How to Write for a Blog
by Ethan Glover, Sat, Jan 31, 2015 - (Edited) Wed, Jan 10, 2018
"Start with empathy. Continue with utility. Improve with analysis. Optimize with love." - Jonathon Colman
If you haven't read my previous post on keyword research, please do so. You're going to want to adapt that research to your title and introduction paragraph of a blog. Don't worry about using the exact words you find, just make it similar, and make it sound natural.
Keywords are obsolete as a direct tool. Today, keywords are only useful to understand how people are searching for information. It's research, not something to plug in.
With your keyword research done, you should be ready to start writing the meat of your blog.
Writing for the web is much different from writing for print. The reading level needs to be lower, brevity is even more important, and you need to use as much white space and lists as possible.
Let's get started.
The best advice I've received on the topic of getting started is, "Start with Dear Mom." This simple insight has a huge impact.
Just write down "Dear Mom" and start explaining what you want to talk about, as if you were talking to her. You can of course write to anyone. Just make sure it's one person.
Use words like "you" where you can. You want your writing to be conversational because it will pull your online audience in.
You might want to write like a "scholar" and in the way they taught you in school. But reading things on bright screens is difficult. People can't concentrate on it as much as they can a book.
You have to compete with the entirety of the internet. At any time, someone can close the window and go somewhere else with the click of a button.
While writing for a site, keep a particular tone in mind. You want to be consistent with your writing and make sure fans know what they're getting. On another site of mine, I've chosen these three adjectives: empathetic, helpful, and direct.
A search engines goal in ranking websites is to find the most helpful page that answers the query. That's why I try to be as helpful to other people's problems as possible.
The empathy helps me to remember to write for the reader, not to engage in self-indulgent rants. Being direct allows for brevity, and simple writing.
This should be enough to get you started. You might hear things like content with 1,500 to 2,000 words ranks better. Or that BuzzFeed and Cosmopolitan type headlines attract more clicks. Both of these are true.
But if you try to stretch out your content to reach a certain word goal, you'll lose readers. Reader loyalty is a much bigger ranking factor than article length.
BuzzFeed style headlines and "listicles" may drive viral traffic, that's great. But they don't drive long-term loyalty. Go ahead and write up, "10 Facts about Obama that will Shock You" to get a few likes. Lists like that are fun, but don't depend on them.
BuzzFeed does it well, but it takes a huge amount of content to keep that train moving. For small blogs, you're going to want your information to be useful. You'll want to aim for search engine traffic more than you do social network traffic.
Plan before you write. I usually spend twice as much time researching and planning than I do writing. I cut or simplify what I find so much you'd think I just wrote a few sentences and clicked publish. That's my goal. I want what I write to be easy to read.
No matter what stage you're in, planning, writing, editing or sharing, remember this.
"Relentlessly, unremittingly, obstinately focus on the reader." – Ann Handley, Everybody Writes
Your vast knowledgebase and years' worth of research may help you to get good, correct information. But if you can't explain it to the layman or simplify things down to a few paragraphs, it's all for naught.
Everyone has a different style for planning his or her writing and you'll want to develop your own. I like to put a few notes in Notepad++ and organize them in a way that allows me to work down the list. I just fill in my notes with a few explanatory sentences.
When taking notes or planning how you'll put your article together, always keep the reader in mind. What kind of mood are you trying to set for them? What questions might they have?
As you write, keep asking yourself, "Why? How? What does that mean?" Push every detail out of yourself and simplify later.
Ask yourself, "Am I making my readers work to understand my point?" If so, restructure, and add details. Use empathy and teach to someone who doesn't know what you're talking about.
So get planning! Use the above notes to create a bullet list, mind map, or something else of your choice for your topic or idea. Make sure to get everything in a logical order and that every point builds on the last.
Your opening sentence is your fishhook. It's how you'll get people to stay on the page after clicking on an interesting, and descriptive headline. I've put together a short list of some ideas that might help:
- Put your reader in the story. If you're talking about a historical moment, start by describing the culture and how people must have been thinking. For example, if talking about a battle, start with, "Imagine you're a soldier in ___'s army. You've been marching for ___ days, you're on an empty stomach and in front of you the enemy is gathering…."
- Describe a problem the reader might have. "Writing for a blog is different than writing for print or script. You might be having trouble adapting to an audience confronted with information overload. With these tips, you'll be attracting new readers in no time."
- Start with a question. Be careful with this one. Opening an article with a question can sound cliché. For example, "Are you looking for the best writing tips?" doesn't sound great. Something like, "When was the last time you researched SEO?" might work for an always-changing field. Use your gut and caution, and you should be fine.
