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15 Basics of Insanely Useful Blogwriting


Me in my favorite coffee shop, blogging about the basics of blogwriting.

By Leo Babauta

After blogging for almost 3 years now, it’s hard to remember what it was like when I first started out. I’ve written nearly 1,500 blog posts, not only for Zen Habits and this blog, but as guest posts (and in the past, paid posts) for dozens of other blogs.

But I’m going to force myself to go back to those early days, when I tentatively started a simple journal on Blogger.com and put my first shaky words out onto the web.

This is a guide for new bloggers — so if you’re experienced, feel free to skip this one. This is the post I wish I’d read when I started, and in a sense I’m writing this to the Leo of January 2007 who knew nothing about what he was doing.

Hi younger (and infinitely more handsome) Leo … rest easy. You’ll do fine. You’ll write some crappy posts, but that’s OK. In doing so, you’ll find your voice, find what works, and start to connect with an audience.

Be brave, and forge on.

That said, here are some tips to help you along on your journey. Blogging basics. Oh, and feel free to break any of these “rules”, as nothing is ever set in stone.

  1. Write for the reader. This is the most fundamental of the fundamentals, and though this list isn’t in order of importance I’d be remiss if I didn’t start here. While a blog can be a personal journal, if you want an audience of more than your friends and family, write for an audience. Don’t just write about your random thoughts and experiences, but think of what the reader wants to know, what the reader’s concerns are, what the reader is interested in, and how you can help provide that.
  2. Solve the reader’s problems. What are the reader’s problems? Solve them, one post at a time. To do this, I think about the problems I’ve been addressing in my own life, and as it turns out, most people have the same problems. I’m not as unique as I thought. And then I write about how I’ve been solving them — what actually works for me. People seem to find that useful.
  3. Put yourself in there. While the post should be for the reader, it’s really a conversation between you and the reader. So don’t be afraid to put yourself in the post. Share what you’ve learned, talk about your life, as it’s relevant to the post, and let your personality show. Make it personal, and the reader will connect with you.
  4. Find your voice. This is the personality I talked about above. It’s about finding a conversational tone, but it’s more: you have a unique voice, and that voice speaks to the reader, in her head, as she reads your posts. You need to learn to find your voice, by experimenting, trial and error. The more you write the more that voice will emerge.
  5. Be concise. This is an ironic statement given that this is a long-ish post, but concise doesn’t mean short. It means there aren’t a lot of unnecessary words. Write all the blather you want, but go back and edit, so you’re not wasting the reader’s time. Read more.
  6. Make it scannable. The reality of reading on the Internet is that people scan articles, get the main points, and only if those main points are worthy of their time do they read the full text — despite what long-winded ranting bloggers have to say about the issue. So write for that reality, if you want people to read your posts: make it easy to scan and find your main points, through lists, sub-titles, blockquotes, or the like.
  7. Headlines matter. The most important few words of your posts are your headlines (or post titles). They need to catch the reader’s attention and promise to solve a problem the reader has. If it doesn’t do this you’ve wasted a headline.
  8. Offer solutions. This is almost a repeat of an earlier point, but it’s worth stressing. Often a blogger will bring up a problem but then end the post. You need to offer a solution, or the reader will be left feeling unsatisfied. If you don’t have a solution, maybe toss out some ideas and then ask for reader solutions. But in most cases, write a solution.
  9. Post regularly. This doesn’t have to be daily, but if you haven’t posted for a few weeks (except to apologies for the lack of posts), you’re not likely to build a good-sized audience. People subscribe because they have a reasonable expectation, based on past performance, that you’re going to come out with useful content on a regular basis. I’d say weekly posts are a minimum, and 2-5 times weekly is ideal. More than once daily isn’t recommended (unless you’re a huge blog like Lifehacker) because people don’t like too many posts in their inbox.
  10. Mix up post lengths. I prefer long-ish posts full of useful information, but short posts that get to the point and have a big impact are good too. Don’t be set on one post length. If a post gets so long that it takes 20 minutes to read, you might narrow the topic and split it into two posts.
  11. Make it worth talking about. Don’t just write what everyone else writes. Write about something that’s a bit (or a lot) different, or in a way that’s different. Write about something that people will want to respond to, pass on, talk about with others. Be bold and be different.
  12. Link often. Don’t be self-contained. Don’t be afraid to send your readers to other good posts or blogs, because they’ll appreciate it, and so will the other bloggers. Be a part of a wider conversation. For example, my favorite blogs about blogging: Problogger, Copyblogger, Skelliewag, Daily Blog Tips, Chris Brogan and Chris Garrett.
  13. Feel free to tell stories. Not every posts should be a “story” post, but a well told story captures the reader and conveys information in a time-tested form. A good method to try out is starting a post with a relevant story.
  14. Establish why the post is important. The intro of your post — the first 3-7 paragraphs (roughly) — should not only grab the reader’s attention but establish why the reader should even care about the post. Show why the problem is a problem, and why the reader needs to read the rest of the post.
  15. Read the best, and mimic them. The best bloggers break all of these rules but do it so well. For example, Dooce, Textism and Idle Words rarely make things scannable, but they’re oh so readable. Read widely, not just within your niche: check out Daring Fireball, Merlin Mann, Paul Graham, Justin Blanton, Shawn Blanc, Patrick Rhone, just to get started.

