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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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 roundupbut 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 🙂