I’ve run several blogging workshops in recent weeks, with seasoned campaigners at Global Witness, Oxfam Novib’s youth wing, and academic bloggers at the Institute for Social Studies in The Hague. All three sessions followed a similar format, developed for a Unicef session I ran last year – a half hour intro from me, and then an editing session where we read and comment on the participants’ draft posts in turn (5m reading, 10m discussion, then move on). Despite the differences between the participants, similar editorial points kept cropping up, so I thought I’d try and nail them down here.
- Write like you talk: a blog is a weblog – a diary. So write like you talk, which may well mean quite a lot of unlearning, given that academia spends years training you not to write like you talk! Re our recent devspeak discussion on this blog: if you find yourself using phrases or words you would never use in a conversation (‘it therefore seems appropriate that…’), stop.
- Throat clearing and the Third Para rule: it’s striking how often you edit a draft by cutting the first two paras and starting on para 3. The reason is that people feel compelled to introduce the blog by talking at length about process (‘we recently organized a seminar, consisting of 2 plenaries and a set of breakout workshops’) or name checking a pile of organizations. But the first paragraph of a post is a precious place – it is often the only para people read, and it has to grab their attention if they are to carry on reading. So that para needs to keep introductory scene setting to the bare minimum, and then move swiftly on to be the core idea of your piece (if you don’t have a core idea, that’s also a problem).
- Narrative is everything: A blog is not a lit review or an exec sum. You need to make the narrative central, and minimise the baggage of references and namechecks (including for the author – use links to books, papers and online bios to avoid wasting precious words and diluting the narrative).
- Ideas work better than Process or Description or (shudder) lots of acronyms: no-one cares where the workshop was held, who was there, or even that there was a workshop at all. Focus on what emerged that is of general interest – the ideas and concepts, the new insights. And not too many of them – one big idea is perfect for a blog. 10 ideas make for a confusing read. Avoid long lists of acronyms that turn readers off.
- Style: Avoid the passive tense and double negatives (‘it is not unreasonable to assume that….), keep sentences and paragraphs short. Define terms. Don’t be pompous. Be more Orwell.
- Don’t be scared: both academics and NGO types seem petrified that someone is going to catch them out. That leads to defensive writing, with loads of caveats, or alternatively to a weird hectoring style, with lots of finger wagging (‘the IMF can and must…’). Boring, boring, boring. Much better to reach out to the imaginary reader, make friends with them, take risks.
- Write in tiers: A post should be a nested product, with a spectrum of levels from brevity to comprehensiveness; people can follow the tiers as far as their interest and time (and the writing) allows, but they should get a clear and free-standing message from each: Title → First Para → Post → further reading via links.
- Accompany the reader: in keeping with the conversational ‘write like you talk’ style, you can help the reader with occasional flags, explaining what they are about to read: ‘why does that matter?’ or ‘First the good news’ style sentences make the info easier to absorb.
- Illustrate ideas with examples: don’t just stay in the conceptual meta-world; show what it means on the ground – a historical example, a case study or how the idea might apply to a particular person (for a Tanzanian farmer growing maize, this approach to climate insurance would mean X’).
- Admit doubt. You are not Moses coming down from the mountain, so forget the tablets of stone. This is a conversation, and you can say ‘I’m not sure about this – what do you think?’ and hope readers will help you think things through.
- Academic does not mean boring: even for academic blogs, the above rules apply. Avoid unnecessary jargon and obfuscation – remember people could be reading on their mobiles while juggling child care.
Although I would be the first to say there is no one way to write a blogpost – they should reflect the personality and background of the author, these 11 tips seemed to be applicable to most of the very different posts were were looking at.
And here’s my powerpoint, including ten ways to write a blogpost in under an hour. Please steal.