Writing a blog post is a little like driving; you can study the highway code (or read articles telling you how to write a blog post) for months, but nothing can prepare you for the real thing like getting behind the wheel and hitting the open road. Or something.
“Wait for it… wait for it… BASS DROP.”
Now that I’m done thoroughly mangling that vague metaphor, let’s get down to business. You know you need to start blogging to grow your business, but you don’t know how. In this post, I’ll show you how to write a great blog post in five simple steps that people will actually want to read. Ready? Let’s get started.
Now let’s review each step in more detail.
First, a disclaimer – the entire process of writing a blog post often takes more than a couple of hours, even if you can type eighty words per minute and your writing skills are sharp. From the seed of the idea to finally hitting “Publish,” you might spend several days or maybe even a week “writing” a blog post, but it’s important to spend those vital hours planning your post and even thinking about your post (yes, thinking counts as working if you’re a blogger) before you actually write it.
Does your blog post have enough circles and crosses?
Long before you sit down to put digital pen to paper, you need to make sure you have everything you need to sit down and write. Many new bloggers overlook the planning process, and while you might be able to get away with skipping the planning stage, doing your homework will actually save you time further down the road and help you develop good blogging habits.
There’s an old maxim that states, “No fun for the writer, no fun for the reader.” No matter what industry you’re working in, as a blogger, you should live and die by this statement.
Before you do any of the following steps, be sure to pick a topic that actually interests you. Nothing – and I mean NOTHING – will kill a blog post more effectively than a lack of enthusiasm from the writer. You can tell when a writer is bored by their subject, and it’s so cringe-worthy it’s a little embarrassing.
Don’t go there.
I can hear your objections already. “But Dan, I have to blog for a cardboard box manufacturing company.” I feel your pain, I really do. During the course of my career, I’ve written content for dozens of clients in some less-than-thrilling industries (such as financial regulatory compliance and corporate housing), but the hallmark of a professional blogger is the ability to write well about any topic, no matter how dry it may be. Blogging is a lot easier, however, if you can muster at least a little enthusiasm for the topic at hand.
You also need to be able to accept that not every post is going to get your motor running. Some posts will feel like a chore, but if you have editorial control over what you write about, then choose topics you’d want to read – even if they relate to niche industries. The more excited you can be about your topic, the more excited your readers will be when they’re reading it.
If you’re really desperate for inspiration, check out our list of eight blog topic generators to get you going.
Great blog posts don’t just happen. Even the best bloggers need a rough idea to keep them on-track. This is where outlines come in.
An outline doesn’t need to be lengthy, or even detailed – it’s just a rough guide to make sure you don’t ramble on and on about something tangential to your topic.
For example, this is the outline for this post that I sent to my editor before getting to work:
[Quick summary explaining what the blog post will cover]
Section 1 – Planning a Blog Post
– Things bloggers should do before putting pen to paper – outlining, research etc.
Section 2 – Writing a Blog Post
– Tips on how to focus on writing, productivity tips for bloggers
Section 3 – Rewriting/Editing a Blog Post
– Self-editing techniques, things to watch out for, common blogging mistakes
Section 4 – Optimizing a Blog Post
– How to optimize a blog post for on-page SEO, social shares/engagement, etc.
Section 5 – Conclusion
The purpose of this outline is to make sure I know what I plan to cover, in what order the various sections will appear, and some bare-bones details of what each section will include.
Outlines keep you honest. They stop you from indulging in poorly thought-out metaphors about driving and keep you focused on the overall structure of your post. Sometimes I’ll write a more thorough outline (and sometimes I won’t bother with one at all), but most of the time, something like the outline above is perfectly acceptable.
Whether you write your outline in your word processor, on a piece of paper, or even scribbled on a bar napkin, do whatever works for you to keep you focused.
One of the biggest secrets professional bloggers (myself included) don’t want you to know is that we don’t actually know everything. Truth be told, sometimes we don’t know anything about a topic before we sit down to write about it.
Pro tip: you don’t actually need a passport to write a travel marketing post.
This doesn’t mean that all bloggers are insincere fakers. On the contrary, many bloggers’ natural curiosity is what makes them great at what they do. If you blog for a living, you have to be comfortable jumping from one topic to the next, even if you don’t know anything about it. What allows us to do this, and to write authoritatively about subject areas that are new to us, is knowing how to properly research a blog post.
