Photo by Karen Daziel
Nothing we create is art at first~~Walter Mosley
If the chief criteria for real estate is ‘location, location, location,’ then the draw for a really good blog post has to be ‘content, content, content.’ And if a secondary gain is to get folks to stick around a bit after they discover your site, a sticky blog post is just the thing.
After I have the rough draft down of what I want to say, here are the 25 things I consider before I actually hit the Publish button.
Some of these come from my years of teaching English and from liberal application of what Elizabeth George called ‘bum glue’ in her book Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life.
But a lot of these strategies I located on some really outstanding posts I’ve discovered on the web over the last several months. I have tried to link back to these when I remember where I got an idea, but if I’ve missed crediting your work I apologize in advance. If I’ve done that, please comment on this post, and add your URL?
OK, here we go.
Content—what I am writing about
I know this never happens to you, but sometimes when I start writing I don’t know where I am going. I don’t want to stop to figure it out, either, because my writing is hot. It’s flowing and I want to gain momentum as I sweep down that Black Diamond slope. It’s only after I’ve got all the words down that I pause for breath. Then I put on the bean-counter’s eyeshade and squint at my work.
These are the points I work to improve.
#1 Stew meld: For some reason stew always tastes better the day after it is made. The flavors meld together and the spices do their thing and it’s really yummy. Writing is the same way. When life is good, I always try to have two posts in the draft hopper, just resting a bit, before I am ready to commit them to the Net.
#2 Personalize your voice: When you hear an unfamiliar song, how long does it take you to recognize whether the singer is Elvis or Van Morrison, Pink or Madonna? The voice will tell you. Each is unique.
Writing voices are the same way. For example, compare the flowing narrative of Leo Babauta at ZenHabits with the staccato bullet point style of Darren Rowse at ProBlogger. Each speaks to you in his own way.
So I look at my own writing. Have I personalized it with my own likes and dislikes, with my own foibles and missteps? Do I tell stories that only I know to put across a point? Is it told in my words and phrases? Readers like that. They want to know who you are.
#3 What is my Main Concept. Readers are an impatient lot. They want to know the bottom line. In other words, What’s your point?
After I finish a post, I try to state in one sentence what I want the reader to remember. If I can’t do it, I know it’s time to go back and clarify.
Organization & Style
These tips hone in on how I am writing, more than what I want to say.
#4 In the Beginning. Think about what is in a Google search for your post. The first sentence, right? Unless you specify full feed, RSS does the same thing.
Pick up a newspaper (except USA today which manufactures word-bites) and look at how the articles are written. They usually include the most important stuff first, then add the backstory filler.
A post needs start the same way. The old saying, “First tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em…” applies here.
Internet readers have the attention span of a kid in a candy store—about 15 seconds on one item before they shift to the next. You gotta grab them early or they’ve teleported over to the next candy counter. That first sentence or two is critical.
#5 Don’t forget the ending: That saying continues, “…tell ‘em [the content], and then tell ‘em what you told ‘em [the ending].”
The ending always gives me trouble, so I know have to pay attention it. Sometimes I’ll try to restate my point in a different way. Sometimes I’ll try to end with desert—something funny that makes the reader smile.
Whatever I do, I know I have to keep it short and simple. The reader doesn’t have all day, ya know.
#6 Similes and Metaphors: These wordsmithing techniques add grace notes to your writing.
A simile says one thing is like another. For example, in a post on Wind Turbines , I conveyed their huge size by comparing them to 747 jets and football fields.
A metaphor, on the other hand, says one thing is something else. Sonia Simone at Remarkable Communication is the grand master of the metaphor. I stand in awe of her writing ability. She used a great extended metaphor to build her post, Is your blog Ginger or Mary Ann?
#7 Never underestimate the power of Lists. Readers want information they can use, in a format that is digestible. Lists fit the bill and I use them a lot.
Two caveats: First, if you say there are 25 items in your list, number them and make sure you have all 25. Readers get snarky if they have to count them for you or if you’ve missed one.
Second, just stringing together short numbered phrases will cause reader eye-blur and they’ll miss much of what you are wanting to share. Unless I’m doing a simple ‘100 list’ I will always add some explanatory material to give examples of what I am talking about.
#8 Make your writing clear. Because internet readers are in a hurry, clear writing is essential.
Hemingway is my mentor here. His concise, pithy writing style fits the Internet perfectly. When rewriting, I use these recommendations of his:
Use short sentences
Use short first paragraphs
Use vigorous English
Be positive, not negative
Eliminate every superfluous word
Avoid the use of adjectives, especially extravagant ones
#9 Minimize Favorite Words. I’ve got my favorite words—those bon mots that I use over and over. I know you’ve got yours, too. Sorry. They need to be pruned, painful as it may be.
Likewise, using the same word in the same sentence or even in the next is just plain lazy. I want to be as exact as I can.
