Secrets from writing, editing and publishing 1,000+ blog posts

I write a lot of blog posts. In the last eight or nine years I’ve written over one thousand posts on WPShout, the old incarnation of this site, a video game review site I used to run with friends and assorted places like the Miniclip Blog.

These days I write here every week, I’m constantly writing for MasterWP and writing is an integral part of my freelance work.

In this time I’ve tried out more or less every writing trick and “hack” in the book. I’m always looking for ways to improve, but at this stage I’m pretty happy I’ve gotten the writing process well optimised.

If you’re writing anything — regularly, occasionally, or less than you want — then there’s likely something here that can help. This is what my writing process looks like, a thousand posts later.

Coming up with good ideas is the most important step

A lot of writing advice is “write more” or “just start writing 1,000 words per day”. This is only partially helpful. It’s misleading to suggest you can just sit down and write 1,000 words before breakfast; you first need to know what to write about.

In my experience, coming up with ideas is the most difficult part and once you’ve got a good idea the rest is pretty straightforward. Once you have a good idea, the rest is straightforward – but start with a bad or unoriginal post idea and you’re probably wasting your time.

I have two ways of coming up with ideas:

  1. Brainstorming: set aside an hour, sit down with a blank piece of paper and come up with ten blog post ideas and an outline for each. You’ll probably get to four or five fairly easily, but the rest will be tough: spend long enough sat there and you’ll eventually come up with the ideas.
  2. Randomly: the best post ideas come randomly. In the shower, on a run, doing some other work – for these stop right away and note down a title and outline. Any note-taking method will do, but I like Simplenote for its fast multi-platform tools.

The best post ideas come from experience. This is absolutely vital to understand. If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, think of things you’ve struggled with or solved in your own work. What new approach did you take that was helpful? How did you solve the problem? Write this up and you’ll have a great post.

On the other side of the coin, mediocre blog posts come from leveraging other people’s experiences.

I’ve been guilty of this in the past: if you’re heavily quoting other public work (i.e. other posts, books, talks etc) then you’re not contributing anything new, you’re just collating other opinions. The vast majority of posts that rely on block quotes for authority and to advance argument just aren’t that great. Where these quotes are original interviews we can make an exception, but these are a minority of cases.

The best posts are straight-up new ideas or old ideas done better. Write something new, write something interesting. Don’t just regurgitate what other people have said already.

 Writing faster by using a dedicated writing app

I publish everything in WordPress but do all my writing elsewhere for maximum writing productivity.

I’ve tried a lot of unreasonably expensive writing apps and the best I’ve used is Ulysses. If you’re on Mac this is almost certainly the best option (see The Sweet Setup for more).

Ulysses’ distraction-free UI is useful for deep work when writing – it leaves you with your writing as the only thing on the screen and no space for distraction. I use the Yosemite theme for a nice dark background.

The word count goal is also useful: I’ll typically write posts in a couple of sittings, so I can aim for 1,000 words each time I sit down to write.

Ulysses for Mac is the best writing app. Display of the writing interface in Ulysses.

The hybrid markdown writing process is another strength. You get all the benefits of markdown but in a slightly more user-friendly way. Ulysses also has really good autocorrect that will fix even the most egregious typos and spelling mistakes. This is a huge time saver and lets you “keep the flow” when writing, instead of backspacing to fix errors.

Once I’m done writing in Ulysses I’ll copy the post as HTML and paste into WordPress. This retains all the formatting and links. From there you can optimise and add images. We’ll cover those later.

Quick note: if you’re using PC, sadly there’s not the same range of writing apps available. I used MarkdownPad for a long time and think that’s still the best available.

Editing

I’ve written about the importance of the editing process before. If you usually don’t edit your blog posts, read that first.

A lot of what I talk about in the editing process post is making writing web-ready. This involves using styling and paragraph breaks to highlight key points and generally being concise. After you’ve been doing this for a while it becomes something you do as you’re writing, so typically I don’t need to spend a lot of time editing.

That said, there are two types of post:

  1. Posts that are good and just need checking over. For these I’ll run After the Deadline (part of Jetpack) and read through the post in preview mode. This usually catches everything.
  2. Posts that need to be improved. These generally require improving arguments and reworking structure. Just gotta put the time in with these.

It’s much more preferable to get to editing and have a post which fits the first description. The best way to do this is to plan properly and read what you’ve written as you go through (effectively self-edit posts as you’re writing). I spoke about planning posts properly at WordCamp London.

