Blog Contest
Blog Contest

How To Start a Blog

Blog Contest

1. You and Your Blog:

Your blog should typically be the combination of two things: your own curiosities, interests, and passions as well as themes and intellectual currents in the communities with which you want to engage. To win the Effective Ideas blog prize, we’ve provided a few examples of the themes and currents we suggest you tap into.

  • Using reason, evidence, expected value, and the scout mindset to think clearly about the world, and to think clearly about how to do good.
  • Big picture thinking about science, philosophy, economics and the long-term trajectory of humanity.
  • Cutting-edge discussion of traditional areas like AI, biorisk, and weird utilitarian philosophy, as well as exploring potentially important new areas, like population, China, and institutions for space settlement.
  • Personal agency, ambition, and opposing the cheems mindset.
  • The principles and areas of interest pages on the FTX Foundation website are good overviews of themes we are interested in.

For further inspiration: What’s up with the Most Important Century and AGI, and what should we do about it? How do we strengthen liberal democracies and stop authoritarians from taking over the world, but also avoid potentially cataclysmic great power war? What are the next 100 years going to look like? How can we encourage institutional experimentation, and how do we overcome vetocracy and fix our broken state capacity? What will happen when we settle space, and what should a constitution for the future look like? How much does economic growth matter, what determines growth in the very long run, and what should we do about it? What concrete, big projects should EA launch? What is EA totally missing, or totally wrong about? How can we bring more people, and a more diverse set of people, into the fold, and empower them to do ambitious things? More generally, how can we think clearly about the world, applying reason, evidence, expected value, and the scout mindset?

We would also recommend you ask yourself what your goals are for your blog beyond the possibility of winning a prize. Do you want to accelerate your career or develop your expertise? Make the world a better place? Win friends and influence people? Simply explore your interests? All of these goals are fine and we think that having some idea of your personal motivations will help you create a successful blog.

Blog Contest

2. How to write posts:

Finding topics

One of the great parts about blogging is that you can write about anything you want, no matter how specific or idiosyncratic. At the same time, when one looks at the sheer quantity of content being written, it can still be easy to feel like there’s nothing unique for you to write about. The best posts to win this contests will be deep and substantial, but here are some ideas that could help lead you to that post and get you started writing:

  • Write a primer / beginner’s guide / ELI5 / ”Much More Than You Ever Wanted to Know” on a tricky field, idea, or topic.Ex. MUCH MORE THAN YOU WANTED TO KNOWNote: This format works best when the subject is actually complicated or there is very little existing explanatory material.
  • Develop contrarian or meta-contrarian takes on important subjects.
    How to get promoted, Bioethicists are mostly alrightNote: We are particularly interested in formal “red team” pieces, like A Red-Team Against the Impact of Small Donations, that could potentially change the direction of an important debate or break up groupthink.
  • Create a curated compendium of an existing author’s work or a topical bibliography.
    Ex. My Favorite Chad Jones Papers; The Very Best of Very Bad WizardsNote: These work particularly well if you have a special interest, relationship, or expertise with the work.
  • Book reviews are often the easiest and best form of writing for a new blog. A review can cut a few different ways, hemming closely to the book or being entirely tangential, but having a book to respond to gives you a dialogue partner, helps build interest in your post, and allows you to supplement someone else’s research with your own findings or perspectives.
    Ex. Reasons and PersonsNote: We have a special interest in fact checking or critical engagement with popular and influential books. See: Matthew Walker’s “Why We Sleep” Is Riddled with Scientific and Factual Errors
  • Personal wellbeing life advice
    Ex. Better air quality, How I save moneyNote: These won’t necessarily help you win the prize, but are a great way to attract readers to your blog and help you get a post out if you are in a writing rut.

Finding Your Voice

The voice of every writer is unique. When getting started, it can be helpful to identify a few writers whom you admire and work to imitate their style, but over time you will find your own tone. For this, make sure to write what you enjoy reading. Some writers do great with puns in titles and memes in the body, others find footnotes and “serious” language more natural—anything that feels forced to write will also feel forced to read. Subject matter may also dictate tone: puns in a blog post examining the frontier of cancer research might be too glib, while footnotes in a write-up of a new pop music album might distract from the subject and obscure the easy-going nature of Lana Del Rey. It can be difficult, but matching style to subject is a great way to make your writing stick in the heads of readers. (A musical analogy is that singers will often sing lower when the lyrics include the word low or higher when they include the word high—our brains receive things well when tone matches content.)

What Makes a Great Blog Post (A Subjective Exploration)

A rough rule of thumb is that a blog post is good if someone remembers it as the best thing they read that day and a blog post is great if it shapes their thinking on a topic for years to come. Here’s a few of our all-time favorites posts.

