Want to write punchy, pithy, savvy sounding posts for your blog (or your client)? Don’t have all the expertise in a certain area (who does?), but want to sling it right up there with the insiders? Want posts that people can read with the same psychological effect that rap songs have on fans? A good social media manager knows a few tricks, a few rules, and the rest is like skateboarding down a stair rail – you’re on your own.
Keep in mind, I break every one of the following rules sometimes, but you have to master them to break them, and know when and why you should. The beginner doesn’t get the rules yet, the initiate gets them but sticks to them like glue, and the free form freestyle blogger mashes them up all kinds of ways, because great writing gives us the unexpected. Oh, sure, there are system bloggers, who have it down to the numbers, just like there are formula romantic comedies (they meet, they don’t like each other, they’re thrown into a situation together, they end up hot for each other, each has something to reveal, trust and romance follow, there’s a misunderstanding or a damaging secret revealed, the relationship almost falls apart, and then love overcomes. Roll the credits. Sneak into the next movie). But we’re not talking here about formula posts for a formula blog. Some of us write for lots of different blogs with lots of different voices. These are the rules that are portable for the prolific anywhere blogger or blogger for hire:
- The whole of writing is getting verbs in front of the reader. If there’s a way you can use a verb, do it – all other parts of speech are secondary.
- Write existentially. Action trumps being. Always prefer an action verb (like “to give”) to a passive “to be” or “to have” verb.
- Create tension with tenses. Conjugate your verbs, if you can. Stay away from the “to” in “to give”.
- Stay in the now. Or take us to the future. But use history sparingly. Talking about the past is good, for a historical example, to give context and reference, but if there’s a choice, at any moment, between verbs that are past, present, or future tense, take present first (now is always more grabbing than “once upon a time” or “one fine day not long hence”), take future as your next choice (I’d rather live tomorrow than just be glad of the time I had), and choose past as a last resort.
- Good writing makes the reader feel smart. Write so the general public can follow, but sound like an insider, or the audience doesn’t need you. Your audience is always everyone, but if you can speak to them and still sound like you’re talking to insiders, that makes your reader the insider. When using industry specific terms, keep explanation as unobtrusive as possible – never stop and walk them through it. Don’t say “today the MBA (Mortgage Brokers Association) which advocates for the growth of the mortgage industry…” Insiders already know who the MBA is. Just include the parentheses, for those catching up, and move on. If you’re pedantic (that means teaching people things they can figure out very easily on their own), you’ll offend one of the key reasons people read – to feel intelligent. And don’t reverse the explanation – Mortgage Brokers Association (MBA) – because we all know how acronyms work (what, we couldn’t figure out how to take the first letter of each word?) – lean the other way, and your audience will go with you, not feel like they’re repeating third grade.
- Start in the middle. Of everything – the issue, the history, the industry – all of it. Never start with “Recently, it was reported that…” Besides not needing any of those words, you might as well have said “Once upon a time.” Always write like the conversation began two hours before the post – you’ll sound like the savvy insider, and not like it’s a book report. Don’t say you “need a FICA score of 580” if you can say “need a FICA of 580” or just “need a 580”. Cut out any explanation an insider wouldn’t need. Don’t say “this year’s orange crops” if the insiders already know what year it is, and what crops we’re talking about. Keep it comprehensible to the general public, no matter how specific your audience, but talk like we’re all on the trade floor of whatever industry it is.
- Be right, even if you’re wrong. People listen to someone who ‘knows’, even if he’s wrong, more than someone who guesses, even if he’s right. Never say “might” if you can say “will”, or “should” if you can say “must”. If you can show moxie without chutzpah, and style without being opinionated, you’ll have the savvy voice. I’m using it right now.
- Swing a big stick. You’ll hit a larger audience by saying “buyers” not “a buyer” or “the buyer”.
- Write with a face, or don’t write. Never quote an anonymous source, if you can avoid it (sometimes you can’t). People identify with Susan the divorced mother of six more than the voice disguised, face obscured, cardboard cutout. Writing should never be faceless.
- Be bad, but in a vanilla way. Use educated but not superior gutter talk. Think pissed off parochial school student, but the Latin instructor is standing close by. Eliminate the word “that” when it’s formal and not required. Don’t waste prepositions anywhere you don’t need them. Use correct grammar, but no unnecessary words. You’ll sound streetwise and savvy tough, but smart as well.
- Let down your hair, grammatically. Break the grammar rule sometimes, if it’s how most people talk – end a sentence with a preposition for effect – just don’t get lazy, so everything you say is that way – you’ll lose audience. It’s one of those keyhole moments when the writer takes his hair down and is accessible and intimate and just like everyone else. The writer’s work is a dance between being the savvy somewhat expert and being Joe ordinary.
- Swear in layers. Use “darn” sometimes, so you seem miffed but tame – it’ll make your “damn” seem more powerful and avoid the need to up it to a “f*ck”. You don’t need to curse like a sailor to create more emotional effect than the most scatalogical phrases.
