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The 4 Pillars of Writing Exceptional Blogs

A+The following guest post has been submitted by Leo Babauta from Zen Habits.

Too often it seems that we bloggers get caught up in worrying about monetizing our blogs, or the design of the blog, or SEO techniques — but although it may sound trite, the major focus of our time should be on our writing.

I’m often asked how I got 12,000 readers for my blog, Zen Habits, and made it into the Technorati Top 500 in 5 months — other bloggers seem think I have some secret that I can impart upon them, but I don’t.

I follow the same advice given here on ProBlogger, and by many of the other top blogs: create valuable content and good writing, and the readers will come. Content is king, as they say, and that should be the focus of all your efforts.

I write about this topic more on NorthxEast, a new blog with great weekly articles for bloggers, but the key is to focus on your readers and give them what they want.

Why Not Much Else Matters

Are there other things that matter in creating a successful blog? Sure there are, but they don’t matter nearly as much as some people think they do. Let’s take a look at a few examples:

  • Design – While the look of your site may be attractive and very usable, you won’t attract any readers from design alone. You need to attract them with good content … and then hope your design doesn’t scare them away. But content is really what matters here. If the design isn’t great, but the content is insanely useful, they’ll come, and they’ll stay.
  • SEO – While I agree that SEO techniques can help, what matters most in SEO is getting links. If you don’t get a bunch of links, all the SEO optimization in the world won’t do you a bit of good. SEO really makes the biggest difference when the page in question has a bunch of links coming to it — SEO doesn’t change the ranking of a page with 1 inbound link. So how do you get those quality links? Great content, and nothing else.
  • Social media – Digg, Delicious, Reddit, Stumbleupon, Netscape … these kinds of sites can help your traffic tremendously. And sure, it helps to have friends and be active on these sites. But all of that doesn’t matter a lick if you don’t write a knock-out post.
  • Monetizing – All the monetizing in the world won’t get you a dime unless you get traffic, and that traffic won’t come until you start creating a destination site, with amazing content that attracts the readers and keeps them reading. In fact, a site with ads that aren’t optimized can make more money than a site with optimized ads if the traffic is much higher from great content.

Am I saying that none of this stuff matters? Again, these things are useful, but they are not nearly as important as the content.

Which leaves us with the question: how do you write great content? It’s actually very simple in concept, but takes a lot of practice to perfect. I’m still trying to perfect these things myself, but in general, there are four pillars of exceptional blogwriting:

Pillar 1: Be extremely useful.

It all starts with the topic of the post. You need to consider your reader, and center the topic of your post on your reader — not on yourself, your ads, your blogger friends, or anyone else but the reader. What are his needs, wants, hopes and dreams? What problems does he have in his daily life that you can solve?

Now choose a topic that will solve one of his problems, help him achieve something he’s always wanted to achieve. Create a resource for him: an extremely useful set of practical tips, links, tools to solve that problem.

The more practical your tips, the better. It’s not enough to say that the keys to losing weight are eating less and exercising more. Those are both difficult things to do. Give the reader extremely useful ways of doing those things, and you’ve created a resource.

Pillar 2: Write great headlines.

Once you’ve got a useful topic, crystalize your main point in the headline. You should write the headline first (and then come back to it to make it better later) so you know in your mind the main point of the post. It helps you keep the post focused.

The few words that make up the headline are the most important few words in your post. Why? Because most readers will read your post in a feed reader (think Bloglines or Google Reader) or come across it on a site like Digg or another blog that links to your post. In all of these examples, just about the only thing they’ll see before making a decision about whether to read the post is your headline. If the headline is catchy, they’ll read more. If it’s not, you’ve just lost a reader.

How do you write a great headline? It’s not an exact science, but I’d recommend Copyblogger’s Writing Headlines That Get Results, and my post, The Sexy Art of Writing Headlines that Kill.

Pillar 3: Make the post scannable.

You’ve got your great topic, your killer headline, and an extremely useful post. Your reader decides to give your post a few seconds of his time.

But then he comes upon the post, and it’s a huge block of undifferentiated text, and he thinks to himself, “This is going to take a good chunk of my time.” Your reader, of course, is a very busy person, and doesn’t have 20 minutes to devote to each post. In fact, even if he does have a spare 20 minutes to spend on a single post, he won’t give those 20 minutes to yours unless he’s convinced that it’s going to be extremely useful — and he can’t do that unless he knows what’s in the content.

