Blogging and Writing 103 – What Are You Trying To Say?

(Part 3 of a series on blogging and writing how-to’s, numbered from the beginning of the series. Click to read 101 and 102)

6. Know what it is you are trying to do with your blog.

It seems to me that blogs often fall into one of many, many categories – you may recognize some of the following:

The mommy blog – with photos, babypalooza stories, recipes and tons of mommy and domestic know-how. The review blog – with thoughts on media. The rant blog – angry writer lets us all know what he thinks about something. The photo blog – self-explanatory. The spiritual direction blog – with believers of whatever faith sharing their thoughts, theology, life, etc. The education blog – the writer knows something about something, so they write informationally – cooking, DIY, shoes, cars, etc. The story blog – someone embarks on some sort of adventure : travel, adoption, getting married, new job, battle with cancer, loss of a loved one, etc and tells the story over time. A writer’s blog – an outlet for someone’s creative juices, where they post their created work. You get the picture.

Of course, few blogs fall cleanly into such categories. They are written by people and people tend to defy orderly categorization. And yet…having some sort of idea about what it is you are doing with your blog is important. For your reader as they decide whether to give you some of their online reading time, and for you as you try to sharpen your writing style.

What is your goal with blogging?

How would you categorize or describe your blog? 

What topics do you write to?

Who do you hope will be reading?

How would you describe your style?

Having brief concise answers to these and similar questions can help you focus your efforts, find your target audience and sharpen your writing style. Everyone should have the freedom to deviate when they choose, but identifying your core writing objectives can be very helpful and clarifying.

Presently, I would categorize Intersections as a spiritual autobiographical memoir/writer’s blog. At times it is my personal website with contact information, references and audio – with a few reviews occasionally thrown in for good measure. One of the things I knew I didn’t want this to become was a rant blog that critiqued others or their work. I want to be a creator, not just a critic or consumer with my online presence. I knew starting out that I wanted this blog to be about idea generation and creativity and the exploration of truth and where it hits real life. I guess my title and tagline say it all : INTERSECTIONS: where roads meet, choices are made, collisions happen and directions change.

It has taken me a few years to figure out where to land – but I feel like I have a good handle on what I’m trying to do here and how I want to go about it. I know what I am trying to say. Being able to articulate my objectives has made me a better writer.

What are some practical applications from having this knowledge?

7. Titles are important – In the modern age, people don’t read less, as is commonly thought. Instead they read differently. They skim. They read broadly till they find what it is they are really interested in, then they slow down. And even then, the skills that have been fine tuned through Facebook, twitter, texting and the internet are not just turned off. People read and leave pages quickly if they do not immediately seem relevant or worthwhile. That means how you title your work is incredibly important. It allows people a chance to  gauge whether they need what you have to offer. A good title can act like a reading speed bump, slowing someone down just long enough to engage. I’ve experimented with this and have found that my creatively or more specifically descriptive titled entries get higher traffic than my straightforwardly titled ones. Use adjectives, ask questions, pick words that grab attention or defy normal conversational use. Brevity can be powerful, as we all know, not all words are created equal. Give thought to the big words that go on the top of the page because they determine whether someone will stay and read – or not. And, make sure the overall title of your blog is interesting/creative/descriptive/intriguing or attention-getting. It, after all, is the most read thing on your blog. It lets your readers know something of your personality, style and objectives right out of the gate.

(If you would like another post with more details about titles and examples, just leave a comment below and I’ll try to get back to this at a later date.)

8. Introductory and concluding ideas are important – When listening to a sermon, most church goers can only recall the first and last things the pastor said. I’ve found the same is true of reading. Beginnings and endings are the front and back door of your ‘writing house’. Think of when you go to visit a friend at their house. At least in my experience, the conversations I have as I arrive and as I leave are often them most important ones. They determine how I remember the quality of my visit. In your writing, first and last sentences or the short paragraphs that surround the core ideas found within them, are what link your readers to a particular article. Take some time and really word-smith the first and last things your readers will read from you.

9. Consider numbering your points – If you write topically, numbering your points may be an idea worth considering. Sure, it takes away from the flow or poeticism of your prose. But if your objective is to impart information, (and this is where knowing your objective is very useful) then you want to make it as easy as possible for your reader to find and access your points. Numbering is a visual handle, allowing your readers to grasp and take away what they need easily.


Blogging And Writing 102 – Getting Started

In response to the occasional request for writing/blogging advice, this is part two in a series about how to improve at either. I’m numbering them sequentially from the start of the series. Part one is here. 

3. Read other good writers.  Sometimes I think that as many people as there are on the planet, there must be twice as many bloggers. And many of them are very very good. Look around out there and see how others shape their thoughts, form their sentences, structure their content, time their entries. It could help jumpstart some ideas of your own.

