Let me just say upfront that I don’t claim to be an expert when it comes to writing blog posts. In fact, some people say the perfect blog post is between 300 and 500 words long, and you all know by now that mine are hardly ever that short. So technically I’m losing 80 percent of the typical online readers less than half-way through.
But when a friend recently wanted to know whether my blog posts were just flowing out of my pen, so to speak, or whether I had to work at them, and where I got my story ideas, I set out to write down a few bullets in reply. And of course they had morphed into another blog post before I knew it, answering her second question right there.
My ideas come from everyday occurrences such as this, there is nothing magical about them. Which gets me right to the first point:
1. You HAVE to write whenever you’re inspired.
Every successful writer/author will say the same thing. Everyone goes through the doldrums every once in a while where nothing comes to your mind, so at those times when it does, you just know you have to seize the moment. If you’re on your way to bed and a story idea pops into your head about a boy wizard who will spend seven years at a special wizarding school and the adventures he and his friends might encounter there, well you better turn right around and head to your computer and write down whatever comes into your head. You can always sleep another night. You know how authors are always thanking their spouses and families for being so understanding in the acknowledgements? Well. My guess is their spouses and families aren’t actually so very understanding and probably spent the good part of that author’s book being written complaining about the uninspired food being served, whipped together at the last minute, the unmade bed, and the fact that they were ALWAYS sitting at the computer, even at 2:00 at night. In reality, their spouses had no choice but to be understanding, because that’s what writers do. Arguing that you have no time at the moment and that you’ll just have to write it later, when there is more time, is the wrong approach. Later, when there is more time, the urge to write will have left you and the story is gone.
2. Write frequently.
That doesn’t mean you have to sit and stare at the screen every day. But practice, as with everything else, makes you better. Someone once said that you have to make 500 paintings before you can consider yourself a painter. Malcolm Gladwell said something similar in Outliers when he took a look at what made certain people so good in their respective fields. Well, the same is true for writing. Don’t be overly ambitious. If you think every story has to be perfect, it will never be written. It’s the act of writing that will make you better, not turning out perfect stories every time. That’s where blogging is so great. A new story every few days, and then it’s done and finished and you can move on to something else.
3. Read frequently.
A friend once told me she admired how disciplined I was in reading daily. Well, I wouldn’t call it discipline. To me, reading is the epitome of undiscipline – letting all the day’s chores lie and immersing myself in a good book from dawn to dusk is one of my fantasies. I’m probably the only person in the world who LOVES flying commercial, even if it’s economy class. The idea of not being able to sleep and reading for hours on end is pure heaven for me. But if you’re not so inclined, you should still make a point of reading regularly. If you want to write well, you have to learn from the ones who’ve gone before you. I always love reading the author’s notes in the back of books, and sometimes they’re asked about their own reading habits. They always turn out to be prolific readers across many different genres. I don’t think you can be a writer if you’re not a reader.
4. Keep an idea notebook.
Thank goodness our phones are such powerful little things nowadays, keeping you from actually having to lug a notebook and pen around and attracting suspicious stares. I’ve always got one or two emails sitting in my inbox, written to me by myself in very rough drafts while waiting at red lights. The one good outcome of Joburg traffic with its many stops. When people ask me where I get my ideas, all I can think is “are you kidding me?” From the moment I wake up until late at night, new ideas – topics I’d like to write about as well as actual passages I’ve thought up – are assaulting me every minute of the day, and my biggest fear is not getting anywhere quickly enough where I can write them down before I’ve forgotten them.
5. Don’t feel you have to start at the beginning.
I often have a great story idea, in the middle of standing in line at the Telkom store, for instance. Of course this is never the entire idea, just a flash of a sentence someone might say, or perhaps even the last sentence of the story, without knowing precisely what comes before. In my early writing days I’d then come home and sit at my keyboard, and be stuck. I wouldn’t get past the first sentence, growing increasingly impatient with the frustration of not getting past this particular hurdle, when what I actually did want to write about came further along. If like me you’ve got an analytical mind and like to do things sequentially, this can be a huge hindrance to writing. By the time you finally get to the point where you had your inspiration, it might be gone, or you’ve run out of energy (or, if you’re mother like me, you’ve been sidetracked by the huge fight that just broke out between your kids). Start in the middle or wherever you feel more inspired. We don’t live in the age of the typewriter anymore, so rearranging later is not an issue. And often the story is better anyway by starting right in the middle, without preamble.
