Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Blog posts are a great asset for authors looking to build up a solid base of readers and get people interested in their work. In the past, we’ve written about how you can promote blog posts, the benefits they can bring, the kind of subject authors can cover, and even ways to monetize your content, but that’s not enough.
At Standoutbooks, we’re always looking to add to our readers’ toolkits, so in this article I’ll be exploring the fourteen simple questions that can improve any, and every, blog post you produce. Every one of them can be asked before you write a word, making the entire writing process easier and more effective. They’re the details you won’t think about until it’s too late, begging one to two sentence answers that, together, provide you with a roadmap to better, more structured, more successful content.
Questions 1—8 will be shared in this, part one of the article, with the remaining questions appearing in part two. Why? Well, I’ll tell you in question 6.
Question 1 – Does the subject of my blog post suit my brand?
Your author brand is a deliberate representation of who you are as an author and, crucially, what that tells readers about your work. By definition, a lot of who you are won’t be included in that brand, or may even work against it. Do you write political thrillers and enjoy tennis? Great, but your readers probably aren’t interested in you for tips on improving their backhand. Are you a murder mystery writer who collects interesting tablecloths? Nothing wrong with that, but publishing ‘Top Ten Tablecloths of 2016’ doesn’t help readers associate you with bloodthirsty prose. It’s everything I said about your about page writ large, and it applies double to blog posts.When blogging as an author, stay professional. Above all, remember the brand! #indiepub Click To Tweet
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t write about these topics, just that your official author blog – or the blog where potential readers (and customers) will come to find you – should deal with topics relevant to your work and profession.
It’s a rule that many people would claim doesn’t even need to be articulated, but I’ve included it because we’ve all got a blind spot. Everyone has had a weird day that they felt was worth sharing, a pet who they were sure everyone would want to see, or a cause that they wanted to get out there. We all allow ourselves a slight deviation, and that’s fine in your personal life, but as an author it can harm your blog.
One of the biggest deciders of traffic online is routine. Sites that have a consistent audience are those that can be trusted to post new content at set times. The routine of this content assures readers that if they turn up, there’ll be something for them there. Just one or two off-topic blog posts can break this routine, changing how your readers see your blog. Where it used to be ‘somewhere I can read about ____ every Wednesday’, now it’s ‘somewhere that might have content I like on Wednesday, or might not’. Now you’ve got a blog that people check sporadically, accounting for the fact that there might be content on there that they just want to skip, and eventually a blog that people forget they used to read.
That’s not to say that you should feel hemmed in by restraints, just that you should be aware of how your subject interacts with your brand. It might be that a certain topic is better covered elsewhere, or it might be that you have to think about how the subject you want to discuss can become relevant to your brand.
Question 2 – What’s my blog post’s thesis?
The thesis of your blog post is the basic form of the argument you plan to make. This question isn’t about plotting out your blog post – that’s its own job – but about defining the point you’re trying to make. Asking this question will keep you from going off on tangents or straying too far from the message you want to communicate to your readers.
It does this by providing a single, central point against which you can check later content. Wondering if it’s worth expanding on a point, or if a specific example does everything you want it to? Just compare it to your thesis, and ask how well it communicates that argument to your reader.
Another strength of knowing your thesis is that you know when you’re done. Recently, comedian Louis C.K. wrote a short opinion piece on Donald Trump. While he claims that his personal philosophy stops him regretting the piece, he’s also stated that what he produced was more extensive, and more contentious, than he originally intended.
While appearing on Opie and Jim Norton, C.K. elaborated that at the time of writing, he was feeling extremely passionate. What was intended as a single-sentence, half-joking comment expanded into something more extensive because he didn’t have a clear ending in sight.
That was really dumb… I got really scared, and I wrote that thing, and after I wrote it, I was like, the fever broke, and I was like ‘I’m a little unhinged here’… Fourteen hundred words! It was meant to be, I meant to write, ‘P.S. Stop with the Trump already, it was funny for a minute’, period, and then I’m like, ‘nah, let me clarify it for fourteen hundred words’, and I sent it…
While C.K. doesn’t regret his piece, it’s plain to see how easy it is for writers to get off-track when they begin writing with no clear sight of where they intend to stop. This is especially the case when, as mentioned above, it’s a subject that might not automatically relate to their brand – having already made the allowance to talk about something different, it’s easy to then allow yourself the leeway to write about it in a less structured manner.
