8 Things Every Blogging Writer Should Know

It just occurred to me that I’ve been writing Mentalfloss.com blogs for over three years now. So what have I learned in all this time? I’ve actually written a short book about it, but thought I’d collect a few quick thoughts here first. Hope it helps.

1. Headlines Matter Most

If your goal is to get people to click on something, you need a killer headline. It has to be interesting, short, and hopefully provocative without being bullshit linkbait. The headline (and blog post) I’m most proud of is “He Took a Polaroid Every Day, Until the Day He Died.” That headline poses multiple questions — Why did he take a photo every day? How did he die? Who is he? — but it also gives you a big “spoiler” by revealing that whoever this post is about died at the end of his project. I would argue that the spoiler is the biggest hook of the whole thing. It’s also short enough to be forwarded via Twitter with room for added commentary.

(Writing a synopsis for your novel? Here are 5 tips.)




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2. You Don’t Have to Write That Much

It’s better to write one sentence than a huge article.

If I were Strunk and/or White, I’d stop there, but it’s worth repeating for new writers and bloggers: avoid the instinct to catalog and obsessively cover the subject. Get in there, write the most interesting part as quickly as possible (you want the subject clearly explained in the first sentence), and if you really want to write more, put it below the fold (after the jump, so to speak) or just point people to further reading.

I’m also constantly surprised by what strikes a chord with readers. Often the most slapdash efforts cranked out in mere minutes get the biggest responses. Examples: “Gotta Read ‘Em All which” was written in less than ten minutes on a Thursday morning before I started work (and received 224 comments); “What Books Can’t You Put Down?” which was written in five minutes at most (and received 157 comments).

Having this happen over and over (and having posts involving hours of labor get no response), I’ve finally realized what’s going on here — if the subject is immediately understandable from the headline (see above), if the subject itself is interesting, and the post is short enough to be approachable, people will read it. It’s not rocket science, but it took me a long time to figure that out.

(How successful should a blog be before agents/editors will take notice?)

3. You Need a Thick Skin

People who comment on my blog posts are usually pretty nice, just saying some variant of “oh, cool” or “check out this related thing.” That’s great and sweet and validating. On the other hand, there’s an unstoppable army of jerks out there ready to jump on you. Grumpy people love writing blog comments. Pissed-off people are a lot more motivated to leave a comment than people who are simply enjoying your stuff.

4. The Jerks Come Back

You’d be shocked how many commenters (particularly trolls) bookmark a post and come back later in the day to continue the fight. Disengage. Post comments on your own posts only to clarify something missed in the post but raised by another commenter (if you dare), point to other sources, and/or acknowledge making corrections to the main post in response to a comment.


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5. Ask Commenters to Contribute

This is very, very important. Whenever you make a list of things, end it by asking readers what you left out. This makes the inevitable “You left out xyz awesome thing!” comment a happy collaboration rather than an indictment of the blogger’s intelligence. I can’t tell you how many times people have commented: “I can’t believe you didn’t include [some obscure nerd thing], furthermore [you are an idiot] and [should be fired].” But when I invite people to contribute, they do so gladly.

Such a simple lesson. Worth so much. Do it. Also, you’ll often get people giving you links that lead to new posts down the road.

6. The Past: There’s Always More of It

Credit to John Hodgman for the headline here.

When I started blogging, I sat down and wrote a long list of interesting trivia: topics I knew something about, interesting historical tidbits, lots of computer nerd stuff. Literally a big long bulleted list, in a file on my desktop. I then proceeded to write a blog post for every single one of those items. When I ran out, I panicked. What would happen? How would I keep coming up with a new thing every day forever? I had run out of interesting stuff!

When it’s your job to find and highlight one interesting thing every day, you quickly become a specialist at spotting interesting things. If you have any human interaction, and you keep your eyes and ears open, you will constantly encounter topics. You just need to notice them, then write about them. Go to the post office and listen to people talking in the line, look around the room, look at what’s for sale — something about that experience is almost certainly bloggable. (Forever Stamps, anyone?) So my job as a blog writer changed when I ran out of ideas in my back catalog — I became a finder of interesting things, and worked to become good at briefly describing those things. The finding skill can be harder; you need to develop a clear sense not just of what’s interesting to you, but what’s interesting to your audience, and also what can be briefly described.

7. Credit Where Credit is Due

Always, always cite your sources. If you found a topic via a blog, link to that blog (the specific post, if possible; in fact, this post had a previous incarnation on my website) at the end of your post. If you’re quoting something, say so and use the HTML blockquote tag. Don’t steal photos — Flickr has a great Advanced Search feature which allows you to find Creative Commons licensed photos (including those licensed for commercial use!).

Also, be sure you’re conversant with the FTC’s Guidelines for Bloggers. In short, don’t be a shill.