For new bloggers who’d like to learn more about the basics of blogging, we’re offering an A-List Blogging Bootcamp in December: “How to Create a Blog that Rocks”. More info to come!

Read more from Leo at Zen Habits, mnmlist.com, and Zen Family Habits. Also see his new ebook, The Simple Guide to a Minimalist Life.

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41 thoughts on “15 Basics of Insanely Useful Blogwriting”

  • HI Leo,

    You make a good point about linking to other people’s articles, and something I should really do more often. There’s a great opportunity to find fresh material by responding to what someone else has written on a subject. You might politely disagree with their point of view and offer your own, or back them up by adding your own useful information to what they’ve already written.

    Thanks!

  • Great tips. Finding my blogging voice happened quicker than I expected, but it definitely made all the difference in my writing. I think it happened when I tried less to impress my audience, while still trying to provide value. It’s essentially getting over your preconceived ideas of what makes a “good” blog post, and writing a post you would want to read. :-)

  • Thanks Leo,

    For a newbie like me, this is a great help.

  • thank you for the tips! i will be sending my audience free tickets to your blog-a-ramas! ;-D

  • Patrick says:

    Leo,

    it’s always good to get back to the basics.

    And for the soon-to-be blogger who hasn’t started yet I have another advice. Just get started, don’t wait until you have the perfect idea.

    And get excellent mentoring by Leo at his Bootcamp. I’ve been there and it was awesome. Highly recommend it.

  • All are excellent points, but I’d like to reinforce point 15, to read the best and mimic. Too few writer allow themselves to be influenced or inspired by great writers, as if there’s something unethical or unholy about learning from others.

    Writing’s an art form. That means it cannot simply be turned on like a spigot. Sometimes we’re on and sometimes we’re off. When off, we can often get back in the zone by steeping ourselves in literary peak performances that evoke our best instincts.

    I’m talking, of course, about emulation or modeling, not plagiarism.

    “It is by imitation that we learn everything,” said Edmund Burke.

    Aristotle said, “Man is the most imitative creature in the world and learns at first by imitation.”

    Hunter S. Thompson, intent on generating a remarkable voice, retyped Hemingway novels to better understand how the master communicated his prose.

    Classical Roman rhetoricians taught the technique as “imitatio.”

    Ben Franklin educated himself using an imitation technique that he describes in detail in his famous autobiography.

    Virgil wrote out passages of Homeric verse. Daniel Defoe wrote out parts of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress before he even started writing Robinson Crusoe.

    Painters have learned to paint by imitation. Actors have learned to act by imitation. Musicians learn to play by imitation.

    Practice, emulate and be inspired. And don’t begrudge people who start emulating you after you’ve mastered the process.

  • Shevonne says:

    Nice list! I literally Dugg it.

  • Kali says:

    I vote #4 as most important. Like a musician, that’s what sells–at least IMHO. Since I’m still trying to find mine, thanks for the reminders that there are other basics I can concentrate on, too.

