Eight Questions for Writing Successful Blog Posts

Writing in the Social Media Age – Part One

I presented a workshop yesterday at the LSE Literary Festival on my personal experience of writing for websites, blogs, podcasts, Facebook and on my Twitter stream.

I’m not sharing my powerpoint presentation here, because it doesn’t make much sense unless I’m explaining it to you – I chose to go the ‘photographs of chocolate brownies’ route over lists of bullet points – but do email me if you would like me to send it (sarahsalway@gmail.com)

However, I want to share the main points of my presentation here, provide some writing exercises, and also to give the links I mentioned in the talk.


1. Inject Some Personal Passion Into Your Writing…

Too many blogs or twitter streams are started because someone thinks they should have one, or worse have been told to have one, rather than they actually want to be involved in anything resembling a conversation.

And not surprisingly, the tone of the writing in these cases can get a bit arsey. Or defensive. Often both, which is doubly offputting.

“Come on then, Twitter, show me why I should be bothering…”

Actually no. Show us why we should bother to read you.

So, even for experienced bloggers, tweeters, writers, it’s useful to stop and ask these questions from time to time…

Q: What is my reason for writing?

A word of warning, if it’s to be liked and admired by everyone, that’s not going to happen. It’s a bit like those people who want to be writers but not actually do the writing. Perhaps it’s better to turn that question round:

Q: Why SHOULD anyone read me?

A harsh but necessary question.

A good writing exercise is to spend five minutes freewriting a list of all the things you are passionate about and want to share with others. Don’t just include what you think you should write about, write down your love of birdsong, of obscure children’s novels, of how frustrating it is to be a mother and not be noticed anymore for yourself, how poetry helped you get over a broken heart…

Then write a list of all the things you know about and could usefully share your knowledge. Don’t hold back at this stage: how to put together IKEA furniture, the law, household finance, how to get wordpress to work, motivating yourself to run every morning, how to put together a proper academic reference list…

Now, a third list of all the things you struggle with: finishing a piece of writing, getting your child to read, finding a gluten-free restaurant.

I can’t suggest what subjects you should pick because this is you, not me. What I do know is that the longer you can keep writing now, the bigger your treasure chest for the future, because these are things people will want to read about. Maybe not everyone, but you may be surprised at the number of people who want to share your love of birdsong. If you are genuine.

And although we hear a lot about the importance of focusing in writing, I would suggest that our online writing becomes more interesting if we can add variety. It doesn’t have to take away from the central focus, and can even enhance it if you can combine two very different subjects.

Some blogs which began as personal passions:

Shedworking
Paper and Salt
Advanced Style
A Quiet Sit Down

2. Remember You Are Not Writing An Academic Essay

Write short sentences. Keep space between your paragraphs. And break some of the rules you might have been taught at school. Because this is a conversation.

So your writing should keep a pace that feels both informal and interesting, rather than a solid block of text that may be full of important information but is too hard to unravel when your reader is looking at it on a screen and maybe only has a couple of minutes to get your message.

And if you don’t believe me, look at this website’s submission guide…

As you write more, you’ll find it gets easier to find the direct tone that suits YOUR writing voice. The biggest change for me came when I gave up cutting and pasting, and started writing direct on my blog template. And also when I started looking at my own blog as if I was a reader. Could I quickly pick up the important points?

What do you mean? It’s ALL important.

Hmmm…. the biggest lesson for me came when I found I was bookmarking my own blog for later because I just couldn’t face taking in all that ‘important information’ just then.

Some writers who use their writing voice to really engage with their readers:

Caroline Smailes
Neil Gaiman
Nicola Morgan
* Norman Geras

3. What Do You Want Your Readers to Do As A Result of Reading Your Blog?

I read an article once which said that when we write a letter to someone there is always an implicit call to action within our words. It’s the same with writing a blog.

What do you want your reader to do? Once you know this, you can go on to answer the second and more important question…

Have you made it easy for readers to take the action you want?

You’d be amazed at how easy it is to forget this. I have spent hours trying to enthuse people about my book or forthcoming reading, for example, and then forget to give the details. They might do an internet search for themselves, but sadly, they probably won’t.

This is a screenshot of my first blog entry, way back in 2003 when I was about to have my first novel, Something Beginning With, published. Not that you would know this. From this entry. Or the next. Or the next. I had to have it pointed out to me that I never actually mentioned the book.

Beware of the British (and other national) fear of talking about ourselves. I now work from the principle that if people have clicked on to my site, they might just be interested in what I have to say!

Some ways you can help them:

• Provide links to buy books/CD’s/make donations etc
• Round up websites which provide more information about the issue you have been talking about
• Write a list of possible next steps

4. Have You Set Your Own Boundaries?

We all have different ideas of what these might be. When I first started my blog, I decided not to mention my family because I wanted to concentrate on my writing life rather than my personal life. Obviously the two collide quite often (and can even provide creative inspiration) but it’s been a helpful distinction for me to have made.

What are you prepared to share? And how much?

Wherever you draw your lines, remember that the best blogs are about sharing your journey, rather than purely acting as a cheerleader for you.

It’s noticeable that the posts I’ve written about particular struggles I’ve had – about forcing myself to cope with shyness, for example – receive a lot of views. This isn’t to say you have to write a series of ‘poor me’ posts, but it’s a nod to the fact that no life is without struggle. There’s an immediate connection, because nothing feels more like a conversation than when people share their bad times too.

