Last week I wrote about getting started as a blogger. Now I’d like to tell you how I go about writing a blog post, in the hope that this will give you some tips on getting those blog posts written.
While I was writing these two posts, the DMN guys published an article on “How we blog“. Scott and Aaron write killer blog posts, so their article must be well worth a read. I haven’t read it yet (!) because I wanted to post mine first and then see how much we have in common. Here goes.
Here are some quick pointers. Let me know what you think of them or if I’ve left anything out.
- Maintain a character in your blog, so that people can start seeing it as a friend. Blogging is a social activity. Be yourself! Otherwise it’s difficult to maintain a consistent persona and people will soon pick it up if you don’t sound real.
- Give plenty of factual information, preferably hard-won. That’s what people value.
- Feel free to intersperse bits of your personality. People like to know who you are.
- Link to other people’s blogs. If your idea is an expansion of something someone else has written, include a mention of where you got the idea. If you’ve seen someone’s post about a related topic, link to it. The other bloggers appreciate this and will start linking back to you in return.
- Be nice, positive and sincere. If you disagree with something, say so but be constructive. Some bloggers are successful by being horrid, but to make that work you have to be really good and have a curl on your forehead. I don’t like nastiness, manipulation or one-upmanship, so I wouldn’t recommend it.
- Add structure to the content. Yes, even in a blog post. Put headings in the post itself. Split the information into easily-readable chunks. I’ve even chosen to have a bold, italicised introductory paragraph at the top of each post, reminiscent of newspaper articles.
- Write each post around a story or a ‘hook’. This will give the post a theme, making it easier for you to write and easier for people to read.
- Make sure the title reflects the main story. This will attract readers and give you a good position in search results such as Google or Bing.
View every experience as fodder for your blog
Whenever something happens, think to yourself: “How does this fit into my blog?”
You can even write multiple blog posts as a result of a single experience or event. A while ago I wrote 4 posts resulting from one ‘Atlassian FedEx Day’, each with a different theme. Atlassian is the company I work for, and FedEx Day is a period of 24 hours when we all get silly and try to develop and deliver something within the space of 24 hours. The event itself was a lot of fun, and provided fodder for these posts:
- A blog post on ffeathers, for people who are not Atlassians. This post introduces the concept of FedEx Day, tells the story of technical writers taking part in what is essentially a developer-focused activity, and shows lots of pictures.
- My Atlassian FedEx delivery note, describing the purpose and results of my FedEx Day project. This is a more formal post. Everyone who takes part in FedEx is supposed to write one of these.
- Another post on ffeathers, describing the software that I evaluated as part of the FedEx project. This software, the SHO tool for guided help, is of interest to technical writers so it was useful to write it up separately.
- A post on the Atlassian company blog, describing the new SDK (software development kit) that I used. This post is aimed at developers, showing them that the SDK makes it easy for even a technical writer to develop a plugin. There’s a fair bit of technical detail in the article. It’s also promotional, as suited to a company blog.
I could write another post about how to write 5 blog posts from one experience.
What about actually writing the blog posts?
Here’s how it happens (mostly) for me.
Whenever an idea crosses my mind, I write myself a note.
I write the notes on paper, on the backs of envelopes, in emails, in an SMS message to myself, on a Post-it — you name it.
At some point the collection of notes reaches critical mass and I feel the urge to put it to bed in a blog post, before it explodes or I go mad.
So I sit down and start writing. My favourite time is on Saturdays after lunch, because that works for me and the family.
Sometimes the notes I have written are already fairly well crafted. Maybe I was on the bus and had time to write properly. Then I can just dump the words from the note directly into the post and tweak them a bit.
More often I end up with a disparate set of scribblings, in various forms and on various media. I read through them all just once. I want to bring them all to the top of my ever-bubbling pot of thoughts, but not to try to memorise exactly what I wrote.
Then I sit back and think, for a very short time (about 2 minutes), focusing on what I want to say in the post. That will be the main message, the theme and the story or hook.
Now I just start writing. For me, it’s better not to agonise too much about the actual words at this point, because that stunts the flow. I just write, as fast as I can, as if I were talking. If I can’t get the words out for a particular bit, then I write short half-sentences and a big row of “x”s, like this: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx. I move on to the next thought, so that I don’t lose the flow. Later, it’s pleasantly easy to find those “x”s (they stick out, as you can see) and either add the right words or just delete the whole sentence or paragraph because it has become irrelevant.
