Blogging for Writers: 4 Principles for Packing a Punch with Unique Content

Photography: Hryckowian

A post of mine about synopses was Stumbled by a popular user this week. The impact was the largest my site has seen since its makeover three months ago: 86 hits in a single hour, over 60 of them in that hour from StumbleUpon alone. I’ve got some new subscribers to my site feed as well.

And that’s nowhere near the largest Stumble effects other sites have seen.

How did it happen?

I sat back and scratched my head for a bit, and came up with the following four principles. They all come back to the theory of unique content, but that’s not quite all there is to it.

And for those of you who don’t know what social bookmarking is, I’ve included an introduction to this phenom of phenomenon.

An Introduction to Social Bookmarking

What is it?

StumbleUpon. Digg. Reddit. And many more.

You hear of pages getting stumbled (posted to StumbleUpon) or dug (posted to Digg). What this means is that the page has been submitted by a visitor to one of these sites as being, in their opinion, worthy content.

These sites are social because individual content is shared among many users; you have your own collection of items you reviewed or bookmarked, but your saved links are also available to others to look at and possibly follow. The more useful-looking your post, or the more popular the person who stumbled or dugg your post, the more likely people will visit your site.

What does it mean for you?

This is not the first time my posts have been stumbled or otherwise socially bookmarked. I am always grateful for any stumbling or other social bookmarking I can get; it means that my posts have made enough of an impact that a visitor has gone through the trouble of submitting my post.

The almost-corollary in the traditional writing world is that your work got picked up by a popular magazine, and suddenly many people want to read it and spread the word. A great example of an article that strides wide on both sides of reality is John Scalzi’s most excellent Being Poor, which first made national waves across newspapers, and then waves across the web.

Which just goes to show: one of the best ways to convince a visitor to become a reader is through showing them your best content, and promising more of the same.

And now…

Four Principles to Packing a Punch with Content

1st Principle: No one else has got it.

This is why I subscribe to so many sites (ah! but not too many), in my niche and those somewhat related, reading through them religiously. This is why I participate in Entrecard, visiting and reading multiple sites every morning.

This is why I take notes when I search for a specific thing on Google that I want, and don’t find it.

And this is also why my articles for Sd are so difficult to write. When you’re the first person there, you’re working in relatively unknown territory. This requires research and a good amount of writing finesse—and I don’t just mean style, I also mean voice and presentation—to pull off.

From Charlie Stross’s Politics as she is Played with 3d6 to Maki’sWhy Are You Giving Away Content for Free?, these posts required the distillation of large amounts of information, superb presentation, appropriate voice, and good writing. Even the very funny ones are like this (humor is rather difficult to pull off in any setting).

Anything less is not gonna get you there most of the time.

So: absorb lots of information, and then spend time distilling it very, very well. This includes both knowing what is there, as well as what isn’t.

2nd Principle: It’s relevant or amusing to many.

“Many” can vary from all of teh Interwebs, to a specific niche, even to a single organization. But the number must be larger than “1” (you). The bigger your net, the better your chances.

For me, blogging is all about being relevant to people.

I actually don’t try to get Stumbled. I just figure out what’s not there, what a lot of people want (and heck, what I personally want), and then serve it up. That’s the other reason why I visit a lot of sites; what do they all want?

Like word count meters; no one’s written a good article about the different word count meters, fergodssake. Granted, you’d have to try them all, including the ones that you are not quite certain will not screw over your WordPress installation, but hey—someone needs to find out.

Or synopses; I read a lot of synopses sites and how-to’s during my participation in the OWW Synopsis Focus Group, but there weren’t any straightforward guides, or even acknowledgment in many of them that there isn’t a single synopsis methodology. Plus no one had written in depth about what we learned in the group as a whole.

I suppose it’s like being a thorough, obsessive, and overly curious scientist.

3rd Principle: You wrote it for the web.

Or taped it or recorded it or whatever.

Actually, it’s not so much writing for the web, as it is writing for an audience that doesn’t have that much time, and is reading off a screen—not the eye-friendliest medium in the world.

I spend a fair amount perusing articles from Skellie Wag and others on how to make my articles more readable and more browsable. In many ways, these principles also apply to non-fiction articles in ye olde paper magazines and newspapers.

Some tips:

  • Drop in eye-catching and relevant pictures. Think of all the PowerPoint presentations you’ve had to endure. The best ones have pictures to keep that human eye engaged. This is a good thing even standing on principle.

  • Hook in strongly—far more strongly than you would for anything else, ever, even for print. Something that will make an Entrecard hopper or StumbleUpon stumbler go: woah, I need to read this one. High relevance helps.

    (Among other reasons, this is why I often use the “Read more” link on the website, if not on the RSS feed. I want to see what hooks really work, and what hooks don’t. That scientist thing again.)