  • Mike Smith says:

    Nice article LEO. I have to agree with David Turnbull – I started out writing JUST like the “big guys” and quickly realized that I needed to be myself and put myself into my writing.

  • Thanks Leo, you know these are exactly the kind of down to earth suggestions and pointers that help your fellow bloggers make a more meaningful contribution. Personally, I’m going to print this out and review it often. Even if we know this stuff, it’s real easy to drift toward our personal preferences and neglect some of these important aspects. Having a checklist will keep me on course. Appreciated!

  • Nice round up, I will tell beginner blogging friends.

    For me the biggest problem is providing number 2 solving readers problems and giving them useful content. It’s hard to be didactic like that and implies that you know something that other people don’t.

    I suppose I am afraid of coming over as a bossy know-it-all! Especially because I don’t know it all. But I admit I can be a bit bossy at times and it is great to give people who are looking for it sound advice:)

  • Jean says:

    Leo,

    Thank you for this post – I think you’re darling inside and out :-)

  • Gianpaolo Pietri says:

    Leo,

    All of your points are very good ones and extremely effective. I appreciated the approach you took in addressing the post to yourself. Again, it was effective. I have recently started a blog, and when reading the description of how you felt in 2007, I found many similarities to emotions I have been experiencing now, as I begin my journey. Thanks for that. Good to know others have been there as well, especially successful bloggers such as yourself.

    That being said, though I agree with the point that we must learn from those that came before ( I have a section in my blog titled Mastering the Great Masters), I think point number 5 on your list is important. You are a master of precision. What I find so powerful about your entries is how concise they are. Every single word counts, and you get straight to the point in every sentence. It’s very effective and keeps me coming back. Great tips. Look forward to more.

  • Daniel says:

    Kinda reminded me of the early days when I started blogging sometime in 2008. Was inspired just to start a blog to test run some WordPress theme hacking while sharing stuff that I find on the web that I thought was pretty neat. :)

    Fast forward months later when I discovered blogs from Freelance Switch then to Skelliewag and then went back to checking out some CSS stuff on Zen Garden, which somehow I stumbled onto Zen Habits.

    … and since then there was an audience (at least beyond my clique pf a handful of friends whom I’ve got them to read my blog/s) that came up outta sudden and blogging just got better and better. :-)

  • Kat Eden says:

    The most useful tool I can think of in the growth of my blog has been committing to using my own voice. Writing is something that I love, and it comes fairly naturally (if not always easily) to me. But it’s still all too simple to become caught up in trying to sound like an expert or trying to come across as funny. I’ve found that things have gone from good to great since I’ve kept it real – and hopefully I still come across as an expert from time to time!

    Thanks for the list Leo.

  • Leo! Great post, but I’m gonna have to give you a stern talking-to here :-)

    How could you forget to add “Experiment often” to that list of basics? To try new things – crazy things – simply because they just might work?

    I mean, seriously, you of all people understand the value of experimenting in blogging and in life. That’s one of the things I really admire about you, by the way. Takes a lot of courage to try new things in the public eye …

  • Simple is good, Leo.

    Thanks for keeping it simple.

    How do you decide what to write about?

  • Ty Hism says:

    Very good points! Thank you. Bringing values to the readers is the first step.

  • Textism is one of the most amazing anywhere. He stopped posting for a long time, wish he’d start it up again.

  • tricia woodard says:

    Wow, just what I was looking for as I recently decided to start a blog or 2. Thank you so much!

  • Fabulous article for us newbie bloggers. Finding my audience and my blogging voice are my challenges right now. I thought my audience was one group (experienced correctional nurses) but I am seeing that my audience is really turning out to be new correctional nurses, people thinking about being a correctional nurse and people who don’t understand correctional healthcare. Also, being a published author in my profession, I have a way of writing that is comfortable for me but it is too formal for blogging – I need to find a comfort level with a more casual voice.

    Really appreciate your information – thanks!

