by Anne R. Allen
You started a blog. Congratulations!
But nobody’s reading it.
Don’t give in to despair. It takes a while to build a readership. Usually a long while. For the first six months I blogged, my followers consisted of my mom and my critique group. The other day I found my journal entry from my blog’s first anniversary. I was totally jazzed because I was up to 36 followers. A year later, I had 600. (Now we’ve got 1652 and 1025 subscribers: thanks, everybody!)
So what happened in that second year?
1) I started commenting on other blogs.
Plus I got some guest gigs. This is the part of blogging that most beginning bloggers skip. But nobody can follow you if they don’t know you’re there. You have to get out and meet other bloggers. Commenting on their blogs is the best way to to that. Here’s my post on how to comment on a blog.
2) I learned how to write blog content.
That took some trial and error. Lots of error. Some of my writing techniques were a century or so out of date. And I’m still learning what works best. I’m talking about format here, not subject matter, which I’ve blogged about before and will again soon. Here’s one of my posts on What Should an Author Blog About?
Short version of the subject matter question:
- An author can blog about anything. Just make sure it’s interesting to somebody other than your family and your cat.
- Don’t use it as a personal journal. Everything you say is “in public.”
- I don’t recommend new bloggers start another “how to write” blog, because we’ve got gazillions of them, and they don’t attract non-writing readers.
- Fiction usually doesn’t do well on a blog, and there could be copyright issues, so it’s usually best to make it mostly nonfic.
- Write about stuff of interest to the readers you want to attract.
Once you do get a few people stopping by, you’re more likely to keep them coming back if you write content that’s formatted for the Web reader.
A blogger is a “content provider”
Writing Web content isn’t exactly the same as writing an essay or a magazine article.
Unfortunately most of the info you find on writing Web content comes from marketers and tech people, not novelists, and their stuff can be so riddled with jargon it might as well be written in Klingon.
Like an article I found about using hyperlinks with keywords (#7 below):
“What will help Google disambiguate the #entities – people, brands, places, industry terms, etc. – to which you refer in your copy? Through strong copy, understanding hierarchies and emphasising industry terms (without links), we can ensure that indexers have confidence in our content, thus render it in #SERPs with more certainty.”
Uh-huh. I know that’s probably solid info, but I’d be so grateful if people would write it in regular English.For me, learning to blog meant unlearning a whole lot of what we were taught about writing prose back in the 20th century.
We learned to:
- Use topic sentences and avoid cutting to a new paragraph until there’s a new topic.
- Write for people who paid money for our words and read every one.
- Not put a title on a serious essay that looked like a cheap tabloid headline.
- Avoided repetition.
- Never offer an outline instead of an essay.
- Substantiate our information with footnotes.
- And we never heard of “tags” or “SEO”
You’re writing for people who skim.
Unfortunately, the majority of people don’t read on the Internet; they skim. In fact, most people don’t even skim the whole article. In a recent piece in Slate titled “You Won’t Finish This Article“, Farhad Manjoo said only half the people who visit a site read past the first hundred words.So how do you get them to come by…and stay?
Throw out the rules you learned in school and use a copywriter’s tricks for grabbing your audience and not letting them go. Here are some copywriting techniques you might want to add to your writing skill set.
1) Write whiplash-inducing blog headers
Hope Clark said in her March “Funds for Writers” newsletter:
“You might be surprised at the key factor I use in deleting or holding to read: The quality of the subject line. Hey, when time is crazy limited…the words have to snag me as I rush by. That means first and foremost that the subject be crisp, sharp, attractive, intriguing, or whatever adjective you want to use that gives me whiplash. It has to shout, “HEY, READ ME OR YOU’LL REGRET IT.”
She’s right. Headers might be the most important element of your blog content, and it’s the one most novelists don’t get. We want our blogs to sound creative and literary like our books, not cheesy like a supermarket tabloid.
But tabloid and advertising writers know what they’re doing. They have only a moment to grab a reader going through that checkout line, so they need an irresistible hook.
In our case our headers need to make whiplash Tweets and shares that will snag a reader in the endless stream of content they can choose from.So how do we do that?
a) Don’t be generic.
