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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. CheapMommy says:

    Good advice. I will check out the CopyBlogger advice suggestion now…

  2. When I grow up I want to be like you guys. :)

  3. PlotDog says:

    My webmistress has been trying to pound this into my head. This is a great blog. Invaluable to writers who are, well writers and not tech gods. I should just shut up and write boy write. THAT is her tag line. I started my blog 2.5 months ago and am still only just below 30k on technorati. I am going to use your tips to help me improve. Thanks for the help.

  4. very nice article!

  5. Great posts, definitely going to share this. Sometimes coming up with content, good content is the real struggle.

  6. PlantBuddy says:

    Found your advice very helpful. I will start applying your hints and tips to make my posts better. Thanks.

  7. Penny Martin says:

    I agree, the writing is what’s important. Blogging can be a wonderful vehicle to express yourself and your views. Does it always have to be about getting the numbers? I don’t think so.