- Interesting crap is good as gold. Interesting always sells, even if it’s a shallow bauble, where boring can sit on the shelf all day, even if it’s intellectual gold. Use contractions. Choose can’t, won’t, and isn’t, over cannot, will not, and is not. You’ll sound like you’re having a conversation on a street corner, and more people are doing that every hour than sitting down to read essays in a week. Yeah, your target audience might be lawyers but, secretly, lawyers get bored too, even with their own formalities and jargon.
- Hurt your ideas’ feelings. Don’t sidle up to your ideas. Don’t say, “One of the things I sometimes think is true is, bad drivers are worse than bad lovers.” Just say that last part, and let the sentence cry over it when the lights go out. If you’re afraid to say what you mean, the rest of us are afraid it isn’t worth reading. You’ve heard people talk of coaxing out an idea. That’s really great in a group therapy session, or when you’re writing a book or a long article. In a blog post, smack your idea in the eye, and make it do your bidding.
- It’s got to sound real, even if it’s not. Don’t sensationalize casually. Even HG Wells, didn’t pull War of the Worlds over on radio listeners by making it all crazy -some of it was believably ordinary. I don’t care if what you’re saying is true, or is made up baloney like The Onion. Don’t say “the entire market” if you can just say “the market”. Save the sweeping statements for when you intend them to stick. You only get a few, unless you’re really, really good. People will forgive them, consider them, perhaps even adopt them if you don’t do it in every paragraph. The better you are, the more you get in the same amount of space.
- Turn off the metronome. Never repeat an idea, unless it’s for effect, to spin it, or for the sing-song psych effect of repetition that cements the idea in the reader’s mind. Repetition should be as deliberate as a chorus in a hym, or omitted altogether. Redundancy is like cancer – it can be subtle. Don’t insert “however” if you’re comparing then and now – we already know it’s a however. Don’t say “one of the factors” if you’re clearly describing some factors. It’s assumed.
- Turn off the alarm clock. Part of keeping readers interested is not waking them up to what day it is. Don’t say the “current mortage crisis” if you’re in the middle of one, and everyone knows it’s current, and that it’s a crisis, and that the word they’re hearing every day is mortage (unless you need that word for SEO, and then say “mortgage debacle” if you can get away with it – it’s more interesting). Same thing with “in today’s troubled economy” – just say ‘the economy’ – we all know what day it is and we know we’re screwed. Or if you’re brave, say “in a screwed economy” – you’ll get more attention. Too harsh? Say “screwed up economy”. Still too much? Tone it down to “messed up”. Or up to “farked up”, if you want it harder. The volume depends on your purpose and your venue. Don’t say “could prevent another crisis in the future” – “could prevent another crisis” is already a future tense – so just say that and drop the rest.
- Don’t vomit your topic. Unless you’re summing up, assuring the reader you’re still on track, or doing it for psychological effect (and then know what you’re doing), there’s no need to regurgitate your title, your headers, or your lead sentences in later sentences. Don’t say “qualify for a down payment of 3.5%” if the topic of the post is down payments. Just say “qualify for 3.5%”. Don’t say “in this troubled economy” if your topic is the troubled economy. A blog post isn’t a bed time story. We get it, or we’d like to feel reasonably intelligent, even if we don’t. Better the reader doesn’t get it all than feels condescended to.
- Avoid unnecessary words. Write it any way that works for you, but then take it sentence by sentence in the edit. ANY word that doesn’t need to be there, strike it. Make a choice between them reading more words in one paragraph, or reading two paragraphs and a new set of ideas. The latter makes the piece more effective. Besides, cutting the dross makes even just the one paragraph more effective.
- Avoid unnecessary syllables. You’re going to need some big words now and then. They’re your big guns. But you’ll deafen the reader if it’s all like that. As often as you can, use the shortest word possible. Take “more” over “greater”. Then you can use “soliloquy” when the least expect it.
- Careful on gender. Know your audience. You can break the unfair rules of political correctness if you know when and how. If you’re not suggesting a secondary point to the reader’s mind, or doing it for effect, stick with gender neutral.
There are more rules. Lots more. One wonderful thing about the rules, though, is you don’t have to know them all to churn out stellar copy. Or at least very good, effective copy. It’s a lot like math or music. After you do enough of it, you get a sense of it that lets you sort of run without consulting a rule book. In math, I could never really get past just the rules. It’s why I’m not a software developer. But in social media management and marketing, my experience is getting the vibe, the way that math guys get the vibe in their fields. I envy those guys – I really do. On the other hand, if they need to sell something, I may be their best bet. And yeah, that level of confidence is part of why I can do it. If I was sitting around wondering if I could, or thinking maybe I can’t, I’d suck at this stuff.
That’s how a lot of bloggers write – as if they’re afraid they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’ve got it wrong. It’s counterintuitive. Decide that you know what you’re talking about, whether you do yet or not, and you’ll find the rules of effective blog writing start to come ‘naturally’ to you. Then you can learn out loud and people will want to read it.