How to write a blog post

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.

Quick tips

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.

Writing killer blog posts

How to write a blog post

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!

Following up on my presentation: I only part-way answered the question about how I start writing a post. We talked about writing yourself notes, whenever you have an idea. Put them on paper, on the backs of matchboxes ;) or in emails, via SMS, whatever. 

But then, what do I do when I actually sit down and start writing? Well, sometimes the note(s) I have written are already fairly well crafted, e.g. if I was on the bus and had time to write properly. So then I can just dump them into the post and hone them. But more often I end up with a disparate set of scribblings. In that case, I read through them all just once. Then I sit back and think, for just a very short time (about 2 minutes), focusing on what I want to say in the post -- that's the main message, the theme and the story/hook. 

Then I just start writing. It's better not to agonise too much, 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. And I just 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) and either put in the words or just delete the whole thing because it has become irrelevant.

When I've done the initial braindump, I go through the scribbled notes 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. 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.

Then I go and have a cup of coffee (or, yes Andrew, a hot chocolate ;) ) and come back to read the post again a while later. At this reading, 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 is part of the logical flow in my brain only? I fix up any typos, add bits and pieces, add tags, then publish the post. All in all, it takes 3 to 4 hours to produce a good post.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 6 February 2010, in atlassian, technical writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Thanks for this post which came just at the right time. I’ve started my blog a couple of weeks ago after years of lurking and commenting.

    So it’s very helpful to get a few tips of what works, such as maintaining character and introducing personality. I guess as a tech writer I tend to omit these…🙂

    It’s also encouraging to find a few habits confirmed, such as having indicative headings and structure in a post – these seem to come more naturally, somehow…

    • Hallo Kai

      I’m so glad that my post is useful. Thanks for your comment. I’ve already visited your blog a couple of times. In fact, I tweeted about your “apps on a stick for technical writers” post just yesterday. Cool post!

      Cheers, Sarah

  2. The flipside is not to worry about it and just write something.

    One paragraph, ten, doesn’t matter. I know a lot of people (myself included) put a chunk of time into blogging, but I would hate for anyone to feel that was a requirement.

    Many good blog posts are very short and succinct (Seth Godin a good example). As long as you have something interesting/useful to say, it need only take 10 mins!

  3. Interesting post, especially since it’s always nice to take a peek at the process someone else uses to write.

    When you’re actually putting together posts, the process doesn’t seem that involved. But when you break it down … just goes to show how much we can internalize.

    I have to agree with Gordon. While I tend to write longer posts, there’s nothing wrong with shorter ones. We just have to remember to make whatever we’re writing both interesting and useful to the reader.

  4. Hallo Gordon and Scott

    You’re right, there’s definitely a place for short, to-the-point posts as well. This “how to write a blog post” post (ooh, meta!) is primarily about those investigative exercises where we research or test something and then write up our findings. The result is a “how to” post (much like this one).

    I do find that, in the long run, it’s the investigative and “how to” posts that attract the most readers. Those are also the posts that I myself get most value out of, because I learned something while writing them.

    On the other hand, posts about chocolate attract a lot of interest too.😉

    I think it’s great to intersperse shorter posts amongst the more investigative ones too. Variety is the spice of blogging.

    There are some very clever bloggers who manage to write a number of short “how to” blogs regularly. Like Rhonda!

    Has anyone done a proper analysis of the type of posts on their blog that receive most attention, I wonder?

    Cheers
    Sarah

    • If you’re looking for something scientific, you’re out of luck. At least in my case. But by looking at the stats in WordPress, it seems that shorter posts and longer posts get a fair share of readers. I think it really depends on the subject of the post.

      A long while back, Aaron penned a post about businesses not being keen on blogs and such. That still gets a lot of reads, while a couple of longer posts that I wrote are (sadly) neglected😦

      I look at it in this way: if you need 1,000 words to properly present an argument or effectively make a point, then by all means use those 1,000 words. If you only need 250 words, then that’s fine too.

  5. Thanks, Sarah… just started not one, but two blogs – one for my technical writing day job and one for my fiction writing hobby. This came at a great time, as my employer is just now opening up the intranet for various departmental blogs. It honestly never occurred to me to spin one experience into my entries. Great idea.

    • Hallo Patty
      Ooh, starting two blogs at once plus new blogs at work. That’s adventurous. Anyone would think we don’t do enough writing in our day jobs.😉

      Happy blogging!
      Sarah

  6. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for another great post…I especially like the advice to let parts of one’s personality peak through…Even in blogs about a professional topic, I think it makes a big difference to let folks “in” a bit and begin to see and relate to the person behind the blog…

    I also always enjoy reading about others’ writing processes…Mine is very similar, and quite iterative. (It takes me about the same amount of time to write a good post…at a minimum, at least two hours). I’m also beginning to leave place-holders in Word-Press for blog post topics…When I have enough topics related to one theme, I release the posts together, as a series…I find this approach is helping me to connect ideas and to build momentum.

    I will be sure to check out your additional resources on how to write a blog post. Thanks again for the tips and inspiration.

    –Peg

    • Hallo Peg
      That’s a great idea, putting the placeholders for future blogs into WordPress! It’s almost the same as creating a skeleton document by adding the chapter titles and the headings first, then fleshing out the document bit by bit. Thanks for the tip — a great example of getting ideas from other people via your blog.🙂
      Cheers
      Sarah

  7. Thank you very much for a good practical example of working in a flow – writing in a flow!
    It really gives maximum productivity and good results!

  8. I think that it’s the personality and thought processes that add value to a blog more than helpful information. Helpful information is fine to a point but I don’t think most people go to blogs looking for that. I think they go for entertainment and to find something out of the ordinary. So for technical writing, not the most exciting topic for a blog,there are some real challenges to develop and grow an audience.

    • Hallo Larry

      Yes, I think you’re right. Often it’s technical blog posts that provide just that handy tip that the reader was looking for. Blog posts tend to be very task-oriented and they pop up high in search results. So people do come to a blog looking for specific information. They also come expecting to find that information in a more personal, exciting format than in a technical document, as you say.

      I think it comes down to this: If the blogger is enthusiastic about the subject, that enthusiasm shines through, both in the content of the posts and in the way it’s presented.

      Cheers, Sarah

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