4. Practice with boundaries. I generally try to limit the length of my blog entries. I do this for a number of reasons. First, most people don’t read past 500 words and since I actually want people to read what I write, I swim with this current. Second, it forces me to condense my thoughts and really craft my words. I write different, better sentences and get to my point much faster and more effectively. Third, the limitation inspires creativity. Children stuck inside on a rainy day must find things to entertain themselves within their limitations. A boundary can be quite inspirational. Maybe you want to publish every Tuesday. Or pick a random topic and write so many words on it. Or write a post start to finish within a certain time frame. Maybe your boundaries are topical and not form-based – as in you want to write 10 posts on one theme.  It doesn’t matter what you choose. But the choice can drive you to do things as a writer you never thought you could.

5. Take your time finding your readership. If your goal is to get lots of folks to read your work, you will probably be disappointed in the process. Oh sure, every writer wants others to connect with what they write. Some folks do phenomenally well at this. The reality however is that in our world we are bombarded with too much information. Most days there are too many words for us to take in. And honestly, most of us should probably spend more time outdoors or with friends anyway. That being said, there are many satisfying reasons to write and/or blog that transcend putting the definition of success in someone else’s hands. The joy of writing that perfect sentence that perfectly captures what you want to say. The value of finally articulating a thought, opinion, story or truth in a way that helps you really own something in your inner world. The comments that come in from readers who say how you touched them, impacted them, helped them realize something they didn’t before.

And if you regularly post, consistently write well about a topic others care about and if you follow a few tried and true strategies for gaining readers, they will eventually find you.

Blogging And Writing 101 – How It All Began

I have been asked several times this past year for blogging and writing advice. I have been an active blogger since 2005, and while I am no expert, surely this means I am at least experienced. So I want to spend a few posts and explore and explain what I have learned as I’ve attempted to communicate with others through this medium. Let me start with how it all began.

My blogging story – I began blogging very innocently, not knowing at all what I was doing and with no expectations or aspirations. We were getting ready to leave for Germany as student workers with the IMB and I wanted to keep my mom updated on what we were doing. That was pretty much it. My first blog Beyond the Water’s Edge, began as a travelogue, with stories and pictures of our adventures. It was a way for me to record and share the amazing life we were living. Then, along the way, I realized there were a lot of people reading, including our students. As our journey grew from just living in another country to experiencing God deeply in our context, what I wrote about began to morph. I mixed telling stories with linking those stories to universally understood connecting truths and their spiritual underpinnings. Basically, I started writing about where God and His truth was meeting my life. I got bit by the blogging bug and have been hooked since.

When we returned home after several years overseas and with another baby in tow, my mom suddenly died. With so many changes in my life all at once, it seemed like a good time to transition to a new blog. I began What Box? with the tag line, “There’s nothing wrong with boxes. I just don’t always see them.” Those who know me catch the inside joke about my unorthodox approach to life and stuff. Looking back, this was a transitional blog (and time of life) for me. I still used it to update folks on our lives, but I also began exploring writing about deeper, spiritual themes.

Then, my life sort of fell apart. We had been in the process of trying to return to Europe when family responsibilities here made that impossible. I was heartbroken. In the fall of 2009, I traveled to Norway to visit a friend and say goodbye to the life I thought I was going to get. I needed some time to walk the streets there and to give God a chance to speak to me about what was next. To my surprise, He spoke quite clearly. He said, “Create. Something. And put it in my hands.” It was obvious I was to start a new blog, to begin the process of creating and being creative and offer it to Him. When I got home, I sat in front of my computer for about 3 weeks straight and the first 6-9 months of this blog popped out. I haven’t stopped writing since.

As I look at the tone and topics I write about now, it follows a trajectory I’ve been on for several years. I’ve found a writing voice, a style and a niche that totally works for me.

What are some of the higher level lessons have I learned as a result of this journey? My thoughts will begin in this entry and continue weekly for a while…

1. Writing something is better than writing nothing. Pr. 25:14 says, ” Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of gifts he does not give.” One thing I know about the creative process is that if you don’t create something, you create nothing. And you don’t improve without creating something. It is sort of like the saying, “God can’t steer a parked car.” I look back at some of my early writing and it was pretty ugly. But I wrote it, learned from it and still have the record of what I did, was thinking, experiencing at the time. And I know something of how my stories have influenced others. As ugly as it might have been, it is still better than if I had created nothing. Lots of people think about doing something and never get around to it. If you are thinking about blogging or writing but aren’t sure of the details of what you want to write, just get started with something. Even writing about nothing is better than not writing at all. Because…

2. The only way to improve as a writer is by writing.  Writing ability is like a muscle and it only gets stronger with exercise. I would encourage anyone who wants to improve to set goals for yourself like writing so many words a day, or writing so many days a week or establishing a posting schedule for your blog to force yourself to write regularly. It may start out rather rough. But it is a start – and putting one foot in front of the other is the only way to make progress.