This is where question 2 comes in, as thinking about your thesis can actually give you the ability to tie disparate topics to your brand. A horror writer might want to write about something political, or even their home life, but by turning the idea they want to express into a thesis, they can encounter ways to work their brand back into their argument.
Author J.K. Rowling writes and talks frequently about political issues, but generally involves her writing career or her characters in the discussion. This is particularly easy for her as her books include descriptions of four magical schoolhouses that summarize and critique certain personality types – frequently a great lens through which to discuss different viewpoints on a topic.
This isn’t trickery – both Rowling’s experiences as a writer and her well-observed work give her unique insights that many want to hear (in particular on England’s benefits system) – it’s just a way of thinking about how best to approach a topic given the assumed audience. It is, in short, good writing.
Question 3 – Who is this blog post for?
At this point, you know what you’re writing about, you know how it connects to your brand, and you have a central argument around which you can base your post. The third question to ask yourself, and one that’s often skipped, is who your piece is for.
This question becomes more and more important as you ask it at a deeper and deeper level. One of the first aspects of your answer to consider is how the reader is going to feel about you. Are you addressing fans, who already understand your style, potential readers who need more of an introduction, or people who disagree with you and need to be won over?When writing a blog post, make the intended audience your guiding light. #writingtip Click To Tweet
Beyond their relation to you, consider what you already expect your reader to know. For instance, when I write an article about social media, I have a choice to make. My potential audience is split into three groups:
- Those familiar with social media but not the site I’m recommending,
- Those familiar with the site I’m recommending and who want to get more out of it,
- Those who aren’t familiar with social media and need the entire process to be described in detail.
That’s on top of two other groups who frequent this blog but wouldn’t be interested in content of that nature:
- Those with no interest in social media,
- Those who are happy with what they already know about social media.
I’ll talk about how to manage these different groups with question 7, but for now let’s focus on groups 1—3. In the case of these three groups, it’s almost impossible to write something that caters to all of them. Group 2 will get frustrated with the level of detail required by group 3, and group 3 will be lost if I move as quickly as group 1 would prefer.
In situations like this, I have to decide who my article is for. The criteria change depending on the subject – I might think a site is new enough that most people won’t be on it yet, or I might know that we provide a more extensive guide elsewhere – but the decision still has to be made.
After that point, I have to keep that decision in mind when writing. There’s no point slipping in some information for group 3, or skipping something important because group 1 will already know it, if I’ve already decided that the article in question isn’t aimed at them.
Again, having the answer to this question gives you a constant reference as you write. Do you need to explain something? Should you cut out a section? Will your point be clear? These decisions are easier to make when you’ve considered exactly who you’re writing for.
This question has a big knock-on effect, because it might change how you see your post. It also goes hand-in-hand with the next question…
Question 4 – What is the purpose of this blog post?
Related to both your thesis and your reader, the purpose of your post is what exactly you intend it to do. The answer will usually be one of the below:
- Initiate discussion,
- Address a problem,
- Provide information.
Many blog posts are written with all four of these goals in mind, and most fall into multiple categories, but great blog posts have a primary focus. The decision between categories is no joke, because even with the same readership, subject and thesis, you can end up with a very different blog post.
Addressing a problem, for instance, generally involves an immediacy that providing information doesn’t require. Entertainment can mean avoiding the more difficult topics that might be instrumental in really addressing a problem. Likewise, initiating discussion often means asking questions and leaving room for input in a way which relinquishes the control many authors need to write in an entertaining way.