#10 Check spelling and punctuation. This is another weakness of mine. I can’t spell and I know it. The good news is there are great spell-check programs out there, and I use them. The bad news is that they don’t catch it when I say ‘ten’ and really mean ‘then.’ Or when I forget the end quote. Or if I leave out a word.
What I’ve found helps me is to read the post out loud when I’m done. I not only catch the bloopers but I can also improve on the rhythm and flow of the words streaming across the page.
Writing for the web has its own set of special circumstances and considerations. We can do things on the Net that you just can’t accomplish in ‘normal’ writing, such as inclusion of links and pictures. And there are ways to optimize the ones that you use.
#11 Pictures. Humans are visual creatures. We love pictures and the internet provides the ability to use these at will in a post. If you notice, in my blog I maximize these.
Some pictures I post are my own. The DIY theme from Chris Pearson that I use has a picture rotator function. Each time someone clicks on my site, a new picture is displayed under the header. I’ve noticed that whenever I’m reviewed in Stumble, the current picture up is the one captured. I like that visual impact.
When I am using my own pictures, I try to save all the time I can. For example, I create shortcuts in Photoshop for routine repetitive functions, such as macros that exactly image size and make Web friendly the photos that I use.
If you don’t take your own pictures, open domain photos can be downloaded from the Creative Commons over at Flickr. Check out the detailed post by Skellie called a complete guide to finding and using incredible flickr images.
If you do use another’s photos, remember picture etiquette: Let the owner of the photo know you are using it and put a link to their profile on Flickr. They will thank you for it and you may gain a new reader! For example, I needed a picture of pigeons for a post I wrote on Operant Learning and computers . I don’t do pigeons. But Chris Metcalf does, and I got a great photo.
The downside is that pictures take space and can slow access to a site. I use the WordPress plug called WP-Super Cache to speed loading time.
I am testing a (free) add-on program from Zemanta that suggests pictures on the fly based on key words as I write. It also automatically spots words for Wikipedia links and suggested tags for the post as well. Whattadeal!
#12 Tags, categories, and search features. I have heard it said that you can use up to 8 tags on a post before Google gets in a snit. I usually don’t use that many, but I am generous. Words are free.
Darren Rowse had excellent suggestions for categories in a post recently called How to add categories to your blog. Chris Pearson has another called What every blogger needs to know about categories. They spurred me to check my own and I found I could consolidate several categories, eliminate some, and rename others to make them more user friendly. Remember that categories need to be designed so readers can find something they are interested in.
If your program has a Search Feature function, be sure to install it. As you build hundreds of posts on your site, you want readers to find quickly those ones that will fill their need.
Search Engine Optimization
If content is the first commandment of Blog writing, SEO has to be the second. I want to write a good post, and I want people to locate it, too. So I use these strategies to make my posts SEO friendly. Search engines like links—internal as well as external. I try to maximize both in my posts.
As I write a post draft I don’t stop to find the links, but I’ll put in a symbol [ ] that shows me one is needed. Then, as part of the rewrite phase, I simply go through and do a ‘find and replace’ in Word adding the new links.
#13 Links to related posts. I have tried several WordPress plugins that say they will search out related posts and add them automatically. I haven’t found one yet that gives me the specificity that I desire, so I usually add my own by hand.
First: I wait until I’ve done an entire series, and then go back and cut-and-paste a series of links to ALL the posts. My pet peeve are Related Post Links that are just entitled: Part I, Part II, etc., so I include the entire title of each for easy scanning.
Second: When doing routine maintenance on my evergreen posts, I will scan through to see if I’ve written anything recently that ties in. If so, I add a new related post link.
#14 Use picture ‘Alt’ Links. Alt links are an easy way to access an entirely different Search Engine category, those such as images.google.com that look for pictures and images. (If you look at the html setting for your post after you’ve uploaded a picture, these words go between the quotation marks after the Alt designation: Alt=” “.) This works for your own pictures, of course.
The trick is to think like a search engine. They can be fussy beasts, so don’t load in prime words about your web site, the post you are doing, or your mother’s maiden name. Rather, put in specific descriptors that someone looking for a picture like yours might use: Not, ‘tower’ but rather, ‘clock tower.’ Even better would be ‘brick clock tower Detroit Michigan.’
#15 Affiliate links. Almost everything you buy and use has some sort of an affiliate association free for the asking. Using the Amazon and Netflix affiliate links are standard for me whenever I talk about books or videos.
Training programs are also a good source. For example, I am currently enrolled in an excellent one by Yaro Starak called BlogMasterMind that has an affiliate program.
#16 Back story links. If I am writing a post that has a lot of specific detail in it, I will sometimes link to the backstory where I got foundational information. For example, when writing about the reusable bags customers schlep back to the grocery store, I linked back to an excellent in-depth green article published in the Wall Street Journal.
