I’m going to start by giving you the single best tip I ever got about writing.
(How’s that for a first sentence with a hook?)
In junior English, my sweet-little-old-lady English teacher gave us all a one-page handout with the title blacked out. The title, she explained with a blush, translated to “Really Crappy First Drafts.” I was intrigued: If the article was good enough that it could make my prim and conservative English teacher allude to a swear word, it probably had something valuable to say.
Because the internet is awesome, here’s a link so that you can read “Shitty First Drafts” in all its unexpurgated glory.
The point of the piece is that you need to give yourself permission to write badly. I mean, really badly. Write as badly as you need to in order to get your ideas out of your head and onto the paper as quickly as possible. Pretend like you’re writing just for you, not for anyone else, and turn off all the internal critics. Just write.
When you’re done, you’ll have a first draft — a “Really Crappy First Draft” — and it’s actually not that much work at all to edit it into something you can be proud of.
As I spend my days writing blog posts and web copy for businesses in virtually every industry, this is the piece of advice that pops into my head almost every time. You have to just sit down and write.
(image source: www.sharonmcgill.net)
However, during my long and illustrious career (*cough, cough*), I’ve also picked up plenty of other tips, tricks and tools on how to write a blog post that really rocks. I’m going to share them with you here so that you can join me in making truly remarkable web copy that genuinely helps people.
Choosing a Topic
For many people, deciding what to write about is the hardest part of writing. I have to admit that I am not one of those people. By cultivating an open, questioning mind, I find that literally everything triggers an idea for a blog post.
1. Brainstorm everything.
Astonished by the poor quality of the ads that pop up during your favorite iPhone game? That’s a blog post. Surprised that GE has such an amazing Instagram feed? That’s a blog post too. Keep a big list somewhere and try to maintain an open mind as you go through your day.
2. Be interested in everything.
You can’t write interesting blog posts unless you’re interested in the subject matter at hand. And sure, the scientific schematics of your client’s new pH testing strips might not sound sexy. But what I’ve found is that learning about a new topic is inherently an interesting process to me. Cultivate an attitude of learning to keep yourself interested in your writing, and your readers will be interested too.
3. Be an educator.
The best blog posts create an “a-ha!” moment for your readers. That means that every blog post needs to be teaching your readers something. Otherwise, why are they reading it? Figure out what you know, that your readers don’t know and need to know, and write around that.
4. Be Better than Everyone Else.
Rand Fishkin at Moz did a great Whiteboard Friday on “Why Good Unique Content Needs to Die.” His point was that the blogosphere is stuffed with content that’s just “good enough,” and to really excel, you need to make content that’s 10 times better (!) than what the competitors are making.
Unless you’re a really niche player, someone somewhere has already written about your topic. That means your version of the story needs to be significantly more valuable than anyone else’s. Google the topic and see if you can write a post that is somehow better, more interesting, more useful, or more relevant, than the posts in the top 3 spots. If you can’t, don’t write it.
(Did I pass the test with this blog post? Let me know in the comments!)
Setting the Tone
Be conversational! Be fun! Be informative! When it comes to tone and writing style, it’s easy to feel like far too many demands are being made on your poor little piece of writing. Here are the most crucial elements.
5. Be authentic.
This is by far the most important part of tone. Remember, we’re using informational blog posts as an alternative to traditional advertising, so it is critical to stay as far away from sales-speak as possible. You should genuinely want to help each reader with each blog post, and that intention should shine through.
6. Be conversational.
Content marketing is all about building a trust-based relationship with your potential customers. You can’t do that if your writing is as stiff and formal as a peer-reviewed scientific paper. Get comfortable with “I” and “you” and contractions and even sentence fragments. (Not to mention using the word “and” more than once in a sentence, if you think it will help make your point more smoothly.)
You want your readers to feel like you’re speaking to them directly.
7. Tell a story.
Sometimes it seems to me like all of human experience boils down to the stories we tell each other. A story with a compelling narrative is one of the most persuasive ways you can communicate with another human being. I started this blog post with a mini-story to draw the reader in and entice them to keep reading — and hey, you’re reading this far, so it worked!
Targeting Your Audience
Hopefully this information is already in your content calendar somewhere. Figure out a way to keep reminding yourself of your buyer personas as you write: personally, I keep a little description at the top of the document, so I can refer back to it.