When I’ve done the initial braindump, I go through the scribbled notes again to see if I’ve covered them all. I don’t usually refer to them while doing the first braindump, because that also interrupts the flow. With great glee, I tear up or delete the notes that are already in the post. Usually, I find that I have covered them all. If I’ve missed one or two out, they often don’t fit in anyway. Then I either turf them or put them aside for another potential post. Tearing up or deleting the notes gives me as much pleasure as ticking off an item in a to do list!
At some point before publishing the post, I go and have a cup of coffee or a chocolate then come back to read the post again a while later. I try to put myself in the place of a reader who is seeing the post for the first time. What impression will they get, and is it the impression I want to give? Have I actually achieved a logical flow from paragraph to paragraph, or does part of the logical flow exist in my brain only? I fix up any typos, add bits and pieces, add tags, then publish the post.
Another moment of glee: I tweet “New post” and link to the post.
Does blogging take up a lot of time?
Oh yes! In my experience it takes on average 3 to 4 hours to write a blog post. I also spend an hour or so each day, reading other people’s blogs and responding to comments. Bus rides into work, plus a good mobile device, are great for this part.
Any more tips?
Let me know what I’ve left out. Now I’m going to meander over and read some other people’s ideas about how to write a blog post:
- Scott and Aaron’s post on How they blog.
- Seth’s post way back in 2006, a bit sparse on the “how to” but eminently elegant as always: How to write a blog post.
- Seth’s post with more down-to-earth tips: Write like a blogger.
- Neil Patel’s tips on engaging your readers in your blog: How to Write a Blog Post. Start reading from the top, then see what he has to say in the section titled “Hook your Readers”. It’s awesome.
See you on the blog rolls!
A while ago I gave a lunch-time talk to some colleagues on blogging. I’ve brushed up and expanded on some of the ideas I put together for the talk, in case they’re useful to other people too: How do you start out as a blogger and how do you go about writing the blog posts?
I guess the first thing to say is that there are many different ways to start blogging and to write blog posts, and there’s probably a lot of information on the web already. So this post won’t add anything new. On the other hand, sometimes an idea just “clicks” when you see the same information from another person’s point of view. I hope you get something out of these hints.
Decide what to blog about
What do you want to get out of blogging? Are you looking for a large number of hits (i.e. many people visiting your blog), or a devoted community of followers, or a randomly-orbiting group of people interested in the same subject area as you? If you want a huge number of hits, such as to raise advertising revenue, then I guess you’d blog frequently about everything under the sun. My blog is a place to vent my enthusiasm for technical writing, share what I discover day to day and garner knowledge from others. Here are my tips for the sort of blogging I enjoy:
Remember the chocolate! – No blogger succeeds without it. Ah no, wait, that’s a furphy.
Choose a niche – It’s a bit counter-intuitive to limit your blog posts to a certain subject area, but I think this works best if you’re looking to establish yourself as a blogger rather than an anonymous writer on an impersonal web site. You’ll attract a group of followers who know that you’re interested in the same sort of thing as they are, and that they’ll learn something from you and be able to bounce ideas off you.
Choose a subject area you are passionate and knowledgeable about – Otherwise you’ll quickly run out of ideas and enthusiasm. Blogging will become a chore and your posts will sound flat.
Stick to the subject area you’ve chosen – It can be tempting to write about unrelated things, and I think it’s fine to do that now and then. Heh heh, there are a few pages about chocolate and trees in my blog! But far and away the highest percentage of the content should be about the subject area you’ve chosen. That way, people will keep coming back for more. They’ll know what you’re about and where they can come with their own ideas. If you’re brimming with ideas on a totally different subject, start another blog. I have the Travelling Worm. Rhonda Bracey has both the CyberText Newsletter and the sandgroper at At Random.
Find the blogging platform that suits you
There are many places where you can create your blog. When I started out two years ago, I took my time and had a good look around before settling on WordPress. I looked at the style of the various blogging sites and the type of blogs already there. I wanted something that matches my own style and the subject area of my blog.
Try out a couple of sites, play around, and then get serious when you’ve found the spot that suits you. Once you’ve written a number of “real” posts you won’t want to move, because you may lose readers who have come to know you and have subscribed to your blog.
Here are a few options:
- WordPress.com. (That’s here, where ffeathers is.) This is a “hosted” site, which means that your blog is “in the cloud”, running on software and computers that are managed by other people and that are not on your premises. It’s simple to get started and you don’t need to worry about server administration.
- Your own installed version of WordPress. You can download the software from WordPress.org. This gives a great deal of flexibility in adding your own style and extensions to your blog. Tom Johnson runs his blog at I’d Rather Be Writing this way. He often blogs about useful tips and techniques for administering, styling and extending WordPress.