I’ve also started working with a professional editor on larger freelance projects. I’m hoping this will further tighten my arguments and writing, but only started doing this very recently so the jury is out on recommending this. For regular blog posts self-editing as described above is perfectly adequate.

For bonus points on this, building a custom layout for your post can make it really engaging. Karol does a great job with this on codeinwp, and with a page builder (or Gutenberg!) this is pretty easy to do. WPShout reviewed Beaver Builder and highly recommends it, and I’m inclined to agree.

 Writing good titles

Once a post is finished I’ll look again at the title. I used to follow formulaic guidelines on writing titles, but I’ve found very little merit in doing this; you just get the same kinds of shitty clickbait titles everyone else has. These are no good.

The best technique I’ve found for coming up with good titles is to just come up with three of four different versions of the title. With each iteration, the title gets better. Here’s what I had for this post:

  • Tools I use to write, edit and publish blog posts
  • Tools I use to write, edit and publish blog posts quickly
  • How I write, edit and publish blog posts efficiently
  • How I wrote, edited and published 1000+ blog posts
  • Secrets from writing, editing and publishing 1,000+ blog posts

The first title is what the first draft of this post was written as. It accurately describes the content in the post, but isn’t very exciting. I kept on revising until I had something which adds intrigue (the “secrets”) and authority (I’ve written a lot of blog posts). The resulting title is a lot more exciting than the original.

Optimising images

Image optimisation is an important part of the editing process. If you’re writing in WordPress it makes sense to add your images as you go, but I prefer to do them all in bulk at once at the end.

This is not just a case of throwing some images into your post. I highly recommend using images to illustrate examples, but not just for the sake of it. You’ll note posts on this blog are virtually image-free – in part as an aesthetic choice and in part cause they’re only necessary in very few cases.

Alright, so once you have good images you can add them in. I run images through ImageOptim (Mac only but lists PC alternatives) to cut down files sizes. This little app does a great job (I’ve even started using it to compress my photo archive – you can preserve EXIF data and image quality) and can hugely cut file sizes. I generally don’t worry about resizing images as Jetpack handles this.

This isn’t hard: just make sure you’re doing it.

There’s more to publishing than pressing publish

Publishing is obviously just a case of hitting Publish in WordPress, but if you just do that chances are nobody will read your post. Promoting a post really doesn’t take long, but you do need to actually do it.

I have a set promotion plan for blog posts. I’d strongly recommend formulating one of your own and just repeating it every time you publish: this makes it a much faster process. Here’s what I do:

  • Automatically tweet the post. I use Jetpack for this.
  • Post on a minimum of two social sharing sites. Typically find an appropriate subreddit, ManageWP if it’s WordPress-related, Hacker News for tech/productivity stuff and GrowthHackers or Inbound for marketing content.
  • Contact anyone I’ve mentioned in the article and give them a link. I don’t do this a lot, but if I’ve heavily relied on a source or given someone a nice mention I’ll drop them an email or tweet with a link. I don’t ask for anything – just provide a link. They’ll share if they like it. Hunter is great for finding email addresses.
  • Outreach to relevant weekly link roundup emails or posts is great. Find these by Googling industry + weekly roundup but set the results to only show in the last month.

None of this is difficult, but because it feels like your post is “done” once you hit publish, seldom is enough time spent on promotion. Not every post will be a social hit, but don’t worry about; keep producing really good content and keep sharing it and eventually people will take notice.

Content promotion also isn’t an open-ended task: see above for what I do, but make a list of what’s best for the kind of content you produce and stick to it every time you publish a post.

Finally, I have a bunch of statistics I track which I enter every Monday morning. This lets me see how last week’s post did, how the site is growing (or not) and how changes in the last week fit in with the bigger picture.

A couple of tools I use here that are useful:

  • Jetpack (again) for site stats. I also have Google Analytics installed, by Jetpack is fine.
  • Serplab for checking keyword rankings. I enter the keyword for that week’s post and note any changes to other posts.
  • Majestic for checking backlinks. I just make a note of the total number and see how it’s changed from last week.

Other than this, I don’t check stats; scheduling it for once a week stops it being a procrastination task but makes sure you’re on top of what’s happening. I wrote more about my targets a couple of weeks ago.

Write more, write faster and keep publishing

You don’t have to write a thousand words before breakfast, but writing regularly is useful. Publishing regularly is even better. I’ve found when I get out of the habit of publishing putting any work out there becomes more difficult.