“An Interview with…” Isn’t going to grab anybody unless it’s “AN INTERVIEW WITH JUSTIN BIEBER AND VLADIMIR PUTIN TALKING ABOUT THEIR THREESOME WITH KIM KARDASHIAN” or something else involving trending news.
b) Make it Tweetable.
That means avoiding enigmatic, one-word headers. I recently saw a title in the London Review of Books that exemplified the one-word header that doesn’t work well in the age of Twitter. The article was called “Ghosting.” It turned out to be about Andrew O’Hagan’s experience ghostwriting for Julian Assange, a fascinating subject.
But you wouldn’t know from the title. It might have been a piece about ectoplasmic apparitions, or a remake of the Dan Ackroyd-Bill Murray movies, so I didn’t bother to retweet it since I didn’t have time to write a new header. You don’t want that to happen to your posts.
c) Promise a quick read
Everybody’s in hurry online.
In a March 2014 piece in the Web Writer Spotlight, Jillian Mullin wrote:
“….you have to compete with Facebook and Twitter, as well as with their family and work. The fact that they managed to land on your site is something to be thankful for. Generally, an average web user only spends 10 to 30 seconds reading Internet content. People rarely read web pages word-per-word. Instead, they scan the page for related keywords, bullet points, subtitles, and quotes.”
So one of the best ways to make that promise is with numbered lists. “The 10 Best Ghostwritten Books” or “5 Signs Your Computer is Possessed.”
d) Promise solid, helpful information that’s YOU oriented, not ME oriented
Like: “How to Become a Ghostwriter” or “5 Simple Snacks to Serve at Your Next Exorcism,” rather than “I’m Making a Living Now” or “Another Sleepless Night in My New Apartment.”
e) Ask a question that stirs curiosity
Try appealing to greed: “Make REAL Money as a Writer!” Or paranoia—sorry, but it works: “Is Your Cubicle Haunted?” or “Who or WHAT is Flushing Your Toilet in the Middle of the Night?”.
f) Use keywords in your header
So what are keywords? They’re the words that most effectively let the public (and the search engines) know what your post is about. Like this one is about 1) blogs 2) blog content 3) authors
So let’s say you’re blogging about how you think your new house may be haunted by the ghost of an elderly lady who died there. Don’t call it “Mildred Biggins Walks at Night”, as much as it appeals to your storyteller’s instinct. Call it “10 Signs Your House is Haunted: My Encounter with a Ghost”.That’s because “haunted house” and “ghost”are your keywords.
In other words, just tell us what it’s about. That’s what will draw the most readers and it uses your keywords. (That’s called SEO—more on that below.)
2) Put your most important info in the first few words
Make sure your lead is visible as soon as somebody opens your blog. People do a lot of reading on phones and small tablets these days, so those first words are all-important for today’s reader.
It’s also what Google shows in the search results. And those opening words will help the spiders decide what searches will pick it up, so you need some keywords there, too.
And since most people won’t read past the second paragraph, you don’t want to save your best stuff for the end.
Half a century ago, journalists were taught to “humanize” stories by starting with a human interest line. “Susie Scrivener shouldn’t have a care in the world. She’s a pretty 30-something freelance writer living in a gorgeous Victorian triplex in Old Town. She’s sitting on the front porch of the house she moved into last month with her cat Hortense. The three-story home was once owned by one Mildred Biggins, who died in 1924…”
The reporter could get to the lead (then known as the “lede” to differentiate from the metal originally used to make type) in the third or fourth sentence, but these days, you’ve got to give us the facts in the first ten words.
“Susie Scrivener thinks her house is haunted by the ghost of its former owner.” Bam. Just say it.
3) Learn to use and format subheaders
Subheaders aren’t just for drawing the eye through and letting the reader know what’s coming up. They also need to spell out your most important points. And include keywords.
That’s because subheads get picked up by search engines too.
So for your Mildred Biggins post, you might use subheaders that contain words like “ghost”, “haunted”, and “poltergeist”, rather than “Who flushed that toilet?” or “Mildred and Hortense”.
NOTE: Be sure to use the “subheader” mode in your blog program, and not the “normal” setting. I didn’t even know there was a “subheader” category until this year, when I stumbled on it. (Stumbling is how I found out most of this stuff.)