Don’t make your reader dig through paragraph after paragraph to know what your post has to offer. He won’t do it — he’ll move on quickly to the next item in his feed reader.

Make your post scannable — your reader should be able to quickly glance through the post and pick up the main points without reading too deeply. The best ways to do that are with lists, but other great methods are subheds (the smaller headlines for sections within a post), block quotes, images and graphics, and the use of bold or italics.

Pillar 4: Write in a plain, concise, common-sense style.

Once your reader decides to spend some time with your post, he’s going to want to get through it without too much work. The key to that: simplicity.

The great writing manual, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, instructs us to write in a way that comes naturally. It also says to avoid fancy words and to omit unnecessary words. Readers enjoy writing that is conversational, without being wordy. Write in a way that speaks to your reader, not down to him, and doesn’t confuse him with jargon and acronyms and technical stuff.

Pretend that you’re having a conversation with a friend, and write like that. Then go back and edit out sentences and words that are unnecessary, and revise sentences that aren’t clear.

Your blog become more powerful if you omit the noise and leave the signal. Do this, and your reader will not only read the post, but will likely stick around long enough to become a long-term reader.

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. Really good blog. I just started focusing more on trying to find and answer questions and problems for my blog. I found a great way to do this is to browse Yahoo! Answers for different questions. If its one im pretty knowledgeable about then I may pick that question and write a blog about it. If one person has a question, then probaly they are many more with the same question. Which also means people will be more willing to search for it. I also decided to start writting some of my Titles in question format. For the reason that a lot of people search using questions. So it will make it easier for google to be able to match my blog to their question search.

  2. HH says:

    When my blog grows up I want it to be like Zen Habits. Wonderful post & blog.
    Thanks!

  3. Very important points. I really like Pillar 3. It’s one of the most important things when it comes to writing in a blog. If it’s not scannable, it’s not worth it reading.

  4. Bush Mackel says:

    Great post. It’s true that so many of us “in the game” focus on things that we shouldn’t be, especially when we don’t have the traffic we want. Great reminder.

  5. John Hewitt says:

    Excellent advice. People spend way too much time worrying about things other than content. If you don’t produce good content, all of the other tips and tricks are pointless.

  6. eve says:

    Great post! I have been working on all of those things, and my subscriber count has been increasing daily as a result.

  7. Jamie says:

    Isn’t one subset of “writing good blog content” knowing how to write well in the first place?

  8. jonolan says:

    An excellent article! I’ve been trying to get my blog “off the ground” and these four pillars are a great foundation.

    Content, content, content!

  9. Trevor Ginn says:

    I find that including pictures in my posts really livens up the content and make the blog more attractive

  10. Mark A says:

    I should definitely focus on my headlines more, I focus mainly on content that I would find interesting or different people I know would find interesting. We’ll see what happens in the next week when I try to improve my headlines. (Thanks for the technorati add btw)

  11. Mark A says:

    I didn’t realize that on this site my comments linked to the finance forums OOPS.

  12. Gamermk says:

    It’s funny I wrote a post on my other blog about the 3 pillars of … and it had a great response. I’m definitely finding the common sense writing style is what most people prefer when it comes to blogging. A nice light read :)

  13. John Wesley says:

    Can’t argue with that advice. The problem most is that content creation is hard. It takes a serious amount of time and effort, so it’s tempting to look for short cuts through design, SEO, etc. The sooner you stop wasting time on these aspects the more popular your blog will be.

  14. Awesome!! great post. Your advice was very useful to me. Thanks

  15. I think that last pillar could be broken into several.

    Writing clearly and concisely may be related – but having a conversational style is a different thing altogether.

    I think writing clearly and to the point should be one pillar, and I think that having a unique and easy to read style that matches your audience should be another.

    Writing is a difficult thing, no matter how you slice it. Good luck to everyone, and thanks for an excellent post.

    – Mason

  16. Jimson Lee says:

    A good 20 step checklist to writing a new blog article was presented at Steve Pavlina:

    http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2007/07/microtasks/

  17. Great post! and great blog too! *=)

  18. Travis says:

    Great stuff Leo! You did it again.