- Blogger. This is a hosted blog site provided by Google. This is where Anindita Basu blogs about Writing Technically and Alan J Porter has the 4J’s Group Blog.
- The Content Wrangler Ning. A number of technical writers have set up profiles here. There’s my page, and Janet Swisher’s, for example. You can have a blog there too.
- Communal blogs like HubPages. From what I can see, this is a slightly different type of blogging, focused more on earning money from blogging rather than creating a community of readers around a particular subject. I’ve included it here because it’s interesting to see the different platforms available.
- A whole bunch of others!
Set up your blog
Choose a name for your blog. Some people like to use a totally practical name, that tells readers immediately what the blog is about. Other people choose something whimsical, that means something to them personally. I chose “ffeathers” because I’m fond of birds, especially parrots, and I like the old usage of double “f”.
Most blogging platforms allow you to choose a subtitle as well, such as “a technical writer’s blog”. You’ll also need a username, sort of like a nickname, that you will use as a byline for each post. It’s often useful if your username is the same as your blog name. For example, my blog title is “ffeathers” and so is my username. You may prefer to use your own name as a username, so that people know immediately who you are.
Go to the blogging platform that you have chosen and click the button to create your blog.
For example, if you like you could try it on WordPress.com right now:
- Go to WordPress.com and click “Sign up now”.
- Enter your chosen username. On WordPress.com, this will also be the name of your blog. For example, if you choose “myname” then your blog will be at “myname.wordpress.com”.
- Enter your chosen password. Then enter the same password again to confirm it.
- Enter your email address.
- Read and agree to their “fascinating terms of service”.
- Click “Next” and follow the prompts to confirm your new blog and log in.
WordPress will create your first “hello world” blog post automatically. You can leave it there, edit it to change its content, or remove it.
Play around with your profile and blog settings
Spend some time getting comfortable with the options that your blogging platform offers. Go to your profile page and upload a photograph or some other image. If you’re using WordPress, go to “My Dashboard” then click “Your Profile” in the “Users” section near bottom left of the screen. Your profile image is called your “Gravatar”.
Take a look at the themes that your blogging platform offers. A theme determines the colours and text styling of your blog. Themes often offer a different layout (such as one, two or three columns) and header images too. On WordPress, the theme selected by each blog is usually displayed in the page footer. My blog is currently using the “Journalist” theme. You can change the theme at any time, without affecting the content of your blog posts.
Write a couple of blog posts
Write a couple of posts right away and publish them for the whole wide world to see. At this point, the great thing is that no-one will know you’re there! For me, it was kind of liberating to know that I’m just a tiny speck on the intertubes.
Publish one or two good articles where you feel that you’ve managed to express yourself and your opinion well or you’ve told people something fresh and new.
Then, when you’re ready….
Make yourself known
At first it’s liberating to know that you can scribble away on your blog without feeling self-conscious. The great thing is that no-one will even know you’re there. But very soon it becomes less cool. The sad fact is that no-one will even know you’re there.
- Comment on other people’s blogs, especially those that cover the same subject area as yours. When you add the comments, make sure you are logged in to your own blog or that you enter your blog’s URL. Sometimes people say you should start commenting on other blogs before you have your own blog. But then you lose the opportunity to link to your own blog. You don’t have a presence or identity, and people probably won’t remember you from one comment to the next.
- Have multiple presences on sites like Twitter, your blog, Technorati, Writer River, Flickr, Ning, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn and many more. To get a “presence”, sign up for each service and create a user profile for yourself. Link from each one back to your blog. This raises your profile in search engines and rating sites like Technorati.
At the lunch-time talk, one of my colleagues asked why I blog. It’s a good question, and quite a few people at the session had some good input too. For me, there are a few reasons. One is that blogging gives me a different outlet for my writing. I can write about the topics I choose, rather than the topics necessary for the company. I can choose the style of my writing, add weird, long or funny-sounding words, and express my own character in the blog.
Another big reason is that I enjoy the give and take with readers and other bloggers. It’s awesome when someone drops a comment, expanding on what I’ve written or taking it in a new direction. It’s cool when somebody writes a blog post referring to one of mine. We learn a lot from each other. There’s a bottomless pit of ideas when you share yours with others.
The third reason is that people get to know you. This can lead to invitations to write a guest post on someone else’s blog or even to speak at a conference. That’s even more opportunity to meet other people and swap stories, uh, knowledge.
So, where are the hints on how to actually write a blog post?
That’ll be my next post.