We’ve all been there. You know “content creation” is the trendy thing to do these days - you’ve gotta build that audience somehow! You figure the lowest-effort way to do that is writing a blog. The benefits are clear:
- Blogs are a great way to share knowledge and ideas broadly.
- Blogs are excellent for SEO and organic traffic.
- Blogs don’t need the expensive equipment that video and podcast production does.
- Blogs also don’t need consistency like a newsletter. Write whenever you feel like without sticking to a schedule.
In short, a low barrier to entry. Perfect for the first-time creators. You buy a domain, spend way too long setting up the perfect website, and finally sit down to write your first post.
As you write, you start to realize that maybe setting up the site was the easy part. You had a pretty good idea for the blog post, but putting it into words is more challenging than you thought.
If you’ve ever experienced staring at a blank screen waiting for the words to come, this guide will help you find success publishing a truly exceptional blog post.
As a software developer, I take large, complicated tasks and break them into smaller, more manageable tasks. For example, if I’m building an e-commerce checkout, my smaller tasks include wiring up the payment provider, creating a form for collecting contact information, writing a function to validate the shipping address, etc.
We can use the same technique to break up writing a blog post into smaller steps. Let’s go through the steps and see how they work in practice.
There’s value in considering all these steps, but feel free to adapt or omit any of them depending on how long your blog post is. A 300 word post likely won’t need a full-blown outline, but could benefit from finding a story.
Pick a Topic
For many reasons, this first step is the most important. Find a topic to write about - hopefully something that is both interesting to you and provides value to your readers. In other words, write about something that someone else would enjoy reading about.
This isn’t as hard as it sounds - you writing about your topic means there is at least one person in the world interested in that topic, and it’s likely you aren’t alone in that. One topic-inspiring question is “What did I learn today?”
It’s a good practice to keep a topic journal. You’ll often think of topics at random times throughout the day. Having a place to quickly note them will make it easier for you to find those ideas later.
Obviously the topic guides what you write about, but it also informs how long your blog post will be and how long it will take to write.
There’s a spectrum of breadth and depth of topics. You could take a very narrow topic, like “How to wash your hands” and spend a few hundred words on it. But a much deeper treatment that goes into why hand washing is important, the history of hand washing, the effects of good vs poor hand washing, and several different hand-washing techniques could fill a whole book.
Meanwhile, a broad but shallow “history of programming languages” topic that gives a survey without getting into specifics wouldn’t take very long to write. Unsurprisingly, going deep into such a broad topic could yield dozens of books.
My advice: Start small. Keep your blog post under 500 words. Your goal should be to deliver as much value to the reader in as small a package as possible, a skill that develops with practice. If your topic is simply too broad or too deep to keep small, consider breaking it into smaller topics and creating a series of blog posts.
Twitter has excellent examples of high value to word ratio. Just look for programming hot tips tweets or threads that break down complicated topics.
Remember, the goal here is to publish, not just curate ideas. When you’re ready to write, pick the topic you’re most excited about.
Educate, Inform, or Entertain?
All media or “content” serves at least one of three purposes for viewers: Educate, Inform, or Entertain.
Educational material is usually the broadest and deepest, providing more practical information about the topic. Think textbooks, video courses, or open-source project documentation.
Media that informs might still be broad, but significantly less deep. Television news epitomizes this - there’s only so much airtime, so anchors hit the highlights and move on to the next story. This kind of blog post usually condenses a lot of knowledge and research into a more digestible package, just giving most interesting bits without sharing all the details. Email newsletters, press releases, many development tutorials, and “This week in X” blog posts demonstrate an information focus.
Entertainment exists for amusement. This media tugs at our emotions and brain neurotransmitters to give us a satisfying feeling after we’ve consumed it. Not all entertainment is strictly “funny” or “comedic” - horror or action movies give us their own form of enjoyable thrill, but a blog post that lands a few good jokes is definitely entertaining to read.
Guess which one of these readers enjoy the most? Yep, that’s right - entertainment. There’s a place for dry educational material or terse information, but the types of blog posts you likely want to write should always be entertaining. Otherwise, readers will lose interest and bail.
You might notice that many of these overlap across different media. A Bob Ross painting show is primarily educational, but the way he dispenses life advice alongside paintbrush technique make the show delightful and entertaining.
Think of educate, inform, and entertain as levers that you pull throughout your blog post. Make sure to keep a healthy helping of entertainment, usually by presenting the education or information in an interesting, enjoyable way. Avoid excessive formality - it can be off-putting and distracts from the actual value the blog post presents.
One last time for emphasis: Entertain. Entertain. Entertain. If you want your reader to like what you’ve written, make sure it’s entertaining.