6. Think outside the box.
Not every story has to be told as a regular story, as in “first this happened, then that happened.” You would agree that starting your story with “It was gigantic. It was moist and muddy. It smelled so bad that…” is a better beginning than “last week we went to the elephant sanctuary. And then we…” When I was frustrated a while back about the idea that pageviews, in the blogging world, are so all important, the phrase “pageview is king” kept bouncing around my mind. That’s how I had the idea of writing King Pageview as a fairytale instead of just going on another rant. To give you another example, one of my favorite bloggers, Rock the Kasbah, wrote an entire post the other day where every sentence started with Guess who. It is hilarious.
7. Come full circle with your ending and try out new techniques.
Bill Bryson, in Notes from a Big Countryis a master of good finishes. It’s a collection of essays he wrote about America for a weekly column in an English newspaper (I’m convinced it would have been a blog much like mine had he written it more recently) and I just love how he jumps right into a topic, looks at it from all angles, and then sums it up, often with a clever sentence. If, on the other hand, I read something that lacks a proper ending and just sort of dwindles out, I feel very unsatisfied. Look at how newspaper columnists, for instance, end their essays, and practice different styles yourself. In fact, when I read a book like A Short History of Nearly Everything, also by Bill Bryson, I often find myself going back and re-reading sentences. They almost feel like candy on your tongue. Much like you’d practice your tennis serve again and again, repeating a good turn of phrase will commit it to your memory and you’ll be able to dig it up one day when it fits perfectly into what you’re trying to write.
Whereas I like photography, I’m not a photographer at heart. But I have come to believe those who say a good blog needs a few good pictures. I sometimes find myself writing a blog post that’s not really screaming out for pictures (like this one, for instance) and then I look at my homepage afterwards and realize it looks drab with the one picture-less blog post. And everywhere it might get reposted, it looks so much more catchy with a picture attached. So, you need at least one picture. And don’t even think of googling one and using that – you’ll run into all sorts of copyright issues you want to stay clear of, especially once your readership starts going up. Instead, have a little fun. Stage a scene, use your kids as props, or make a stick figure drawing if need be. Trust me, you can get totally sidetracked with this. But for me, writing always comes first, so I typically start with that, then insert pictures as needed. And to cut down on the time needed for picture prep (i.e. making it the right size) I wrote a little script in Photoshop that does basic image editing for me with a simple keyboard shortcut. But it might very well work better for you the other way around, where you start with the pictures and write your story around them.
9. Edit, edit, edit.
People, or at least the serious and committed readers you want to attract, don’t want to stumble over hazards such as “definately” (sorry, but I have been dying to vent this pet peeve of mine, so while we’re at it let me just vent on “you’re sweater” or “the cat and it’s tail,” and, god forbid, a cacophony of exclamation points). Don’t rely on your spellcheck. You have to read and re-read what you’ve written. If you write every day, you’ll soon develop a routine. I personally do best when I type up my story directly in the online editor, take a break by editing and importing a few pictures, then hit “preview” to read it. Invariably in preview mode I’ll immediately spot things that are wrong or don’t flow right that had escaped me previously.
10. Schedule ahead
One of the advantages of blogging is to be able to schedule ahead, so that when the ideas are flowing, you can write several posts and then have them trickle out into the world one by one. 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, like I did the other day.
11. Come up with a good title.
I’m no authority on that, in that I often struggle to find good titles. In fact, I’m a sucker for anything creative in that department. Whenever a website prompts me to come up with a nickname, I break out into a cold sweat. What, a nickname for subscribing to this newspaper, perhaps even leaving comments? What would look good? What would be creative? Who should I be? And you wouldn’t believe how long I agonized over the blog names for my family. Which is why all their appeals for changes are falling on deaf ears. Sorry dude, that’s all I could come up with and I’m NOT changing it! Anyway, What I CAN tell you though is that you shouldn’t waste any time and energy trying to come up with an SEO friendly title, in hopes of perhaps attracting the odd new reader who will find you through Google. If you consistently publish good content relevant to your chosen topic, then the readers will come. It is often the title that raises people’s curiosity, the hook to reel them in with, so try and be creative. One of my other favorite blogs is “4 kids, 20 suitcases, and a beagle”, and my alltime favorite post there is The Travelling Tampon. Read it, it’s hilarious. I’ve always loved that title, because it’s so creative (think of how boring “expat women and their personal hygiene troubles in foreign countries” sounds in comparison and also the shortest possible way to convey the entire message. Oh, and don’t sit there and stare at your empty blog editor, wanting to have the perfect title before you move on. Give it a working title, if you must, and then decide on the real title at the very end. I almost always change the title during the process of writing a post, sometimes even several times. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and it just pops into my head.
That’s it, ten orderly bullets on how to write blog posts. Oops, I actually have 11. But 10 makes for a better blog post title, so there you go.
And by the way, in case you care about these things, this article came out to 2152 words. Which means that most of you shouldn’t actually be reading this anymore.