please help me (and “why i blog”)

image courtesy of

I’m writing today to ask you for help. [If you don’t want to read “why I blog,” please skip to the “survey” at the end of this post.]  I started the blog in November of last year, thinking I might post a couple or three times a week.  I’ve found I enjoy it, though, more than I ever thought I would.  Bogging has become for me many things — a hobby, a way in which to relax, a process for organizing and cataloguing thoughts and experiences, a means of keeping friends and family up to date on life in Tanzania, and a ministry of sorts.

Writing is a lot like running and cycling for me now, except I don’t have to shower afterwards.  I think blogging serves me well because of the way in which my mind works.  I believe my ability to process information is greatly heightened when I:

  1. put my thoughts in words, sentences, and paragraphs. There is a certain level of realization that can’t be reached until thoughts are shaped and molded to fit into a language.  Blogging also brings organization to my thoughts and the ability to systematically read through them, allowing me to be just a bit more objective.
  2. make my thought process public, sharing with those around me. I’m not sure if I benefit more from the pressure of knowing people will hear/read how I work through a particular issue, or from opening my thoughts up to critique and improvement by others.  [Both seem to be helpful.]  In the states, there were dozens of different people in several groups with whom I could work through information and ideas.  Here in Tanzania, though, I lack both the quantity and the assortment of friends present in the U.S.  Blogging opens that group back up, providing me with a large sounding board of people from a variety of backgrounds.

I’ve decided that if I’m going to have a somewhat deep level of commitment to my blog, I will do so to the best of my ability.  Not that I publish junk now — I like to think that I hold myself to a relatively high standard of writing, editing, and sharing (most of what I write does not end up on the blog).  And it’s probably evident from my reasons for blogging above that I myself receive the bulk of any benefits to be had from my writing.  But all the same, I’d like to have a feel for “my readership” (all six of you).

I don’t have any great survey — just a few specific questions and a general desire for you to feel free to provide feedback beyond the scope of these questions.  I want to know what can make my blog better, what will help my readers enjoy it more, and how to accomplish those things. I’m open to really big changes as well as those that are quite small; and I don’t mind tweaking anything from content to aesthetics to ease of site use.  Please help?

  • A change in the title of the blog?  Nothing against “aliens and strangers,” but maybe someone has a better idea?  [I’m not wanting the title to have my name in it.]
  • As far as content, which posts do you like best?  I generally write stuff on Bible studies, Tanzanian culture, missionary life, theology/missiology, devotionals, practical Christianity, modern-day retellings of scripture, morning blend, sports, humor, and just thinking.  Should I do more of a certain type of post?  Less?
  • I tend to write long posts.  Should I… a) write as usual, b) make the posts shorter by dividing them into “series,” or c) just make the posts shorter, period?
  • Right now I’m posting 6-7 times per week.  Should I do less, or leave it the same?  [More is not an option.]
  • Do you like guest posts?  What type and whom would you like to read?
  • Are posts better with or without bolding the most important thoughts?
  • Anything to improve as far as ease of use on the site?
  • Aesthetically, anything I should work on?

And I’m certainly open to any other critiques or advice you’ve got.  Thank you in advance to those of you who will participate in helping me improve my blog.



Filed under blogging, just thinking, writing

44 responses to “please help me (and “why i blog”)

  1. Brand new reader here, don’t have much feedback at all, but I’ll answer a couple questions…

    Post length – I like medium length. Too long loses me. Too short doesn’t feel right. Series posts are good because they make your life as a writer easier and give us a reason to come back.

    Bolding – not much opinion here, but I think it’s often easy to rely on bolding instead of on good writing. (In general – not directed at you, just at the technique.) Books have been published for YEARS without bolding, and I think that’s worthy of consideration.

    Aesthetically – The font isn’t one that reads easily for me. I don’t know how to technically analyze that. 🙂

    Names of blogs – I DO like blogs that easily associate me with who the author is. However, I also like WithoutWax, PinkHairedGirl, GritandGlory, too. But those are almost brands bacause they are so recognizable. I wish more blogs were just named by the author so I could tell who I’m reading when I get the emails. It takes a lot of effort to make a blog name that recognizable.

