This guest post is by Greg McFarlane of Control Your Cash.
People regularly say to me, “I can’t write.” Sure you can. The process of writing – getting words down on the page – is mindlessly simple. Transcribe everything you say and/or think and eventually you’ll have something down on the screen in front of you.
Which is precisely the problem.
Any blogger who wants to can bang out a 1000-word post a day. Just write whatever’s on your mind, without filter or organization, and press “publish”. Unfortunately, that’s how far too many bloggers do it.
Taking care while crafting your words is what distinguishes a blogger from a mere muser. Unless you’ve got an extremely captivating story to tell—about how you climbed all Seven Summits or fed starving Sudanese in Darfur—merely sharing your day-to-day experiences with the rest of us isn’t blogging. It’s narcissism.
There are too many homogenous bloggers living lives similar to yours and expressing like opinions for your blog to be noteworthy. Oh, you’re a mother who’s juggling child-rearing with holding a job? Congratulations. No one in the history of the universe ever had to sit in an office all day and come home to her kids before you did. Tell us more about how exhausted you are every evening, and what hilariously precocious thing your 4-year-old said that put a smile on your face and made it all worthwhile.
Yes, you want to find commonalities with your readers, but saying nothing bold or different is no way to build an ardent, devoted audience.
You’ve got to focus your ideas. It means bringing something unique, whatever that might be. (The harder you have to look for it, the less reason you have to blog.) On the mechanical level, it means not relying on phrases that come to mind easily. If they do come to mind easily, they’re likely either clichés (horrible) or plagiarism (worse). And if you’re a native English speaker, but can’t bother to use proper grammar and spelling, why should I spend my time deciphering your ramblings?
Have consideration for your reader. Assume he’ll take it personally if you waste even a millisecond of his time. God knows I take it personally when I’m reading an unfamiliar blog. Trim the excess foliage from your writing, and cauterize the cuts so that nothing useless or repetitive ever grows there again. The form of what you say is at least as important as the content, because no reader’s going to be exposed to your groundbreaking ideas if she has to trudge through a verbal peat bog to find them. Job #1 should always be to present something clean, sharp and interesting.
And do you know what magical thing will happen when you take the time and effort to craft something original, incisive and provocative for your audience?
People will hate you.
Yes. Hate. They want to be comforted, not challenged. They’ll be expecting the simplistic three-chord riffs of traditional blues-based rock ‘n roll that they’ve heard 1000 times before, and here you are giving them the shocking wild feedback and distortion of Jimi Hendrix. Readers are conditioned to understand the traditional way of interpreting the universe: if you dare to go full Einstein, telling them crazy stories about how matter and energy are two forms of the same thing and that space-time can stretch and warp, I guarantee the enemies you make will outnumber the friends.
My own blog illustrates the point. I started my blog with a mission that I thought any rational person would approve of. I wanted to show people how to take whatever money they’re starting with, however modest, and foster its growth by performing certain basic, straightforward activities and avoiding others. And I wanted my readers to comprehend the complex financial jargon that affects their everyday lives, by explaining it to them in an understandable way. When my partner and I began the blog, we thought we’d have millions of people patting us on the back, nodding knowingly and thanking us for telling it like it is.
Boy, were we wrong. Every strong opinion we espouse is met with various commenters telling us we’re mean, insensitive, or unrealistic. A couple of our blogging colleagues—people who run sites more popular than ours—banned us outright for challenging their positions. We were polite in our outspokenness, yet they still wanted us silenced.
But regardless of what anyone wants to hear, the fact is that you shouldn’t blame VISA because your credit card payments are high. You owe zero loyalty to your employer. If you buy a house with an adjustable-rate mortgage, you are playing with gasoline and a lit match.
Virtually none of the blogs similar to ours take the same positions. Instead, most offer the same easily digestible advice that’s resulted in a society of overextended consumers.
What keeps us going is that the readers who do like our blog, love it. They bookmark it, they subscribe to the RSS feed, and most importantly, they actually read it. Our readers know that three times a week, they can come to us for a long, detailed, carefully researched post. And that that post will challenge assumptions, inspire action, and use undeniable premises to reach conclusions that aren’t obvious. Our readers also know that every post will be written in an uncompromising and hopefully interesting style. After all, that’s what I look for when searching for a blog to read.
