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Nine Signs of an Effective Blog Post

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In this post Dustin M. Wax explores what it takes to write an effective blog post. Learn more about Dustin at the conclusion of this post. Image by B Tal.

You sweat blood all night, hunched over your keyboard, typing away at your blog’s next masterpiece. Finally, you click “Publish”, the post flies into the ether, and then, you wait. You refresh the page, over and over, waiting for that first comment to appear. Drat, a splog trackback! Refresh, refresh…. You check your stats, you search Digg and StumbleUpon for any mention of your post, you sit and fret, wondering if your post was good enough, whether people will like it or even read it, whether you might — just might — make a few bucks or change a few minds or get a few votes of sympathy or whatever else it is you secretly hope will be the outcome of people reading your post.

If only there were some way to tell if your post was going to be effective.

Writing is writing

There are as many styles of blog posts as there are bloggers (more, even). Some are frivolous and care-free, others are serious and business-like. Some are concerned, others apathetic. Some are long, detailed reports about the minutiae of their topic, others are impressionistic sketches offering inspiration rather than instruction.

What they all ultimately share is the desire to get their reader to do something — to feel or act a certain way, to buy a product, to think a thought, to answer a question, to leave a comment, or even just to respect the author. Bloggers imagine some outcome, and trust to their writing skill to get their readers there.

I was thinking about this as I read Bob Bly’s Copywriter’s Handbook recently. Although we’re not all explicitly trying to sell something with our blogs, the rules that apply to good sales copy apply just as well to good blogging. Good writing is, in the end, good writing. Like an advertisement, an effective blog post leads the reader to take action.

Maybe a reader will make a duct-tape wallet after reading a post on a craft blog, or set up a computer backup system after reading a tutorial on a tech blog. They might write better because of a post on ProBlogger, or make more money, or launch a new site, or create better headlines. They may feel sorry for a blogger who recounts her awful day at work, or thrilled by the announcement of a child’s birth on their favorite daddy-blogger’s site. They might buy a product, or not buy a product, because of a review they read on your blog.

With that in mind, I’ve adapted the following tips from Bly’s “How to Write a Good Advertisement” (in Chapter 6 for those playing along at home). Here, then, are nine criteria a blog post must satisfy if it is to be a successful post:

1. The headline draws the reader in.

The importance of a good headline has been emphasized repeatedly here at ProBlogger (for example, here and here and here) and elsewhere, and for good reason. Few readers will read a post whose headline doesn’t entice them in some way, either by promising them a benefit for themselves (“How Blogging Makes You Sexier” — the reader wants to know how they can be sexier), arousing their curiosity (“The 10 Mistakes You Make that Are Costing You Money” — the reader wants to know what those 10 mistakes are), or promising a reward (“Earn $5,000 in an Hour!” — the reader would like to make $5,000). A post that doesn’t get read in the first place is obviously not an effective post, so a compelling headline is essential.

2. A concrete detail or visual illustrates the benefit promised in the headline.

Not all blogs use images, for any number of reasons, but if you don’t, your first paragraph or two should concretely illustrate the benefit your headline promises. If your headline is “Earn $5000 in an Hour” then the post should open with the story of someone — you or someone else — who did just that — who they are, what they did with the money, something the reader can picture that lends credibility to the title and draws them further into the post.

3. The lead expands the theme of the heading

The opening of a blog post should not just be concrete but it should expand on and deepen the promise made in the headline (this applies to leads after subheads, too). To take one of the examples above, “How Blogging Makes You Sexier”, the first few paragraphs should not only offer the reader something concrete to “hook into”, but should explain what exactly the post is promising. Maybe you’ll say what you mean by sexier: “OK, blogging won’t give you those 6-pack abs you’ve dreamed of, but by putting yourself out in the open, blogging can put both your intelligence and your confidence on display. And studies show that women [or men] find intelligence and confidence 62% sexier than physical attractiveness”.

(Note: all figures made up for purposes of illustration. Please consult your beautician before putting this advice into practice.)

4. The layout is clear and skimmable.

The perils of presenting text on the computer screen are, by now, fairly well-established. Readers have little patience for electronic text, blogs included. They are far more likely to skim through your post — pausing for a moment here and there to read a snippet of text that catches their eye — than to read it straight through from start to finish.