An elegant take-down of a common platitude

An effort post:

A bold new thing:

A useful new concept:

Something weird and creative:

On Organization

When writing blog posts, it helps to heed the ubiquitous high school writing advice of intro, body, conclusion. For readers, it is incredibly effective and easy to follow when your intro presents a clear argument with about three claims as to why it’s true, the body goes into each claim in depth, and the conclusion restates the argument and provides implications or follow-up considerations. This advice to stick to threes and maintain a clear structure might be inescapable, but it’s true and works—especially if you intend your audience to be broad. Starting from a well-organized outline can help make the writing process easier for you while also providing a clear coherency for readers, with every point feeling natural to its surroundings.

The Question of Quality or Quantity

On one hand, posting multiple times a week is the key to audience engagement and building a parasocial relationship. On the other hand, almost all your readership will come from a small number of hugely popular posts, so it’s worth investing into writing a few good pieces rather than a bunch of weak ones. (Note: Do not get discouraged if a particularly strong piece does not get a lot of attention—readers can be fickle and difficult to gauge!)

One way to resolve this paradox is to publish slowly on your blog, but then build audience engagement through Twitter. Another option is to just have a lot of open threads and “highlights from the comments on” and link threads (see ACX), though the first two only really work if you already have an audience.

One major issue is that it’s hard to know ahead of time which blog posts will take off. It often comes down to luck,  hitching a ride on the right cultural moment, or generating controversy. So depending on your audience, you can think of this as either. We advise against using controversy, particularly needless controversy, to grow your blog. Instead, we suggest you follow the SlateStarCodex’s comment section rule:

Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates; At the first gate, ask yourself, is is true? At the second gate ask, is it necessary? At the third gate ask, is it kind?

We will promote high quality posts through various channels (Follow us on Twitter, @effective-ideas).

In general, we will be most impressed by blog posts that stay in our minds, that we are compelled to link to again and again in the future: a single frame-altering post could win a blog the prize.

Blog Contest

3. Where to host the blog

Our Recommendation: Use Substack or try out a hosted Ghost website—it’s a Goldilocks solution of easy-to-use but highly customizable. Ghost makes for a great portfolio site, blog, and newsletter service.

The default: Just start a Substack

The strengths of Substacks are obvious: You can have one up and running in a few minutes. The platform is easy to use. Your subscribers receive your posts by email. You can easily monetize your content should you ever need to. (Note: Per the rules of the prize, paywalled blogs will not be eligible for the prize. Please reach out to us directly if you are financially restrained from starting a blog. Donations or optional subscriptions are acceptable.)
If this sounds appealing to you and you never want to worry about the workings of a website, we encourage you to start a Substack—especially if you’re interested in a newsletter format.

Why Wouldn’t You Want a Substack?

Expanding beyond a Substack may allow you to present more of a personal portfolio, differentiate content, or provide more (and better targeted) information than the newsletter / digest-style of Substack. Flexibility and customizability are limited on Substack. For largely unfair reasons, there is also sometimes a cliche or stigma attached to being a “Substack writer” (see: How Substack Become Milquetoast). These aren’t deal breakers but things to keep in mind, especially if you consider blog aesthetics an important part of your identity as a writer. There are also various reasons one might want to maintain greater control over their own data or support an open source project with a different platform, some addressed below. You should know that Substack takes a 10% cut of your revenue, should you decide to monetize your blog in the future.
There are some Substack competitors such as Revue. Substack is obviously the most popular of these but others may have unique features worth considering in lieu of Substack or in conjunction with a website. (For example, Revue is owned by Twitter and allows you to solicit subscriptions from your Twitter profile.)

Content Management Systems (CMS) and Blogging Platforms

Note: Most of these will allow you to self-host or to host on their own servers.
A Content Management System (CMS) is what allows you to routinely publish blog posts, organize web pages, and more without having to code each webpage from scratch. The most famous of these is likely WordPress, but there are other options with different degrees of difficulty and customizability at various pricepoints.

Ghost

  • Pros: Backend is very intuitive, easy writing environment, strong newsletter integration, more flexible than most platforms, and lots of high-quality templates and plugins.
  • Cons: More expensive than cheapest alternatives, analytics are not a strong suit of Ghost, not as flexible as WordPress.
  • Cost: Free (self-hosted); $9/month (hosted)
  • Consider Ghostboard.io for an analytics dashboard—it is intuitive and gives a good sense of general trends although not always accurate and often buggy.

