How to write a great blog post

A blog post explains one idea.

If a post is overloaded and under-edited, the idea you are explaining may be “I don’t have one clear idea.”

(Or, “we don’t have one clear idea, because our entire team at work is trying to write with one voice.” Imagine if you were all trying to paint the same picture at the same time. That mess of a canvas is how your team blog post looks to a reader.)

You are much better off plainly discussing a focused topic. One author at a time.

A bulleted list is not a blog post. It is a “listicle,” made famous in the 2000s by BuzzFeed for driving web traffic. A listicle can be a great sidebar (in journalism terms) complementing a blog post. Publishing just a listicle without a blog post is like ordering just french fries without a burger. Maybe that’s all you want right now, but by itself it’s not sustenance.

Many people’s writing was shaped greatly by school, and they default to approaches they learned there, with tedious results. “Ditch the five-paragraph essay and embrace ‘authentic’ essay structure,” The New York Times urges in this guide to expository writing. The Times adds: “Avoid clichéd openings and repetitive endings.”

So if listicles are insufficient and essay formats are lackluster, how do you write a good blog post? And what does authentic mean?

The word is so overused in digital media that “authentic” has become a cliche.

I’ve heard corporate communications folks discuss “authentically” ghost-written ed-op pieces, without a hint of irony. There’s nothing wrong with ghostwriting. Like faux fur it can be more humane – to the poor cornered executive and those who see the results later. But let’s be real about being fake. If the byline isn’t the author, it’s not authentic.

When someone speechifies to sound important when talking, the effect is stiff and boring. The same is true of a blog post. If you try to sound official, readers can tell.

Write the way you talk. This simple approach is the best way to be authentic in your writing. Consider this passage from comedian Tiffany Hadishes’ memoir, “The Last Black Unicorn”:

“You wanna hear some real crazy shit? I was in AP classes (where you can get college credit in high school), while not being able to read!

“I could not spell or read, but I knew how to talk. I would game people. I would game everybody. It’s easy to game school once you realize the rules are bullshit.”

The New York Times Book Revew calls this best-seller “painful, honest, shocking, bawdy and hilarious.”

Listening to Hadish read her book in the audio version is like talking to her in a one-on-one conversation. It’s unmistakably authentic. Consider that this writing comes from her professional life. As a comedian who draws on her experience for material, to an extent she wrote this for work. That’s how authentic professional writing can be.

This might be an extreme example. Few of us can write this way for work, but few of us talk this way at work, either. You probably can write the way you talk at work.

The point is that trying to sound official bores people. Speaking right to them draws them closer.

This means knowing your audience. Who would be interested in reading your explanation of this one idea? If the blog post is about cooking the perfect cheeseburger, are you writing to beginner cooks? If your blog post is about a project at work, are you writing to customers?

A blog post is not marketing. You aren’t seducing a customer, like Al Pacino is in this memorable monologue from the film “Glengarry Glen Ross,” written by David Mamet. Everything Pacino says here is enticing his customer to make a big leap – which he will later deeply regret. It sounds like Pacino is talking to his mark, but he’s not. He’s manipulating him. He is like a marketer pretending to be a blogger.

Is that really how you want to talk to your audience?

My teams at several large organizations have operated with the ethos:

Good blog posts don’t promote; they explain.

Your boss may like the results of a hard sell or slick manipulation. Your boss is wrong.

Your boss is not your audience.

You may have to push back on your boss if you are writing a blog for work. Your boss may see herself as having final approval, and to an extent that may be fair. But she’s not — and doesn’t want to be — a censor. She’s a publisher, and you are a writer/editor. She finances your writing. Your content helps her bottom line. It’s a traditional publishing relationship. Of course she wants you to write glowing praise of the company. You want her to give you $100 bills. That would not be good for business, and promotional blog posts are not good for content. You’re supposed to have conflict. It’s healthy.

Conflict is a necessary ingredient in compelling blog posts.

