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Hurdle 10 (Part 1) - Content

This post is in two parts...part two can be found here

We have talked about a wide range of blogging issues in the last 9 Hurdles. Some technical, some theoretical, and some a little bit political. But the day has arrived that we start to address the biggest hurdle a blogger will face, getting the content of your posts right.

In this longer than usual post we will be looking at;
  • Choosing a topic
  • Pitching your post
  • Characteristics of a good post
  • Appearance
  • Post title
  • Links
  • Spelling, Grammar, Punctuation and Construction
  • Length
  • Post Options


Choosing a topic

I tend to choose a topic in two ways. I either sit down and find something to post about, or am compelled to post by something that has happened to me in the day. From bitter experience, and as my 'draft' posts will testify to, the best posts come from the latter.

In other words, don't choose the topic, let the topic choose you. I have found myself gagging to get to a computer to post about something i have read or experienced, and when i look back at those posts now i am very proud of them. The posts that have come out of an inspiration-less brainstorm are always lacking in those characteristics (see below) that make a good blog post.

Don't be pressured by your post frequency or visitor count. There have been occasions that i have realised that i have not posted anything significant for a few days and have forced myself to find something to write about. Writing these pressured posts is stressful. I find myself doing a lot of rewording, as i am trying to manufacture passion about the subject. This is not only stressful, but futile...blog readers can see right through manufactured passion. Having spent hours trying to put together a post i often end up binning it before publishing due to poor quality.

Don't waste your time, or jeopardise the quality of your blog, by forcing yourself to post...let the topic come to you.


Pitching your post

Anyone who has studied essay writing in any detail will recognise the concepts i am talking about when i look at how to pitch your post. Pitching your post is all about judging how much detail you are prepared to go into to do justice to the topic. A good blog contains posts of wide ranging detail. The levels of detail i have chosen are as follows;
  • Definition - Generally the lowest detail you can offer the reader. This will either be a dictionary definition, unsupported opinion or, for the purposes of blogging, an external link without annotation. It's useful as a way of prompting the reader to come to their own conclusions. For example; on the day of 9/11 i could have posted "Massacre: the unnecessary, indiscriminate killing of a large number of human beings or animals, as in barbarous warfare or persecution or for revenge or plunder.". This is a dictionary definition that, even though it has no author opinion or input, has huge effect on the reader. It should be used sparingly however...readers come to your blog for more than just definitions.
  • Describe - A description is an objective observation lacking in opinion and involves taking a situation and describing how it 'looks'. 
  • Evaluate - Evaluation is all about validity of arguments or data. This is probably the safe zone of any good blogger. Lets look again at the UK Alternative Vote campaign. First we need to describe the arguments on each side. To evaluate the arguments we need to decide which direction we are evaluating them from; is it evidential validity, practical validity, ethical validity or compatibility with our own opinions etc. Once we have decided which direction to evaluate from, we then need to discuss how valid each side of the argument is on the basis of our chosen direction. For example; i could decide to approch the evaluation from an evidential point of view. I would need to look at the data supporting all sides of the argument, and then choose which argument is more evidentially sound, or which argument is based on unreliable evidence. I can then present this to my reader, along with the method i used to reach by conclusion.
  • Analyse - Analysis is the breaking down of a complex topic, and identifying the essential features and relationships. Analysis is what newspapers do every day, and its a great way of tackling a complex topic and helping the reader to understand. This can be time consuming, but its time well worth spending. If you are good at analysis, people will always come to you when they are after the news story of the day explaining in a manner they understand.
  • Criticism - To be a good critic, you need to learn to be fair. A critical piece should use all of the levels of detail we have already mentioned in order to build the foundation for the argument. A critical piece isn't necessarily a negative piece. It's actually about looking at the merits, strengths, weaknesses and truthfulness of a topic, theory, or opinion.  If you are going to be critical, you need to make sure you fully understand your argument and know its weaknesses. A good critic will address the weaknesses of his argument before anyone else has the chance to, but be prepared to be hauled through the coals if you can't back it up. 

