You’re 5 steps away from writing your first amazing blog post
Date Posted: May 31, 2016
Writing an amazing blog takes discipline—but it shouldn’t hurt. If you know your audience, start with a clickable headline, write like you talk, tell true stories and ask for feedback, your first blog post will be the first of many—each one better than the last.
How failing at golf taught me a universal truth about writing
I firmly believe there’s a writer in every single one of us. Trouble is, our brains get in the way.
It’s like the first time I went golfing. I was pretty sure I was going to suck, so I just hit the ball—and it landed on the green. I was ecstatic. I was going to be the next Tiger Woods.
Every shot after that? Sucked. I was overthinking things. Where were my hands? Was I swooping my knees? How high was my follow-through? Most of the time the divot went further than my shot. One time the ball landed behind me.
I think I ended that game with a score that was over 100 on a par-3, nine-hole course. I never went golfing again.
Now I’m not saying that you can just sit down at your keyboard and randomly type stuff and you’ll be the next Tim Ferriss or Scary Mommy. Good bloggers work hard, and the noisier the Internet gets, the smarter they have to be to get their voices heard. But I am saying don’t overthink things or you’ll end up staring at that blank Word doc or empty WordPress screen until you cry.
I like to say that perfection takes the fun out of everything (mostly because I am a perfectionist and it makes me a big drag. But also because one person’s perfection is another’s vision of hell, so why kill yourself when there’s no guarantee they’ll like it?).
My best advice? Read these steps, write your article, and then pay some serious attention to step 5 so your next post is better and your third lands seriously close to the green.
Know your audience
You’re the writer, but your post isn’t about you. (My golf story aside.) I can’t emphasize this enough. Write for your audience, not yourself.
Your audience dictates your topic. I wouldn’t write a piece on how to fix buggy code in a commonly used WordPress theme if my audience was marketing directors—but I would write a piece on the ABCs of website accessibility for those folks. (I didn’t, but Adam Wills, our accessibility expert, did. You’re one click away from “An Introduction to Website Accessibility”.
Your audience also determines where you’ll put your energy. If I was writing a blog post for designers, I would make darn sure it looked like Behance.
If I was writing for academics, I’d cite a lot of other academics and skip the colloquialisms. For developers, I might hide a piece of code in the post that turned the whole thing into a game of Space Invaders. For experienced writers, I’d write a brilliantly conceived piece of long-form prose.
When you know your audience, you can use their language. Not only does this make your article more appealing, it helps readers find your content—because you’re using words that they’re likely to type into Google.
Long-tail search terms are a topic for another day (and another writer) but for now let’s just say if you think about how your audience would speak about your topic and use their words, they’re more likely to find what you wrote (and read it).
Start with a click-ass headline
Eight out of 10 people will read your headline. Two out of 10 will keep going. (That stat is courtesy of Copyblogger’s fantastic ebook, How to write magnetic headlines. If you really want to master the art of the clickable headline, read it.)
What gets you to click on a headline? For me, it’s when the headline promises to give me exactly what I was looking for. It’s like the author read my mind (see step 1).
OTHER HEADLINE WRITING TIPS:
Write your headline first. That way you know exactly what you’re promising to deliver. At various times while you’re writing your post, re-read your headline. Are you still following the path or have you wandered off and gotten lost?
Know why you’re writing your post. If you’re having trouble writing a clickable headline, the problem could be that you don’t know why you’re writing your post at all. What’s the key message? What’s the one thing you want your reader to take away? Let your headline flow from that.
Promise something better than the next guy. What would you rather read: “Unplug a drain”? Or “How to unplug your drain in 5 easy steps” “How to unplug your drain and keep your hands clean” or “How to unplug your drain and avoid the mistake that cost me $1500”?
Focus on benefits. People are busy and they want to know what they’ll get from reading your post. If you make them guess, they’ll click on the post that emphasizes what’s in it for them and skip past yours.
Never sacrifice clarity for cuteness. Ever. Period.
Write like you talk
Write like you talk, not like your high school English teach told you to. Yes, you can begin a sentence with ‘and.’ And ‘but.’ Yes, you can write don’t, won’t, can’t and other contractions—in fact, I encourage it. You’ll sound less bossy than if you write will not, do not, and cannot.
