June 13, 2012

Anatomy of a Blog Post

So a random Wednesday in mid-June is totally the same as a Monday in November, right? Right.

Sorry about the delay; I just got swamped. However, lately I've been finding myself composing blog posts in my head. It's gotten to the point where I am sitting, comfortably settled with a novel, and all I can focus on is this hypothetical blog post in my head. So let's get some of these done; maybe I'll finally get back into the groove of this thing. I know I'd certainly like that.

As a kick-off, let's talk about what makes a good blog post. I feel reasonably qualified to talk about this. I've had an ongoing personal blog since 2004, and one of my first assignments at The Job was to read blogs and garner some social media clout (but not Klout, ew) with the top bloggers in the do-it-yourself home improvement field. I remember opening up my Google Reader every morning and skimming through about 15 blogs' posts. So here's what makes a good, read-worthy blog.

1. Pictures

No, I'm not kidding. Pictures make any blog 50% more interesting. Photographs, charts, interesting meme images, even kitten pictures. Adding pictures automatically makes people want to read your blog more. I'll use my favorite example for this, an amazing blog called Young House Love, a DIY blog about a couple (and their daughter and pup) remodeling their home in the Richmond, VA area. It's a pretty amazing blog, and it exemplifies a lot of the things I'm going to talk about here in this list. However, their #1 best thing ever is how chock full of images every single entry is. Better, all the images are scaled down to reduce load time while still being a good-enough size to illustrate exactly what's going on and what they're doing.

Obligatory image.

Beyond that, however, images have larger purpose: a lot of times, really good information can be more easily disseminated in an image. Think about it -- I can "say" more with a simple line graph than I could in a whole paragraph of text. You don't care how much I talk about profits going up; you do like seeing the lines moving up and to the right.

Finally, images can break up a post really nicely, keeping your post from looking like the classic wall-of-text that plagues so many blogs out there.

2. Daily updates

This is actually one of the tips that Google themselves will give you, but update daily to keep interest in your blog up. I can't tell you guys how frustrating it is to follow a blog that updates maybe one in 6 weeks.

Hey, I'm not going to pretend that I'm not awful about this myself. Even my personal blog has infrequent updates. However, make an effort! A blog post should really only take about a half hour to put together (assuming it's just a simple post, like mine usually are, and you have an idea already in mind) and proofreading can be done on the fly. Okay, that latter bit is actually a pretty shitty thing for me to say; you want your blog to be as polished as it can be at all times. But, honestly, errors can be forgiven, while a lack of content? Really can't.

I'll note that there's a limit. I had a blog on my blogroll that was an aggregator from various smaller blogs around the interwebs. I hated that blog. It would update 14 times a day, and oftentimes with repeated content. There was no degree of curation at all. It felt like spam. Don't turn into this blog! Write substantial entries regularly.

If all else fails, follow the webcomic model: updates 2-3 times a week, regularly, on consistent days.

3. Be honest

I'm something of a veteran of LiveJournal drama. What does this mean exactly? Well aside from loving me some ONTD, and sparkle text, it means that I can say this with some degree of battle-hardened experience: don't "perk up" your content with deliberate shit-stirring and drama-magnetism.

Look, I love soapy dramatic goodness as much as the next Redditor / Hacker News reader. I love seeing the trainwreck in progress, and seeing all the people being crazy in the comments.

But this gets exhausting, especially if it starts to feel fabricated. At the end of the day, I don't really need that kind of reading on my dash constantly. My favorite blogs to read are the ones that come from an honest, genuine place. The best blogs are the ones that are honest, the ones that being written with no purpose beyond, "Here's some thoughts / a story that I wanted to share."

Basically, a good blog should remind you of a good, casual "talk" given by a colleague. Put another way, a good blog post should make you want to know the author better, or let you walk away feeling like you do know the author better.

4. Put yourself out there

Some people read blogs for information alone. That's fine, and I am the last person to hate on those kinds of blogs. After all, that was the original purpose of this blog.

However, I've come to realize that the stories I loved reading the most were the ones where people shared some part of themselves in the story. My CEO, Joel Spolsky, does this brilliantly. Joel will often start with a point, then segue into an anecdote that seems utterly unrelated, until the end of the story, when he ties it all together. It's a feat, almost like magic, watching him speak. His blog is really similar to this.

This ties into that: use your own voice when you write. Using your "radio voice" just...it's not right. It doesn't have the same impact, I think. It comes across as false, no matter how well/poorly you manage to cultivate that voice. I think there's a difference between having a professional voice (when blogging for the company, or blogging with a pro purpose) and fabricating a voice for use in a specific realm. The latter is going to be detected by your audience (you'll slip voices at some point, and the change will be noted and jarring) and may easily sour their opinion of your posts.

To use a real-world example: it's the internet-equivalent of faking an accent around certain friends. Unnecessary, and nearly rude.

5. Blog for yourself

This is the most important, and most difficult, bit of advice I can give you. There are going to be people who want more of X, and people who want less of X on your blog. Ignore those people. Ultimately, doing what you've been doing, and how you've been doing, brought those people to your blog initially.

At the end of the day, a blog has to be something you're proud of. It doesn't matter who else cares or is reading it. If you're putting up on the internet for public censure, you have to be secure in your feelings about it first, everyone else's second.

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