If you can show how you’ve overcome these struggles – with information, inspiration and advice – so much the better. You’ll soon find you’ve built a real community.

Some blogs which successfully tell a personal story:

Gluten Free Girl
52 Seductions
Susannah Conway

5. How Technical Do You Have To Be?

As someone who has hardly any technical expertise, I’m here to tell you: do not be put off!

Many years ago, I remember some research into why children were so much better than adults with computers. The answer was that adults were aware of how much a computer cost and were therefore terrified about breaking it. The children, in contrast, were busily and happily pressing buttons to see what happened.

I’ve found it the same with social media.

I think it was Danielle LaPorte who usefully said, if you don’t know how to do it, invest in paying someone who does.

There are some things I’m happy to outsource. The design for this website, for example, was done for me professionally. However, I’ve learnt how to use it, and to adapt it for my purposes because I want to be able to update it myself. It really has been a case often of pressing buttons and seeing what happens.

Here are some sites, I now find invaluable:

Audioboo – for short podcasts, or poem readings. This caused me problems with wordpress until someone on Twitter told me to download the Audioboo Plugin.
You Tube – to upload videos I can then embed into the blog. I use a FLIP camera I purchased second hand.
Flickr – for photograph sharing
Pininterest – I struggled with this one until I learnt to put a ‘pin’ button in your bookmark folder. Now it’s just a case of liking, pinning, keeping!
Stumbleupon.com – to help me keep a note of sites to come back to. I’ve spent some time getting my ‘interests’ focused so there are always recommendations I love now.
Google Alerts – put in keywords of articles you’re writing or planning, and you’ll be surprised at how much useful information comes up.

And if all else fails, ask. You’d be amazed at how quickly and generously people share their knowledge. Which is why, of course, you should too.

Some technically wonderful blogs to inspire:

Kidmapper
White Hot Truth


6. How Often Do You Have to Post?

Hmmm… the rule I work to is three times a week. But inspiration doesn’t always behave to a timetable, so I find a schedule has been really helpful to me.

I now have formats for posts I can use again and again. These include my 50 word photostories, and guest posts in the form of Five Sentences.

Here are some ideas that might work for you…

• Interviews with people in your field. I’ve found this often works best if the format is simple; people might feel more inclined to say yes.
• Tips/How to…
• An exclusive look…
• Use your hobbies and passions. Go back to your list in the first point, and see if there is something that could be a regular feature. Birdsong on Wednesday, for example. I know I keep banging on about birdsong, but I would SO look at that blog!
• Link in with anniversaries, seasons, personal birthdays. You don’t always have to make your own calendar, sometimes the angles are waiting for you to slip into.
• A regular slot – eg a favourite poem every Friday.

Some people who successfully hold regular events:

DJ Kirkby
Me and My Big Mouth

7. What’s the Angle?

Don’t just use your blog as an information dumping ground. To attract and keep readers, you need to think about shaping your material in a way that interests them.

So an important question is, who are you writing for?

The best blogs grow not by trying to appeal to everyone but by establishing a loyal audience. It’s quality not quantity that matters.

One good way to start a post is by thinking how you would describe your subject if you were talking to a good friend.

If you started a discussion on, say, how to get your daughter to eat healthily with a lengthy historical perspective of children’s food, the chances are that your friend would quickly remember she had to be somewhere else.

But it’s amazing how many writers feel that they should write like this.

Instead start with the hook. How you actually got Sharon to eat carrots. Or how you’re worried sick about the new food research. Or whether you can stretch your budget now food prices have risen.

Make it relevant.

And make it topical.

8. Can You Make Your Posts Short and Snappy?

Oh.

Oops..

It’s true. Much as I’d like to think you will spend all of your Sunday reading this, I have to be realistic.

So I’ll stop now. My notes on writing for Twitter soon, but in the meantime you might like to look at this post from book industry expert, Danuta Kean.

And if you fancy spending a week learning more about online writing, then Jon Reed and I will be running an Arvon course in the Autumn, details here.

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14 thoughts on “Eight Questions for Writing Successful Blog Posts

  1. Oh,Sarah, you are one of my writing angels. You and my other one always know just what help I need at any given moment! Thanks for this intelligent, well crafted and useful post! Cheers.

  2. Dear Sarah,
    Thank you for giving up your Saturday afternoon to share your experience and expertise on social media, it was an insightful hour. I have also enjoyed reading your blog, and am finding it quite educational.

    I am the girl who briefly spoke to you at the end, as I have very recently started a blog myself and would be very interested and appreciative to know what you think.

    Anna

  3. Thanks for a thought-provoking talk and for this post. Still thinking about where my own boundaries lie (though I realise that if I have more success as a creative writer, I will be ‘exposing’ myself through my work. Strictly in an artistic way, of course).

    • It’s a big question, Helen. The secret – with creative writing – is always to write as if no-one is going to read it, and then make your decisions. Nothing stifles me more than censoring my writing before it’s even on the page.

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  5. As an alumnus of the LSE who did his thesis on personal blogging and who is now teaching journalism students who should be blogging and tweeting, your post is trebly useful and interesting to me. But if this is part one, where’s part two?

    PS On the issue of boundaries I think it is worth pointing out to potential bloggers in particular trying to decide theirs that because there’s no audible “tone of voice”, sarcasm and irony can sometimes fail on the internet and what you write can be taken out of the context you intended for it.

    • Thanks David, and your thesis looks fascinating. Where are you teaching now?
      Part 2 is coming, I’ve just had the small matter of a book to launch….!!!

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