WordPress

  • Pros: Long-time blogging standard with lots of documentation, plugins, and free templates
  • Cons: Bloated and often slow, not the most intuitive to newcomers, weak newsletter integration, and very easy to make a very ugly website. Powerful but not the easiest—requires a lot of customization.
  • Cost: Free (self-hosted); Free or $4–8+/month (hosted)

Squarespace

  • Pros: Easy browser-based design (near impossible to not have a pretty site), intuitive backend, lots of support for extra things (scheduling, webstore, newsletters, social media)
  • Cons: Looks like a Squarespace website, relatively expensive, not flexible, many have had reliability issues with Squarespace as a blogging platform (not its primary focus).
  • Cost: $12/month (hosted)

Wix

  • Pros: Same as Squarespace
  • Cons: Same as Squarespace but doesn’t look as nice as Squarespace
  • Cost: $14/month (hosted)

GitHub / Static Site

  • Pros: High level of customizability and free.
  • Cons: Requires more technical work which is easier if you have experience with coding or GitHub, but there’s lots of documentation to make it easier.
  • Cost: Free (hosted)

Self-hosted vs. Hosted Website

The question of where to host your blog entails a few considerations, in part the convenience and user experience associated with blogging and in part the location of where your data—from newsletter subscribers, to blog posts, and more—are stored. Most blogging platforms allow you to use their backend on a website you host yourself or to host through their platform. If you host on a platform, there is some possibility that data will be difficult to access or export in the future—you’re dependent on the platform. Self-hosting is generally not difficult but is less convenient than a platform hosting. Making a switch to self-hosting is always a possibility later down the road if the costs of hosting or other concerns are raised for you.
Self-hosting (If this is germane to you, you probably have a better sense of the necessary steps than the list below):

  1. Acquire a domain (Google Domains and countless other services).
  2. Acquire server space (AWS, BlueHost, HostGator, etc.).
  3. Build a website (HTML or static site generator like Jekyll)  or upload CMS (WordPress, Ghost).
  4. Point your domain to server space and upload website to the server.
  5. Start publishing (this will look different based on step 3).

If you need any further help in setting up your site, feel free to reach out and ask for assistance. There is, however, a large number of tutorials and guides available for each platform across the internet.

Blog Contest

4. Distribution and Finding an Audience

Social Media

For better and worse, Twitter is the social media home for journalists, bloggers, and public intellectuals. If you are not on Twitter already, you should strongly consider creating an account—even if your use will be minimal. Twitter is the best place to share and promote written content, find controversies or positions on discourse to write about, engage with interesting people, and discover new opportunities. If there are other social media platforms where you already have a significant audience or feel more skilled at, by all means use them! It could be a huge comparative advantage to be an econ blog with a viral TikTok or Instagram following, but different platforms tend to have different audiences and Twitter tends to be standard among bloggers. We also encourage you to focus on only one social media platform, it’s better to develop a devoted following on one than an erratic follower list on many.

When it comes to sharing links on Twitter, there are a couple things to keep in mind in order to help amplify views. First, Twitter cards (the box that pops up with a link) are the easiest way to draw in readers and a good image, title, and excerpt or subheader will help. It can be off-putting when links only default to a logo image or a low-quality graphic. Links that exist just as text are less likely to be clicked on. Secondly, threads that explain or excerpt parts of your post tend to get great engagement—when people are commenting, liking, or Quote Tweeting parts of your thread then more people will see the post.

Other Distribution Channels

You may consider other distribution channels too. We recommend you make a list of the channels that are relevant to your blog, ranked by audience size. Some potential options include: Marginal Revolution, the Effective Altruism Forum, the Effective Altruism and 80k Newsletters, Less Wrong, relevant subreddits, The Browser, Hacker News, and maybe some prominent Twitter feeds and podcasts. For forums, consider crossposting or linking your work (if it is highly relevant and doing so doesn’t violate the community norms of the forum). For more curated distribution channels, such as Marginal Revolution or The Browser, you should rarely send your work in, doing so only if you think a piece is your absolute best and is highly relevant to the interests of their readers. Still, having those platforms in mind can make for great goals for your blog.
Each time you’re featured on one of these channels, three things happen:

  1. Some of the readers convert and become followers.
  2. Some readers don’t subscribe, but become more aware of your work, and are more likely to click/subscribe next time.
  3. Some readers are decidedly not interested.

Over time, you’ll end up “saturating” different channels. The first time you’re featured on MR you’ll get a good chunk of the MR readers who are interested in the kind of thing you’re writing about. The next time you’re featured, you’ll see less growth, and so on.

One way to overcome this dynamic is to pursue different channels. Another way is to write about different topics to attract new readers, counting on old readers to stay engaged due to the high quality of your content.

Ultimately, you want to own your audience, rather than borrowing it from other channels. That means having people who are on your email list, subscribed to your RSS feed, who check your site regularly, or at least follow you on Twitter. Twitter and Substack make the reader-to-subscriber conversion really easy, though they also impose some costs.

