4-Step System For Writing A Great Blog Post, Even If You Have Writers Block
A fan on Twitter recently asked if we had a guide for someone who was new to blogging.
@CoScheduleBlog got a FAQ/how-to manual for newbies before they start a blog?
— Jeremy (@jeremyinthebox) June 1, 2014
Much of the content on this blog would serve as a guide, but it got me to thinking about someone who might want help writing a blog post when they’d never done it before. What could we tell them that would be helpful when they faced the blank screen?
A year ago, I had done a brief talk about blogging at our Web Builders Meetup, and part of it covered “How To Write A Blog Post When You Don’t Want To.” I based it on my own experiences and on content I’d written for this blog. The session went over well, though I did hear a few “but I still don’t want to write a post.” While I can’t help you all the way with your motivation, I can share a few of the things we’ve learned when it comes to how to write blog posts.
How To Write A Great Blog Post: Two Scenarios
There seems to be two scenarios when it comes to writing blog posts.
- I have all the ideas in the world!!! General ideas and concepts are coming in a rush and I’m frantic to do something with them before I forget.
- I have absolutely no idea what to write. I have an assigned post and no real inspiration or ideas coming at all.
Each scenario requires a different approach when sitting down to do the actual writing. The first, when ideas come easily, is about getting everything down on paper and then corralling it into order. The second, when you don’t know what to write, is about creating a logical structure that lets you bit-by-bit fill in the pieces. One feels inspired, the other feels like work.
Both are valid.
Writing When Ideas Come Easily
When you get an idea for a blog post and you are excited to write it, it’s almost as if your mind is gushing thoughts and words so fast that you can’t keep up. This often happens when:
- It’s a topic you are extremely passionate about.
- It’s a topic you came up with on your own.
- It’s a topic you talk about a lot when around people.
- It’s a topic you are truly an expert at from years of expertise.
- It’s a topic that is personal, or that you have learned from experience.
If you find yourself with a blog post idea that’s overwhelming you (in a positive way), this is the approach you should take to the post.
1. Write Quickly
Write quickly. It needs to be fast enough to keep up with the ideas in your head. Write it before you forget it, and don’t self edit quite yet. It may be a disorganized mess, with some ideas that aren’t fit for publishing, but that doesn’t matter. Write it all out.
Write a headline(s). You can change your headlines later. You will change it later. Sometimes off-the-cuff headlines are good as a guide. They are easy to change to a better headline after you’re all done.
Write everything. Start writing all the ideas that come to you, in no particular order with complete disregard for grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Use a word bank if you need to. Write questions and notes in with the rest so you remember what you need to research.
Write as it comes to you. If the post is due in the distant future, that free-form draft can be where you dump all thoughts and links that simmer and bubble during the week pertaining to it.
2. Write Slowly
Now that you’ve had your fun and written everything that came to mind, it’s time to bring order to the inspired chaos.
Pull it together. Find those thoughts that are similar. Put them into cohesive sentences and paragraphs. Pull those paragraphs into large sections. Do extra outside research if you need to fill in any gaps and to answer questions that came to mind as you were writing quickly.
Decide a basic outline. You have your content there. You’ve pulled it together and have a better idea of what you’re working with. Now organize it. You don’t have to do a formal outline, but you want to have you main idea, supporting ideas, and a conclusion, all in a logical order.
Write subheads. You have your basic outline. Create some powerful subheadings that fit what you’ve laid out. They should be compelling enough that you catch the reader who is intent on only skimming your content.
Now comes the time to clean up all of that random writing. You may have arranged it in a more logical order in the previous step, but you need to clean up the words and sentences, too.
Word removal. Remove most uses of the word “really” and other superfluous adverbs. Remove most uses of “I think” and “I believe”; your reader knows this is what you think because you were the one who wrote it. Words you’ve used repeatedly too close together sound poor to the reader’s ear. Replace any word you’ve used within the previous two sentences. Find a different word.
Paragraph removal. The paragraph you want to keep that seems to be so hard to get right? Cut it. Rethink your favorite phrases that are precious, that you are struggling to make everything else fit around. Be sure they are necessary, and that simpler words won’t do the job. Watch for things you’ve already said before. Cut anything you think is clever. There’s nothing wrong with clever, but it often becomes something we protect when it needs to be cut to make the rest work.
Idea removal. You may realize you have two ideas at work in your post, and that’s where the struggle is. Cut out the extra idea and save for another post. Clarity will appear when that happens.
This is the Big Self Edit. You’ve dumped the raw words onto the page, rearranged them, cut the fat, and now you’re going to clean it all up for the final package. What are you looking for as you go through it one more time?
Is anyone going to want to read it? Do you use “Read More” in your WordPress post? You have to make your reader actually want to read more, just like a story. Write the intro short and sweet, with a cliffhanger. Or maybe you used the inverted triangle format for your post, just like a newspaper reporter.
