(The following is a condensed version of my talk on how to improve your blogging skills during the Visayas Blogging Summit last Saturday. The summit was well-attended and had several corporate sponsors, an indication that blogging has indeed gone mainstream in Cebu)
WHAT’s the goal of effective blogging? What should you strive for if you want to build a blog following beyond your circle of family and friends?
Make it worth readers’ time
Why should readers take time to visit your blog? Why should people read your article? Today’s high-paced, technology-driven culture offers a lot of distractions. There are billions of web pages on the Internet. Why should people, who are not your friends or relatives, take time to read your blog?
People visit a blog or read an article because of either or both of two things: 1) they’ll learn something from it, or 2) they’ll enjoy the experience of reading it. Strive to provide both but one out of two isn’t bad.
Improve your writing
The Web is still primarily a textual medium. Despite the rapid rise of multimedia capabilities and video sharing websites and services, our main medium for communication is still the written word. Blogs are still primarily written. Even photoblogs need text for captions.
If there’s one thing you should improve on first, it has to be your writing. A fancy blog header or a cool design won’t be able to save a blog riddled with badly-written articles and grammatical errors. If you want to be a serious writer, you have to master the basics of grammar, whether English or Bisaya.
Master the basics of Web technology
Writing online also requires you to master the basics of the medium. You have to be able to make use of Web technology in telling a story or managing your blog.
Prepare to get your hands dirty and learn how to code. At a minimum, you should know the basics of HTML and CSS. You have no business being in blogging or online journalism if you don’t have even basic technical knowledge of the medium. It’s not as if you have an excuse, anyway. Basic HTML and CSS are easy to learn and you have a lot of free online resources to use.
The ability to work with web scripts and services like content management systems is also starting to become a minimum requirement. Learn how to use these.
Research and do the required fieldwork. You cannot write about something you know next to nothing about. That’s not writing, that’s bullshitting. Research, research, research. Interview people and read books, magazines, newspapers and websites. Nothing beats writer’s block quicker than gathering information. Data can trigger thought processes that can help you write.
Write for people, not just for algorithms
We all want to be the first result in Google for search terms related to our niche. Who doesn’t? But do not let the power of search engine optimization (SEO) bring you to the dark side of the writing force—do not become like those people who write merely for search engines.
You might be able to top Google search rankings with your SEO-driven writing—whatever it is that you can do today–it used to be keyword stuffing and stuff—but will people stay in your site if your writing is made lifeless by purely SEO considerations?
To be able to build an audience, your writing must connect with people, not just search engines. This is made more valid with the rise of the new portal to the Internet—social networks, particularly Facebook. Many people still find sites by searching, mostly through Google, but increasingly, people are finding sites through their social networks. If you write solely for search engines, your writing will not connect with people and will not get shared as effectively in social networks.
Of course, it doesn’t mean you don’t take SEO concepts into consideration, it just means SEO shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of your writing. Anyway, most online writing platforms and content management systems have robust SEO functionalities built in.
Search algorithms change often and repeatedly but good writing stands the test of time.
After pressing your last period, is the writing job done? Do you have a blog post ready for the world? Hell no! That was just the first part. Take time to rewrite. Here’s a rule of thumb. With your notes in hand, read through the article once more to check whether you included the things that should have been included. When you’re satisfied that all the information are in place, read through it again for possible grammar or spelling errors.
Then read through it again to edit with two things in mind: making it an informative and enjoyable read.
What’s even better is to have an editor go over it again. In my experience, an editor can vastly improve your article and spot errors or things that need working on. Editors are key in good writing.
I hope you don’t effect an air of being a writer who doesn’t need to be edited. Because, trust me, the writer who says that is the one who sorely needs to be edited.
Find your voice
In mainstream media, there is an unfortunate practice called pack reporting. This happens when reporters no longer seek out enterprise stories and just go as a group and decide what stories to write about.
Unfortunately that also happens in blogging. Blogging’s promise is finding new voices. How can we live up to that promise when all we do is 1) write about and in the same way as each other and act like an echo chamber and 2) write about the same things that mainstream media obsess on.
Blogging is a skill you acquire through constant practice. Very few people are born writers or bloggers. To be a good blogger requires one to be willing to learn and willing to make an effort to learn.
As with any other skill, constant practice will improve your blogging. One writing coach advised that to improve your prose, you write one page a day. That was why I started blogging on and off in about 2000 and regularly in 2004. I wanted to improve my writing skills. I still do.
As with any other skill, learning never stops in how to blog effectively. To be a good blogger, keep writing and blogging and keep reading.