In our March newsletter, Chris wrote about ways to improve a blog, including a set of suggestions for making the writing happen and formatting tips for making readers more willing to read. The strategies he lays out are all necessary to make the blog happen, but there’s another piece that’s needed to keep people interested once they get there: as Chris finishes by saying, “All of [these tips] assume that what you are writing is worthwhile, quality content—otherwise, no amount of styling or arranging will bring your blog up to the next level.” Worthwhile, quality content—well sure, sounds good, right? But figuring out what that consists of and how to produce it is hard; what quality means will vary among industries, companies, and even—maybe especially—individual readers.
This last fact is highlighted by a LinkedIn poll Chris took while planning for the newsletter, which asked, “What makes you read a blog post?” The variety of answers show that it doesn’t necessarily work to take any one fixed rule about your content and stick with it. Some respondents favored lists, but at least one considered them less valuable. Several people said they go for short articles, but a couple disagreed. I was on board with a comment made by Mark Shipley of Wanderlust (one of my clients, coincidentally), who said: “I’m probably odd. I like longer content, as long as it is well written and has some meat to it.” I’m probably odd too, since I tended to find myself agreeing with the more infrequent preferences. But even where there was pretty universal agreement—for instance, the subject matter of a post is one of the most important factors for most people in assessing its value—the takeaway still isn’t the same for everybody. What counts as interesting or useful will differ from site to site; instead of following a set model, you have to really think about what you, specifically, have to say, and what your readers, specifically, will be interested in hearing.
Why I Read Blogs
What makes me read a blog post? I’ll risk sounding like a snob and say that you have to make me think you’re smart. Of course, “smart” isn’t any less nebulous than “worthwhile” or “quality” as a goal—so what does it mean? A bunch of respondents in the LinkedIn poll listed qualities that can contribute to my impression that a blog is smart: interesting titles, good writing, the author’s credibility. A comment by Brian Meeks spoke pretty clearly to what I have in mind:
“I have several areas of interest and most of the blogs I follow are in these niches, but I also follow one ‘mommy blog’ from the UK. I am male, unmarried, zero kids, so I am not the demographic, but she is such a brilliant writer that I read her posts often.”
Like Brian, I have a few random feeds I’ve subscribed to despite not fitting their audience demographic, just because the authors have interesting things to say. And the areas of interest that my reading tends to cluster around—web usability, or feminist politics—are ones where there’s no shortage of material out there and I’m not going to read it all. Just writing about the subject isn’t good enough; you have to have something particularly good to say.
Make Your Blog Smart
So, if there aren’t set rules, what does it take for a blog to make the cut? Here’s are some ways to produce posts that I would find compelling.
Points 1 and 2 are completely crucial:
1. Really think it through
This is probably the most critical way to make your blog smarter. Have an idea? That’s a good start. Keep pushing it. The questions you should keep asking yourself are “Why?” and “So what?”. Let’s say (to take an example from Newfangled’s field) that you’re writing a review of a website’s information architecture and you think it’s good. Don’t stop there—why is it good? Because it takes a lot of material, streamlines it, and makes it easy to find what you’re looking for. OK—how does it do that? How exactly does the site structure accomplish those ends? What are some other ways it could have been structured? Pitfalls it avoided? What can we learn by taking it as an example?
It should take several rounds of questioning before you get to the point where there’s nothing left to say except “Because I said so.” The techniques for getting started that Chris explained in the newsletter can be useful at this point, especially talking it through. This is also a great time to get input from someone else—a different mind can be good at finding the questions you kind of don’t want to answer but really should. Get someone to really grill you on what you’re trying to say.
One caveat: this is not to say that you should only ever post when you’re all done thinking about a topic. Part of the point of a blog is that it’s an ongoing discussion; you’ll be building on lines of thought over time, so you don’t need to start out by saying everything you could ever say on this subject. It’s totally legitimate to take a new idea you’re excited about and throw it out there to see what happens. But those kinds of posts should be about ideas that have real potential to serve as seeds for further thought and conversation, things that still add something other than bulk to the world. That’s different from just tossing up a post that never bothers to get to the analysis. This brings me to a related point…
2. Care about what you’re saying
It’s not uncommon when writing a corporate blog to have a sense of what people in your field will want to read and therefore feel obligated to focus on those topics. The impulse there is largely good—yes, you want to write about things people care about—but if you don’t care about those things yourself, if you’re writing about them out of rote obligation, that will be obvious. If you’re boring yourself, you will probably also bore your readers.
Enthusiasm isn’t something that can be slapped on during the spellcheck; adding in a bunch of !!!!!!!!s and ending every paragraph with “How awesome is that?!” won’t make up for care that’s otherwise missing. There’s no easy way to fake it (except maybe by being an impeccable writer, which is harder than caring in the first place). To make your blog really good, you need to write about topics you’re invested in. If there’s something that’s so crucial to your industry that it can’t be ignored, then find the person at your company who really cares about that topic and reach out to them about doing some blogging. Ask them to write about the topics they’ll provide the best insight into. And the reverse is true—if you’re having trouble figuring out what you have to say, ask a coworker what they would be interested in hearing you talk about. Think about things you’ve done that you’ve been excited about or proud of. If there’s nothing you’re particularly excited about…you should probably reconsider why you’re blogging.
Points 3 and 4 aren’t quite life-or-death, but they still make a big difference:
3. Find a voice that fits
It will probably be easier to care about your writing—and certainly easier to convey your care—if you feel like it sounds like you. And overly formal and/or jargon-y writing will probably be more difficult to read anyway. This isn’t to say you should go all the way into txt-speak, lol, but I’m more likely to think a blog is smart if it sounds like it was written by an actual person with ideas. Your written voice will probably be different than your speaking voice, but you should still be able to own it.
If typos are part of your usual writing voice, ignore what I just said—cut it out. If you mix up it’s and its once, I probably won’t be too bothered. If you do it repeatedly, I’ll be distracted from the ideas you’ve worked to develop, and I may not take them as seriously as I would have otherwise. Again, that may make me a snob, but I promise I’m not alone in that. Proofread.