#17 Wikipedia links. I recently read an interview with Seth Godin (It was in a link-from-a-link and now I can’t find it. If you know where it is, please let me know!) When asked where he goes for information, Seth replied, ‘Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Wikipedia.’ If Seth likes it, can the world be far behind? A link-back to Wikipedia when you cite it is only courteous.
#18 Credit to them as helped you. This can be a win-win situation. You mention them and they might notice you. In addition, you give your readers quick access to more useful information. They’ll visit you again.
As you’ve probably noticed, I have given multiple examples of such Website credits throughout this post.
#19 Guest posts. Guest posts are a great way to get your name in front of a different readership. A post that I did for DumbLittleMan brought me many new readers and links from several other sites who saw it at the original site.
After you do such a guest post, the next step may seem obvious, but I sometimes forget. To maximize guest posts on other sites, be sure that you link to it in related posts on your website as well. That way your own readers will find it, too. Every time I edit a current post I try to keep this in mind.
#20 Internal links on your own site. I’ve talked about adding related posts above, but another, less formal way is to link internally to other posts within the body of your current post. I’ve done that here.
Scott H Young, one of my favorite self-improvement bloggers, also makes good use of internal links in his post, How to change a habit.
Although this category broadens out a bit from the general discussion of rewrite, everything that you do to make your site appearance cleaner will create a stickier post. Read on.
#21 Looks great. Remember that classic beer commercial, ‘Tastes great, less filling’? The Blog equivalent might be, ‘looks great, loads fast’. Both qualities are needed, both are valuable, and yet they are sometimes mutually exclusive. Let’s examine ‘looks great’ first.
As you design your website, be sure that the type face is large enough for Baby Boomer specs, and that the space is clean and uncluttered.
Be cautious, too, about too much Adsense clutter above the fold. If your reader senses the site is up just to make money, not to deliver the goods, they won’t return for a second look.
#22 Loads fast. I continually struggle with loading speed for my posts, given my propensity for images. So I work on those areas I can control.
I am lazy, I admit it. I’m used to working with Word, and that means coping with Word html bloat. Don’t ever look at the html of a typical Word document. It is enough to make a sausage maker weep.
I follow a two-step process to trim the fat: first I save the file as a Word doc, html-filtered format (not just html.) Then I follow up with a quick look in Dreamweaver. I run a command there solely designed for cleaning up Word html documents. Does MicroSoft have a problem, or what?
Perhaps a simpler way to go is to use a basic .txt producing program. Your computer will have one, or you might be interested in a (free) one called Q-10 that has some very nice features, including spell check, word count, target count, and even an alarm to tell you that you’ve written for your prescribed amount of time.
#23 Headings/ scan-ability. Because your readers are already in scan mode when they reach your site, help them out. Make liberal use of bolding, italics, lists. Increase your major headings to an H3 size. As mentioned above, paragraphs need to be briefer than hard-copy writing, and your sentences shorter.
Both ZenHabits and LittleDumbMan sites use colored headings; the former blue and the latter a deep orange. I like this. It makes reading easier and headings stand out on the page.
Last but not least
#24 Title. When hardcover authors are hard at work on a new masterpiece, they often give it a ‘working title.’ I use this concept, too.
I need something to put on the top of the page, but often it’s not too flashy or even very memorable. Only when I am completely finished with a piece, do I go back and try to figure out how to attract more readers by playing with the title.
I’ve heard not to go over 8 words. That works for me. But which 8 words? I know it is a cliché, but folks like numbers—especially roman numerals vs. spelled out words. So I use those. Also, asking a question using the ‘how to, what, why, when’ reporter words is always a good bet.
Placing an unusual word in the title will catch readers’ attention: When I did that guest post at DumbLittleMan, my initial title was “6 simple steps to creating an awesome to-do list.“ Jay added just one word to make the title immeasurably better: ‘6 excruciating simple steps to creating an awesome to-do list’.
You might ask an implied question. A recent post of mine was entitled, “The hardest relationship.” The implied question being, Which relationship is…?
Titles are fun to do. But the words you use need to be intentional. Take your time to choose exactly what might entice readers to click on your link and you will be rewarded. As Mark Twain has said, the exact word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.
#25 Preview the final version. A weird thing happens when I move the revised draft to the Web.
Things change! Margins shift, errors I missed become apparent, links don’t link. Misspelled words drift into view like fish in the coral reef. I would rather catch these in the first moments my post is live rather than have a reader ‘point’ them out to me several days later. So I do one last preview before I let my post free to fly.
That’s my 25. Do they take more time? Absolutely. But not as much as you might think.
And besides, I anticipate that much of what I write will still be valuable to the right reader several years from now. I want to build it to last, with a sturdy foundation and siding to weather the Internet storms. I expect it to still be standing when I come back for a summer visit. I want to be proud that I created it.
What have I missed? What do you do to make your smashing post even better?