For Blogger users, the subheader menu is on the left-hand side of the toolbar, where you see the word “normal”. That window has a menu, where you can choose Heading, Subheading, or Minor Heading.
For WordPress users, here’s the skinny from Romance Author Autumn MacArthur:
“WP users wanting to use headings and subheadings in a post need to bring up a second toolbar by hitting the “Toolbar Toggle” button on the far right of the toolbar. That adds a second toolbar, with a dropdown box labelled “Paragraph” as the first item. Headings are under there. Whether they act the same as Blogger Subheadings from a Googlebot point of view I’m not sure, but they look pretty!“
When I started using the appropriate format, our blog stats soared. Why? The Google spiders pay attention to subheaders the way they do to headers and hyperlinks.
4) Break up blog text
No big hunks of indigestible verbiage. Nothing is more daunting to a Web reader.
I subscribe to Publisher’s Lunch, the daily report on traditional publishing’s latest news. But like so much of traditional publishing, it’s stuck in the 20th century. The information on new book deals comes in one in one big, passive-aggressive block of text in a tiny, gray, sans-serif font. I find myself dreading opening it every morning. Recently, I’ve just been skipping it.
So break up those word hunks. Forget what you learned in school about topic sentences. Don’t write a paragraph more than a few sentences long.
I know. Your high school English teacher is rolling in her grave, but skimmers read the first sentence of a paragraph and maybe the last. Make your big points in those two spots.
5) Write blog content in a simple, conversational style
A blog is not the place to show off your encyclopedic vocabulary. If somebody has to click around to look up a word, they probably won’t come back.
It’s also not the place for the kind of jargon I quoted in my intro. Don’t write in geekspeak, legalese, or that “most scholars agree” phony-tony style you used for college term papers.
Many tech people write in a language comprehensible only to them. It identifies them as one of the people “in the know.” But an “in crowd” blog isn’t going to get as many followers as one that’s friendly and welcoming.
I agree completely with Ann Timmons, the Communications Artist who wrote in a March 2014 post about how her eyes glazed over at a conference when listening to:
“…all sorts of undoubtedly English language words used in combinations I could not make sense of. Not knowing the context, I was lost. Some people call this ‘insider language’. Others call it ‘jargon.’ Whatever you call it, it is bound to frustrate people.”
Marketers and SEO specialists are some of the worst offenders. I have read dozens of blogs about something called “Google Authorship” but I still haven’t got the slightest idea if it’s a software program, an app, a Google Plus circle, or the name of Larry Page’s cat. Nobody seems able to define it. They only put people down who don’t have it.
You’re not going to reach the general public if you write in Klingon and act smug.
6) Arrange blog text in a scannable format
Scanning is easier with lists, bullet points, and bolding. Italics can be useful too—anything to draw the eye along the text.
MS Word makes this a breeze. Unfortunately Word formatting probably won’t translate to your blog program, so you may have to resort to primitive means like numbering your own lists or using asterisks for bullet points.
*Lists: a numbered list has a three-fold benefit:
- They provide lots of white space.
- And draw the eye through.
- Plus give you fodder for your headline. (See the “header” section.)
*Bullet points: Like lists, bullet points are easy to grasp at a glance and they let people know they’re just getting the “good parts.”
*Bolding: Especially for headers and other significant information.
*Italics: Putting a quote in italics sets it apart from the normal text.
7) Use informative text for hyperlinks
What are hyperlinks? It’s okay to ask. I had no idea how to make a hyperlink for the first six months I blogged.
You make a hyperlink when you turn an ugly url like this: http://annerallen.com/beware-bogus-literary-agents/ into a live bit of text you can click on like this link to one of my very first blogposts: Beware Bogus Literary Agents. (Where you will see my early urls in all their ugly, unhyperlinked glory.)
You make a hyperlink by selecting the text you want people to click on and going to the icon that looks like two links of chain up there on the menu bar. Or in Blogger it is cleverly identified with the word “Link”.See how I didn’t make the link above with the word “here” or “this link”? That’s because the words “here” and “this link” don’t mean anything to the Google spiders (the reason these robot/algorithm things are called “spiders” is they “crawl” around the Interwebz looking for content.)