  • Use strong headers to pace your article. I don’t mean strong as in big or bold, I mean strong as in “clarifies and sets up your next point”. Yes, it means that you’re breaking the flow from point to point, which my composition teachers always slapped my wrist for, but it’s still easier for people to read.

    This goes on the principle of: tell your audience what you’re going to tell them before you tell them.

  • Bulleted lists are your friends, not a cop-out. They set off each related sub-point you’re going to make, without breaking off entirely with a sub-header. Sometimes that’s what you need.

    (Man, I really have some unworked-out hate for my composition teachers.)

  • More frequent paragraphs. For gods sakes. On the web, sentences in a paragraph must be strongly, strongly related to one another. Try for three to four.

    Even in print, a big block of text is difficult to parse. Doing it on the screen is even worse.

  • Usually, be informal.

    Blogging’s often an informal medium. Using the informal to communicate information is an art.

    Never be untrue to yourself. Especially not on the web.

I think of writing for the web as a delicate balance of connecting and breaking, like swimming.

3rd-and-a-half Principle: Use informative titles.

This is so important that I set it off on its own, sort of.

You may have noticed that I almost always use titles that are very, very specific. They reflect both what I’m talking about, the specific sub-parts I’m going to talk about, and often the structure.

My titles are never going to win subtlety prizes, but consider: when people are looking through a bunch of web page titles in StumbleUpon or or even Google results, how else are you going to tell them what’s there, if not through your title?

Some people call this part of SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, which is basically getting your stuff indexed better. Titles play a role in that, as does content and tags/keywords.

I call it “come up with a sensible name so people know what it is”.

4th Principle: You struck with the Zeitgeist.

Ah, this is one of the most important bits.

Zeitgeist means “spirit of the time” in German, and the Internet Zeitgeist means what’s hot on the web right now (or at some previous point in time, but Right Now is most important). It doesn’t have to be the whole web; it can just be a subset of it, like writers or guitar enthusiasts or digital photographers or the shiny new Apple product zombies (hey, I’m one of them).

The synopsis article probably got so many hits because there’s an ongoing stint with professional writers about synopses sharing, plus the synopsis workshop with OWW had just finished up. Thus, it was more likely to be stumbled at the time.

However: because striking with the Zeitgeist almost always means competing with a lot of new content, some of it extremely good, your content must be better or at least different in a way that a lot of people appreciate. Which is why only paying attention to the 4th principle, and not the others, will usually not get you far.

There are 1.9 million reviews on the Mac Air that will never be read much, if at all.

But there’s only one 2008 US Presidential Campaign represented as Gurps role-playing characters out there, and it’s getting read a lot.

17 thoughts on “Blogging for Writers: 4 Principles for Packing a Punch with Unique Content

  1. You’re welcome. I’m glad this post is interesting and useful to you—and apparently a whoooole lot of other people!

  2. Great article, Arachne. Really interesting. Your section about Stubling made me grin because one of my poems was Stumbled this week which a) made me smile, then b) skewed my stats and freaked me out a bit.
    Your writing tips were good too – as a technical writer, I found many of them very familiar!

  3. Jillian, thanks! :)

    Catherine, thanks as well. :)

    I write stuff that more in the lines of technical specifications for my day job. It’s much drier than, I think, the wider field of technical writing. People would probably find writing specs as boring as market copy, but I think I’m with John Scalzi on this when he said that the process of writing is interesting, alongside the actual writing.

    I think in meta-terms about many things, writing just being one (and the main one) of them.

  4. Bob, thank you! And yes, I did get even more traffic from the main site stumble—thanks! :)

  5. Hi Arachne,
    Very informative and throughly executed. Thanks for the time and attetntion to detail that you put into it.

    I really like your smooth style and your awesome eloquence. You make my Entrecard rounds very enjoyable and I’ll stop in again.

    Have an inspiring day. :D

  6. Alexys, thanks very much!

    Praise is always inspiring to any writer. :)

    (Goodness knows, the more experienced we get, the louder the inner editor does as well.)

  7. Philosophically speaking, Zeitgeist has become so niched, fluid, interchangeable it makes for capturing “the spirit” of anything elusive. I can’t chase what people want. I can just write what I know.

    For example, conspiracy theories are a form of zeitgeist. I know if I write a bunch of stories about, say, Opus Dei or 9/11, I’d get a lot of hits. In fact, I did and people were interested. But I’m not programmed to naturally write about it.

    Thanks for the tips. They are indeed good ones that deserve attention.

  8. Hi commentator,

    I quite agree with you about the Zeitgeist. It is nice when what you’re prepared to write about at the time collides with the spirit of the time, but otherwise difficult to achieve.

    And it is indeed the case that it’s best to write what one knows; I believe, in the world of blogging, it’s best to write about what one is interested in, too.

    That said, it’s always possible to research. Sometimes one falls in love with odd topics on a brief, quick look, and suddenly you end up delving more into it.

    By the way, welcome to Entrecard. :)

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