    So, there’s a few thoughts from a guy that doesn’t even know you. 🙂

    • medium length posts, eh. i had a 7th grade teacher who told us to write our english papers like girls’ skirts — long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep it interesting.

      thanks for stopping by, bernard. i’m glad you did. and i appreciate all the advice.

  2. well, i enjoy your blog as is. it reflects who you are. we as people have multiple interests, and to focus on one type of topic over another is giving an unbalanced view of who you are. i read blogs because 1) I relate to the person (usually through a common interest) and 2) I want to learn more about the parts of the person we don’t have in common. in this way i get to experience the world from a perspective other than my own and have a broader experience. your blog fits the bill. from the age of 8 I have been fascinated with missions, having felt a call on my life at that age. the Lord ultimately led me in a different direction, but i still have a special place in my heart for missionaries and like to hear their stories and pray for them. i think a blog tends to lose something when you start catering to an audience. I like it just the way it is.

    • thank you for your kind words, trapper. though you should know i’m most excited to hear that you pray for the missionaries whose stories you hear. i assume that means you’re praying for our family here in tanzania. thank you very much.

  3. So from my perspective your blog is just right. I look forward to your posts each morning… Kind of wakes me up since I have to be at work “before God wakes up” (a sacreligious southern euphemism for early). I primarily am interested in the mission work and life in Tanzania, whether that means finding snakes in your yard or teaching a common Bible story to people that have never had the chance for it to become Sunday School history (I.e. The Adam and Eve story). Aesthetically I get your posts on my Blackberry and don’t see the layout of your site, but the bolding actually helps me follow, personally.

    I don’t know you personally, don’t know your last name, and will probably never meet you. Hope you don’t find it creepy that since Freshly Pressed I’ve been a loyal reader!

    • despite your southern sacrilege, audrey, i’m glad you read every morning. also, you’re very gracious — because i don’t even like me in the mornings.

      my last name is harrison. you’re right that you’ll probably never meet me. and it’s not creepy; i think i picked up a few readers when the blog was on freshly pressed.

  4. I really enjoy reading your stuff because of your writing style, humor, variety, and I like hearing about Tanzania. So, here are my answers to some of your questions.

    1. I like the title.
    2. I am interested in all of that stuff except theology, but I bet you have plenty of readers who are so I’d keep at it (adds to the variety).
    3. Again on the variety front, some posts should be short and sweet and some should be lengthy. When I re-read what I write I ask myself if I would be interested in this fact/paragraph/re-telling of something. If not, it gets deleted. I have a feeling you know how to do that as well.
    4. Leave posting frequency the same. The more you post, the more regularly readers show up to see what’s new. Keeps me coming to know that you’ve probably posted something new since I last checked.
    5. Guest posts are fine as long as they are interesting…have you used that many recently?
    6. I like everything else. 🙂 Keep it up!

    • i have a writing style?

      thanks, jane. [by the way, i have some side questions for you — i’ll put them at the end.]

      if you want i can email you ahead of time the days i write theology, so you’ll know not to go to my blog.

      good advice, but i’m really torn on the title.

      i’ve used three guest posts ever — and all were my little brother. but my first non-relative guest post is tomorrow. a guy named shawn smucker (i love that name).

      your side questions:
      – when did you swap from janie to jane?
      – when did you start your blog?

      • Well now, I understand. Your little brother’s posts are something else!

        My name has actually always been Jane. Erika Jane to be exact. When I got married, I legally dropped Erika so that I could be Jane McGuire Reneau – and that is what I go by at work, that is what Jason calls me, and if you think of all the great Janes out there – Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, Tarzan and Jane – it is a name with a good heritage. But a ton of people still call me Janie. (Although I think Jane Reneau has some sophisticated sass to it).

        I don’t remember when I started my blog. I used to post on myspace way back in the day, but it was too much effort to pull them over to my blogger blog …although I did pull over a few. I think the real beginning was early 2008.

