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True confessions of an Areavoices blogger on health in Willmar, Minn.

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If someone had told me seven or eight years ago that I would become a blogger, my reaction probably would have been "Huh?"

Blogging wasn't really my scene -- and besides, what was there to blog about?

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Fast-forward to 2012.

I've been writing the West Central Tribune's health blog, HealthBeat (http://healthbeat.areavoices.com), for three years, one month and 21 days. Before that, I was a volunteer contributor for two years to a now-defunct group blog, writing book and recipe reviews and blogging often (some would say too often) about my cat.

You know what they say: Never say never.

It's hard to pin down what exactly motivated me to start blogging. I'd say it was a combination of factors -- reading other people's blogs, enjoying what they wrote, leaving a comment or two and gradually becoming engaged in the vast, lively, diverse online world of blogging. It was fun and stimulating, and I realized I wanted to do more than just lurk. I wanted to participate.

I knew nothing about the mechanics of blogging, how to post an entry or how to customize a cool-looking blog. But I figured I could learn. If millions of people worldwide were blogging, how hard could it be?

As it turns out, blogging isn't always easy. But more on that later.

I've learned a lot from blogging and the most important lessons came at the beginning.

Know your mission. Do you want your blog to be personal? Humorous? Inspirational? There's room in the blogosphere for all of these. I blog as a reporter and I blog about health so I stick to a news-and-information format, with a personal or informal tone from time to time. It works for me and it seems to be the approach that's most appropriate.

This doesn't mean you're stuck with the same formula forever. A blog is an organic creature that often evolves over time. Good bloggers recognize this and go with the flow. But it helps to know at the outset what you want your blog to be.

Follow your passions. Whether it's cooking, fishing, collecting stamps or growing orchids, we all have something that catches our interest. Blogging is more fun, and more sustainable, when it involves a topic that really stokes the blogger's passion.

Be disciplined. Readers visit blogs because they're looking for something to read. Content drives traffic, especially repeat traffic. If you don't post anything new, readers will gradually stop visiting your blog -- and once that happens, it's hard to bring them back.

My goal is to post a new entry three times a week. Some weeks it's more than this, other weeks less. Regardless, my regular readers know they can visit my blog every few days and be assured of new material. It doesn't matter if you post once a week or every single day, as long as you set a schedule and stay committed to it.

This leads into my single biggest challenge as a blogger: keeping up with the constant demand to post something new. In the newsroom we call this "feeding the beast." It takes time, thought and creative energy. Mustering your mental forces day after day is not easy; we all get tired or busy, and reporters are as prone as anyone else to develop writer's block.

Many blogs fall by the wayside for precisely this reason. Bloggers start with enthusiasm, then become frustrated, discouraged or apathetic as creative fatigue sets in. Pretty soon they stop updating their blog, readers stop visiting the site... and you have a blog that's moribund beyond help.

I'll let you in on a secret: Most bloggers, including me, go through cycles when blogging is difficult. The key to surviving it is reminding yourself it's temporary, focusing on what attracted you to blogging in the first place (see "follow your passions" above), and continuing to blog even when you'd rather not (see "be disciplined" above).

All told, I've been blogging for more than five years and I've found the rewards far outweigh the occasional struggles. I like being involved in the collective public discussion. My blog is listed on most of the Forum Communications websites, which means it has much more exposure than I could ever gain on my own.

I enjoy comments and feedback from readers. I like tracking my site statistics and noticing when a particular post seems to strike a chord with readers. I never thought I'd say this, but I even like tinkering with headers, widgets and menus and all the things that help personalize a blog and give the blogger a sense of ownership.

More than this, blogging is an opportunity to connect with people far beyond the boundaries of rural Minnesota. Some of my blog entries have been cross-posted on sites such as the Center for Advancing Health in Washington, D.C., and Reporting on Health, a project of the Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication at the University of Southern California. I've had emails from readers in Finland, South Carolina and South Africa.

Starting a blog can feel a little bit like stepping off a cliff into unknown space. But don't worry; it's not as hard as you think and there's a pretty cool world waiting to be explored when you land.

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Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

(320) 235-1150
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