This guest post is by Harry Bingham of Writers’ Workshop.
Most blog posts are dull.
They might be well-informed, offer interesting insights, teach useful things—but they can do all those things and still be dull.
Although readers do come to blogs to learn, they are only ever two clicks away from rival offerings, which means you’re under constant pressure to retain those eyeballs.
And eyeball-retention is a learnable, replicable skill. I’m a novelist, after all. People don’t come to my books in order to learn anything: they come for entertainment and will desert me if I don’t satisfy their expectations. So I—and my peers—made darn sure we satisfy them. What’s more, the approaches that work for books are eminently transferable to blogs.
One driver that always works is story. Let’s suppose you’re writing about an SEO technique which yields, on average, a 30% traffic increase over a three month period. Clearly that technique is, in principle, going to be of interest to your readers.
But isn’t that presentation dull? I mean, don’t you feel your heart contract just a little when you hear those stats? You know you need to read the post but, gosh, it doesn’t excite you.
Contrast that with a post that starts with a story. Jed Edwards is a fishmeal seller who’s struggling to make a go of his business in recessionary times. He hits on a new SEO technique that doubles his online traffic in the space of three months. He renegotiates a bank loan on the back of a new business plan and for the first time in years, things start to look up.
Now that snippet still feels a little poor. We want more detail, more personalization, more that is specific to Jed and his business. But enrich that one paragraph to, let’s say, three and you have a human, empathic connection. Your reader is hooked.
Of course at that point, you’ll need to backtrack. You’ll need to say that the Jed’s experience is unusually positive, that 30% increases are the norm, not 100% ones. And you’ll need to get into the nuts and bolts of the technique. But all that doesn’t matter. You’ve got the reader into your article. You’ve won their trust. Your task isn’t finished—but it’s very well started.
The trick to this approach is to start (and ideally finish) with the personal, the specific, the detailed. You can see one example of this approach on our blog here, but you can also view countless examples of it in the newspapers. If a journalist is writing about the Japanese tsunami, for example, they’ll likely start by picking out the experience of one particular family, or one particular village. Start with the particular, move to the general, and move back to the particular with your close.
Another good alternative is to go for controversy. You don’t necessarily need to believe 100% in the position you are presenting. Obviously, you need to have some real belief what you’re saying, but it’s okay to allow yourself to express things more strongly than you truly believe. That’s not about lying: it’s about helping to clarify things for readers. By making strong statements, you can let your readers test out what they do and don’t believe on a subject.
In the end, a controversial stance is simply a way to keep the reader interested in what follows. A recent guest-blogger on our own writing-related website made a big splash with an argument that alcohol could be used to promote creativity. It’s a controversial position—but that post scored almost three times as many hits as one of our regular posts. (His post can be found here.)
You wouldn’t think that novelists spend much time wrestling with facts, but we do! Historical fiction, for example, nearly always relies on a novelist finding some extraordinary aspect of the past and bringing it to life via story. But if the background material weren’t compelling, the book wouldn’t be either. Philippa Gregory’s international hit book (and movie) The Other Boleyn Girl worked primarily by bringing an extraordinary aspect of King Henry VIII’s colorful life to public view.
You can do the same. Most pro bloggers recycle the same old facts. You need to avoid that. You need to locate the specific, unknown fact that throws a new light on the issue you are commenting on. You don’t need to embellish that fact or wrap it in fancy packaging. If your fact is strong enough, you can hook a post to it without any of that.
Take, for example, Amazon’s launch of the Kindle Fire. Countless commentators regurgitated Amazon’s sales statistics—to such an extent that no blog advertising this fact could be of real interest. So Clint Boulton did some original research (which he discusses here) and transformed a dull post into a value-added one.
Style and humor
A fourth—difficult—approach relies on writing style and humor. It’s hard, because you need real writerly skills. You can’t just bolt them on, the way you can with the first couple of approaches. And humor that falls flat is much worse than no humor at all.
On the other hand, there are replicable skills here too. Economy, for starters. Are you saying something in 12 words that could be said in eight? If so, your blog post risks being 50% longer than it ought to be. Pedantic micro-corrections to your text can build into a large macro difference in interest.
Cliché is another grievous sin against good writing. Every cliché kills—just a little—the reader’s interest in your text. If you spot examples of cliché in your text (and that means remembering to look for them!), you can correct the problem in one of two ways. Either come up with your own original striking phrase or choose a simple but accurate replacement. So you could change “She was grasping at straws” into either of these alternatives:
She grew desperate, a drowning woman in search of a lifebelt.
Tiny facts now filled her with unreasonable hope.
Both of those options are a big improvement on the cliché.
Finally, humans aren’t particularly rational creatures. Logically, it makes good sense to state general principles and let readers figure it out from there. But readers want examples. They make those general principles leap to life.
The joy of hyperlinks means that you don’t even have to slow your prose down with reporting those examples: you can just point to them and move on. The better written and more joyous the posts you point to, the more joy you bring into your own post too. It’s like love: you create more by sharing.
Have you used any of these techniques to un-dull your writing? Share your tips with us in the comments.