Whether you are a web design freelancer trying to win new work, an entrepreneur promoting your web app, or a corporate drone looking to enhance your career, you will need a blog. In fact the personal blog has almost become a requirement for any web professional.
The problem is, they are a pain to keep up. Sure we all start off well. We launch our blog with one or two posts in mind. However, we quickly give up and the site is left to stagnate.
The problem is twofold: One, we run out of material worth writing about. Two, writing posts is a painful process.
What then, should we do? We know that posting a few times a year really isn’t worthwhile and yet we struggle to do anything more.
Fortunately it doesn’t need to be this way. Blogging can flow easily if you can just start and maintain your stride. Let me show you how.
For many the hardest part of blogging is getting started. In most cases this initial barrier is due to at least one of two reasons:
- A feeling of inadequacy.
- A lack of inspiration.
These are the most common reasons I hear for not blogging and so need addressing if you are going to become a prolific blogger. Therefore let’s begin by overcoming a lack of confidence.
It amazes me how often I come across people who feel unable to blog because of their own inadequacies. Two of the most common expressions of this are:
1. I don’t know enough to blog. I am not an expert. 2. Nobody will be interested in what I have to say.
In truth, neither of these arguments hold water. First, there are always people who know less than you. Even those who do often like to read about somebody else’s view to confirm that they are doing things right.
Second, I think it is almost impossible for us to tell what others will be interested in. What seems mundane to us can be of interest to others. However, in most cases these arguments are symptoms of an underlying fear:
People might criticize me.
This is the heart of the matter. By blogging we are opening ourselves up to criticism and that terrifies us. The truth is that you will be criticized. Everybody is. Even the most well respected and popular bloggers get criticized. In fact often the more popular the blogger, the more criticism they receive.
However, the fact that everybody receives this kind of criticism actually makes it a non issue. If all bloggers receive criticism then you will be no better or worse than anybody else. You shouldn’t let that fear hold you back.
Even when you overcome your fears about blogging, you still need to deal with the second issue: finding inspiration.
One of the most common questions I have is, “how do you come up with topics to blog about?” It's not an altogether surprising question since I write for a number of web design blogs as well as my own and record daily audio posts.
Although many people seem paralyzed when it comes to thinking of topics, it really isn’t that hard. In fact I have more topics than I will ever have time to write. Its just a matter of knowing how to nurture ideas.
The technique I use is simple. Whatever I am doing, I ask myself whether it is worth blogging. Every hour of everyday you are working on things worth blogging about. You just need to open your eyes and recognize the opportunities.
Take this post. My wife was commenting on how I always blogged in the same way and we got chatting about the process. At one point in the conversation I mentioned how I was always keeping an eye out for topics and I realized this very discussion was in actual fact a good post.
Whether you are spending the day bug fixing in IE or getting frustrated with a client who won’t sign off on a design, there is a blog post in it. You just have to train your brain to seek out these opportunities.
One way of doing this is to have a tabloid editor in your head narrating your life in newspaper headlines. e.g. “The fear and frustration of IE testing” or “Client pushes designer to murder.” I know it's silly, but it does help focus you on turning your working life into a story.
Once you have the topic and the confidence to start, the next challenge is to actually write something.
How to actually get the post written
Writing a post can feel overwhelming at times. It is hard to know where to begin and can simply feel like hard work.
The first thing to say is your posts don’t need to be long. Neither does every post need to read like it was written by Shakespeare. Look at the incredibly popular blog Daring Fireball. John Grubber’s posts range from a couple of sentences to thousands of words. Some are his original thoughts, while others are mostly quotes from elsewhere. When it comes to blogging there are no rules. The key is just to get writing.
Not all blog posts need to be long. Take the posts at Daring Fireball. They vary massively in length.
However, for sake of argument lets say you did want to write something substantial like this post. Having a process to work through helps break the job down into more manageable chunks.
For me that process begins by writing an outline.