        And you don’t have to e-mail me ahead of time, you nut. Part of the fun is seeing what’s new, even if I think it is boring. I might read a sentence or two and learn something, you never know.

        Oh, and you DO have a style. If I read something you write before I write something, I sound like you. So I gotta go read something mine to get back to my style. An author friend of mine, Terry Kay, said all writers should be careful about that – not to read a book when writing a book. So maybe it is the same for a blog.

        • so if i still call you janie, that’s alright? because that’s how i like to refer to you. i’ll admit jane reneau sounds elegant and sophisticated — it’s the name of your author self. but your runner self needs to go by janie. in my humble opinion, at least.

          i realized i had a style about a month ago. i mean i’ve always enjoyed writing, but never thought much of it. one commenter described my writing as “witty and human.” i like that description. i think describing writing styles is one of those things i’m not good at — i can’t find the right words. it’s like trying to describe coffee. i drink coffee. i mean i really drink coffee. but i have no idea how to talk about the chocolate or berry overtones and the like. same with writing.

          have you read, ‘born to run?’ you need to.

          • It is on my list and I hope to get it soon. I’ve wanted to read it for a while, but had to wait for a break in school…which is now.

  5. Brett, I enjoy the blog. From my perspective, the title is fine, so no change is needed. I enjoy the following best: Bible studies, Tanzanian culture, missionary life, theology/missiology, devotionals, and modern-day retellings of scripture best. The ones on American church shortcomings could be a little less frequent. Length is not a concern for me–if I don’t have time now, I leave it in my inbox and come back later. I like the frequency because it keeps me engaged. Guest posts are okay infrequently if you give reasons for why you think this is worth our time. The rest of the issues you raise are fine.

    Thanks, brother, for keeping us informed and giving us this avenue to engage your work. I pray Papa blesses you through the discipline of writing.

    • john, you’ll be happy to know i’ve been convicted of criticism in general — not that i won’t continue trying to see things objectively. but i’m trying to shift my thoughts (and writings as well) more to the productive side of things. improving rather than complaining.

  6. First, I must mention that I enjoyed your gutting of the pig post (with photos!) immensely. 🙂

    Entrails aside, I’ll get to your questions:

    1. I like the name. It’s one of the things that first caught my attention.

    2. So far, I’ve enjoyed all of your posts. Topics that are most of interest to me are your personal experiences in the field – away from home. I’ve also been convicted (and blessed) by many of your other posts. So, I guess, just keep up the good work!

    3. 6-7 times per week!?! You have shamed me. I applaud you – especially knowing how many probably end up in the “Drafts” or “Deleted” folder.

    4. On guest posts, I agree with what’s been mentioned – as long as you give a simple preface as to who and why.

    5. I like the bolding. Sue me.

    6. 7. 8. 9. 10. I think the theme, aesthetics, etc are good. Simple. It allows your text to do most of the work. But, to be honest, 95% of the time, I read your blog through Google Reader so I don’t see the formatting – unless there’s a reason to comment or view other’s comments.

    I really don’t remember how I ended up on your blog, but I’m glad I did. Even though we’ve never met (and probably never will) I feel a connection to you through this blog – and, by extension, a constant reminder to lift you and your family up in prayer.

    Thank you.

    • aaron, i’ll try to get you some more photos of dead animals soon. we slaughtered not too long ago and made another 40-some odd pounds of sausage — though no one wants to see the exact same thing again.

      you came to my blog by way of “the art of manliness.” i don’t know how i remember that, but i do. thanks for praying for our family and our work here.

      • wow – good memory.

        heard a hilarious bit by a standup the other day about a “monkey as roadkill”. how that it must be traumatic to hit a monkey since they look a lot like us. not sure why, but it made me think of you as I was watching it. 🙂

  7. Brittney Harrison

    I enjoy the frequency of your posts, I feel as if I am keeping up with you better. I usually have my morning coffee (fair-trade, organic, black) with your blog. Also I like the variety, it is refreshing. Aesthetically, I don’t care-I don’t like guns and whistles, is that the correct phrase? (I don’t like guns in general, and whistles are irritating sometimes. But I mean the cliche phrase.)

