with my writing.

I write, as I used to row, for the pleasure of it. Which is different from the thrill of it. I work hard at my craft as I worked hard at my rowing, even as I rowed “recreationally.” As I considered the choice to keep at three posts per week or drop it down to two, I realized what this change would allow me to do: to breathe. I’d run out of my oxygen reserve.

With my blog, I am opting to take the recreational rowing approach. As there are people who can row much faster than I can, so too are there those who can write and publish good-quality blog posts more often than I can. And that is just fine: blogging for me is not an Olympic sport.

My draw to rowing is the quiet satisfaction of waking up before dawn and getting on the water, still as glass, or closing the day as the water quiets again. When I row — as well as when I write — I enjoy the actual practice, the experience.

I’ve settled into a new pace now, more relaxed. This is not a race, after all.


Question: How do you determine you writing pace?