Not everything you write is going to be earth-shattering, but publish once a week and you’ll become a much better writer for it – and maybe then you’ll write something earth-shattering.

It’s also important not to overcomplicate this. Don’t feel you need the perfect writing app or the perfect post idea or the perfect title before you start. The “secrets” here are the things I’ve gotten better at in the last eight or so years, they’re not essential prerequisites for starting out now.

There’s a lot in this post. Don’t treat it as a must-follow blueprint, but take advantage of the things I’ve learned and use the ones which suit you to become a better writer. And, if you write a post that changes the world, do let me know 🙂

The editing process for taking blog posts from good to great (five fast editing wins)

Nobody looks forward to editing blog posts. This is sad, because the blog post editing process is where posts can go from good to great. Refine your thoughts, tighten your writing and produce something of real value.

Getting out of the habit of hitting publish the second you finish a blog post is really valuable. Spend just a quarter of the time you spend writing on editing and you’ll come away with a much better piece of writing. In this post we’ll cover:

  • Making sure you always get the basics right.
  • Styling techniques to highlight key points and make content ultra-readable.
  • Cutting quantity in favour of quality.
  • Writing a really good conclusion.
  • Graphics better than shitty stock images.

All sounds pretty great to me. Sound good to you? Let’s get to it.

1. Spelling, grammar and good English

All the shine in the world on your blog posts goes to waste if you don’t get the basics right. Typos, spelling and grammar slips are inevitable so it’s imperative you spot them and fix them.

Getting the basics right means actually reading through your posts a couple of times and correcting as you go. It’ll only take you a minute. Don’t skimp on it.
Of course, technology can make things easier. The Spelling and Grammar module built into Jetpack does a pretty good job. It’ll pick up spelling mishaps, grammar mistakes and make stylistic suggestions.

Covering the basics is essential, but there’s a little more to it than that. As Sue Anne Dunlevie writes there are some “fussy” grammar points to check:

  • Speak like you’d write: use contractions like I’ll, or she’d rather than I will or she would. It looks unnatural and unnecessarily formal.
  • Use apostrophes properly. Read this if you’re unsure.
  • Look out for homonyms (words which sound the same but have different meanings), i.e. you’re/your. Spellcheckers often miss these.
  • Be consistent: if you’re wrong at least do it every time and readers will think it’s your writing style.

How do you catch every mistake? Sagan Morrow recommends printing posts out to check through them. I used to do this when checking really long college essays. It’s probably overkill for all but the biggest and most important blog posts, in which case reading in “preview” mode on your site will do a good job.

Bonus tip: ask a friend. A second set of eyes can be very helpful. Any friend will be able to give you feedback on spelling, grammar and content but a friend with expertise in what you’re writing about can do the above plus feedback on your ideas and arguments.

The latter is much more valuable – establish mutual blog post feedback arrangements and you’ll be a huge help. Don’t let this be an excuse to skimp on checking content yourself, though. Make it easy for whomever is checking your posts by doing the bulk of the work yourself and getting them to give the feedback you couldn’t figure out yourself. Public Post Preview will allow you to share your post before it’s published.

2. Use styling and paragraph breaks to highlight key points (and keep it readable)

Annoyingly, people don’t tend to read whole blog posts. We’re all busy, right? It’s much more common just to scan a post, grab some vague platitude and move on.

Two questions arise from this:

  1. If some readers stubbornly scan posts, how do you make sure they get something useful?
  2. How do you hold a reader’s attention throughout the post?

Let’s look at the first question. Highlighting quick takeaways throughout your post and then recapping again at the end can ensure even those who scan your content are going to learn something.

Doing this can be as simple as using the same template you use every time. Sean McCabe’s podcast show notes have precisely the same format each time, with an introduction followed by “Highlights, Takeaways, & Quick Wins”.

Sean McCabe's "highlights, takeaways and quick wins" are really well done.

Sean McCabe’s “highlights, takeaways and quick wins” are really well done.

Sean lists roughly ten things you can learn from the podcast immediately, without even listening to it. The value you get is immediate but you’re also encouraged to stick around and learn more about the points raised.

A good conclusion is also essential in this. We’ll get to them later.

You’ll also want to highlight key points throughout your post. Bold and italics are really useful for this and for making web-writing readable.

