As R.E.M. so nearly sang, everybody blogs. The internet is so saturated with undercooked opinions and overripe prose, it can feel like the proverbial tree falling in the woods. If nobody will read your blog, why put in the effort?
In an age of disposable media, so few people take blogging seriously that the standard has fallen dramatically. A few simple tricks of the trade can elevate you beyond the competition and into internet superstardom (or at least make your business blog a bit tidier). Touch up your Tumblr and wash down your WordPress with these five tips from a trained journalist.
Brevity is the soul of wit (even if you aren’t witty)
Shakespeare’s famous proverb doesn’t hold hard-and-fast; sometimes a piece needs room to breathe (particularly when you’re explaining how to write blog posts). But without an editor to cut down your copy, even the best bloggers risk overindulgence. Internet readers can be notoriously pedantic, so always aim to explain your arguments with clarity and precision.
If you’re having trouble editing, have a friend read your work, or leave it for a day and come back to it. A fresh pair of eyes will help identify mistakes as well as pleonasm, and produce something that’s cleaner and more meaningful. Personality in writing is a wonderful thing, but if you want people to read to the end, you should try to whittle it down to its essence.
Research, plan, structure
Blogging is often a train of thought process, but this can lead to messy copy and incoherent arguments. Before you start thundering through the paragraphs, try to sum up what you want to get across in a few bullet points. I often find that making a flowchart (replete with directional arrows) outlining what I intend to say helps to focus my thoughts.
Just having a beginning, a middle and an end before you start writing can give your post a more natural through-line, and form the nucleus of any research you do to back up your arguments. If there’s an obvious counter point, it’s better to find it here than when you’re nearly done. Books aren’t usually written without knowing how they’ll finish, and blogs should be no different.
Think of how you consume content, and what would draw you into reading a similar piece. Because many people will only skim the first few sentences to decide if it’s worth their time, a common principle of journalism is to take the best part of your finished article – a particularly juicy quote, say – and put it front and centre in your ‘lede’, or first paragraph.
Ideally you should come back to this extract in the last paragraph or two, to lend it greater context and tie the piece up with a pretty ribbon. Having that compelling hook to sell the reader on your idea straight away can be the difference between twenty views and twenty-thousand. And if you’re feeling really plucky, make the rest of the article good too.
Your blog isn’t news, but it can learn from it
Objectivity is a much vaunted and rarely displayed trait. Bias can be explicit – such as when the moral arbiters at tabloid newspapers begin stories with “SHOCKING” or “SICKENING” – or more implicit and harder to prove, such as choosing to report one story and not covering another. But just because many people equate being objective with flattering their own entrenched position, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim to be truthful and comprehensive in your writing.
Celebrities can get away with making inflammatory remarks and having them reported verbatim, but if you want to gain and retain readers, you need to back your opinions up. Finding and linking to sources to support your argument will lend you authority, as will sourcing quotes directly from trustworthy and noteworthy individuals. Never think that what you’re writing is “just a blog post”. Always imagine that your post is going to print, and hold it to that standard.
When actual newspapers conduct all of their business online, they are your direct competition, and you will be judged against them. “I can go back and edit it later” isn’t an excuse: the majority of people who read your blog post will do so in the few hours after it goes live, especially if it is fed through an aggregation service (e.g. Google News) or pushed on social media.
One of the great benefits of the internet is that your piece of writing could potentially reach thousands of people the world over, and some of them might hold significant sway in their fields. Treat it with due deference, and take the time to consider your actual stance. Leave social media as your sounding board for controversial opinions, and treat your blog more like your CV: punchy, professional, and full of reasons to take you seriously.
Nurture comments, but don’t feed them
It’s often said that authors should never stray ‘below the line’, and depending on the nature of your content that might just hold true. The idea that ‘engagement is everything, ergo you should always engage with comments’ is a misdirect. Sometimes a comment is essentially rhetorical, and is better left as an alternative angle. Other times people don’t expect you to turn up at all!
Being overzealous and responding to everything can look overbearing, and put people off commenting at all. Most authors will have encountered hostile comments too, and most have been drawn into an endless war of attrition at some point. Unless you have a good reason, avoid the temptation to respond. If you’re in the right, someone else will probably do it for you.
Don’t be tempted to ask for comments either by writing a transparent ‘tell us what you think’ at the end of a piece. Yes I know, everybody does this. Well everybody’s wrong. The hard truth is that if your writing is interesting enough, comments will come naturally. Instead consider a system that encourages interaction without appearing to beg for it.
Most newspaper websites have user accounts, and WordPress does have plugins to enable this. But an easier and better way is to use a uniform comment system like Disqus. Not only will this automatically log Disqus users in, making it more likely that they’ll comment reflexively, it also lets people engage by ‘liking’ comments and giving them recognisable profiles.
Blog like a journalist, think like a designer
Reading well is pretty crucial, but your post should look good too. Short paragraphs of two to three sentences will make your blog seem like less of a slog, and are a good way to break down and highlight the points of your argument.
Use subheadings and bits of visual ‘furniture’ to provide variety – these could be images, tweets, videos, lists or something entirely different. Or consider a service like Storify, which strings tweets together into a single narrative, as an alternative way to present content. Platforms like WordPress are highly flexible; if it’s on the internet, you can probably embed it in a blog post.
The simplest touches can make your post look smarter. Try to justify each paragraph as much as possible: if there are two stray words in the last sentence of a paragraph, find a way to take two words out, or make the sentence longer. If your blog has a particularly wide central column, you may even consider making your paragraphs longer or text larger to fill that.
Subheadings are a useful tool both to lend coherence to your blog and for SEO purposes. Make sure the spacing between your paragraphs, images and subheadings is the same throughout too, and use the same dimensions for images and other embedded media. It may seem pedantic, but the more professional your blog looks, the more attractive it will be to read.