Those algorithms only notice links with identifying text. So either use the title of the piece as I did above, or say something about it, like “the time agent Janet Reid visited my clueless-newbie blog.”That means somebody searching for info on Janet Reid might run into my post. Also searches for “clueless”, “newbie” and “blog”.
I think the article I mentioned in the intro was trying to tell us that using keywords in links isn’t as important as it used to be. But in any case, it’s still better than just saying “click here.”
8) Use significant tags
The “tags” or “labels” you put on the end of your post look as if they’re for helping you organize your archives. And of course that’s their primary purpose. But they’re also noticed by those all-important spiders. So use as many tags as possible, including all your keywords, plus the names of people you’re quoting or writing about.
If they’re tagged, those people may get a Google alert that you’ve mentioned them. That means they may grace your blog with their presence, which is what happened to me with Janet Reid, on my fifth blogpost ever. I had twelve followers, but there was the QueryShark her ownself, telling me I had a “nicely written post.” Oh, how I basked!
One caveat: once you’ve used a tag it’s part of your blog for life. They can’t be deleted. So now I have a lot of names in my tag list that I probably won’t mention again. I’m hoping the number of tags isn’t limited.
9) Keep SEO in mind, but don’t lard your blog with repetitive words.
I know SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is one of those eye-glazing Klingon-jargon things—and a lot of people think it means repeating the same words over and over.
But search engines actually favor using regular speech, so you don’t usually need to do anything that strange to “optimize” for a search engine. All you have to do is use simple keywords to help Google and other search engines find you with those algorithmic spider thingies.
Using keywords just means using the most basic words about your topic. So when you’re writing your copy or header, think of what words somebody might put into a search engine on the topic you’re writing about. Can you tell which would work better for SEO?
#1 My Cat Hortense is a Genius
#2 Can Your Cat Learn to Use the Toilet?”
If you’re catching onto this keyword/SEO/header thing, you chose #2. A person looking for information on cat hygiene is more likely to type “cat use toilet” into Google than “Hortense” and “genius.”
So if you want somebody to read your piece about how Hortense learned to flush the toilet, leading you to believe there was a poltergeist in the bathroom of your new apartment, use a header that the Googler might think up if she had an interest in toilet-flushing cats.
SEO isn’t as Scary as You Think
She suggests you just “write like you always write, and then go back later and look for ways to optimize for search traffic.
So check after you write to see if you have keywords in the following:
- First paragraph
- Anchor text for hyperlinks.
And don’t worry a lot if you can’t cram them all in there. Treat the list as helpful guidelines, but don’t obsess, or your prose will sound stilted and boring.
Writing for a blog isn’t hard, but it does require developing a slightly different skill set from what you use as a journalist or fiction writer.And you may find the new “skimmable” prose style can help your fiction as well. According to new reports, skimming on the Interwebz has changed our reading habits. So next month I’ll be talking about 21st Century prose and how even fiction is evolving in the age of skimming. (Whether we like it or not.)
Attention WordPress users! For more details on how to do all this in WordPress, check out Jami Gold’s great post on Blog Tips and Tricks. She also has some valuable words to say for all bloggers on knowing our goals.
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) April 20, 2014
What about you, scriveners? Do you skim on the Internet? How about fiction? Have you been using any of these tricks to get more people to your blog? Any other tips to suggest?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
After Princess Regina, a former supermodel, is ridiculed in the tabloids for gaining weight, someone tries to kill her.
She suspects her royal husband wants to be rid of her, now she’s no longer model-thin.As she flees the mysterious assassin, she discovers the world thinks she is dead and seeks refuge with the only person she can trust: her long-estranged foster sister, Rev. Cady Stanton, a Christian talk show host who has romantic and weight issues of her own.
Cady delves into Regina’s past and discovers Regina’s long-lost love, as well as dark secrets that connect them all.
“I loved everything about this novel, the quirky humor and larger than life characters above all. The plot took me in unexpected directions and I could not guess what would happen next. This is a delightful surprise package skillfully bound by the author’s immaculate writing. And like all stories involving a princess, it has a happy ending. HIGHLY recommended!”…The BookKeeper