    Guest writers are fun. I think the title is fine, but I’d be curious of some of your ideas…and a vote! Let’s see….ah yes, the bolding. I sometimes twitter some of your bold sentences as a way of passing on summary. Don’t worry, I give you credit.

    I would like for someone to send me a weekly picture of Baylor, but I think that can be accomplished via email. I love your blog, it makes me feel as if I am not so far away.

    • alright, sis, tell me the truth: do you buy your coffee from your place of business? or do you purchase from a… competitor?

      and the cliche IS NOT “guns and whistles.” though that’s really funny. how do you feel about bells? i’m pretty sure the phrase came from early toy trains. if you had one with all the “bells and whistles,” then you’d really gotten something.

      a weekly picture of baylor, huh. yeah, sorry we’re slacking in the photo department at the harrison household. i’ll see what i can find.

  8. P.S. Just realized I grew up just west of you in Hattiesburg, MS.

  9. JMF

    A change in the title of the blog? Nothing against “aliens and strangers,” but maybe someone has a better idea? [I’m not wanting the title to have my name in it.]

    Keep the name as it is. As a Christian, I like it; for an unbeliever, it seems unique and engaging.

    As far as content, which posts do you like best? I generally write stuff on Bible studies, Tanzanian culture, missionary life, theology/missiology, devotionals, practical Christianity, modern-day retellings of scripture, morning blend, sports, humor, and just thinking.

    Keep things dynamic and changing…just as I imagine your mind works. I doubt you dwell on theology all day. I think your writing probably accurately portrays what is going on inside your head. Personally, I am obsessed with the idea of your challenges with getting through to the Tanzanians (like when you said that they don’t understand our concept of sin). That is your best stuff, IMO. Next would be practical Christianity. Much needed, much lacking in our heritage.

    Again, I like the personal stuff. Not that I’m nosy; it helps me to “buy in” to you as a writer. I know you now. For instance, when you described yourself yesterday in your shortcomings (I’m post on it later). That was great.

    One thing that John King said that I (kinda) agree with: Beating up our heritage can be sensitive (I know, you don’t do it much…but there are inferences.) Like many of us that have escaped imprisonment, you probably harbor some resentments. Again, preaching to the choir. But I’m not sure how fruitful it is (I do it often myself, and usually end up feeling convicted for it). Just an opinion. I can also see good reasons for point out shortcomings. Just something to prayerfully consider so that God can show you a balance.

    Here is another tightrope to walk: There is a real fine line (when it comes to missionaries, etc.) to where you can talk “fat Americanism”, etc. and it be convicting and healthy. And then there comes a point where it seems smug. Very similar to environmentalism. My brother went camping with some people in Colorado, and he ate half of a hot dog and threw the balance of it into the woods. One of his camp mates excoriated him and said, “You should go pick up that hot dog, otherwise some animal may eat it and it will make the animal sick to it’s stomach.” Smug.

    I’m CERTAINLY not saying you cross this fine line. Just something else to be prayerfully considerate of.

    Should I do more of a certain type of post? Less?
    I tend to write long posts. Should I… a) write as usual, b) make the posts shorter by dividing them into “series,” or c) just make the posts shorter, period?

    Your posts are a good length. Too long bores, too short irritates. Don’t change this.

    Right now I’m posting 6-7 times per week. Should I do less, or leave it the same? [More is not an option.]

    Tough one! If you have the energy, I think your frequency is great. Jay says that readership falls way off on the weekends, so you could make the weekends more fluffy. Were it me, I’d have a few weeks’ of posts built up for whenever you lock up.

    Do you like guest posts? What type and whom would you like to read?