  19. antonio says:

    In Spain, Social media is not valid for bloggers. They always knock Out the notice if it is a blog post. Meneame.com is an example.

  20. Jason says:

    Ahh… Very Zen-like. Nice and simple. I agree. Off to check out your blogs.

  21. Bloggrrl says:

    “…and doesn’t confuse him with jargon and acronyms and technical stuff.”

    Amen to that. That is the number one reason why I leave blogs that have topics that I would otherwise have spent time reading.

    Of course your post itself is an excellent example to practicing what you preach. I have found your writing in general to be a good resource.

  22. Mike Goad says:

    Great post.

    Bottom line that I get out of this is the same old KISS principle – Keep It Simple, Stupid!

    Content, content, content – Valuable content.

    But, then, people have to see it. You can post the greatest content in the world, but, if no one knows about it, no one is going to read it.

    Great post! Thanks!

  23. Trent Hamm says:

    It’s all about content, period.

  24. In reference to Pillar 4, have you ever noticed how our generations are developing way shorter attention spans?

    Reasons:

    1. MTV
    2. Michael Bay
    3. Drugs (?)

    Anyway, I do agree with all the points. I’m still trying to make my site read very quickly and smoothly, because I am one of those individuals who will scroll right past a post that seems too long… Well unless the writer’s content is amazing, I’ll scroll down. Great PILLARS!

    Ask Trew Life

  25. kei says:

    Great post.

    I agree with you opinion that the content is very important, but I think the design of the site is important as well.

  26. John says:

    I think I love you. Not enough to want to have your three-headed love child, but close.

    This is so succinct, and so important.

    Thanks!

  27. Hip Hop says:

    thanks these are great tips. I’m trying to pay attention to SEO right now

  28. Christopher says:

    You are my hero. Great post.

  29. Chuck says:

    While content has been my top priority, reminders like this are hugely beneficial.

    It can be tough to stay motivated to churn out great writing each day without many people reading it.

    One thing I fear is writing great content that never gets read. Since I write each day, I’m not sure past posts will get their due.

  30. Julie says:

    Great post! He had a lot of very useful info in there. I have enjoyed his blog since I first laid eyes on it.

    Chuck – Do a top posts tab and highlight the ones you feel are really great and that you want people to read. I always check a person’s top posts because I want to read their good stuff first. If I feel their blog is worth my time, then I’ll subscribe. Just an idea. :)

  31. Mark A says:

    Chuck, one thing I’ve done is try to incorporate links to my past posts in my front page ones, the additional relevant info should be just as valuable later on in the blogs life anyways.

  32. HalOtis says:

    I’ve been working on a blog for about a year now and have yet to attract a real audience to it. I’d been focusing on making the page look right and monetizing it, while failing to devote enough time to keep the content coming.

    Following these 4 pillars is probably all I need to get some traffic.

  33. I agree with Mark on that Chuck….I link to many of my older posts in current posts that I write.

    Darren, thanks for the reminder that what we should be spending the bulk of our time on is writing stellar content. There is so much else to get distracted by, it’s helpful to have the reminder.

  34. Rick Sloboda says:

    Insightful piece! I’d like to add a couple of points.

    The headline is indeed critical. But the lead (introduction sentence) is also extremely important. Best to take a page from journalists who use a style known as “the inverted pyramid.”

    Tell the reader what the article is about, followed by strong supporting material and end with background info. That way, the reader can immediately determine if the web content is relevant. Plus, if the individual chooses to stop reading at any point, he or she will still gather the most important parts of the article.

    Also, try to stay away from italicized web content because it’s difficult to read on monitors. Use bold sparingly to emphasize certain web copy, or it too becomes distractive.

  35. samuro says:

    Very useful post. Thanks!
    SEO and Social Media are the most important, but others two don’t be ignore.

  36. Great tips! I am going to use them. Oops, I am already using them! :))

    Regards,
    William

  37. Shine says:

    Zen Habits,

    You really are good. I remember after I bumped into your blog the first time, I put you on my blogroll and then, come back pretty often to check out for new advices, as well as reading some of your archives. Really enjoyable and enlightening. Obvisously you do get all the 4 pillars in place, and I hope one day I can be as good as you do.

    Congras!

    Your reader,
    Shine

  38. ciken says:

    A very good info thanks….i really love and always love this blog THANKS!!!