“Compelling” is almost as over-used as “authentic” in digital media – and perhaps more disingenuous. People often seem to mean that they are using active verbs or dramatic adjectives or suspenseful narration when their blog post is “compelling,” but that’s window dressing. Conflict is compelling, as writers have always known. Vapid cheerleading about how awesome your company or product or project is cannot, by its nature, be compelling. That promotional prose is meager and sad. A reader’s natural reaction is to mock that self-serving enthusiasm like the assembly audience did to Cheerleader Cindy in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Who wants to be her?

Try this: Imagine you are sitting around a campfire with a bunch of friends. Sparks crackle, woodsmoke curls upward, s’mores stick to shirt sleeves. There is time to talk. One member of the group is attractive to you. The way they sit on a stump in jeans and plaid shirt is adorable. But you have a rival – a jerk you have disliked for years. The jerk also clearly likes your crush. The jerk says something you specifically disagree with: “I would never adopt an adult animal. Who knows where it’s been? I want a puppy or kitten with papers. They’re so cute! Then you’re there for their whole life.”

You’re incensed. What your rival has said is so wrong. There is a pause. Your crush seems to be weighing what dumb-ass has said, trying to decide whether to agree. You are armed with facts and arguments. Go get ’em, tiger.

With the enthusiasm and dash of righteous indignation you feel right now around that campfire you can write a great blog post, refuting your rival and advocating your cause:

Adopting adult pets is more humane, reliable, and rewarding than buying a puppy or kitten from a breeder. Your new pet is a fellow traveler like you, with a past of ups and downs. Once happy in its home it is now in a shelter. You are in a sense adopting each other. It is adult romance, not puppy love.

Shelters know all kinds of information about the adult pets they put up for adoption, including vaccine history, temperament, health issues, friendliness, whether they are housebroken (a huge advantage), and how much they like to play. Adult pets are often much easier to house, feed, exercise, and care for. They are less like a baby and more like an always-agreeable roommate.

The animal you are adopting may somehow know that death is a distinct possibility – if they are not adopted, they could be put down. You have a chance to be their hero. Your bond is not silly, but soulful. Your closeness is profound. You aren’t buying an inbred animal from a possibly unethical breeder. You are intersecting a life and your new friend is intersecting yours. The story you tell together is not a fluffy photoshopped image on a greeting card, but a literary classic like “Call of the Wild,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” or “Travels with Charlie.”

Here is my adult rescue, Talker, a funny, cuddly calico I adopted eight years ago when she was 4. She had been picked up off the street. The kittens at the shelter that day would all be adopted, the volunteer there told me. This adult probably would not be, because “people often just want a cute kitten.”

I wanted a cute kitten to warm my heart and cheer me up after a breakup. But looking into Talker’s startlingly blue, slightly crossed eyes, I realized I wanted a companion, not a plaything. I wanted a soul with depth and compassion. I took her home. Two weeks later we spent Christmas together. You might think I was Talker’s hero, but in many ways she was mine.

Your group sits in poetic silence. The fire pops in approval. Your vanquished rival’s cheeks are flushed. Your crush gazes at you with smitten tears in their eyes.

That’s a visualization, and a preposterous one.

And yet, within it is a blog post that explains one idea: Adopting adult pets is more humane, reliable, and rewarding than buying a puppy or kitten from a breeder. I feel passionately about that idea, for it pertains to life and death, love and companionship, devotion and need.

That’s not a memo written for your boss, or an essay test written in high school. It is simply a blog post that I care about.

How to write a great blog post in three easy steps

  1. Explain one clear idea.
  2. Write the way you talk.
  3. Don’t pull back from conflict.

(The above is a bonus listicle.)

Jeff Elder is the editor of the Salesforce Blog. He was previously a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and a syndicated columnist for Knight-Ridder Newspapers.

Former WSJ reporter and syndicated columnist working in the blogosphere. Once sold books to Johnny Cash. My Medium post about that was praised by Paris Review.