This website is all about writing. So I figured it should feature the one piece of writing advice from my other blog, Joburg Expat. It’s called 10 Tips on How to Write a Good Blog Post and has somehow risen to the top of that blog, past all the priceless (in my mind) advice for expats moving to Johannesburg, how to buy a car, which school to select for their children, how to avoid getting killed, and gotten close to 30K page views, in that mysterious fashion only some engineers at Google fully understand.
I won’t post the exact same content here, because a) I’ve since perhaps learned another thing or two about how to write a good blog post,b) for those loyal readers among you who’ve followed me from Joburg Expat to here, I’d like to offer up some new content, and c) I still don’t fully understand but am wary of what those aforementioned engineers at Google do to people with duplicate content. Reduce our page rank? Publicly shame us? Send an assassin? I don’t want to find out.
So here I give you the new and improved 12 Secrets of Writing a Good Blog Post.
- Write when you’re inspired, whatever the time. That’s why they invented coffee. In a cruel twist of fate, whenever a lot is happening in your life you can think of tons to write about, but have absolutely no time. And once your life calms down and you have all the time in the world, there is nothing left to write about. So, embrace that time slot between two and four AM when you can knock out words absolutely undisturbed.
- Write often. This is why blogging is perfect – a little story every few days – each packaged in a neat blog post published for the world to see, no margins and page sizes to worry about, no agents, no editors, no publishers. You have to write regularly, whether you have tons to say or not. Not each blog post will be Pulitzer-Prize material, but the practice will make you better, I promise you.
- Read frequently. Most of you will love hearing this part. Having just told you that you need to spend your time writing, writing, and writing, I’m offering you a huge freebie here that lets you off the hook temporarily. Every writer loves to read, it’s pure pleasure, not work at all. And yet it is of singular importance if you want to improve. It’s like watching a master chef prepare a meal to improve your cooking, like watching Derek Jeter swing the bat in slow motion on your way to become a better hitter, like copying a van Gogh to improve your painting technique. You have to watch the masters and learn from them, and collect stray phrases and wordings and structures and try them out in your own writing every once in a while.
- Focus on the writing. What I mean by this is don’t spend too much time on fancy pictures and other gadgets to make your blog look professional. It’s nice to have a cool looking blog, but in the end it’s your writing that will differentiate you from the masses (and keeping it simple will also improve your load times). When I write a travel article, I can easily spend five times as long on Photoshop and the business of arranging all my pictures just so than what I spend on the actual text. And all that time is time I don’t spend practicing my writing.
- Jot down ideas. I suppose I’m lucky. From the moment I wake up until when the book I’m reading falls out of my hands with a thud late at night, I am assaulted by ideas of what I could be writing about. The mother counting to three in the supermarket and not having a plan what comes after that; the rampant postings on the neighborhood website and the people with their first world problems; the way our carpenter bees are chewing up the woodwork on our house and the perverse pleasure I feel when whacking them with a badminton racket (I’m serious, try it sometime!). The great thing about a blog is that you don’t have to necessarily weave a red thread throughout it all. Any stray idea is worth a blog post, but you’ve got to write it down, or you’ll forget. My ideas tend to always come to me either in the shower (which is terrible because I have no way to write them down) or in the car (where I’ll desperately wait for a red light so I can write down the one sentence that pops into my head and which will jog my memory later). Smartphones are great for that, use them! The most boring meeting or presentation can be improved upon by jotting notes into your phone.
- Start in the middle. Earlier in my writing career, I couldn’t do that. I’m very Type A, and so I’d sit down and plow through my story, one sentence at a time, often sitting there for long stretches bent over my keyboard agonizing over a particular turn of phrase that just wouldn’t gel. In the meantime, that perfect punchline that first popped into my head and gave me the idea of the story was sitting there, at the distant finish line, elusive and tantalizing and seemingly out of reach. Needless to say, I sometimes gave up before I did reach it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We live in the age of computers, for crying out loud, where stuff can be cut and pasted at will. Just write the part that first pops into your head, and the rest will follow. And, perhaps, the story didn’t even have to start at the beginning anyway. Have you ever read James Michener? I think he might be the only writer on the planet who gets away with starting at Adam and Eve (or, in the case of Alaska, with the wooly mammoth) without antagonizing his readers. For everyone else, diving right in might be a better prescription.