  • Alex Lim says:

    I enjoy reading your posts Leo, have you studied psychology or any other related field? just wondering. I think finding your voice is an aspect that bloggers should definitely focus on. I like this idea because your conversational tone could be your brand as well. It will be very helpful to have a “voice” that connects to readers is a sincere manner and attends to reader’s criticism tactfully. I think it is hard to convey sincerity through written material because it will be subjectively viewed. Anyways, it’s amazing how you became constant with your “voice” Leo.

  • natalie says:

    Leo,

    I’ve been following Zen Family Habits for a while now and I was keeping a personal journal for the exercises you do. I just decided to create a new blog strictly to post how I am translating your tips to my lifestyle (boingerzer.blogspot.com) so thanks.

    I especially think I have been lacking at #8 – and it makes sense. Everyone wants a happy ending, and hope that everyone, no matter how trivial, will always get better.

  • Recently starting my own photo blog, this advice is very timely. Just finding that “voice” and time to post regularly is my biggest obstacle right now. Though your other blogs have great advice as well for minimalizing other aspects of life to find this time!

  • Great post, Leo. I’ve just venturing into the world of blogging myself and found this post very useful. It’s one I’ll come back to often as I continue to write about the connections between voluntary simplicity and social justice. Right now I am focusing on posting regularly and building up a good “vault” of writings that I can revise and rewrite and post as blog entries.

  • Hi Leo

    This is great stuff – I’ve bookmarked for future reference! I’ve been blogging for well over a year now but still feel like I’m at the beginner’s stage and am always on the lookout for good pointers like these. I try hard to make sure that my posts provide something for those reading and not just my random thoughts (though I can’t help but add those random thoughts within my posts!).

    Thanks for sharing!

    Cheers

    Hungry Jenny x

  • Thanks for the post Leo, very timely info for me. I like the suggestion to solve the reader’s problem. I’d propose a variation: encourage the reader to take risks and learn by sharing your own experiences doing the same.

    Looking forward to more on this topic.

    ami

  • Juan says:

    Hi, Leo, I’m just now getting into the whole blogging world and, of course, have tons of questions. The most pressing of these is about the use of other people’s content. Can I post pictures, videos, and other materials on my blog as long as I reference the creator? What’s the skinny on that?

    Thanks

  • dimaks says:

    i still consider myself as a newbie blogger and your article is i think a great checklist to watch out along the way.

  • Great roundup! This is a must-read for beginners… Thanks for sharing.

  • Beth M says:

    Great and inspiring tales of your blogger’s journey. Thanks. I enjoy Zen Habits ALOT! as well.

  • Just a quick testimonial from the last bootcamp Leo had. You’ll meet great people, you’ll have great ideas, and with dedication, this camp can make a world of difference.

  • Deepa says:

    Hi Leo,

    This is a lovely post. Been blogging for quite sometime now and I think this checklist is good to recall everytime I write a post.

    You write so well and your writing has a way of keeping up the reader’s interest!!!

    Thank you,

    Keep writing,
    Deepa

  • Teendudes says:

    Only after reading this one I understood where I fell in my previous blogs. Eventhough these tips are not ready to pass on, these motivate beginners like me for a fresh start.

    Thanks Leo.

  • Ana says:

    Thanks for sharing! Very useful!

  • This is very helpful. I like what you say about being concise, not meaning short, but making every word count.
    Thanks, Leo!

  • KDzyne says:

    Great post, I am definitely going to use some of these tools. Very helpfull.

    I’m a coffee whore too :-). If you ever happen to come to New Mexico, remember Satellite Coffee….!

  • kenmcneil says:

    Thanks for the tips Leo. Any news on your next Boot camp. I just missed the last one and look forward to getting in on the action.
    Thanks Ken

  • enjoy reading your posts Leo, have you studied psychology or any other related field? just wondering. I think finding your voice is an aspect that bloggers should definitely focus on. I like this idea because your conversational tone could be your brand as well. It will be very helpful to have a “voice” that connects to readers is a sincere manner and attends to reader’s criticism tactfully. I think it is hard to convey sincerity through written material because it will be subjectively viewed. Anyways, it’s amazing how you became constant with your “voice” Leo.

Comments are closed.