In Part I of this three-part, comprehensive guide, we went over just about every aspect of getting a blog set up. In Part III, we’re going to talk about everything you need to do to get your posts exposure and build your audience. In between those two — right here — comes the single most crucial part of blogging: the actual act of creating your content. It’s a rich and complex enough subject that it deserves its own long post.
Creating blog posts that are worth other people’s time and attention isn’t easy. There are a few steps to the process — first, you have to decide on a topic that will engage your audience. Then, you have to actually write about that topic in a way that will convey something useful or meaningful to your audience. And finally, you have to format that writing in a way that allows your audience to (ab)use your content in the way that they want to.
How to Find Something Fascinating to Write About, No Matter the Topic
One of the most common complaints I hear from people who are trying to blog is that ‘my business/industry/whatever is boring; no one wants to read about it!’ I’m here to tell you, and I apologize for the bluntness: that’s bullshit. Straight up, unadulterated crap de le bull.
The simple fact is that every industry has good (and evil!) individuals, funny stories, fascinating details, and other great subjects waiting in it. If you’re a paper recycling plant, you can write about how recycling paper is a great way to avoid identity theft. If you’re an apartment building, you can write about the stupid things tenants do to try to get out of paying their cleaning deposit. If you’re a silverware maker, you can write about the ridiculous situations burglars have gotten into while trying to sell silverware.
The key is that you don’t have to write about your business or your specific product or service. You can reference those things in posts that are about larger, more interesting stories. All you have to do to find those stories is set up a Google Alert or four with some industry-relevant keywords, and look up your industry, product, and/or service in Google News semi-regularly.
Failing all of that, you can always write a PSA. Find a disaster that’s vaguely related to your industry and write the victims an open letter on your blog. That’s what one branch of ServiceMaster Clean did a couple of Junes ago — there was a windstorm that tore apart a small town, and SMC did a PSA about keeping the rain off of your waterloggable goods given that you no longer have a roof. Do they actually care, in a bottom-line sense, about people’s stuff? No — but by putting out an article about water-damaged goods, they guaranteed that people with water-damaged goods would read the article, and repairing/preventing water damage is totally their schtick.
There’s no such thing as a subject that’s too boring to blog about — only writers who haven’t learned how to connect something awesome with whatever topic they’re writing about. I’ve seen SEO guys write articles that connect social media with kung fu, SEO with the Red Baron, and web design with the fall of the Twinkie. The story doesn’t have to be about you — it just has to be relevant to your audience and make them think about you.
Crafting a Headline
Actually writing a blog posts starts at the beginning — with a title. You’ve already answered the basic questions of what you want your post to do (in part I), and you’ve picked a subject that will connect with your audience and have at least a tangential connection to your business (above). Now you have to craft the first actual element of your blog post: the headline. This is quite rightly called the most important part of any blog post, because it’s the part that will make people decide to click on it or not.
According to a huge pile of research, there are some rules for writing headlines that get clicks:
- Lead with a number. All you have to do is look at Buzzfeed, Cracked, or any similar site to see how popular this has become, and that’s because it works.
- Don’t overstate. Use at most one superlative in your title, or you’ll push more people away than you’ll attract.
- Use the ‘sentence case.’ This is the Sentence Case. It’s When You Capitalize Almost Every Word in a Sentence Except for One or Two-Letter Words and Conjunctions. It Makes Headlines Seem Authoritative, and That Means Clicks.
- Be explicit. Not as in ‘explicit lyrics’, but as in ‘you tell the reader exactly what they’re going to get out of reading this post.’ It’s better to underpromise and overdeliver than to overpromise and underdeliver, but delivering exactly what you promise is even better.
- Break all of these rules at some point. No rule is universal; if you do the same thing over and over again, you’ll alienate everyone. No one wants a one-trick pony.
Create a Hook
Creating a hook — an opening paragraph that makes your audience salivate in anticipation of what they’re going to find in the body of the article — is all about teasing whatever promise you made in the title. If your title is “7 Ways Fire will Ruin Your Life (That You Never Saw Coming!)” then your hook needs to rattle off a few well-known ways that fire can ruin your life, and tease that the post “isn’t about anything so commonplace.” If your title is “The Compleat Blogger: NetProfitMarketing’s Ultimate Blogging Guide,” then the hook needs to say something about “all of my wisdom on blogging packed into three extensive blog posts.”
It’s all about showing the audience that your title wasn’t just some BS that you wrote in order to get them to click — you’re promising delivery of the goods your title suggested were worthy of their next click.
How to Write an Actual Article
Step 1: Forget everything that you learned about writing in school. The whole ‘subject sentence, summary paragraph, support paragraph 1/2/3, conclusion’ is a great way to put people to sleep.
The real secret ‘form’ of a good article depends on its length. If you’re writing a short article, think of a sandwich:
- Bread: Start with a story, anecdote, or some other hook that gets your readers thinking. This should be short and provocative — funny, enraging, absurd…anything that provokes a reaction.
- Veggies: Move onto the ‘healthy’ part — in writing terms, the part that’s going to help the reader, whether that means you actually teach them something or you convince them that they need to do something differently. You’re not actually giving them the meat yet — you’re telling them what the post will do for them.
- Meat: This is where they learn the thing you want them to learn. This can come anywhere from the 3rd sentence to the 2nd subheading depending on how long your short article is. If you’re telling a funny story, this is the punchline. If you’re writing a PSA, this is where you tell them what they need to do to get the benefit of your warning.