Having a strong layout and design is crucial to the success of a blog post. Sub-heads, bullet points, short paragraphs, bold-faced text — all of these give the eye something to “catch on” as the reader skims through your post. Take advantage of whatever tools are at your disposal to help make key points stand out, without cluttering your post to the point that nothing stands out.

5. The post covers the topic in a logical sequence.

To make $5,000 in an hour, first you need to insert your affiliate link prominently in the post. No, wait, you should already have built a blog. Install WordPress on your webhost. If you need to register a domain name, use DustinHost. Now, in the second part of your post, you need to persuade the reader that the product will make them rich. Having a really strong headline will help get people to read the post.

If you bothered to read that paragraph, you’re probably hopelessly confused. It might have everything you need to know to make $5,000 in an hour (which, needless to say, I don’t actually know how to do). But if a post presents information in a scattershot way, no one will ever be able to put all the pieces together.

Most topics will suggest their own structure. A how-to post is best structured in steps, one after the other. A historical event is usually best presented chronologically. An idea an usually be broken down into clear parts. A post on turtles will probably be organized by different kinds of turtles (sea vs. fresh-water, for instance, or by species). And so on. There isn’t necessarily only one way to present whatever information you’re presenting, but however you choose to write the post, the parts should flow, one into the other, to create a coherent whole.

6. The post is persuasive.

The most effective posts lay out an argument in a way that leads the reader to agreement of sympathy with the author’s position. They may not agree 100%, but they can see the reason in it, and are forced to make their disagreements explicit (which is why really strong posts tend to have really intense debates in their comments; weak posts don’t, because they’re easily dismissed).

Being persuasive depends on a lot of different things:

  • Knowledge of your audience: You have to know enough about your audience to know what matters most to them, and appeal to those values. Arguments that depend on a close reading of the Bible, for instance, probably aren’t going to be much use on a science blog, or a blog dedicated to secular humanism.
  • A logical structure: See above. One point leads naturally and effortlessly into the other.
  • Concrete detail: Most of the time, people need to see an idea in action to really get it, and the more concrete detail you can offer the easier it is for them to “see” it.
  • Evidence: Statistics, interviews, quotes from respected works — these support your argument and make it more likely your reader will find it persuasive.
  • Narrative: Stories resonate strongly with people, because they combine concrete detail with a structure that’s intuitively familiar to us: this happened, then this happened, then this happened.
  • Emotion: When it comes down to it, people respond most strongly when their emotions are called into play. The promise of a gain or the fear of a loss can be very persuasive, if you can make it real enough. This isn’t carte blanche to blatantly manipulate your audience, which is as likely to backfire as to succeed — you can appeal to emotion without being over-the-top.

7. The post is interesting to read.

Hard to believe, isn’t it? But if your post is boring, chances are it will be skipped. Remember, there are lots of other blogs in the RSS sea!

This doesn’t mean you have to be sensational or play down to the lowest common denominator. If you have a passion for what you’re writing, respect for your audience’s intelligence, and you have a strong command of language and style, you should find it quite easy to write a clear, engaging post on whatever your topic is, whether it’s tax law or lingerie of the stars.

8. The post is believable.

So I’m hanging out with Tom Waits and Keith Richards the other night, and who should walk in but Johnny Depp. “Johnny, old boy!” I cry out, over the din of the bar. “Good to see ya!”

Yeah, right.

To be effective, a post needs to be not only persuasive but believable. You made a promise in your headline; if your reader doesn’t feel like you’re being straight with her in the post, you’ll lose her — probably for good. I can’t tell you how many “make money online” blogs I’ve clicked through to from another site, read through a post or two, and never visited again because I felt like I was being scammed somehow. “$5,000 in an hour? No way!”

What establishes credibility? Different people are going to be swayed by different things, but a few essentials are:

  • An about page: The absence of an about page is usually enough for me not to trust a writer. Who are they? Why should I believe them? What are they hiding?
  • Your background: Do you have a degree in the topic you write about? A string of publications? 20 years in the industry? I know you’d like to think your writing stands on its own merits, but for many readers, knowing you write from experience matters.
  • Endorsements: Testimonials from clients, positive press, reviews from major figures in your field, word of mouth from other bloggers, and links from well-regarded sites all help you to convey your credibility. It means more when someone else says they trust you than when you say I should trust you.
  • Professionalism: You don’t need to blog in a jacket and tie (though you might change those jammies once in a while!), but attention to little details like spelling, grammar, site design and usability, language appropriate to your audience, and so on matter to your audience. The best content in a site that looks amateurish and immature isn’t going to be nearly as effective as weaker copy presented in a professional way.