It almost goes without saying, but relying solely on Wikipedia as a primary source is almost always a bad idea. Yes, Wikipedia does have thousands of excellently researched articles, but it’s not infallible, and erroneous facts do make their way into articles without site editors noticing. Plus, every verifiable fact on the site is cited from links elsewhere on the web, so why cite the middleman?
Lou Diamond Phillips was a total beast in ‘La Bamba.’
If you’re relying on third-party information to write your blog post, choose authoritative sources. Official associations, government websites, heavily cited research papers, and preeminent industry experts are all good examples. Nobody is right all the time, though, so approach every source with a the practiced skepticism of a journalist and question everything until you’re positive your information is solid.
A few years ago, I edited a piece written by a colleague focusing on the highlights of a major technology conference. The writer, under a seriously tight deadline, had done a bang-up job of writing great copy in virtually no time, but he failed to properly check his facts. He cited an article from Forbes in which the writer claimed Steve Jobs was using PowerPoint on stage – something that never happened. It was lazy journalism on the part of the Forbes writer, and an easy mistake to make on my colleague’s part, but the result was the same; one poorly researched article directly impacted another because both writers failed to do their due diligence.
All it takes to tank your credibility is one glaring error. Everyone makes mistakes, but it’s crucial to avoid gaffes like this. If you’re just starting out, your credibility and authority will take a major hit if you publish inaccurate information, and even if you have a blog with millions of loyal readers, your regulars will be all too eager to jump all over your mistake – just take a look in the comment sections of publications such as Wired or TechCrunch to see how quickly this can happen.
In the event that you fall prey to a well-executed hoax, repeat widely circulated misinformation, or simply make a mistake, own up to it right away and be transparent about your edits. If you try to slip something past your readers, you can bet that they’ll call you out on it, further compounding the damage. Be honest, be accountable, and fix it – fast.
Everyone and their grandmother has an opinion about headlines. Some say you should be as specific as possible (to avoid misleading your readers and manage their expectations), while others recommend taking a more abstract approach. Vague headlines might work just fine if you’re Seth Godin, but for most of us, being specific is better.
Some headlines practically write themselves.
There are two main approaches you can take to writing blog post headlines. You can either decide on your final headline before you write the rest of your post (and use your headline to structure your outline), or you can write your blog post with a working title and see what fits when you’re done.
Personally, I don’t adhere to a rigid strategy one way or the other. Sometimes I’ll come up with a strong headline from the outset and stick with it, whereas other posts will take a lot more work. Although sites such as Upworthy arguably ruined internet writing with their clickbait headlines, the process behind the site’s headlines has merit, as it forces you to really think about your post and how to grab your audience’s attention.
Your approach to headlines should also vary depending on your audience. For example, let’s look at these super-specific headlines from around the web:
The exact figures presented in these headlines are all framed within a context of providing actionable advice to other marketers and startups. “Case study” blog posts like this often perform well, due to their transparent nature (which pulls the curtain back from successful growing businesses and the people who run them) and the “how-to” angle (which attracts people who want to accomplish the same thing by following real-world examples).
People LOVE how-to articles.
That’s all well and good if that’s what you’re looking for – which, in my case, is rare. I didn’t read any of these posts, simply because it seems that at least half of the blog posts in my RSS feed are structured in this fashion (including this one). They’re great for the sake of example, but I glossed right over them because they’re so similar to the dozens of other posts I see every day telling me three hacks to grow my startup by X percent in Y months.
Another common technique is posing a question in your headline. Done well, this can be extraordinarily effective, as it is in these examples:
However, this technique is also growing tiresome, and fewer publications are utilizing it these days (thankfully alongside the always-irksome “You won’t believe…” headline). If you opt for asking questions in your headlines, be sure it’s a question your audience will be genuinely interested in.
Writing headlines for blog posts is as much an art as it is a science, and probably warrants its own post, but for now, all I’d advise is experimenting with what works for your audience. If your readers want hyper-specific case studies on how to do stuff, by all means let ‘em have it. Don’t, however, do something just because someone else is, especially if it’s not resonating with your audience.