- Start with a shocking statistic. "95% of people start writing for their blogs before researching how to do so." OK, so I made this up, and you should start with something real, but it's a perfect set up. From here, I can talk about how much of an advantage you'd be at for doing your research. I can also reassure you that it's OK if you don't know anything.
- Start with a quote, analogy, or bold statement. "The lore of Santa originates from a hallucinogenic mushroom." Doesn't that want to make you read further? If you start big, and as long as your statement is honest (in this case, it was) you'll peak peoples interest and make them want to read more.
I'm not going to give you any advice on things like introductions, body paragraphs, and conclusions. That's kids' stuff. Start big with an opening sentence and write to dear old mom or someone else. Don't worry about formal structure, just worry about the reader.
You don't want to write any more than needed to get the point across. I'm not saying to always edit and cut as you go. Type what you're thinking and edit later.
By knowing a few simple rules and developing the habit of writing with them in mind, you'll have less editing to do in the end.
The most important words you'll write will be at the beginning of the sentence. Avoid filler text like "It is [important, critical, advised]…," "In my opinion…," "The purpose of this...," and "I think…" Just say what you want to say.
Filler text will slow down the pace of your article, make it boring, and maybe even make you look incompetent.
Remember that the attention span of internet audiences is harder to keep. The tips below will make your article easier to read and scannable. They will allow people to see that your article is worth reading before they read it:
- One thought, one paragraph. Don't use more than four lines per paragraph. Keep them short and concise.
- Simplify your vocabulary. Say 'use' instead of 'utilize.' Even if you're writing for adults, write for a 6th grade reading level. You're writing for the internet, not a book.
- Use bulleted lists as much as possible. They break up monotony and make things easier to read.
- Use subheadings to split up topics. Subheadings make your structure clear and your thoughts easier to follow.
- Use lots of visuals. Videos, images, even infographics. Use them often, but not too much. Three images per post is enough. You want them to add to your article, not distract from it.
- Don't be afraid of long sentences. You want most of your sentences to be short and concise. But as long as the rhythm is right, and the sentence focuses on one subject, go for it.
- Sarcasm doesn't work in writing. Skip the subtlety and be direct.
The most important thing to remember is that your writings goal is to answer a question. But you also want to write for a purpose. Aside from asking yourself why and how ask "So what?" Let your readers know why they're reading and what benefit it gives them by doing so.
"Knowing how to write for a blog means you'll be at an advantage over most bloggers. It means people will want to read what you write. Writing in a clear way that works for an audience rather than your own ego will help you build a large and loyal readership."
To be descriptive, helpful, and clear, add as many details as possible. It's not a dog you're talking about; it's a brown cocker spaniel with sparse white spots. You want those details to be helpful to the reader. If there's not much to say, that's fine, there's a place for all types of content. But make sure you're not leaving anything out.
If more appropriate, use analogies. Analogies are great for numbers. 31.7 million people watched the State of the Union. To put that into context I can plug '31.7 million people' into Wolfram Alpha and see that it's roughly the population of Canada. Pretty interesting right?
Last, never say, "The solution is… [we need to do this]." Explain why you support a particular solution. Use statistics and explain how it works in a logical manner. As a writer, you're a teacher. Don't ask your readers to do research. That's your job. If you don't do it, they'll find someone who will.
Closing statements are my favorite thing to work with. If someone manages to make it through an entire article, I want to leave him or her with a particular feeling. You know how at the end of the Matrix you feel like you know kung-fu and you're ready to fight anyone?
Or maybe at the end of The Judge you're feeling morose; you can't help but take a few deep breaths to match your deep thoughts. That's what I aim for.
Not everything you write will have a strong impact, but your reader should feel like they got some value out of reading. My favorite strategy is to switch the tone at the end. If you've been writing in a formal tone, end with a casual statement that summarizes a strong opinion. (Or switch from casual to formal.)
Another strategy is to repeat the biggest takeaway. If you've just spent 1,000 words explaining something, end with an optimistic statement. Tell your reader how he or she can take action and make a difference right now.
If all else fails, end with a supporting quote from a respected figure. It's hard to go wrong with a big name backing up what you're saying.
I do a lot of reading with text to speech software. I like to turn the speed up so I can get through lots of content in a short period. I do this for two reasons. First, it's hard to read things on a lit up screen. Second, I have a lot of information to go through.
I bring this up because I have a bad habit of using text to speech for editing. Don't do this. Don't rush editing. And don't overdo it. Methodically read your content to make sure everything sounds right. Do it many times. On your first couple of passes, look at the big picture idea and worry about the grammar later.
