This past weekend, I had to do something that pained me at my very core: I decided to remove blogs from my Google Reader. I realized I had been following so many blogs that I had no chance of actually reading them all (the number was upwards of one thousand, I think). For some time, I had avoided my Google Reader out of fear from the volume of unread posts that had accumulated. Sure, periodically I could mark all as read so I would feel like I had “caught up,” but that solution was only temporary. After a few hours, the posts would start piling up and I’d be stuck with the same problem all over again.
So this weekend I decided to face reality and delete the subscriptions I was no longer reading. It took me a day and a half to get through all the feeds and make decisions about which to keep. In the process I learned a number of lessons about effective blogging. After a while, I started seeing similarities between the blogs I simply had to keep in my reader and those I could do without. These patterns meant some blogs were more effective at grabbing my attention, and the following seven steps are what I took from this weekend’s experience.
7 Steps to a Better Blog:
Step 1: Have a clear reason as to WHY you’re blogging.
Before you reserve your name on Blogger or buy a URL, think about WHY you’re doing it in the first place. Are you trying to reach out to potential readers? Or is your goal to share information with other aspiring writers? Think about who your target audience is, who would be the ideal reader for your blog. Then and only then, should you start typing and hit that publish button.
Step 2: Pick a topic, any topic, and stick to it.
Some blogs have a clear focus. They talk about one or two subjects with little bits of randomness thrown in for good measure. As I culled blogs, if the subject was one that resonated with me I immediately move the blog to my “must-read” folder. If it was a subject that didn’t quite suit my style–or one that I no longer had interest in following–I stopped reading the blog. It was the middle category where the subject was unclear that gave me trouble. If I couldn’t tell what the blog was about by reading a few sentences of the most recent post, I had to unsubscribe.
Step 3: Blogs have to be visually pleasing but also functional.
OK, so I’m a little bit of a design nut I’ll admit, but nothing pains me more than to click through to a website and find that the text is virtually unreadable because the background is too busy or the color of the font is weird. When choosing a blog design, I stick to the K.I.S.S. rule: Keep It Simple Stupid. Not only are simple designs often more pleasing to the eye, they can also be easier to read. A few rules of thumb:
- While serif fonts (like Times New Roman) are easier to read on paper, sans serif fonts (like Arial) are easier to read on screen. Go with something sans serif when choosing a font for a blog, especially for the body of the posts.
- It’s easier to read dark text on light background than the other way around. Yes, dark backgrounds can look cool and “design-y” but they’re harder on the eyes so avoid them in large blocks of text.
- The overall “look” of a blog should support what the posts say. Yes, a super-cool design is awesome, but if it conflicts with the tone of your posts or is distracting to the reader, then it’s not functional.
Step 4: When it comes to your sidebar, less is more.
I see a lot of blogs out there with sidebars that scroll for miles and miles. The trouble is, no one is going to scroll all the way to the bottom and it ends up making the blog look cluttered and perhaps even slower to load. Choose only the gadgets you absolutely need in the sidebar. You can always create a separate page for awards or recommended links and it will help keep your front page looking clean and clutter-free.
Step 5: If I can get a sense for the blog just by reading post titles, it’s a keeper.
So many blogs have posts with quirky or cryptic titles. The bloggers probably think they’re being clever and I’m sure their most loyal readers get it, but for someone who just stops by the blog sporadically, it helps if the post titles describe what the post is actually about. I used to do the quirky-style title at DIY MFA until I noticed that headline-style titles were much more effective at driving traffic. In particular, I’ve found that the titles to get the best responses often fall into one of three categories:
- Lists, like tips or top 10, or both! – Example: Top 10 Writing Tips
- “Why” Titles, that entice readers to want to know why such-and-such is true. – Example: Why Writers Should Blog
- Verb Titles, giving readers a specific directive – Example: Improve Your Writing in 7 Days
Also, I’ve found that for list-style posts, the most effective numbers are: 3, 5, 7 or 10. These numbers seem to resonate with readers, for some reason, so I try to stick to them, even if it means adjusting the post to fit the number I want to use.
Of course, I don’t limit myself just to these three types of titles, but they are a good place to start.
Step 6: “Articles” pull more weight than “posts.”
I like to think of blogs as being like online publications, only the writer, editor, publisher and marketing guru are all the same person. The blogs that feel like they have an organized editorial “plan” driving them resonate much more with me than ones that do not. When I read blogs that have an editorial framework I feel like I’m reading articles, not posts. Articles have a beginning, middle and end while posts tend to flow from one to the next in a more free-form way. If I read one article but then miss the next few days on the blog, I don’t feel like I’ve missed out. Posts feel more interdependent to me, kind of like watching a serial TV show where the episodes build on what came before; it’s hard to break in once the series has been going for a while. At DIY MFA, while we have weekly themes I also try to make each post stand on its own like an article, both for the benefit of newcomers to the blog and for people who only visit once in a while.
Step 7: If you want people to visit, you have to post new stuff.
The single most common reason I unsubscribed from blogs was because the most recent post was not… er… recent. Any blog that hadn’t posted in 2012 got pulled from my Google Reader. Now, I know life gets overwhelming and oftentimes bloggers have to cut back, but if they cut back so much that their last post was months ago, they can’t expect readers to keep coming back for more.
This past weekend I learned a lot about my taste in blogs and what I choose to read online. But that’s the clincher, isn’t it? It all comes down to taste. While I prefer sites with more article-style posts, another person might love blogs that have more of a journal-like flow. While I prefer to know what a post is about just from the title, another person may enjoy the surprise of those titles where you only “get” the joke once you’ve actually read the post. Just as writers are diverse, so too are readers; this is true with blogs as well as books. And that’s what makes this journey so rewarding: there are readers out there for just about anybody!