Research & Brain Dump
Now for the first bit of actual writing! This part is simple - take whatever you can think of about your topic, and get it out of your brain and onto paper - er - screen. If you don’t have enough knowledge in your brain about your topic, go find it somewhere, put it in your brain, and then write it down.
Read other blog posts or books, watch videos, listen to podcasts, take courses, talk to experts or friends, experiment, and most of all ponder. Think about your topic and the angles you might want to take as you write about it.
Of course, you might already know all that’s needed to write your blog post, and that’s great! Rush through this step and move on. The deeper and more broad your topic, the more time you’ll want to spend here.
This is also a good time to do SEO analysis on the topic you are writing about. See if there are any searchable angles worth pursuing to get the best SEO possible on the blog post. Ahrefs is a good tool for this.
Find the Story
Humans love storytelling. We can’t help it! Something about a beginning, middle, and end all tied together with a narrative is just so satisfying. Even better is when we relate to the story being told. That makes narrative a critical element in making entertaining media.
I’m not saying you need to start every blog post with “Once upon a time…” or create some cheesy hypothetical situation (like I did). But you need to provide some element to explain why your blog post exists. Why should your reader care about what you’ve written?
An easy trick: start with some problem, and promise a solution by the end of the blog post. The storyline could go through why the problem is a problem in the first place, possible solutions and why they fall short, and land on the actual solution and why it is superior. It’s a great way to hook interest, since any reader who has the same problem will be thrilled to eventually find the solution, and might find interest in the journey that gets them there.
I find it helpful to write a “Narrative Statement” - a single sentence that encapsulates the entire message I want to deliver with my blog post. It serves as a guidepost for the rest of the writing process, something I can look at to know if I’m on the right track.
If the narrative statement is a single guidepost, an outline is a map showing the path our reader will follow as they read the blog post.
Your outline consolidates your ideas into distinct sections, while still making it easy to move ideas around. Writing your outline can help you make sense of your brain dump. It’s a checklist to make sure you include everything that you want to talk about in your blog post.
Treat your outline like a three act play, with a distinct beginning, middle, and end.
Act 1 is all about introductions - what’s the setting, who are the characters, and what is the main conflict driving the plot? The introduction should tell the reader why they should care about the rest of the blog post, and whether they are the intended audience. This should happen fast with a “hook” in the first paragraph - something so compelling that the reader wants nothing more than to keep reading.
Act 2 fleshes out the the conflict more - what is the problem we’re trying to solve, and how can we solve it? This is usually the largest chunk of the blog post.
Act 3 ties up loose ends and puts a bow on the whole thing. The conclusion of a blog post often reiterates what happened in act 1 and 2, but that’s not required. They frequently include extra materials or references the reader can look at for deeper learning. Don’t overthink this, though. For smaller blog posts especially, a conclusion isn’t even necessary.
Once you’ve got your three acts, use your brain dump to add bullet points underneath each act, fleshing out more specific details. Add as many levels of bullets as you want. I like to make bullets for each of the section headers, and then add a few details that I don’t want to miss. Don’t write too much here, just ideas. Save the writing for the next section.
(Finally) Start Writing
The time has finally come for you to take your reader on this journey. You have your narrative statement guidepost, your outline map, and hopefully a plan for keeping it entertaining while getting the message across.
Start with the hook to catch attention and keep the reader interested. Share the narrative. Deliver the information. Educate. Whatever you need to do. Keep it conversational. Make every sentence make the reader want to read the next sentence.
There are a bajillion guides to better writing, so I’ll keep this section brief. My one suggestion: If you want to get better at writing well, read good writing. Here is some of my favorite writing as examples:
- A Complete Guide to useEffect - Deeply educational, but an excellent narrative keeps it interesting.
- Building a Magical 3D Button - A masterclass in hook writing.
- The State of Being Stuck - An excellent anecdote, and the pictures add color to the whole piece.
- Not Your Problem - The prose is dripping with voice - you can hear the intonation of each sentence as you read it.
Also, be sure to finesse your title. Despite pithy sayings, everyone judges a book by its cover and a blog post by its title. Your title is your one shot to get the reader to click. Say what you will about clickbait, but it works. My rule: It doesn’t count as clickbait if the blog behind the click delivers a lot of value.
Finally, only say what you intended to say, and then be done. There’s no need to bore readers by drawing things out.
Jazz It Up
If you’re a really good writer, your words will speak for themselves. For the rest of us mere mortals, our blog posts likely need something else to keep the reader engaged.
It’s mostly about avoiding walls of text - anything to break things up visually to make the reading experience a little more enjoyable. Here are some suggestions:
- For longer blog posts, split sections with headers. It makes the blog post easier to skim and adds a necessary visual separation between the different sections.