8. Use those buyer personas.
Each blog post should be aimed squarely at at least one buyer persona and at least one stage of the buying journey. An article written for an IT professional should have rigid organization, plenty of lists, and lots of numerical data to prove your points. An article for mothers of toddlers should focus on stories and feelings as persuasive tactics.
9. Meet a real need.
What is the pain point you are trying to solve? To get the most utility out of your blog posts, there should be a clear problem to which you present a clear solution. Present the problem in such a way that the reader goes, “Hey, that’s me!” When you help readers solve a real challenge they’re having, they’ll love you for it — and they’ll share your content, too.
10. Set real goals.
What do you want the reader to do after reading your blog post: download an associated ebook so you can add them to your lead nurturing workflows? Pick up the phone and call a sales guy? Engage with your community in the comments? Share the content on social platforms? Figure out what your call to action (CTA) is, even if it’s only implied, and write towards that goal.
Layout and Structure
Writing a blog is not like writing any other kind of media. The organization, hierarchy and flow of your piece is almost as important as the content itself, simply because no one will bother to read your great content if you don’t make it easy for them.
11. Keep sentences and paragraphs short.
Most people scan web content rather than reading every single word. To help them, do your best to cut extraneous verbiage and overly complex sentences. Limit each paragraph to just one idea so that readers can jump to the next point without losing the thread. Headings, sub-headings and lists help keep your content scannable and snackable.
In other words, it’s perfectly all right to have a one-sentence paragraph in blogging.
12. Create a compelling structure
This section could also be called “Lists Always Work.” People just love list-based blog posts (like this one) because the list does so much of the work for them: They don’t have to figure out how your points all relate to each other. Posing questions and describing case studies are also tried-and-true methods for drawing the reader in with a compelling structure.
13. Keep the layout clean.
Less is definitely more. Have a clean, uncluttered page with lots of white space, relevant images, and a large font — or your readers won’t stick around to find out how you can help them.
For context, here’s an example of a blog layout that I hate:
Banners and ads and images everywhere, almost all of them trying to get money out of me. On top of that, the text is too small and the sub-sections aren’t visually separate enough. It takes effort to read this piece, and that’s effort I’m not likely to put in.
Now take a look at this one:
The content takes center stage, drawing my eye towards it and begging me to read it. There are practically no distractions, and the different sections stand out clearly. I love this page.
The Technical Side
If you’re a copywriter, do yourself a huge favor and learn how to do front-end technical SEO yourself. You’ll have more control over your writing, and your editors will love you.
14. Incorporate SEO appropriately.
Remember that your main goal is to attract visitors by creating relevant content. SEO won’t make your content relevant, but it will help you be found in more relevant searches. Use your main keyword phrase in the title of your blog post and in the first paragraph, and learn how to use things like alt tags and meta descriptions effectively. An SEO specialist can do an audit on your blogs and give you direction on how to optimize them.
When to Stop
Google “best length for a blog post” and you’ll get a dozen different competing answers. Here’s my take: A blog post should be exactly as long as it needs to be to make your point, and absolutely no longer.
15. 500 Words is the Minimum.
A lot of people swear by 500-word blog posts, because a reader can quickly skim through and digest your content in just a few minutes. If you have made your point completely in less than 500 words, that’s not a blog post; it’s a sub-section of a blog post.
16. 2,500 words is the maximum.
At madison/miles, we aim for 1,500-word blog posts. That’s because we’re trying to impart real content of genuine value, and we think you can’t write useful articles on inbound marketing topics in less than a few pages. If you start going north of 2,000 words, though, maybe what you’re writing is really a series of blog posts or an eBook.
Choosing a Title
I saved this for last, because you should save your title until last. Of course, you’ll have a placeholder title in your content calendar and at the top of your word-processing program, but it should be written in metaphorical pencil.
17. “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
Ever find your mind changing about the thesis of your article between starting it and finishing it? That’s normal: As humans, we really do write in order to clarify our thinking. That’s why finalizing your title is the last thing you should do, after you’ve laid out what you actually want to say.
Like many other writers, I generally save the introduction for last, too. Any introduction I write before finishing the rest of the content is almost guaranteed to be useless.
This post could go on and on — we could talk about editing, choosing images, long-tail keywords and more. But I’m bumping up against 2,000 words here, and I think I’ve been pretty comprehensive in the point I wanted to make, so it’s time to end.
Great blogging is less about “tips and tricks,” and more about cultivating an attitude of genuine learning and teaching. If you make all your blogging choices with the end goal of helping your readers firmly in mind, I’m confident that you’ll find success.