    I was thrilled to read your brother’s posts, but I don’t know how many others would agree. Which leads me to my strongest critique: WHERE IS YOUR WIFE?! Again, I need to “buy in” to the fact that you are extremely real. But your wife, brother, best friend (that i know of), never post. I think you need some people responding that call you out every now and then. That say, “Brett, six months ago your idea of practical Christianity was to do yoga. Now you are telling us that real Christianity is service. Why the change of heart for you? And you “sure” you are right now? Or is this dynamic?”

    Poor example, but I think you need some people that really know you to challenge you on occasion.

    Back to guest bloggers: Def have your wife do it. Your preacher. A mentor. YOU KNOW WHAT WOULD BE AWESOME? Get one of your Tanzanian leaders to write something!

    Are posts better with or without bolding the most important thoughts?

    The first guy that posted made a good comment on this. Irrelevant to me.

    Anything to improve as far as ease of use on the site?
    Aesthetically, anything I should work on?

    All good on that front, IMO.

    • thanks, fife. especially for the advice on the fine line between being convicting and smug. i need to consider that.

      good ideas on guest posts. my wife has her own blog, but i’ll see if she’ll guest post on mine. there’s a link to hers, though, in my blogroll. originally it was intended for my blog to be bible study and missiology and christie’s to be missionary life in tanzania. i’ve overstepped into her territory a bit, perhaps.

      john king is one of our shepherds and the preacher at our sending church — he occasionally points me in the right direction. i think my sister reads my blog every day, though rarely comments (she did on this post).

      i’ve never done yoga.

      i’ve never done yoga.

      • Brittney Harrison

        I do read your blog everyday. Your mother also reads your blog daily. Although…she has never commented. She just calls me and tells me her comments.

        • really? i mean really about mom telling you her comments. i figured she reads every day. send me an email and tell me what kinds of things she says…

          so, sissie, are you willing to take up jmf’s cause? he wants you to publicly call me out occasionally. you know, make public my yoga exercises and how i change my mind all the time on theology. you could probably tell on me for spinning you around in the recliner until you threw up. yeah, he’d like that.

  10. JMF

    Dang it. I spaced all of my answers apart, but I guess WP squeezed it all together. Gonna be a tough read.

  11. JMF

    Okay, here is a big pet-peeve. Is there any way to add typing functions to WP? Like my post above, I couldn’t change the color of my writing. Can’t do bold, etc.

  12. “WordPress” the software can be given a lot of functionality like that by adding plugins. However, since you are on “” the free blogging host, you can’t add plugins.

    So, yes, but no.

  13. Zee

    i loooove reading your “modern-day retelling of Scriptures” – they are really great and you got the talent for it. reading about missionary life is also interesting for me because i grew up around mixed cultures (even though i am ukrainian, my grandma is russian, and i grew up around a LOT of americans… and a couple of germans and british guys)…

    as for longer / shorter posts – i’d say leave ’em the same. series of posts is fun too, but… i don’t know. i like to read so… yeah.

    and i like it when the main ideas or thoughts are bold or italic. it catches the attention while otherwise it may not always be clear which thought one’s trying to stress.

    hmm… not really helpful, am i? 🙂

    • very helpful, indeed, zee. as a matter of fact, unless i hear strong words against, your comment is the one that tipped me onto the side of continuing to use bold sentences for main points and the like.

      and i think the “modern-day retellings” are my second favorite posts. my favorite are the silly ones that have no real point other than to let me type off the top of my head and bring slight amusement to others. like “how to be creative” — that one was just so fun to write.

  14. Interesting to hear everyone’s responses. 🙂 Looks like we all agree on more tales about Tanzania.

    Remember, your blog can always be updated and tweaked, so if you don’t feel ready now, there’s always the future.

    • thanks, joy, for all your help.

      to everyone else: this is joy, THE editor at wordpress, though i think her actual title is “editorial czar.” link over to her blog for really helpful hints on how to improve your own blog. also, and i’m pretty sure she even wants this advertised, she’s available to answer specific questions for you. you can write her on her blog or find her email address on her “about” page.