  39. Deborah says:

    Great info to implement immediately. Thanks

  40. Hin says:

    Thanks for sharing the great article. It is your good content and honest opinions that draw me back to your site. It will take me some time to revamp my blogs and I need to revisit your thoughts and insights more often.

  41. I have to agree with what you said – it all comes down to content!

    Even though my blog is only 3 months old my traffic has been very good and my ranking on Google’s search engine has been page 2 (a few times page 1) on the search engine results.

    I concentrate more on my content than anything else.

  42. Blake says:

    This is so right on. People have tried to trick the engines for years into getting rankings to make a fast buck. Those tactics never last, and every year Google (and the others) get better at returning relevant, genuine information.

    I’ve gained traction after only 3 weeks with a small food blog I started, Blake Makes, and I think the reason I’ve been able to gain an audience is content.

    I try to write short, pithy posts, but I spend a lot of time on getting a really great picture of the food I’m blogging about. Pictures are another form of great content in my opinion, goes to the scannable aspect mentioned above.

    Bottom line, nothing good happens overnight. Nothing great comes easy. If it did, I doubt we would nurture it as much as we should something so special. bk

  43. Anthea says:

    This is a good reminder about writing quality content. Having read so much information on how to blog, it’s easy to forget the simple things. These 4 points make it very easy to remember.
    Thanks!

  44. What a timely article! I have an article that will be posted tomorrow about how important good content is and the value of content providers.

    I couldn’t agree with this post more if I tried. Very on target, too bad more people can’t “get it”.

  45. I find Leo’s advice correct from the point-of-view of creating a popular blog that panders to a wide, general audience.

    But the advice to be “extremely useful”, “concise”, and “common-sense” can be limiting: Communicating a truly original idea often involves saying something not immediately useful, simple, or common-sensical, but rather something challenging, complex, and not obviously applicable to life in the next moment.

    The question, then, is what is meant by an “exceptional blog”, and whether the value of wide readership should be supreme. I personally believe that many exceptional ideas can only be communicated to a limited audience, in a style that may be more complex than is encouraged by Leo’s advice (as well as his own writing).

    I believe the best way of applying Leo’s suggestions is only in the final stage of writing – aiming to edit an almost ready-to-go article for simplicity, textual and visual clarity, and an attractive headline – rather than aiming to write blog articles following these guidelines as foundational principles.

  46. Dev says:

    Great post Leo! Making content scannable is of the most pertinence to me. Too many bloggers tend to ramble on about a topic before getting to the meat of the material.

    Copyblogger has a lot of good resources on getting to the point fast, and cutting out filler material.

    Cheers

    Dev from http://www.dailymoolah.com

  47. Amusis says:

    “Avoid fancy words”? Perhaps- if your target audience is comprised primarily of imbeciles. There is actually a segment of the population (commonly called “educated”) who like fancy words, because only a wide vocabulary can convey the full range of nuances original thought can convey.

    Again, you say readers enjoy writing that is “conversational”. That, I would imagine, depends on whose conversation. Most people in conversation are inarticulate, staccatic, disjointed and cliched. The beauty of writing is, you can think through your sentences beforehand, and edit them after. Writing should be anything but like conversation.

    Beware of dogma. There are those who think the quality of writing today has become sloppy and dumb, precisely because of advice like yours. See for the kind of writing that used to be worthy of the erudite reader.

  48. Great read! Having started my blog just a few days ago, this was wonderful to hear! Amusis is terrible.

  49. You are so on target. Thanks for reinforcing these essential points for bloggers. If we are to improve, we must seek advice and guidance from experts that have experienced things and are willing to share. Although, it is not rocket science to writing a good blog post, it does help when someone outlines the steps in a clear and concise manner like you just did on your blog. This helped me tremendously. Thanks for the tips. I will be back to your blog to see you continuosly grow and share your knowledge with the blogging world.
    Juliet
    P.S. I am still working on linking…I thought that I understood it, intil very recently, I found that I had a long way to go with my link success. I will check out your site for more info on this subject.
    http://www.whistleblowerlawblog.com – Please check out my site and share your thoughts. I love feedback. Thanks in advance.

  50. Thanks for so beautiful information.

    People referred me from DP to here.

    Thanks again. I just started blogging.