Characteristics of a good blog post

So what makes a good blog post? This is a difficult question to answer because blog success is so subjective. One persons failure is another persons success. I have, however, listed the characteristics i try to hit when i write a blog post, but the list isn't exhaustive, and you may not agree with them all.
  • Original - A blog that reproduces other people's work can be successful. It is often useful for readers to have a place available to them that consolidates all the materials on a particular subject. However running a blog on this basis is risky. The process of consolidation is very time consuming, uninteresting and just because you build it, doesn't mean they will come. So my number one characteristic of a blog post is originality. If you are posting your opinion, this is by definition original...even though it may be the same as other people. It's up to you to present it in a way that will interest people. If you are purely posting your opinion, you havn't got much to worry about. If you want to go beyond opinion, the key to success is research. Law students and graduates will already be prepared for this, it comes as second nature. Research should come from a wide range of sources, using the same source will get boring for you and the reader. I have a list of 10 or 15 websites that i read for inspiration and tend to use them to back up my arguments.

    To keep it really simple...don't rely on other people to populate your blog...rely on yourself.
  • Analytical - We have already discussed what an analytical piece looks like, and this is the level of detail i aim for for at least 60% of my posts. 
  • Real - Some law bloggers specialise in academia. Some specialise in the reporting of legal developments and some specialise in their experiences. I enjoy the latter more than the former two because their is an element of reality. Law can be such an abstract topic, and law students tend to use blogging as a way of grounding themselves. When i post i aim to start from a real life experience, either from me or someone else, and build on that. Throughout the post i allow myself to touch on academia and legal developments should the post naturally lend itself to that. As with everything, diversity is the key.
  • Emotional - This follows neatly on from Real. Depending on your motivation for blogging, you should feel free to express your emotions. Lawyers are very good at looking at both sides of an argument, and we can sometimes be trained to avoid any opinion motivated by our own emotions. However blog readers want to know that the author is a real person. When i post i try to have my cake and eat it. I will allow myself to be lawyer-like and present all sides of the argument, but i also make sure i express my personal opinion, and talk about how the topic makes me feel. I am not suggesting you fill your posts with raw emotion, but i am suggesting that your blog posts will be received well if you appear to be human.
  • Targeted - When you are drafting your post it can be very easy to drift away from your core issue into other less important collateral issues. Make a note of the main point you want to make, and stick to it. If you come across a collateral issue that you want to address, don't feel pressured into dealing with it straight away, write it down and make it the subject of your next post.
  • Topical - This is my biggest weakness. I often come up with some great post topics, but procrastinate so much that by the time i come to publish the moment has passed. It is so important to strike while the iron is hot...if you leave it too late, the risk is that your opinion is old news.


Appearance

Blog readers have a very short attention span, and will be put off by huge blocks of text (irony noted!). Addressing this problem isn't as simple as you might think. You should not feel like you have to dumb down your posts. You should not fill your posts with unnecessary imagery and formatting. And you should not feel obliged to limit your word count just because some might be put off.


My first tip is to make sure you regularly post shorter posts, snippets, videos, links, quotes or pictures. This means that your average reader can pop onto your blog in their lunch break and look at something entertaining and interesting that doesn't take too much brain power. I would suggest that for every 'long' post you do, post one shorter one. This presents variety, and means that all levels of attention span can find something to read.


When you come to write these longer posts, don't hold back. If you have something to say, say it...and don't faf with formatting or images. Once it is written, you can look at using some techniques to break it up a bit;
  • Images - Images are one of the best ways to break up your text. Using the correct wrapping will make it easier to read, and offer opportunities for the reader to take a breather if required. The choice of image is simple. I like to find images that reflect the different parts of the post, and that are either interesting or funny. For example, i have found funny cartoons that support parts of my posts. I have used diagrams to help the reader add context, and i have used absurd pictures just for laughs. The point is, the image itself doesn't matter as much as the placing. 
  • Videos - Videos are great, but a bit irritating. Embed them right at the beginning, or right at the end of a post. Even better, just offer the link. You can probably tell that i don't see a video offering much to the body of the post, but can be a useful side show.
  • Format - If you have a huge block of text it can be tempting to offer a splash of colour or change the size. The key is; less is more...don't let over-formatting detract from the text itself. I have often given up on reading an article because of stupid colours.
    I encourage use of bold and italics, but avoid underlining too much. Emphasis should not come from formatting, it should come from the words themselves. So rather than underlining or bolding, rewrite the text so it provides a natural emphasis. Your reader isn't stupid, so let them identify emphasis rather than forcing it on them.
  • Headers - As i have done with this article, use of headers can break up blocks of text and help sign post the article. Overuse can cause the reader to be confused as to where one part begins and another part ends...remember: less is more.

Continued in part 2 here