  15. mikevalstephens

    I like the length, aesthetics, and variety of your blog. I enjoy hearing about missionary life in Tanzania, but I think its great that you post about lots of other things as well. Many average church goers put missionaries on a pedestal like we are super-christians or something. I think your blog helps people to know you as a real, regular person. Our organization had a logo at one time that said “ordinary people being used by an extraordinary God”. I like that, and I think your blog exhibits that.
    I would say no to guest posts unless they are directly related to your life or what you are doing (wife, teammates, etc.)
    Just my two cents.

  16. JMF

    Ok, here is a complaint. I’ve not noticed this before, but it now appears that you are responding IMMEDIATELY after each post by hitting the ‘reply’ button directly below the post.

    This is cool, but it is impossible to know it happens unless you read through all the posts each time. Does that make sense?

    Maybe you could put up a “recent posts” tool or something.

    You asked for criticisms.

    • that’s a good criticism. i had that “recent comments” tool up for a day once. but i didn’t like the fact that it was always showing that i’d commented. because, as it is, almost half the comments are mine. so i feel silly putting that thing up there.

      i see a few solutions:

      1. i could quit commenting so much. and i would love for there to be more conversation between readers (without me), but i feel like i should also respond to people when there’s not ongoing conversation, but rather free-standing comments only — especially when they’re directed at me.

      2. everyone could subscribe to the comments of any page they comment on. that way they get emails in which they can read new comments from that blog post. there should be add the bottom or every post an option to subscribe to the blog OR to the comments of that one post. is that showing up?

      3. i could just get over it, and put up the “recent comments” tool again.

      other ideas?

  17. Kim

    Apologies for the late reply… just got home from a week long trip.

    I love reading all of your stuff, so I wouldn’t change the ones you already do, but something I would be interested in seeing would be occassionally really engaging your readers in praying for specific needs there and maybe even letting us know if you have needs for specific items (that could be anything from bibles to bubble gum). I’m good at collecting items, and love supporting missions in that way if possible.

    I appreciate you highlighting some of the struggles missionaries have to overcome, it gives me greater insight and an even deeper appreciation for the sacrifices you make.

    • thanks, kim. that’s a great idea — using the blog to give specific prayer requests to readers. i occasionally do that (in the monthly work reports), but probably haven’t utilized it to the point that i should.

      i guess i hesitate, not knowing how much i can ask of my “readership.” i feel like if people are coming to my blog to get something (whether it be a devotional thought, information about another culture, pictures of their granddaughter, or the occasional laugh), it’s perfectly acceptable for me to occasionally ask for something as well — prayers.

      i guess i feel like there should be some certain ratio for that sort of thing. like 8:1 or something. you know, for every eight posts i give, i can ask for prayer requests, etc, or a pack of big red gum or something. what do you think?

  18. Kim

    My feeling is that you should never hesitate to ask for prayer support. They can either do it or not, but I am quite sure there are many back home and new friends you’ve made online that would love to truly support and lift you all up in prayer in a specific and meaningful way (not that they don’t already pray for you).

    As for requesting items, that probably does need to be spread out a bit, but I don’t believe there is anything wrong with putting a specific need out there. It’s like the gift trees around Christmas time. There are all these tags listing what anonymous children would like for Christmas, you don’t have to participate, but I know I love to bless a child in that way. I never actually meet the children, but it allows me to for a brief moment be a part of their life. I would love to however briefly be a part of your ministry and to be a blessing to your family and those you serve.

    Just my thoughts.

  19. The title is fine.
    I like the stuff about TZ. (I don’t read the theology posts-but like someone else said, keep it).
    Using bold is not needed and can be insulting to a reader. As if you think they won’t understand unless you point it out.
    I think posting more than once a day is too much. I read a lot of sites and I don’t want to recheck through out the day.
    Med. length posts are good. As well as an image with it.

  20. wow, insulting to a reader, huh? alright. now i’ll rethink that again.

    i’m trying to do better with images, and you don’t have to worry about me posting more than once a day. [except every now and then when i’ve already posted that day and scheduled something else to post the next — and i come across something i’d like to repost or link to. but that’s rare.]

    thanks for your help, laborious.

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