How to write a blog post? I have received a few messages from different readers asking me around this topic.
- How do I find ideas?
- How do I clear my thoughts before writing?
- Do I follow a particular process?
- Do I have any advice that I could share with someone that would like to start blogging?
I still remember the day I started this blog, nearly 13 years ago (as I am writing this, I am realising how prehistoric this sounds). At that time, I had this goal of posting once a month on various technical related topics whatever the idea was originating from, either from work or from personal projects. If it worked pretty well at start, lately, let’s face it, it does not work that well. I feel almost ashamed when I look at the date of the last (previous) article, more than a year ago, this is by far the longest period of inactivity on my blog!
Today, I have decided I will be writing on this particular topic, not only because I have been asked a few times but also because this article represents a milestone. Indeed this is my 100th article so I wanted to write on something slightly different than usual and this feels like the perfect topic.
To be honest, when it’s not part of your full-time job, it takes a fair amount of time and dedication to write articles, and I don’t think there is a magical recipe. Everyone’s mindset works differently, and what can work for me could have the opposite effect on you. In this article, I will try to describe the recipe that works for me. I have applied it to write this article so you will be the best to judge.
It all starts with an idea (it sounds like a movie trailer I know but it’s true). An idea is a single sentence, no more than a set of keywords, that represents a particular topic, not too specific but not too broad. It can come up while working, while doing tech-related things on my personal computer, while walking, while showering, there is no limit. An idea will usually come up a while before you start to write any content on it, but it’s not always true, and you could find an idea you will be passionate about to write an article in the next hour.
I keep all my ideas as an unordered bulleted list in a note file on my computer. To give you an idea (yes it was an easy joke sorry), I currently have 9 ideas in this list.
Thorough the year, I have this pool of ideas that I can pick up from. As I mentioned previously, there are no rules when picking up an idea, sometimes I write an article on an idea that I just added to the pool (this article is one of them), sometimes I write an article on an idea that I added 3 years ago. Most of the ideas I have now will probably never be transformed into an article, so that’s normal to discard quite a lot of them over time for various reasons, e.g. if the idea is:
- not good enough to make an interesting post ;
- not aligned with the content of my blog, i.e. targeting the wrong audience ;
- about a very niche topic ;
- or, on the opposite, many bloggers already got it covered.
Once I have selected the idea, I find 1 or 2 hours and I start writing. I need some focused time to do this part with as little break as possible. I am talking about writing pure content, a really drafted and raw version of the content, everything I could think of about the idea that I want to talk about, it can be in the form of full sentences, bulleted lists, a few raw links or textual description of the images and diagrams I would like to include, etc.
It depends on the idea, but if it’s a very technical one, I may also do some preparation beforehand and use some notes that I took previously, e.g. it can be a couple of lines of code or other coding examples that I want to include. I can also do some extra bit of research on the Internet to know what is there already, and if there is anything else I did not think of. It’s not a bad thing to get some inspiration from other sources, of course as long as you are not paraphrasing or doing any form of plagiarism!
At this stage, I am not paying attention to spelling, typos and other grammatical mistakes, I am literally writing what comes to my mind and that I would not want to miss out. I also use a simple text editor rather than using the online blog editor to avoid any distraction.
You may not be affected by this, but since my blog is bilingual, available in French and English, I also need to decide in which language I want to write first. In my opinion, it does not make sense to do both languages in parallel, and I prefer to focus on one at a time leaving the translation at the end. Most of the time, I end up writing in English first even if French is my mother tongue. The main reason is because I could write too many complex sentences in French that won’t be easily translatable into English, another reason is the fact I am working in technology in an English environment so English feels simply more natural (I really never think I would write that one day!).
Review, Improve, Polish, Repeat
Now that I got the idea and all the associated information I want to expose and shed light on, you would think I am pretty much at 60% of the writing process. Unfortunately, this is far from that, and realistically I would say I did about 30%.
This is when an iterative, slightly tedious, reviewing & improving process starts. It’s the longest part of writing an article, this is when I think about the structure of the article. I reorganise my thoughts in a logical way so the content will be easy to read and follow by my readers. The return lines, paragraphs, sections, titles and subtitles will naturally appear at that review stage. It’s totally fine to remove some text if you realise it doesn’t fit with the rest, or elaborate on some section if some details were missed, or even rewrite entire paragraphs.