If you aspire to write for print but are starting in the online world, you’re going to need to learn how to deal with citations and footnotes. Better to figure that out while you’re blogging than when you’re on a deadline for a print assignment. (I’m not suggesting that you need footnotes in your blog posts, but you definitely should keep a list of sources and, wherever possible, include them in your post.) Also, as much as I love Wikipedia (and link to it all the time), beware of basing a story on something you find there — there’s plenty of bogus info floating around, and you’ll look like a sucker for buying it. Run everything through a Snopes filter or at least a Google filter with the word “hoax” attached.

(Should you start your novel with a prologue?)

8. Don’t Blog Something That’s Already Been Blogged

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of a great idea, only to find that it has already been covered by other bloggers on my own site. Now, I do read the site, but the volume of posts is insane — and my memory is short enough that I don’t remember what people were posting about three years ago. Use the site search. If you don’t, people will yell for reposting stuff. Also, get familiar with the Google site: syntax (example: site:www.mentalfloss.com “chris higgins” will turn up posts including my name from that site).


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14 thoughts on “8 Things Every Blogging Writer Should Know

  1. williama

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  2. Dom

    Great article and some good advice! I’ve just started writing my own blog in the last six months, spurred on my a twelve month writing exercise elsewhere on Digest, and aided by a do’s and don’ts in blogging here too. It’s scary getting your voice out there but worthwhile.

    I would maybe add something to the above advice, as I scan around my own and others writing – be open and be personal. I don’t think it’s enough to have an opinion, I think that opinion needs to come from somewhere personal and you need to back it up.

    Have a look at my own blogging efforts below, based on a twenty four hour playwriting challenge I took part in a week ago. I’d love if anyone had any advice or comments on the piece!



  3. ebookwriting

    I’m in blogging field from many years and Its really a interesting subject. I like it and spend my most of the time for it..I’ve created a blog for my business recently and Its really a great oppurtunity for me to visit your blog…

  4. JanetBoyer

    Chris, fantastic information (as always). Just last night I whipped off a post based on an email I got. Didn’t even put it in a Word Doc, just typed right into TypePad’s interface. Not only got a lot of hits, but also one reader commented: “Excellent! This may very well be your most important post to date.” I mean, several years into blogging and spontaneous post gets THIS kind of comment? I wish I knew what you just shared here back then! :o) Keep up the good work.

  5. KimberleyLB

    I personally find number 8 the hardest to do. My blog is about the health issue Fibromyalgia and I get so excited about posting new procedures for my readers but forget to look to see how many other bloggers have already posted on the subject.

  6. MikeCairns

    Hi Chris
    Thanks for the post, really informative.
    I found point 6 particularly inspiring. It’s using this idea and relating it back to my blog, which focuses on fantasy/sci-fi writing and inspiration that’s going to be the interesting challenge!
    The one I’m still struggling with is number one. Creating a great headline whilst selling the blog accurately can be tough, but your example is definitely a good way to go.
    thanks again

  7. Bluestalking

    I’ve been writing a book blog for, oh, six or seven years and it’s served as a great portfolio. I’ve gotten loads of attention and turned that into other writing gigs. I feel I can improve it, though, that some of the stuff I’ve agonized over has been a waste of time, at the expense of forgetting the basics. You sold me on your book. It’s all loaded on my Kindle and ready to go. 2013 will hopefully be the year I finally feel satisfied with my product and stop worrying about extraneous stuff. Thank you for your help!

  8. chrishiggins

    Hi Penney,

    The perspective I’m taking above comes from being a freelance writer — in other words, writing for somebody else and getting paid by that entity. That’s what my book is about, although of course my book is written by me, for me. The book is a bit of a turn in my career, as I start to take the platform I built by writing for publications and start selling into that platform directly (while still freelancing, by the way). Chuck has obviously written a lot about this platform stuff.

    The good part of being a freelancer is that there is already some kind of audience showing up: readers of the big fancy blog, subscribers to the big fancy magazine, and so on. My job there was to create something good or great that was appropriate to that audience. So I tried to optimize my writing to grow these publications’ audiences — retain the people they had, but appeal to new readers. There’s a whole chapter in the book (“Stock and Flow,” also excerpted on my website) that deals with this kind of issue: are you writing something to entertain people who are popping in for the day, or are you creating an article that stands on its own forevermore as a great piece of work online? For me, I was mostly doing the former, with occasional forays into the latter.

    If you are starting with a smaller readership and your goal is primarily to build that audience, you still have to write a mixture of stock and flow (as with any blog or publication), but I’d lean more towards stock. In other words, yes, your longer form work that will get passed around and linked to by other sites. The flow is primarily to keep things moving and current for people who are already in your audience; the stock is to make something that lasts beyond the flavor of the day and brings in new people. Read more about that if you like, and please let me know whether there’s more I can offer here!

  9. penney

    Alright, I opened a blog last year but never wrote in it. Yes, totally scarred. Every so often I read blogs are a good approach to getting you work out. I mean actually posting your short stories (500 or more words) or bits of ongoing novel ideas. Your comment less is more step – 2 seems to shoot that down. Do I cancel my blog or take a chance?


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