As the editor of my career centre’s blog, one of the many joys I get to experience is the annual
inundation training of those of our wonderful volunteers who aspire to contribute to the blog. I get to discuss things like “what makes a good blog article” and a few of the basics of good, simple online writing. I don’t profess to be an expert, but as someone who reads quite a few blogs regularly and has written two articles a week for the past however many months (see some of my other work here), I’ve discovered a few things that make a blog entry a bit more interesting. There are three big ones that I’ll focus on independently in this post: Voice, Conciseness, and Opinion.
Of course, all good (non-technical) writing should have a discernible voice. It’s what makes writing seem like a human form of communication. Everyone has a personality, a unique style, their own way with words. This naturally comes out when you write authentically. Maybe it’s because I work with university students, but I’ve found that a lot of people have a tendency to repress anything that could be considered ‘unique’ or ‘personable’ in their writing. Is this what post secondary education is doing to students? Smashing the personality out of their writing for the sake of objectivity? Is it so hard to be both personal and objective?
I can’t tell you the number of cover letters I’ve seen that read as if a robot wrote them. In fact, one of the most frequent topics of conversation I have with students about their cover letters is how to make them more personal, more warm, more human. The employer knows that you want to work for them and that you believe you’re qualified. Unless you give them some personality though, they won’t be able to tell what makes you not just the right candidate, but the right person.
I suppose one of the risks of making your voice transparent is that not everyone is going to love it. But isn’t that the point? We’re not all meant to love everyone else’s personalities. Accept that people are different, be hurt (or not) for a little bit, and move on.
It’s pretty easy to understand why getting to the point quickly and not labouring on it for too long makes a blog article easier to read. I know I don’t always do the best job of this (must I edit all my posts?), but a great piece of advice I often give when talking to aspiring blog writers at work is “if you can say the same thing using fewer words without losing any meaning, do it.” Attention spans are notoriously short in any online medium (witness the meteoric rise of twitter) and they’re not going to be getting longer any time soon.
This is another one of those “applies to all good writing” guidelines. Less is often more. It can be an enticing temptation to gingerly throw in a generous smattering of carefully chosen, flowery, descriptive adverbs and emotionally evocative adjectives, but how unnecessarily hard was this sentence to read?
Conciseness is not synonymous with brevity, however. We don’t want to cut out words simply for the sake of making our posts more brief. Being concise allows us to also be descriptive. So, it’s not just a matter of writing less, it’s a matter of optimizing the amount of information you can communicate with the space you’re using.
Heard of a book called the Elements of Style? It’s an incredibly influential guide book on effective writing, written generations before blogs or even the internet started to exist (1918). The main message? “Make every word tell.”
Why is someone like Penelope Trunk such an influential blogger? There are probably a lot of reasons, but I would bet that foremost among them is that she’s very willing to share her opinions, and those opinions are often ones that a lot of people disagree with (and that she probably chooses strategically to stir the pot). For example, in her latest post, a sort of lifestyle advice piece for women, she promotes getting plastic surgery, seriously looking for a husband by age 24, and staying in a questionable marriage for the kids all in one post!
Now, you don’t need to go to the length of pissing off feminists to have an opinion on your blog. But you do need to have an opinion on something. Institutions, professions, collective beliefs, whatever – as long as it’s something. People read blogs because they’re written by average, everyday people from all walks of life. If they wanted to read a “value-free” account of the latest happenings, they would go read a newspaper. Like having a unique voice, I fear the expression of opinions – even unpopular ones – is being systematically discouraged in academic circles. The sad thing is, university is supposed to be about critical thinking, pushing the boundaries. Judging by what I see in a lot of students’ writing, this is not the message that is being absorbed.
So, having an opinion should get people’s attention. The other thing is that I can pretty much guarantee you’re not the only person writing about whatever it is you’re writing about. Take this post, for instance. Just Google “blog writing tips” and see how many pages of results you get. So, the only unique thing that I can contribute is my opinion – that, presented using my own voice in a concise manner, is something that people might stop to read.
So, get ready to potentially ruffle some feathers. Happy blogging!
*Cross-posted at the Career Services Informer.