This is for new or not-so-new bloggers. Do you have ideas for posts and things to say, but find actually writing them takes you out of your comfort zone? Here are a few practical suggestions.
1. Chop the wall up to make signposts
When you’re browsing, what happens if you encounter a “wall of text”? Most people will flee rather than endure that sort of reading experience. Reading needs concentration, and most people find it harder on screen. So when writing for the web it’s particularly important to break text up.
If you’re working on a sentence and wondering what punctuation mark to use to lead on to the next idea, the answer is often to make a full stop and start a new sentence. In a long, run-on sentence the reader is liable to lose their way somewhere in the middle, and it just feels flabby. You want it to feel punchier. That doesn’t mean it should all be short sentences, machine-gunning the poor reader. Vary their length, but don’t go too far. If you want to list a number of options or items, break the sentence down as bullet points.
Much the same applies. A big long paragraph looks like a daunting experience to hack your way through. One with, say, 4-8 lines looks like you will soon see daylight again. You can even use paragraphs of 1-2 lines, but they are really for emphasis and to bring the reader up short with a key point. A mass of short paragraphs feels breathless.
Keep your very first paragraph short. Use it to introduce your theme and the benefits the reader will get if they keep reading (eg being informed with important facts, learning from your experience, getting a special offer).
Use headings to break the post into sections. If it’s short – less than a screenful – you don’t need this. Otherwise, it helps break your text into themes and ideas, and allows the reader to keep track of where they are. The next section heading should be visible within one or two screenfuls, so they can see that the section they’re in isn’t too long a read.
2. Work on your headline
People don’t care about your words of wisdom like you do. You have to make them interested enough to read and keep reading, and much of that job falls on your headline. It’s also the main thing that shows up in search listings and attracts people to your site – or not.
I did a blog about headlines a few weeks ago, and there are further resources online. Short version:
- it should frame the post, so people know what kind of stuff you’re talking about and can decide whether that’s a topic they’re interested in
- it should hook them in, perhaps by asking an intriguing question so that their brain itches to learn the answer, or by promising useful info compactly packaged.
A cryptic title may work well with your existing audience, who want to know what you could be saying there, but is less likely to get others to read if you don’t include stuff they can connect to. There do seem to be standard formats, like “How to break out of an unsatisfying career”, that work well although they can get a bit samey. Try to think of what would attract your attention, and add a light touch or two to make it your own.
3. Treat yourself to a dictionary
Do you have one already? The little cheap pocket-sized ones aren’t really good enough, but you don’t need a great big academic one. What you want is something the size of a brick filled with wordy goodness – by a reputable dictionary company, laid out in a style that suits you. Make a shopping expedition and look at a few.
Once you’ve got it, use it! If you’re unsure about how to spell a word; or it’s one you don’t often use and you’re not certain it means the thing you want; or you’re reaching for a word that “means that word but slightly different”: look it up. If you admit you don’t know everything, you can learn.
Yes, you can look stuff up online for free, but I think this is a case where a physical object is useful and also a helpful symbol for what you’re doing. A well-thumbed dictionary is a trusty friend.
4. Read it to yourself
The ultimate in high-tech aids, this. When you’ve drafted a blog post, leave it to settle for a bit if you can, then read it out loud to yourself.
A blog is more like a conversation than a textbook. You want it to feel like a wise friend speaking to the reader, not something that’s hard work to wade through. (Even though it’s put together more carefully than speech usually is, to make sure people understand what you mean, it should have that very natural voice.)
Reading aloud can really help to spot any errors and bits that are clumsy or jarring and break up the flow. It helps you shift your perspective so you can see the work more objectively. If you get more used to it you can read to yourself in your head and only do trickier sections aloud.
5. Show up in person
Don’t be a soapbox robot! People want to learn useful stuff, absolutely, but they also want to connect with the person behind it. So talk about examples from your own experience, or parts of the story of your life and how they’ve shaped you.
Stories are a powerful communication technology, because we’re wired for them. Of course you must use your judgement about what’s appropriate for your audience. “Heart-centred” solo entrepreneurs may lap up loads of personal stuff. Very formal professional types may prefer a lighter touch. Certainly don’t share anything you’re uncomfortable with making public.
But posts where you share your inner life and history get an emotional response like little else. They also make the content something that could only come from you, not those other folks in internet-land. Just make sure that while talking about you, you’re also giving something to the reader – whether it be straightforward story satisfaction or an important life lesson.
6. Always use an image
Images make a post more attractive and lessen the wall of text effect. But my main reason for mentioning it is Pinterest, one of the major social networks and one that’s growing fast. If you haven’t seen it, the model is to set up “boards” where you “pin” interesting things that you find around the internet. You build pages that collect things you like or find useful. Here’s my Pinterest page as an example.
You can only add a page to Pinterest if it has at least one image on it. So if you have no image, you’re stopping Pinterest users who like your post from sharing it.
Actually, Facebook and Google+ are pretty visual too. If you link to something, they automatically try to grab an image to put with the link – and it does make it more attractive to click on.
What images can you use? If you like taking photos, maybe your own shots could relate to the themes of your posts. (Remember that you need people’s permission to publish photos where they’re identifiable. Someone you know may just wave it through, but technically you need a “model release” form. Be extra-cautious if children are involved.)
You could use stock images of people in various situations, which are fairly cheap. But these often look very artificial and obviously posed. Try to do something a bit different and individual. You may have noticed that I often use icons from a font set I like. You might find public domain images online, or ones with a suitable Creative Commons licence. But you don’t have the right to grab any old image you find on the web – always check you have permission.
If you’re reasonably confident with the basics of graphics software, you can put words and images together in a “badge” graphic like the one here. These work well for sharing. Though unfortunately the different social networks look for different image dimensions, and those can change suddenly in updates, so your graphic may get cropped in unpredictable ways.
7. Practise, and steal from the best
It’s a skill, so the more you do the more you’ll learn what to avoid next time and what to keep doing.
You can speed that process up by finding some other people’s blogs and watching what they do. Which posts do you like as a reader, and which not so much? Can you spot reasons why? Which blogs and posts get an enthusiastic response in comments?
I hope that was useful. Feel free to leave your own tips below.
If you’d like more on blogging, check out my e-guide How to write a blog post – tips for new WordPress users from ideas to sharing. It’s designed to help you get used to the ‘how’ without so much trial and error, so you can focus on sharing your ideas.