- Bread: Refer back to the opening story in a way that re-stimulates the provocation from before. You want to leave them nettled, laughing, or otherwise emotionally active because it’s the best way to get the information you provided to connect with something else inside their brain.
For a much larger article (like this one), you really want to create a ‘sandwich bar’ — a long series of sandwiches separated by subheadings. The more complex and detailed your subject, the more necessary it is to include all of those ‘bread’ layers; the human mind just isn’t prepared to delve into a giant stack of meat. The anecdotes or other ‘interruptions’ serve to keep them engaged and also help them identify the content breaks so that they can skim more easily.
Assorted Writing Tips
This section breaks all of the above rules. It’s no sandwich — it’s just a collection of tips about how to craft a ‘writing voice’ appropriate for your blog.
Talk Like You’re Talking to a Middle Schooler
It might irk some people, because no one wants to ‘talk down’ to other people — and also because school taught all of us to say with 15 words what we could have said with 5 — but it’s vital. Speak simply and directly. Every sentence you write, ask if it can be simplified, and then simplify it.
At the same time, remember that the length of a sentence is different from it’s simplicity. I could have written the entire previous paragraph as ‘eschew obfuscation’, but how much would that have effectively communicated? Obviously, given the length of this post, I’m not advocating short posts — but I am definitely pushing for posts that are only as long as they need to be.
Seriously. Stay Concise!
When you see two similar phrases together, try to combine them — turn “rather than trying to climb the mountain” into “rather than climbing the mountain”; turn “print the pamphlets and then hand them out” into “print off and hand out the pamphlets.” Use the active voice as much as possible, with the verbs as close to the front of the sentence as possible unless you achieve a clearer meaning with a different structure.
Type Like You Talk
This isn’t always appropriate — I know people who talk with a voice like Ben Stein and a diction like Porky Pig — but in general, you want to type like the voice in your head talks. The voice in your head, whether you recognize it or not, has a rhythm to it. It generally doesn’t arrange sentences so long that you’d have to take a breath in the middle of them. It’s generally not a horribly boring entity. There are exceptions, and if you are one I highly suggest you study a few books on how to write — but most of us can get by on the inner monologuer just fine.
Use Tricks for Important Points
Alliteration often allows anyone to accurately access otherwise obscure ideas. (Note that even though the ‘o’s in that sentence aren’t technically ‘a’s, they’re pronounced closely enough that the whole thing totally works.) Similarly, a simple rhyme (with a little rhythm) can create a mnemonic device that can easily stick in someone’s head. Combine the two for a truly memorable verse.
Or: when something simply must be stuck inside the skull of some young buck, a bit of rhythm and a bit of rhyme will do the deed most every time. (Nailed it!)
Use Strong Verbs In Place of Adverbs
Verbs are the core of any story: they tell you who did what. They’re often modified by adverbs, which is perfectly decent practice in College English — but the real world hates it. No one wants to read “he drove quickly away.” They want to read “he raced away,” or “he floored it.” Strong verbs kick adverb’s backsides — use them.
Avoid Adjective Abuse
If you don’t have an intuitive understanding of what adjective abuse is, do a short project: go to Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and Cracked, and write down the first 10 headlines you see on each site. Any adjective you see more than twice is probably overused and abused. ‘Amazing,’ ‘Jawdropping,’ ‘Stunning,’ — these things are losing their impact because no matter what Buzzworthy says, there are just not that many ‘stunning’ things that Katie Perry has said in 2013.
Instead, use adjectives where they’re meaningful, yet unexpected. Make people think about something differently when you apply an adjective. Refer to your latest post as ‘mouthwatering’ or ‘frigid’ or ‘Homeric’ — make them ask themselves what you could mean. That’s a wonderful hook…just make sure that your post lives up to its billing, or you’ll lose people fast.
It’s OK to Break All of These Rules — Provided You Do It Well
Every single writing rule, tip, or taboo that’s ever been created has been broken successfully. Just try reading anything by James Joyce if you don’t believe me. The important part to remember is that you shouldn’t go around ignoring the advice you’ve been given unless you are doing it deliberately for a specific reason, and you have good reason to believe that it will be more effective than following the advice.
Don’t Be Afraid to Express Emotion and Opinions
A lot of business bloggers are deeply afraid of expressing an opinion — at all — on their blogs. That’s a surefire way to not get any followers. The most successful bloggers are outspoken above all else — and yes, their blogs don’t appeal to everyone. But ask yourself: does your product appeal to everyone? Does your industry appeal to everyone?
There are always going to be people who are upset by — or apathetic about — whatever you’re saying. Don’t let that keep you from saying it, because unless you say it, no one is ever going to read something you wrote and say “wow, I need to show this to my (mom/spouse/roommate/squad commander/party tank/guardian angel/friendly neighborhood superhero) right now.” And unless they say that, you’re not going to get any Likes, Tweets, or +1s.
Speaking of Likes, Tweets, and +1s — what’s the point of blogging if you’re not going to get your content out there, shared, and hopefully going viral every once in a while? There are some advantages of blogging that don’t revolve around building an audience up — but not many, and an audience really is the point in the long run. So, if you want to know all about what happens AFTER the post has been posted, when it’s time to get people excited about the post…come back for Part III!