- Think outside the box. Yes, that age old adage about show, don’t tell. While you could tell every story beginning to end, as in “first this happened, then that,” there is almost always a better way. You could write the whole thing in dialog. Even if not all characters are actual people. You could put it into a Letterman-style top ten list. You could write it like a fable, with a moral at the end. You could put a running list of lesson into it (“Rule #4: Don’t believe every writer who tells you how to write good blog posts”), or Twitter hashtags (#worstbloggingtips) to add some self-deprecating humor. You could start at two distant points, with two very different settings, alternating between the two until they converge only at the very end, a la Tom Clancy.
- Have a good ending. I don’t know about you, but reading a newspaper column that sort of just fizzles after everything has been said, is very unsatisfying. Whereas coming full circle to finish your story by summarizing it all, or reminding the reader why you wrote it in the first place, has you feeling content and happy, much like finishing your meal with a nice dessert. My alltime favorite master of this technique is Bill Bryson, and my favorite book of his where you can see many brilliant examples of it (it is a collection of short essays much like a blog, which his book might have been had blogs existed when he wrote it), is Notes from a Big Country.
- Pictures. Notwithstanding point number 4, I’ve come to believe that you do need at least one picture for your blog post, or it will look drab on the summary page or when you post it to social media. And you’ve got to own your own picture for copyright reasons, so if you don’t have a shot of something fitting, go out and take it or draw a cartoon. If you’ve dabbled in Photoshop (and cursed at it, like I have!) you might be savvy enough to write a short script for your most basic photoshopping steps to resize and improve the picture as well as put a watermark on it, as that will reduce the amount of time you’re spending on the photography part.
- Edit, edit, edit. Maybe you’re just in it for the pretty pictures and not the writing, or maybe you’ve got a personal editor at your disposal so that you can skip this step. But if you want to attract serious and committed readers, you don’t want to turn them off with a stray “definately.” Nor do you want to tell them about “you’re day, “the cat and it’s tail,” or that “all mothers love there children.” And whatever you do, go easy on the exclamation points!!! You have to read and re-read what you’ve written multiple times, and if you write every day, you’ll soon develop a routine. Mine is to type up the story directly in the online editor, take a break from writing by editing and uploading the picture(s), then hit “preview” to read it, where I’ll immediately spot things that are wrong or don’t flow right that had escaped me previously.
- Schedule ahead. Blog posts can be scheduled ahead, and you should take advantage of that. Write when you’re inspired according to point number 1, and have the stories trickle out into the world one by one. Nothing gives me quite as much satisfaction in my life as a dashboard full of scheduled blog posts. It also gives you a chance to go back occasionally and change things before the publishing date, or rearrange them because a better and more timely story has come along. Just don’t change the order and end up telling people one day how you’ve given up wine for lent, and the next day about your big wine-drinking orgy (of course an observant reader caught me doing just that one time – oops!).
- Nail that title. One of my favorite expat blogs is 4 kids, 20 suitcases, and a beagle, and my alltime favorite post there is The Travelling Tampon. I love that title, because it encapsulates in three short words the small troubles of the trailing expat spouse both regarding female hygiene in a new country and the issues of sourcing a year’s supply of hard-to-find products from home, and it is perhaps just a bit daring by using a sort of taboo word. Much like the book How to Shit in the Woods that I came across while writing Kilimanjaro Diaries. Now that’s a great title!
I know I violated what many say is the top rule of blogging, which is to keep it short. 500 words or less. This one came out to almost 1,900, so if you’re a typical reader you may only have gotten halfway through point number 3. But that’s okay- writing often and when you’re inspired, and reading a lot are bound to make you a better writer.
And that’s what you came here for, isn’t it?