Create an outline
One of the hardest parts of writing a blog post is the first few sentences. When faced with an empty document it can be hard to know where to start. The best way to avoid this problem is not to start with an empty document at all. Instead I begin the process by creating an outline.
By mapping the structure of your post, including headings and the main points you need to communicate within each section, things become easier when you sit down to start writing.
Evernote is a great tool for organizing your posts and creating outlines.
You can use any tool for creating an outline. However, personally I find Evernote excellent for this kind of work. This is because the best time to write an outline for your post is the moment the idea comes to you. This is rarely when you’re sitting in front of a computer. Because Evernote is available on pretty much every platform including your iPhone or Android mobile, you can easily put together an outline wherever you are. It will automatically send those notes to your desktop computer where it will be available when you start writing.
With your outline in hand it is now much easier to start the process of writing your initial draft.
When it comes time to write your article, I would highly recommend just writing with no concern for grammar, spelling, or the readability of your post. The initial draft should be about getting your ideas down on paper as quickly as possible.
Another tip if you are trying to write an article of reasonable length, is not to write the whole thing in one sitting. With your outline in place it is a trivial matter to address one section at a time. Taking a break between each section not only makes the process less arduous, it also provides an opportunity for your subconscious to consider what should be written next.
For me there are two indispensable tools I use for writing these initial drafts. The first is a distraction-free writing tool called ByWord. Having a clean user interface focuses me on the writing process and prevents me from getting distracted by things like e-mail or twitter. The reason I particularly like ByWord over the competition is that it also supports Markdown and will export as HTML.
My second indispensable tool is Dragon Dictate for the Mac (there is also a PC version produced by the same company). When writing an initial draft I find that dictating the article is both quicker and helps maintain the informal, human tone that most blog posts require.
Dragon Dictate allows me to dictate my posts. This speeds up the initial draft and ensures a conversational tone.
With the initial draft complete, the next step is to craft your rambling thoughts into a more readable document.
Get critical and edit
There is nothing magical about the editing process. It simply involves reading through the document making corrections as you go.
The obvious place to start is with grammar and spelling. However, the style and flow of a document is important, too. I am no copywriter, but I do endeavor to make my posts as easy to read as possible. That involves removing unnecessary words, keeping sentences short and ensuring language is simple.
One approach I have found particularly useful is to read the post out loud. I seem to catch a lot more errors and spot where the document doesn’t flow well.
Ivona is one of many text to speech services that can be used to read back your blog posts.
I have also started using the text to speech feature built into my mac to read the document back to me. By reading along with the computer voice I find it easier to spot problems.
Finally, I also run my post through polishmywriting.com which analyzes my posts for grammar and style improvements. They also offer a WordPress plugin for those of you who use that blogging platform.
Polish my writing (also known as ‘After the Deadline’ is a great tool for tightening up your writing.)
By this stage your post should be looking in good shape. However, you are not done yet.
Finishing things off
Once you are done editing I suggest a final read through. This will pick up on any new errors that have crept in but also provides a chance to add appropriate imagery or links to other sites.
It is also the point where I markup my post ready for publishing. As I said earlier, I tend to markup using markdown rather than HTML. It is quicker to write and doesn’t make the document as hard to read. However, this is just a personal preference.
Markdown is an easy way to format posts that can be later converted to HTML.
Include imagery wherever possible. It makes the post more engaging and I have found image heavy posts get shared more. However, do not add imagery for imagery sake. Only use it when it adds value to the post.
I find that Flickr images marked with creative commons licensing can be a good source of imagery. However, I also use a lot of screenshots. If you are mac based check out Skitch and Little Snapper for taking screen grabs. Skitch makes capturing and uploading easier but Little Snapper has nicer annotation tools.
Both Little Snapper and Skitch are superb programs for quickly grabbing screenshots and uploading them to the web.
Growing in confidence
Hopefully this post has encouraged you in your blogging endeavors. It is so easy to give up because of confidence, lack of ideas and just feeling overwhelmed by the entire process.
However with time and practice, blogging can become second nature and you will easily be able to turn out quality posts with relatively little effort.