When we talk, we vary our sentence length. We add asides. We joke. We tell anecdotes.
When we write like we talk, we create a relationship with our readers. We draw them in, keep their attention and make them glad they spent their time with us.
A blog post is, however, written and we should also use the formatting tools available to us as writers. Subheads, bullets, bolding, charts and images—when used with purpose and care—help readers decide if your post is worth their time, give their eyes a rest, hold their attention and present information in a variety of ways to appeal to different learning styles. Laura Franz’s Smashing Magazine piece on line length and font size in responsive web design includes some amazing heat map imagery that shows the ‘F’ pattern the eye follows when skimming a piece, and how attention drops off to the bottom of a page. I try to remember Laura’s advice graphics whenever I’m writing.
Tell true stories
Good writers follow this simple rule: show, don’t tell.
I’m not saying you should cram a lot of fancy adjectives into your writing instead of using everyday language. I’m of the same mind as writer Joshua Henkin, whose post “Why ‘Show Don’t Tell” is the great lie of writing workshops” (awesome controversy-stirring headline, too, by-the-way) advises against overblown description. Sometimes a couch is just a couch. Thanks Joshua.
When I say “show don’t tell” I mean use examples. Don’t just tell your readers that something is so. Prove it. And the most engaging way to prove it is to tell true stories.
I say true stories for an important reason.
A true story is authentic. It’s real. It’s believable. It has details and substance and doesn’t set off a reader’s BS meter. And since images tell stories, too (usually faster and often more effectively than words), the same advice applies to them. Use real photos of real people doing real things—which means no more stock images, folks.
But just because a story is true doesn’t mean it’s good. A good story is always personal. Write about things you know, people you know and places you know. Bonus points if those things, places and people are also known by others—when your readers can relate to your stories, they’re more powerful. If you decide to tell a story that not many people can relate to, make sure it’s intriguing in some way. Your readers may not relate to it but, gosh darn it, they’d like to.
A great example of storytelling is Jay Acunzo’s post “3 Unthinkable behaviors behind truly creative content marketers.” Jay’s topic is how to cultivate your creativity and he starts his post with a story about eating ice cream. It’s brilliant. (If you’re planning to blog frequently, read his full article for advice on how to stay jazzed about writing instead of seeing it as a chore.)
Ask for feedback (and act on it)
Every writer needs an editor. Even me (props to our creative director, Drea Baptiste, for reviewing this piece).
Writing is highly personal and it can feel scary to ask someone to edit your work. Be brave. The comments you receive will reveal your assumptions, highlight your strengths, and clarify your message. Your readers will thank you for it.
Look for the shareable summary. When we share blog posts at the office, we often copy and paste a one-sentence summary of the article—that came from the article—into the email we send around. Ask your editor to try to do this with your post.
Do you have a shareable nugget that can be cut and pasted (or tweeted) directly from your article? And did you call it out by putting it in a bigger, bolder font?
Do some data diving. If you aren’t a data master yourself, make friends with someone who can use Google Analytics and Crazy Egg. Using these tools, you can answer some key questions. How many people clicked on your blog post? How long did they spend on the page? Where did they come from? Where did they go after they were done with you? Did they click on any of your links? Don’t forget to track your social shares, too. We learned from one of our favourite clients (Municipal Benchmarking Network Canada that you can’t improve what you don’t measure. Use analytics to make evidence-based changes to your topics, style and format and incorporate the practices that give you good results.
Listen to your readers. Some people will comment directly on your post, but social media has become a more common way for people to share their opinions on your piece. Social media monitoring platforms such as Sprout Social, Hootsuite and Sendible can track that activity so you can listen in and even join the conversation.
Write what you like. You can also give yourself feedback. You read stuff—what keeps you interested? What turns you off? Why do you return to particular sites or look for particular authors? What makes something worth sharing? Be a conscious consumer of blog content and your own writing will get better.
Okay. It’s the moment of truth. Take a deep breath, tee up and take a swing. Who knows—you may hit the green on your first try.