Once you know what you want your post to do, establish a hierarchy of purpose and police it firmly. The second entry should only be allowed to come into effect when it doesn’t interfere with the primary purpose, and the same logic should be applied to the third and fourth. If being entertaining is your primary goal, then it may make sense to cut some information you’d like to provide if it hurts the flow of the blog post. Similarly, if your goal is to solve a problem, you might not be able to initiate as much discussion as you’d prefer, because you have to give clear, unilateral advice.Your blog post can do one thing well or four things badly. Identify your priorities. #writingtip Click To Tweet
Taking my own article, The Best Ways To Root Out A Cheesy Villain, as an example, we can see this hierarchy at work. The article is written as a short piece of fiction (entertainment) about how to write more compelling villains (address a problem). The latter purpose is the most important – it’s the point of the blog as a whole – and so a conscious decision had to be made not to let entertaining aspects get in the way of providing advice on the topic. In the first draft, the characters spoke in shorter sentences and bantered more, but this made it harder for the reader to approach the article as a practical resource. In the final version of the article, dialogue is presented in larger chunks – less entertaining, perhaps, but a far better way of delivering specific, actionable advice.
Question 5 – How can I make my blog post unique?
The internet is a competitive marketplace where – by design – one blog post on a subject is just as easy to access as another. That means that to be successful, a blog post has to do something unique. I’ve talked before about the ‘skyscraper technique’, and other ways of producing unique content, but the important thing is to think about this question.
Maybe you can’t update a topic, improve on the information out there, or use a new aesthetic, but could you present it in a new way? Can you advertise the convenience of your particular post by making it a listicle? Do you have personal experience that would recommend your work to a reader? Do you have an interesting metaphor or image that offers a new angle on your topic?
Making your post unique doesn’t have to mean moving mountains – sometimes it’s just about Googling the subject and finding an angle that no-one’s used. Once you have an answer that works for you, don’t treat it like a bolted-on feature. Focus on your unique approach as you write – if you’ve decided on a listicle then consider how one point moves into the next, and whether restructuring would improve the piece. If you’ve committed to a metaphor, trim your argument so it’s as compelling as possible. None of the questions in this list should be an afterthought – one by one they’re defining the best form of your blog post, and they’re at their best when considered together.
Question 6 – What’s the best form of my blog post?
This may seem like a question with very few answers, but there’s actually a lot you can do even with a basic blog post. Apart from a straightforward text article, your blog post could be, or could partly include, any of the following:
- Still images,
- Video content,
- Audio content,
- Embedded social media,
- Graphs or infographics.
This question uses your new understanding of your thesis, purpose and audience to find the best way of communicating what you want to say. If you’re trying to start a discussion, for example, you might consider whether people are more likely to watch a video than read an article and, in contrast, which medium gives them more chance to respond in kind.
Once you’ve decided on the medium you’ll use to present your post, it’s time to start thinking about the details. This article is broken up into two parts – that decision was based on several factors, chiefly the length of the post versus the information contained within. Was the best form of the article to make it shorter, and cut out information, or present it in parts? Hopefully, the latter.
This question is also worth considering for individual points. Earlier in this article, I quoted comments Louis C.K. made on a radio show. That audio clip was available to embed on this page, and so I had to decide whether it made more sense to transcribe it as text or embed a video or audio clip.
Given the length of the necessary clip versus the length of the transcription, my ability to edit out transgression, the possible impermanence of the available sources, and the ease of access for readers who may not be able to watch a video, I chose to transcribe. Conscious of not wanting to editorialize C.K.’s comments, I also provided a link to a video, but that means prompting you to leave this article and look at another site (and I’ve just provided the link again, weighing the convenience of not having to scroll up against the increased risk of losing your attention). This doesn’t just apply to video links – it factors into everything, including decisions as seemingly minor as formatting and phrasing.Consider the long-term impacts of content decisions. Will that linked video be there next month? Click To Tweet
Whether these were the right decisions or not is up for debate, but it’s vital that they were decisions and that they were based on the purpose hierarchy, the assumed audience, and the brand identity of this site. They’re an informed attempt to produce the best form of this blog post, and by that token the post should be better – and more consistent with other posts – than if I’d made the same decisions on a whim.
That’s the end of part one, but you can click here for part two. If you’d rather take some time to consider what I’ve covered already, you can check out 3 Things You Should Be Writing About On Your Author Blog and 15 Things You Need To Do After You Publish A Post for more on the subject of blog posts and management.