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I'm no expert, but I have had a lot of experience writing blog posts. And although everything that works for me won't necessarily suit your blog or your writing style, I've chosen four of the most useful guidelines I've come to rely on when writing blog posts. Each of these has been proven to work in my own experience as well as for numerous other bloggers, so if nothing else they're good starting points for figuring out what works for you.
I've eschewed this rule a few times but never with good results. No matter how many other approaches I try, I always find that an outline is imperative to writing a good blog post. An outline is a skeleton version of your post: it's a structure for you to follow when you get down to the real writing stage. You could use a mind map or Post-it notes for your outline; go with whatever suits the way you think.
My outlines look a bit like a list: they're usually made up of several subheadings/topic points and notes for each one about what I'll cover when I fill out that section. Here's an example:
I turn my outline into my draft. As I work on the first draft, I make a space above the next outline section and use those notes as reference. Once I've filled out that section enough, I delete the outline notes and move on to the next part. My draft comes together in chunks as I take each piece of outline and fill it out.
Having an outline makes a big difference to my drafts. It keeps me on track so I don't wander off in the wrong direction or wax poetic on unrelated points. It also helps me to rearrange and organize my points before I start writing (a mind map version might be handy for that reason). Once I've drafted a post, it's much harder to rearrange it and make it flow—an outline ensures the flow is set up for me before I start drafting, and more often than not it works out just as I planned.
Although an outline is really useful, I also find having a working title makes a huge difference to the writing process. When you're writing a nonfiction blog post that aims to share information and help your readers, it's easy to get caught up in the topic and drift off into a slightly different focus. Sometimes that's fine, but if you decided on the best approach to the topic before you started writing, a title will reinforce that to keep you on track.
I've even found that changing my working title can help me get unstuck when a topic is stumping me.
If you've read much of my work, you're probably not surprised by this suggestion. I'm a big fan of using research to back up my work, and I've found it works well for me.
Research can mean a variety of things. It could be finding scientific studies or journal papers that support your work. It could be your own data. It could even be interviews or quotes from others, or stories about your own experience.
So long as you're honest about how you're backing up your work, all of these sources can work. If you're using scientific studies, for instance, make sure they come from reputable sources, and if they have small sample sizes, make this clear—you can't very well back up a point about society at large with a study done on 20 people.
Using your own data or experiences can be more powerful than you might think, so long as you're clear about it. For instance, in this piece I'm sharing with you strategies that have worked for me, but since I make this clear you're free to make up your own mind about whether you should try these tips or not. If I suggested these work for every single blog post but I had no data to back that up besides my own experience, I'd be doing you a disservice.
A great example of using your own data is a post I wrote for Buffer that turned out to be surprisingly popular. After Twitter introduced embedded images, we started experimenting with using more images in our company tweets and used the data from our experiments to put together a post called "How Twitter's Expanded Images Increase Clicks, Retweets and Favorites [New Data]".
By using our own data and being honest about how we were backing ourselves up, that post earned us even more credibility in the social media space. Product pages even quote data from that post now:
I've tried writing various types of blog posts: personal stories, research-heavy stories, posts about my personal experiments, data-backed posts like the one I mentioned above, and my go-to science-backed research articles. From my experience, I've found that including actionable takeaways for the reader always leads to a better response.
You might have a different audience, in which case a style like personal stories might be more suitable. But for me, I've never found a better method for ensuring my readers take away value from what I write than giving them some clear suggestions on how to implement my research in their own lives.
There are lots of ways to include takeaways. The blog of help desk tool Groove sometimes includes a conclusion section titled "How to apply this to your business" that includes an overall takeaway from a post. Here's an example:
Another way Groove founder Alex Turnbull includes takeaways on his company's blog is by ending each subsection of his posts with a one- or two-sentence takeaway to wrap up the point he's just made. For instance:
Other options for including takeaways could be making a separate list at the bottom of a post, dedicating the last few paragraphs to your reader takeaways, or using images to sum up what your readers can take action on after reading your post.
In a post on the Crew blog, Paula Fitzsimmons first sets up the topic and explores it, before breaking down takeaways in the second half—each with their own separate subheading.
And you'll notice that in this post you're reading, I've included takeaways by making each subheading a clear action point. The paragraphs below each numbered heading back up the tip I'm suggesting, but you can always go right back to those subheadings to remind yourself how to take action on what you've just read.
It might seem strange to make my last tip about the introduction to your post, but I often go back and write my introduction after the rest of the post is done. I find intros incredibly hard to get right. Leaving the intro until last can sometimes make it easier, since I've wrapped my head around the topic and the flow of the post by then. It can be easier to set something up when you know exactly what's coming.
I've found the best introductions offer an opportunity for the reader to connect with the writer. If you're reading a blog post by an author you know and trust, you already have a reason to read through to the end. But if you've never "met" this author before, that intro is all they have to build a rapport with you that keeps you reading.
When you're writing an intro that lets the reader see a bit of who you are and how you relate to the topic you're about to discuss, you can make that intro great simply by being authentic and really trying to connect with your reader.
One of the most surprising things I've learned about writing introductions like this is that showing I'm fallible seems to make me more relatable. For instance, I set up a post by explaining my own struggles with the subject once, and it worked really well:
Admission time: I don’t know much about Google Analytics. In fact, I generally gloss over when I read anything about it, since I usually find it all quite overwhelming and hard to understand. And not that much fun, to be honest.
But, being a content marketer, I can’t afford to ignore Google Analytics. It’s a great (free!) tool that helps us keep track of our goals for the Buffer blog and understand where we can improve.
If you’re in a similar situation to me, hopefully this post will highlight some of the most useful parts of Google Analytics for content marketing, and how you can use that data to your advantage. Without being boring! At least, I’ll give it my best shot…
Another time I started a post by explaining how I'd made a big mistake:
Here is something that hit me recently: For a long time I had a certain idea about what makes an introvert or an extrovert. I had always thought that it works something like this:
That was kind of my general perception. Doing just a little bit of reading made it clear very quickly - my thinking was way off!
Alex is also really good at this. Here's an intro he wrote for a Groove blog post:
I used to think of SEO as a "scammy" strategy for startups. Here’s why I changed my mind.
This is a post about being wrong.
About totally misjudging something, and waiting too long to try it because of preconceived notions.
And about how finally digging into the potential value of doing SEO "right" convinced me that it was worth pursuing.
If you’re in the same boat — that is, curious about SEO but not really sure where to start or why — then this post is for you.
Readers seem to connect with me more easily when I come across as humble and willing to admit my mistakes and learn from them. So don't be afraid to show your human side—it could be exactly what works best for you.
There's no formula for the perfect blog post, but I hope these guidelines will help you find what works best for you. Above all, don't be afraid to experiment, but make sure you take note of what works and what doesn't, so you learn from those experiments. Only you can know from trial and error what makes the perfect post for your blog.
Belle Beth Cooper is the co-founder of Exist, a personal analytics platform to help you understand your life.