Is it something readers can skim? It’s a shame to say, but even after all of your hard work and well-crafted words, many readers will be here to skim your post. Make sure you have headings and subheadings that clearly tell what your post is about. Have quotes, white space, bullet points, and anything that makes “quick reading” possible.
Is the tone and sound of it pleasing? Think of the reading tone as the equivalent to leaving white space so that a blog post is visually appealing. You want the sound of the post to be pleasant to the reader as they read it. Mix short declarative sentences with complex compound sentences. Avoid using the same noticeable words close to each other in a paragraph. This is noticeable. (See what I did there?)
What should your post look like, at the end of all of this editing?
On this blog, we talked about what makes up a “perfect” blog post as far as structure. We outlined what the physical blog post ought to have. This included headlines, images, readable body copy, and a call-to-action (CTA).
Your ultimate goal is to take the raw materials and, using the final edit, turn them into a final post with many of the qualities you see in the diagram above.
You don’t have to follow the diagram perfectly, of course. We don’t always; sometimes our arrangement is different. It is, however, an excellent illustration of the basic ingredients that readers are looking for. A blog post like this is one that is easy to read and its structure is understood.
Writing When You Don’t Know What To Write
When you are assigned to write a blog post by a team member (or even yourself), you probably have some keywords and/or a headline to work with, but not much more. You’ve chosen a post to write that fits in with your editorial calendar schedule. Whether or not you have much knowledge or interest in the topic is irrelevant; this is the post you must write. There are deadlines.
The main difference in writing this kind of post vs. the post where the ideas come easily is in the first few steps. The editing steps are similar.
1. Write Notes
When the ideas aren’t flowing, you’re going to have to do some research and force them. You won’t be writing quickly as we talked about earlier, but you will be writing freely, i.e. not self editing.
Ask the questions you have about the topic. This is particularly easy if you don’t know anything about it. Start your research off by doing the most basic of searches on those questions you have. Write down your questions. Research the answers. Write down questions that come to mind as you research (research has a way of leading to more questions).
Find great resources. As you find resources, dump the links into your post draft and write down notes or quick thoughts. Write down your interpretations, and even ideas for graphics, screenshots, or even how you might create your own data for the post.
Write snippets and chunks. Longer paragraphs, conclusions, introductions, section introductions–these will start to come to you as you research. Write them out. You can change and move them later.
Let’s use this post as an example. You can see in the image below that I’m using the intro of the post as a way to jog my own mind into thinking. I’ll probably redo it when I’m done, but it’s a start. Sometimes you have to make a mark on the paper just to get going.
Then, I began writing notes based on links I would be using and ideas I’d come across while researching. Some of my questions I’ve turned into subheadings already. They need to be answered and I didn’t want to forget that. It’s easier to see what I need to research and write before the post gets complicated, so this beginning portion is a great opportunity to keep your research and writing on course.
It isn’t pretty, but it’s how you start writing when you don’t know what to write.
It’s a bit like drawing. You start with a rough sketch, and then, once you have that underlying structure in place, you start inking it in and head towards the completed drawing.
2. Write Outlines
Now that you have some raw materials (research, ideas), set up an outline and write to fit the outline. With this post, I turned my questions into subheadings in preparation for the outline process. I thought about the different ways you could interpret “how to write a post.” You could approach it as the actual nuts and bolts of getting help with the words themselves. Or you could interpret that as how to write types of posts, a more theoretical approach.
The best order, I decided, was to show you how to build with raw materials, and then give you ideas on different things to build. I began building an outline that would do that, and you can see it in the image below.
It’s almost as if I’m creating the Table of Contents for the post, with placeholders for where the content will eventually go. This method allows me to move to a different section if I’m stuck on what to write somewhere else. It treats your long form blog post as if it were made up of miniature 400-600 word blog posts.
And, for the record, you are still not self-editing yet. Just write within your outline structure. You will pull these disjointed mini-blog posts together at the end.
3 and 4. Burn/Return
The final organizational and editing steps are the same as we talked about earlier. You will edit by cutting out the extra words, paragraphs, and ideas. You will move things around. And then you’ll go back through the post and clean it all up.
As you can see from the screenshots I made creating this post, I made many cuts and changes to it before the final post went live, and the resulting post was quite different as I worked through the editing steps. I cut out content that didn’t fit (too many disparate ideas) and saved it for another blog post.
Most authors don’t write a book from beginning to end, in that order, and the same goes for blog posts. This is especially true for long-form posts.
When you have the structure and system that allows you to hop around and write what and where you can, relaxed in knowing that you’ll clean it up at the end, you’re set free from that insane idea that you have to start at the top and write to the bottom and if you hit a road block in the middle, you’ll never finish.