The first task for general editing is to start reading from your second paragraph. Does it make sense? Cut out your first paragraph.
If the first sentence of every paragraph doesn't get straight to the point, cut it.
Many people take some time to warm up by including pointless introductions. "There has been a lot of talk about this issue of ___ and I was thinking about it on my way home from work…." Nobody cares. Get to the point.
If it doesn't support your argument, cut it. If you typed up something as your mind wandered on the subject, and it doesn't help the goal of your article, delete it. Brevity, empathy to the reader, internet audience. Don't forget these points.
Each paragraph should have its own point, if it contains more than one, split it in two.
Each sentence should build on the previous point. If each sentence doesn't say something unique and build on the one before, cut it.
After every period, you should be taking a step forward, no standing still, no stepping back.
"Think of the sentences in a paragraph as a conversation between an elderly, companionable couple. They don't talk over each other; they expand or elucidate what the other before them said." – Ann Handley, Everybody Writes
Is everything in the right order? Does your piece fit together in a logical way? If not, reorder. Make sure to edit for that reorder too. If you built on a previous point, but switched the order of some paragraphs, make sure everything still fits. You don't want to confuse your reader.
In this stage, you'll still be trimming the fat and cutting things to as few words possible. I'm serious about this cutting thing.
"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Get rid of the obvious statements. Don't tell you reader's things like, "I think that...," you're writing it, of course you think it.
In the same regard, don't say, "In this article/post...," or "In regards to…" You don't need to tell people what they're reading in your article is in your article. And if you're describing something well you shouldn't have to tell people what you're talking about.
Get rid of the nonwords. Fraken words (awesomesauce, ginourmous, etc.), additives (also, similarly, likewise, etc.), industry jargon, and weblish (lol, I can haz, ur, etc.) have no place in any serious blog. Make your writing smooth and easy to read for everyone. Including your weblish illiterate mother.
Some more important tips to keep in mind are:
- Don't use adverbs (anything with 'ly' at the end). They're distracting and slow down readers. Adverbs are boring.
- Ditch the weak verbs. Don't go overboard, be honest. But 'consumed' sounds better than 'ate'.
- Create smooth transitions between paragraphs. Every point should be a natural extension of the last. Add something or remove something if needed. But don't resort to things like 'however', 'thus,' and 'therefore.'
- I know it's hard, but avoid the misplaced modifiers. You don't "Only publish good content." You also research and edit good content. Try saying you "Publish only good content." Don't get hung up on this, just look out for the issue and try to fix it.
Never use passive voice. I'm separating this issue from the bullet list to stress its importance and to explain as clear as possible. Passive voice is kind of a big deal.
Never say, "Something is being done to something." Instead, say, "Something is doing something." Don't say, "The flat tire was changed by Sue." Say, "Sue changed the flat tire."
It helps me to look for "to be" verbs. If you use the words "to be," "is being," "was," or "were," there's a good chance you're using passive voice.
Or to put it another way, if you can replace the subject of the sentence with "by zombies" it's passive voice. "The flat tire was changed by zombies." "By zombies changed the flat tire." Make your writing zombie proof!
The more time you spend with your readers: listening, understanding, and talking to them, the better you'll be able to resonate with them. It's good to challenge them, ask them questions and push them to think on issues, but don't be a jerk. Be a skeptic, or even a Socrates, but not an interrogator.
If your readers are concentrating on a subject you think is less important, don't scoff, ask why. If you ignore their interests, priorities, and attitudes, you won't be able to keep them as readers for long.
As you write, always be thinking of your readers and talk to them. As I said before, be conversational. The most important word you should be using often is 'you.'
Socializing with your audience helps you to write for them. It allows you to get a clear image of who that 'you' is. As a result, your writing will come across more clear and personable. People will begin to look forward to everything you have to say.
There are a lot of rules and tips here. It might seem like too much, but I promise they don't feel as restrictive as they look. To some, putting rules on writing only makes it harder to create your own voice or to get your point across.
I agree, but if you're not making an effort to make yourself understandable, you'll find that no rules are more restrictive than too many rules. You have to find a balance between what you're thinking, and making those thoughts available to whomever you want to share them with.
The rules and tips I've laid out above should simplify your thoughts to make them clear. These rules won't force you into a formal structure.
Using these tips won't change what you have to say, only the clarity of it. That's a lot more than I can say about the traditional five-paragraph format I learned in middle school.
I'm not a professional writer, but I pay attention to what the greats have to say. I believe in the advice above and I'm confident that using it can only improve your writing. Try it and let me know in the comments.
If you found this helpful, or know of someone who might, give it a share. Don't forget to join the conversation on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and the newsletter. I look forward to hearing from you.