9. The post asks for some action.

This is probably the most overlooked part of writing an effective post. Of course, it’s not always clear what the “action” is — if you’ve just written a thousand words about what a jerk your boss is, you might not have any particular action in mind, at least not consciously. But just think: if you don’t know what the action you expect of your reader is, how much less will they know?

Because you do have an action in mind, even if you’re not making it explicit. You want your reader to subscribe to your RSS feed, to come back and read the next chapter in your adventures in corporate hell, to click on ads, to share your story with their Twitter pals, to digg or Stumble or bookmark it, to link to it on their blog. You want them to feel sorry for you, to laugh with you, to write a letter to their Congressperson, to boycott company X, to patronize company Y, to write better or to start a blog or to have a better relationship or bake better cookies or ace that interview or get a job or install Linux on their toaster oven, to buy a product or subscribe to a magazine or download a program or…

The more explicit you are about the outcome you have in mind, and the more forthright you are about asking for that outcome, the more likely it is that that action will happen. Seems like common sense, yet a surprising number of writers skip that part. Even in advertising, there are writers who are great at capturing attention and building interest, who get their reader all keyed up to buy the product, and fail to ask for the sale.

Your next blog post

Obviously these guidelines don’t apply to every possible post. If you post haikus, short stories, or other creative writing at your blog, then they might not apply at all (though there are other standards of writing within your genre that do apply). But for most “non-fiction” blog posts — tutorials and how-tos, political commentary, even journal entries — these points are a pretty good standard to measure your posts by.

Next time you sit down to write a post, keep these points in mind. Decide what the goal of your post is and write towards that goal. When you review your post — you do review your post before you publish it, right? — ask yourself how well you satisfy each point, and whether your post might be more effective if you paid more attention to one or more of these signs of an effective blog post.

Maybe it won’t. Maybe you’ll find that one or more of these points don’t really apply to the kind of writing you do. That’s fine — at least you’ll know, rather than lucking out. Chances are, though, that you’ll find in each at least some kind of idea about how your posts can be improved. And better, more effective posts means more traffic, lower bounce rates, more word of mouth, more of everything you’re blogging for.

Dustin M. Wax is a freelance writer whose work can be seen at Lifehack and The Writer’s Technology Companion. To find out more about his work or to contact him, please visit his website.

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. Sid says:

    Hey Darren,

    This is a bit unrelated, but I believe this is the type of post you want people to share, spread around via email, delicious etc. It is full of great advice, in a list form, easily skimmable, and applicable across a variety of skill levels.

    Can you please include a permalink in the footer of your post so I can copy past it and bookmark it in delicious directly from Google Reader? Some of your posts that are (in my opinion) ones I would normally share, I sometimes don’t share because I have to click through.

    Allow me to elaborate – Feedburner occasionally lags as much as 3-5 seconds in forwarding me (though it is typically less than a half second), which sucks, and is enough to irritate me that after a few seconds I won’t wait any longer, and I just won’t bookmark or email the post, and I just move on. I also don’t care for the share this form, since I always have IM/email open anyway, and I have plugins or bookmarklets for everything.

    So, in summation, even if the post is good, you know how fickle internet users can be! =). Please consider adding a permalink within your post itself. I know the RSS standard has a place for it that is surely filled, but I can’t figure out how to access it through Google Reader.

    Sid

  2. Wow! Seems as though you have summed up everything, nice post Dustin!

  3. Chetan says:

    Well written Dustin :)

    I always see Darren explaining about the title or headline of the post, when sharing blog tips.. and the same by you too.

    And ya, post has to be believable always, not just fake craps..

  4. Pachi says:

    One of the most useful posts I have read. Will definitely use the above tips when writing next time. Thanks a lot for the post.

  5. David Hobson says:

    Great posts and all nine tips are very important if you want a successful post.

  6. Great points summarized in one post. Very informative as well. Thank you for sharing that.

  7. That was quite useful. I think catering to the expected type of audience is also important

  8. Edward Lomax says:

    Very good tips on effective writing. I think sometimes blogs are so informal the writing suffers. Since blogs are mainly about the written word… better writing means a better post.

  9. Mike Nichols says:

    Excellent advice on effective blog writing. I’ve read each point individually both here and in other places, but this article sums them all up nicely.