It’s important to adapt the tone of voice and keep it consistent across all your articles. If it’s your own blog, it’s something you won’t even think of, but imagine you are writing an article in a scientific blog that has multiple authors, writing a joke is probably the last thing you would want to do…
Note that I stop using a simple text editor in favour of the online blog editor, so I can use the preview mode and see the final rendering of the article. This is important as this part is not focusing on the text only, but I also think about the images I would like to integrate, the links I would like to include and the formatting I would like to apply.
When adding images, don’t overdo it. Adding an image for each section will impact the network bandwidth and cause some distraction to your readers. In most cases, an image at the top of the article will be enough.
To look for the perfect image and if you are not satisfied with your own photos, you could be tempted to use Google Images, but there are other resources available, they will also help you to avoid any form of copyright infringement.
You may need to create a diagram or a schema. I personally use PowerPoint, it may not be the best tool out there but it has a rendering that I like and I am very familiar with Office. In case I need to generate a more technical diagram, I also use PlantUML. It will really depend on what you are writing on and your field of expertise, in short, choose the tool you prefer!
When adding links, don’t overdo it. Linking is the fundamental tool to navigate the Internet, it helps referencing every websites including your own, but adding many links will be distracting and your reader may end up thinking you are advertising rather than providing accurate information.
When adding links, ensure they all have a purpose. Do they help the reader to have more context? Do they let the reader access a tool that you have mentioned? And it’s very important to label your link properly and not use the typical “click here” that does not carry any context.
On the other end of the spectrum, it’s fine if your article does not contain any link or only a few. However, I would suggest to have a section at the bottom of the article with a list of useful links. This can be for reference (also a nice way to thank the authors you may have got some inspiration from) but this can also be useful if the reader wants to carry on more reading on the topic.
When adding formatting, don’t overdo it. Consistency and simplicity are key concepts.
You can use multiple levels to differentiate main titles and subtitles in your article. I personally limit myself to 2 levels maximum. If you need more, maybe your article is too complex and you may want to break it down into a series of articles instead.
In general, you should space your text and avoid long and complex sentences. Use bulleted lists where it makes sense, not everywhere.
Some minor text formatting like bold and italic can be useful.
- Bold can emphasise an idea and grab the reader’s attention.
- Italic can be used to introduce a technical term or when quoting a text.
At this stage, it’s important to use the preview mode of your blog editor, so you can check that there are no broken links, the images are rendered properly at the right place with the right dimensions, the formatting and spacing is working as expected, etc.
I have to admit I am using some help from Word for my spelling and grammar, what I do is copy the full content to a Word document, and then impact the potential suggested fixes back into the article. A more sophisticated tool like Grammarly or Antidote can also be a great help, and they integrate directly into your browser so you don’t need to transfer the content to an external tool.
If you know someone willing to help reviewing your article, it could be a colleague, a friend or a family member, ask them! It’s always good to have another pair of eyes on your work. Personally, I skip that step and do my own review. But not doing it can be slightly risky, especially if you are posting on behalf of your company for instance. I am pretty sure I have many articles published with typos, this is especially true in the English version of my old articles (hopefully my English is better now). Again, that is not the end of the world, that happens on an individual blog, you already took some time to write and share your knowledge, and your reader won’t judge you for that.
As the title suggests, this is a last review, so don’t review over and over. I know it can be tempting to improve your text again. I think it can be better like that. I think I went into too much details in this part and not enough in that part. The wording is not great here. What if I use this sentence instead? Let’s be honest, there is little chance that you will be fully satisfied.
Since you have already spent hours on your article, it’s time to let it go and click that publish button! Ah, last but not least, don’t forget to find a good title, it needs to be short, catchy and convey the main idea of your article.
In my case, I am not done and I can’t publish just yet. I also need to translate the article into French before.
Although French is my mother tongue, I take some shortcut to speed up the translation process and I use Google Translate. So I can start from a text already translated that I can review, and potentially reformulate a few sentences here and there. The automatic translation is not perfect, but I have to say that it is pretty good, I would say that about 70% of the content is usually left untouched or with minor changes.
Unless I have to recreate some diagrams in French, the translation is probably the quickest part to do, since I keep the same images, text and formatting, and French is obviously easier for me…