How much emphasis you want to use is up to you. I generally prefer italics for single words or very short phrases and then bold for longer clauses or whole sentences. Generally you’ll want to only bold one or two sections per paragraph; if everything is emphasised it loses its effectiveness.

Styling breaks up the text nicely and draws the attention of readers scanning through what you’re saying.

Another useful trick for highlighting key points ties into our secondary goal of holding a reader’s attention throughout the post: using short sentences and paragraph breaks. These are a key tenet of web-readability and the web would be a better place if more people used them.

Right?

There’s research backing this: frequent paragraph breaks improve readability. Baymard Institute reports on the optimal line length for your content, advocating between 50 and 75 characters per line on average:

“If a line of text is too long the reader’s eyes will have a hard time focusing on the text… In order to… energize your readers and keep them engaged, we suggest keeping your text within the range of 50-75 characters per line.”

Design, styling and line breaks all intersect. Nail all three and your readers are going to have a beautiful experience consuming your content.

3. Cut a quarter of what you’ve written

It’s easy to get obsessed with word counts.

My post won’t be good unless it’s 1000 words.

If I’m not writing long form nobody will be interested.

This is the wrong way to think about it.  Think about your posts in terms of value created, not word count.

Cut the crap, keep the value. Quality beats quantity every single day. Be concerned about what you’re writing, not how many words you’re writing it in.

You don’t have to specifically cut a quarter of what you’ve written, but you want that kind of approach. Once you’ve finished writing, make a note of the word count and go through cutting out anything that is superfluous or isn’t directly providing value. You’ll probably have ended up cutting out a quarter.

Hemingway is a great tool for helping here. It will analyse your writing and give you a readability rating, highlighting complex sentences, errors and passages which are hard to read.

If you’re writing with sentence structures that are difficult to understand Hemingway is going to tell you and you can make the appropriate adjustments. You don’t have to make all the changes Hemingway recommends (it can level-down too much), but a quick check and correcting any serious mistakes is worth the time.

Making sure your writing is comprehendible and concise is going to make a huge improvement to your writing.

Bonus tip: check you’re not overusing words. This tool is handy for seeing if you’re frequently repeating anything. Hat tip Akshay Hallur for this.

4. Write a really good conclusion

Once you’ve written the main bulk of your post, conclude. The conclusion is not a place to say “and that’s that! follow me on twitter and let me know what you think in the comments”.

The conclusion does so much more and understanding this is key to crafting really good blog posts. Here’s what you should be doing:

  • Show how the ideas introduced in the introduction have been developed or achieved.
  • Tie everything you’ve said together (don’t introduce any new ideas).
  • Recap the key points you’ve made.
  • Link to further study and analysis.
  • Encourage further discussion.

You need to be bringing everything together here and make it easy for readers to be clear what you’ve just said, what they can take away and where they can go next. This is why a conclusion is important 🙂

5. Have really good images, kinda

I originally wrote this post about a year ago and included a section on having really good engaging images. I linked up to Nathan Barry’s post on killer graphics and again mentioned Sean McCabe’s hand drawn graphics. I advocated using better stock photos.

This is all good advice and if you want better images you should check out all of those. But – I don’t practice what I preach. On this site I’m using images sparingly, preferring to focus on writing and where I do use images I like to use photos I’ve taken in order to add more personality (hat tip Tynan). Adding generic stock photos for the sake of having photos seems a bit of a waste of time.

What I do like doing instead of images is screencasts. These add something really unique to posts and are easier to do than ever. Opentest is a free Chrome addon that lets you really really easily record screencasts. If it suits you can add camera and voice narration. Upload the finished video to YouTube and you’re done. Really convenient and useful.

Your editing just seriously improved your blog post

We’ve explored a pretty formulaic approach to editing posts but it’s a highly sound method which will result in better content. It’s kinda a pain to do but if you’re serious about the quality of your writing it’s well worth the time.

Here’s a handy recap of what you want to be checking:

  1. Check spelling and grammar. Actually read your post fully + look out for uncommon mistakes then ask a friend to read it through (and use this plugin to do that).
  2. Make sure your content is easy to read. Use paragraph breaks and styling for emphasis.
  3. Cut words viciously. Leave the good stuff, bin the rest.
  4. Make sure you’ve got a really good conclusion with easy takeaways.
  5. Add images if it’s appropriate. Otherwise, don’t.

I can’t stress enough how much better you’re going to make your posts by following these steps.

This is the kind of stuff that gives your blog the edge.

Let me know your thoughts @AlexDenning.