Reminder: Don’t spam. It makes you look bad and can also reflect badly on any of the communities you represent. We will make sure that high quality posts are widely distributed.

Mailing List

Even if your posts don’t take a “newsletter” format, you are going to want some form of email distribution available. An email list of interested readers is very valuable for keeping people updated on your work and generally has higher clickthrough rates than any social media publishing or other distribution options. If you stop your blog and move to another site, are kicked off a social media platform, or otherwise lose your audience, email can be the best way to stay in contact with readers. A major advantage of Substack or Ghost is that email lists are a core feature, other services may require you to also set up a newsletter service such as MailChimp. Native support is certainly easier but all major blogging platforms should have plugins available for newsletter services.
It’s also worth considering more of a regular newsletter format. If you are doing a great deal of research in your domain, it is likely that you are more aware of new developments and state-of-the-art discussions than most. This provides an excellent opportunity to share what you read with your audience. Regular newsletter summaries and link lists are a lot of work but have been successful for numerous writers.

Analytics

Y Combinator encourages their startups to choose a single metric to chase and build targets around. In blogging, you could choose to concern yourself with email subscriber list, Twitter follows, unique visitors, reader retention, or many other data points. However, we suggest a different metric: backlinks. Oftentimes having a few uniquely influential readers is more valuable than having hundreds of Twitter retweets. Backlinks are whenever someone writing their own blog post links to your work as a reference or citation. Your work could be linked as a superlative essay or as an example of foolish thinking, but we think that your writing being discussed by other writers is the best metric for influence and success as a blogger. Backlinks have an added benefit of cascading into greater readership and search engine ranking over time.
There are many ways to check backlinks (give it a Google search), but you should also consider other methods of knowing your analytics. Most blogging platforms have some native functionality baked-in (with the exception of Ghost—for that, you’ll need ghostboard.io) and we encourage you to supplement native tracking with another service, such as Google Analytics. Often, these analytic tracking services only need you to paste a snippet of code onto your website footer in order to work, Google Analytics or any other service will have easy tutorials in case you need help.

Blog Contest

5. Miscellaneous Advice & Further Resources

Miscellaneous, Surprising Tips

  • Using section headers helps increase time spent on page and makes your posts more impactful: they help readers skim, find and return to their page, and gauge length. If a section isn’t interesting, it signals that readers can skip ahead or allows them to pick out the particular bit they’re curious about. Section headers also help you, as a writer, keep your organization strong and writing legible.
  • Counterintuitively, lengthier posts (>6000 words) go viral at a higher rate than short form writing. You shouldn’t expect—or even hope—that every post will go viral but it is reassuring that not only will a “deep dive” blog post not be penalized for length, it might even perform better! This trend seems to be especially accurate if you can write an authoritative treatment of a topic, the first and only essay anyone needs to read.
  • If you want to really customize and automate parts of your blog, look into API-based services such as Zapier or IFTTT. These can ensure that more things happen automatically: subscriptions on Patreon get added to your Substack list, blog posts are automatically Tweeted, and more.

Further Resources:

We have a team dedicated to supporting contestants in this blog prize. When you nominate your blog on our form, there are options to join both our Slack community and receive mentorship from our writing mentors. Mentorship is available whether you want to develop general, formal writing skills or to strengthen your blogging strategy and dominate a topical niche. Please reach out to us if there are any other, further forms of support we can offer you.
In addition to our own writing guide, here are some of the internet’s best writing resources to study.

Blog Contest

6. Prize Rules

  • Up to 5 prizes of $100,000 will be awarded.
  • Qualifying blogs and newsletters explore themes related to effective altruism and longtermism, including:
    • Using reason, evidence, expected value, and the scout mindset to think clearly about the world, and to think clearly about how to do good.
    • Big picture thinking about science, philosophy, economics and the long-term trajectory of humanity.
    • Cutting-edge discussion of traditional areas like AI, biorisk, and weird utilitarian philosophy, as well as exploring potentially important new areas, like population, China, and institutions for space settlement.
    • Personal agency, ambition, and opposing the cheems mindset.
    • The principles and areas of interest pages on the FTX Foundation website are good overviews of themes we are interested in.
  • While blogs should generally explore these ideas, not every post needs to be on-topic to qualify. (Your foremost goal is to write an interesting and thought-provoking blog!)
  • We have a particular interest in iconic blog posts that stand the test of time.
  • Paywalled blogs will not be eligible for the prize. Donations or optional subscriptions are acceptable.
  • Qualifying blogs will generally need to be new or started within the last 12 months, though exceptions could be made for special cases (like a long inactive blog). Please reach out if you have questions.
  • Group blogs may qualify for a single prize, with money split among participants.
  • There is not a fixed end date for the awards, but we hope to award the prizes within 2022.
Blog Contest