    Your post itself is an example of the use of these principles!

  10. Well thought out and usable information Dustin. Makes me ponder on any upcoming posts I have in mind. This one, I must say, has sticky power on the brain. I won’t be able to ‘not’ think about the advice given here. Thanks.

  11. Baconism says:

    The intro paragraph sounds just like me. One of things that I have not considered is colored text! Very effective in this article. I think I’ll try it.

  12. Karen Zara says:

    When I read the post’s title, I thought: “Here we go once again. One more rehashed article on a rehashed subject.”

    Well, I was wrong.

    Dustin, I want to tell you that after reading your article, I don’t care how experienced you are, nor what your professional background is. Your talent is enough to give you all the credibility you deserve. You not only wrote a bookmark worthy guide, but also complemented it with various examples related to several niches. Congratulations! And thank you for sharing your kowledge with us. :)

  13. amirulcyber says:

    thank you for such a nice article.thank you.

  14. Evan says:

    Well, here’s the contrarian viewpoint.

    I think we should model our writing on journalism not advertisements. At least for those of us who want to give information and not just sell stuff.

    Of course we will hear lots from those who believe in copywriting – they are advertisers after all. But I think people get rapidly tired of reading ads.

    There is some good advice they have though – writing readably and so on. But journalism has all the advantages and none of the drawbacks of writing ads.

  15. Dustin says:

    Evan: I thought a lot about the objections you’re raising, and in the end, I decided that what journalists do isn’t all that different from what good copywriters do. At least the kind of long-form journalists that write for magazines like Harper’s, Atlantic, New Yorker, etc.

    There is a place within blogdom for the simply information: who, what, when, where, why, the whole journalism 101 thing. But that’s rare — the tech news site, the fast-breaking political filter site, etc. Most bloggers seem to model themselves after the feature writers whose articles don’t just inform (not that that’s any small thing) but *make sense* of our world. And those articles tend to follow pretty much the same rules. They open with a concrete image (“Barack Obama didn’t always want to kiss babies. But when Mathilda Livingstonertherhouse of Madge, OH held up her baby…”) and “sell” a particular way of viewing a set of events. The best ones walk you through, point to point, to the seemingly “natural” conclusion.

  16. Ari Herzog says:

    Dustin, you refer to DustinHost for people registering a domain. I’m all set in that department but neophytes may be confused as there is no registrar with that name.

  17. Dustin says:

    Ari’s right — please, people, there is *NO* DustinHost — Iw as making it up as I went along!

  18. Dustin, you know what always strikes me about your work when you write on the topic of blogging? Not only that your content is excellent, but that you’re teaching new bloggers by example, not just by what you’re saying. You’re one of the best in the blogosphere, mate.

  19. Dustin says:

    Joel: And until just now, one of the most modest! Thanks!

  20. Slevi says:

    “So I’m hanging out with Tom Waits and Keith Richards the other night, and who should walk in but Johnny Depp. “Johnny, old boy!” I cry out, over the din of the bar. “Good to see ya!””

    Haha, I’d so read the rest of the rest. Even if the blogger him or herself believes it’s real or not, usually there’s quite some creativity which went into it.

    Although I agree with some parts of your post there are also definitely those which I disagree on, for example a headline like earn $5000 an hour is something I’d never read as it simply smells like nothing more than a scam from miles away.

    Or inserting affiliate links, I always check where links are heading before I click first, especially if it’s not stated that it’s an affiliate link I see it as rude trying to lure people into pyramid schemes like that and I just stop reading the post, if the blogger does it too much I stop reading the blog at all.

    Your points were good though, many of the things which I’m still trying to teach myself step by step. It’s going in very little babysteps though.

  21. This is one of the most profound guest posts ever submitted here. Every detail was discussed and in proper order.

    It is very interesting that you mentioned about a post being a masterpiece. Early this year, I made a post about How to Make your Post a Masterpiece and I hope Darren and his readers would not mind if I share the first part.

    Know your gift.

    This is very important when you are choosing a subject. You will look like a trying hard copy cat if you post about a popular topic that you are not capable of. Analyze your inner soul and write about something that you like most. If painting requires a steady hand, then article writing requires healthy fingers. There is a big difference between a musician and a composer. After all, it is still the talent that counts first.

    Thanks.

  22. Lenin Nair says:

    Hi Darren, thanks for allowing this post.