- Take advantage of formatting! Underline, bold, italicize, emoji 🥳, add color - whatever you need to get your point across. Formatting can even be used to tell helplessly dumb really funny jokes.
- Add quotes and asides. If your research found a relevant quote from an expert, throw it in there! If you’ve got extra thoughts that don’t fit with the overall flow or topic but are still interesting, add them in too. See if you can format these to separate them from the rest of the blog post appearance.
- Throw in some visual aids. Pictures, diagrams, graphics, comics. The stick figures in The State of Being Stuck probably took minutes to make, but add an extra dimension of value to the post. Excalidraw is an excellent low-effort tool for creating diagrams.
- If you’re writing about something code-related, include a formatted code block or an embedded CodePen or CodeSandbox. Bonus points if the embed is interactive.
Draft & Revise
There’s nothing wrong with publishing your first draft - I do it all the time. But I’m 100% confident that your second draft will be mounds better than your first.
At a minimum, you’ll catch any grammar and spelling mistakes that might have accidentally crept in. It’s also possible that you’ll think of other, better ways to present the information in your blog post.
The key thing here is time. It’s difficult to be objective about your writing if you dive right into the second draft on the heels of your first. Instead, give it at least a day to settle. Sleep on it, so to speak, and give it a re-read the next day with a clear head.
Also, one of the most powerful revision tools is reading aloud. Yes, aloud. Vocally. A conversational blog post should read aloud naturally. Sections that feel weird in your mouth as you say them are prime candidates for revision.
Finally, try throwing your blog post into an editing tool like Hemmingway, which tells you how long and how readable your blog post is, and gives specific recommendations for how to improve it. Don’t feel like you have to follow every suggestion, but it can give you ideas for areas to look at.
One of the hardest things about writing is getting out of your own head. You have ideas and notions for how things should be written, but all of us have blind spots. That’s why getting others involved is a crucial part of the writing process.
Whether you have a friend who gives your final draft a once-over, or a trusted partner who collaborates with you every step of the way, a reviewer can either point out areas you can improve, or give you the confidence that your blog post is ready to publish.
Remember, you don’t have to follow all of your reviewer’s suggestions. Consider all of them, but remember that ultimately you are the author.
Publish & Share
The time has come! There are likely a number of finishing touches to throw in - a cover image, SEO keywords, tags, and whatever else you need. But the main attraction is done. Throw it in your CMS of choice, smash “Publish”, and bask in your newfound celebrity!
…but before you do that, do a quick double-check to make sure everything looks good. Often, when pasting into a CMS of some kind, the formatting gets off. A quick check of the published post pays off.
Once the post is live, don’t forget to let people know about what you’ve written. To get the most eyeballs on it, do the full social media tour - Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit, Instagram, Hacker News, Slack, Discord - wherever there are people you think might be interested in your thing, post it. This is not the time for modesty - it’s time to showcase your work to the entire world.
Then sit back and relax. Sometimes people enjoy watching the page view analytics while others don’t. I once had a blog post that had a huge spike in traffic. Come to find out someone had posted it on a social media site and a ahem lively discussion was happening. (Another tip: maybe avoid reading the comments. It’s better for your mental health 😅).
And with this blog post published you can focus your attention on other things. Like writing the next blog post!
A Note on Procrastination
Let’s take it back to the beginning. You’ve got an idea, you’ve got an inkling of how you want to write it, but you can’t bring yourself to start.
This relates to the physical principle of momentum. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion, while objects at rest don’t spontaneously move. Motivation works the same way. Once you get started, you’ll be surprised by how far you go. It’s the starting that’s tough. This blog post provides some ideas for doing just that.
My recommendation: write crap. Write the worst possible words that you can, just to get something on to the page. If you finish your writing session and all that you have is crap, that’s okay. At least you did something. You can try for better words next time.
If even that is too difficult to do, you might need a bit of self-guided emotional therapy.
Take a few moments and think about how you feel about writing your blog post. Sometimes, those feelings block us from recognizing the small, practical steps we can take towards progress. Merely recognizing those feelings can help us break through the block and actually start working.
My advice to the young writer is likely to be unpalatable in an age of instant successes and meteoric falls. I tell the neophyte: Write a million words–the absolute best you can write, then throw it all away and bravely turn your back on what you have written. At that point, you’re ready to begin.
~ David Eddings
For me, writing is satisfying in its own right, even if I never publish. But I can see how others might detest the idea of writing. But like many things in life, improving and learning to enjoy an activity comes with practice.
Hopefully you’ll find some of these suggestions and ideas helpful. The most important advice, though: practice. The more you write, the better you’ll get.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got another blog post to write.