plein air landscape painting
Painting From Life vs. From Photos

Easy: understand the medium, give key information first, and say something that inspires discussion. To do this, optimize key parts of the blog post. Notice what is missing here: there is no reference to the concept of a diary, or “web log”. Although blog may have its origins in these, the blog is a distinct, interactive type of writing with goals different from a traditional journal. Does a blog post need to have anything to do with a diary entry? If not, why think of a diary when writing your blog post?

. . .

What am I talking about with “understand the medium” of a blog post? Consider first the diary, an empty paper book, perhaps with a lock on it, which probably only you will write in and read. Now compare this to your blog, online, which you want everyone to read — and the smart ones to leave a comment. The difference could not be greater. That’s why I say that thinking of a blog in terms of a diary is a mistake.

A diary has one intended reader: the writer. The writer tends to be a sympathetic audience for his or her own work. The blog has millions of potential readers, almost all of whom will never meet the blogger in person, and, general considerations of humanity aside, would not care too much if the blogger dropped dead the next day.

The blog reader is not a sympathetic audience, in other words. The blog reader has many other blogs to look at. If your blog does not grab them directly, the reader will read somewhere else.

But wait. Blogging is not generally a paying job. We blog in our spare time, mostly. We cannot so easily invest the effort to be concise. Long-windedness is thus a typical feature of blogging. Just look at Ed’s blog.

How do we reconcile these two factors, the fickleness of the reader and the inherently unprofessional character of blog writing?

You could say, just write better. Well, we can try. But let me offer an alternative, an optimization strategy. Let’s look at the key aspects of a blog post:

1) The title. If this doesn’t attract attention, you have a problem. In an RSS newsreader, the human reader may only see your title, initially, among a list of other titles. If your title is not interesting, they will not read further.

2) The first sentence. When scanning blogs, I often drop off reading if the first sentence does tell me something. Nothing personal, it’s just that there are millions of blogs out there . . .

3) The break point. This is place in the blog post where the responsible reader feels they can stop reading, but still leave an intelligent comment. Most blog posts lack the break point. Everything before the break point should be easy to read quickly.

4) The question for the reader. This is where you cue the reader to make a comment, an essential part of successful blogging. The question does not need to be explicitly in the form of a question; it can be a statement designed to provoke response. It seems to me, though, that phrasing the question as a question is polite.

If we focus on these four points and optimize them, then we do not necessarily have to write the rest of the post perfectly. We can’t write the post perfectly — have to take the kids to school, go to work, etc… But optimization of the key points should go a long way in making the post successful, in the sense that people read at least part of it and join in the discussion with comments. Remember, once a reader commits to leaving a comment, or has joined in discussion, they will likely go back and read the post more carefully.

So the key to the perfect blog post is realizing that optimization, not perfection, is the goal.

Is this a reasonable approach to writing online, or only a way to justify lazy, opportunistic writing? Is there a difference?