    Dustin, this is an all-inclusive advice for bloggers out there. As a creative writing blogger myself, I also gave quite a number of advice to my blogging friends. Check out some of them here. The first part doesnt quite apply to me however. Though I quite like to see many comments and digg mentions, trackbacks etc for my blog, I believe that I don’t much care when I have done posting. If people like it, they will promtoe it otherwise no.

    Ten tips to write great content This is quite an early time post in my creative writing blog. I hope it can be a good addition to this superior post.

    Lenin

  23. Kim says:

    It has been our belief from the very beginning of our blog that excellent and interesting writing will end up paying off in the long run. We try to incorporate many of the ideas you’ve listed, but we try not to overly compromise the quality of the writing. It’s been a balancing act trying to make the posts easily skimmable and still well written. Thanks for the reminder on drawing the reader in with the headline.

  24. Awesome tips here Dustin! I should take advantage of the titles + interesting content in my blog. :)

  25. Dustin says:

    Slevi: You’re right – that would be a great story. And if you’re a creative writing blogger, or maybe a celebrity groupie blogger, it might not matter how fanciful the story.

    This is part of knowing your audience, yes? For example, Umberto Eco describes a scene from _The Three Musketeers_ in which our heroes ride a carriage up a hill in Paris. It’s a quiet scene, not moving the story forwward as much as moving us to where the story *can* move forward. And we read it and accept it. Now, Eco asks, what would happen if the characters left the carriage and saw that *the horse had no legs*?!

    In some stories, that would work — but not _The Three Musketeers_. It’s not *that* kind of story, and Dumas’ readers, the readers he has created (inasmuch as our expectations are set by the author’s work) wouldn’t accept it. It would be weird, out of place, and ultimately unbelievable — even to readers who have accepted the various intrigues and coincidences that make up the plot of _Three Musketeers_.

    If your readers accept that you’re hanging out with Keef and Tom, then it works. Mine wouldn’t, since I’ve given no reason to expect that this situation would be true. So unless I work overtime to explain how this situation came to be, few readers are going to accept it — and since I’m not a fiction writer, most will call BS instead of thinking “oh, Dustin’s experimenting here. Suddenly, instead of offering writing advice, he’s making up some kind of story about famous people.”

    This all goes way beyond the original intention of the post, of course — that kind of believability is bound up in your entire professional reputation, the history you’ve created for yourself in your professional life, and the way you present yourself on your site (or elsewhere).

    Daniel: on “titles + interesting content” — yeah, it’s a pretty good strategy, isn’t it? :-)

  26. Max says:

    thanks for this article. how i love these “X best tips for Y”-lists :)

  27. Amazing post :) Thank you so much for the tips!

  28. Dustin, this is a great post, thank you very much for the helpful tips.

    Tanny
    Internet Home Business Ideas

  29. Thank you very much for this post. It reminds me of when my teacher used to tell me how to write a research paper. I enjoyed it a lot, as I do a lot of the posts here on problogger.

  30. Chris Wood says:

    Length is important too. I’ve heard that 250 words is the optimum length for a post, but clearly that’s a bit limiting. So long as people aren’t faced with a big mass of text, I think that should be okay!

    BTW I used to teach, & trust me, a big wodge of text puts people to sleep!

  31. Dustin says:

    Chris:I think that optimal post length depends on your audience, your style, and your purpose in writing. 250 words might work well for a news site, or celeb gossip site, but at Lifehack I write 900-1200 word posts (on average) and couldn’t write less without alienating a big part of our audience (maybe to replace it with a different audience). It’s hard to say what constitutes “success”, but I recently had a 1200 word post garner well over 2600 diggs and 150 comments. I like comments/conversation, my boss likes Diggs, so that’s success by 2 definitions. This post is around 2200 words, and has gotten 30 comments, which is pretty good (though I don’t know what the Problogger average is) and seems to have given a lot of people a lot to think about — which is success in my book, too. Maybe it would have been more successful at 250 words — a short intro, a bulleted list with a line of description ofr each, and out. But I doubt it.

  32. Seth says:

    Dustin… Great post,

    I find that the more I focus on writing unique content that logically explains my point, I have great success. I think it is better to post a great article once every other day than lots of junk posts!!! But that is my opinion.

  33. Tom says:

    Now, a days the Use of blog is increasing there is a reason behind it, we can given Links to the Targeted Keywords in the Name of blog.