As I write this, my blog’s Alexa rank seems to have plateaued around 122,000. I still want that rank to improve, but I don’t obsess on it like I once did. Quality and quantity don’t always overlap. Given the choice between having x devoted and demanding readers, and having x+y readers who are just looking for reassurance and nice stories, I’ll take the former every time. If you want your ideas to resonate, you should too.
Greg McFarlane is an advertising copywriter who lives in Las Vegas. He recently wrote Control Your Cash: Making Money Make Sense, a financial primer for people in their 20s and 30s who know nothing about money. You can buy the book here (physical) or here (Kindle) and reach Greg at [email protected].
You’re so right! That’s the big difference between a good and a … not so good (I don’t want to say bad…) blog!
Good luck with your Alexa rank!
you can say “bad.” It’s definitely one of the differences between good and bad blogs.
One of my favorite quotes: “Good writers write for themselves, great writers write for the others.”
Perfectly applies to blogs. There are a lot of bad blogs out there.
Excellent post – well stated. Thanks for the reminder.
Loved reading the entire post. Another thing that I learnt from your post is “not having bullet points” actually makes your readers read the entire posts if they find it interesting.
For the post, yes, I agree with editing being the herder point as that’s going to interact with the world out there.
“IF” it is interesting enough. This one was.
Well said, man!
“Oh, you’re a mother who’s juggling child-rearing with holding a job? Congratulations.”
I laughed out loud.
“trudge through a verbal peat bog”
That’s exactly how some blogs make me feel.
Unless a person is a very talented humorist, that blogger should not be writing long posts.
Interesting post, Greg. I agree that it’s not enough to just rehash the common consensus on whatever the niche/topic happens to be. You need two things, as I tell my clients: personality (a voice, a unique tone or style, if you will) and passion (for a particular viewpoint). The hardest thing for a business blogger to grasp is the answer to the question “What am I bringing to the giant digital table that’s NEW or different?” But once you really get a good handle on that answer? The battle is won, in my opinion. ‘Cause all you gotta do then is just keep bringing it, with your own personality providing the secret sauce, in bite-sized pieces on a regular schedule.
I agree with your insight about passion. No matter how we work on something if we don’t have the heart on it then it is a waste of time because your output will be a total disaster.
Holy crap, when you get banned by other blogs for challenging them, YOU HAVE ARRIVED!
I always question the status quo. Always.
This is my quest. Great read Greg!
I love the idea of assuming your readers will take it personally if you waste even a millisecond of their time. It is a great way to operate. You’re absolutely write that writing is the easy part and editing is the challenge. On my site, I edit the work of 35-40 other writers, and that is equally tough. You don’t want to compromise the “voice” of another writer, and one of the reasons to have several different writers is to keep the content fresh, but it is a good reminder to be more sensitive to the needs of the readers than the writers. Thanks for the motivation…
Hey Greg and Paul,
Totally agree about the importance of the editing process (funny thing, that, as I’m an editor). Content, however good, that is sloppily written detracts from the writer’s credibility and professionalism.
I’m always telling writers to focus on making their writing as easy as possible for their reader to read and understand.
Write for your readers.
Keep up the excellent writing and editing.
“And if you’re a native English speaker, but can’t bother to use proper grammar and spelling, why should I spend my time deciphering your ramblings?”
Spot on – the idea that spelling and grammar don’t matter, as long as you get your message across, is nonsense and also narcissistic. Your message and content are most important and you want it to be clear, powerful and easy to read. Editing is essential.
Sometimes I found Microsoft Word doesn’t always give 100% grammar correctness suggestions, but it helps me a lot in correcting silly mistakes that I couldn’t see at first
Editing is the most painful process for me as English is not my primary language :(
Writing is fun, editing is not. So many blogs are afraid to let their voice be heard. Most of my topics are outside of the box and I like it that way. I want people to read my posts and say that it made them think or that they never heard of that before.
Too many bloggers think that the writing process ends with the “mindlessly simple” stage of getting words down on a page, and they produce sloppy, incoherent posts that only they understand.
On the other end of the spectrum, some writers with interesing ideas are often too worried about getting everything perfect in their first drafts; if they don’t, they get discouraged and quit (or never begin writing in the first place).
Both types need to remember that great writers make the entire writing and editing process look easy. But it’s not.
A lot of work makes a thoughtful article look effortless.
Really great article. I still learn this way about “how to write” well. I know it’ll takes a lot of hard work in editing rather that write what’s on my mind, that’s very true.. seriously this post has just opened my mind. I always believe the uniqueness and the originalitas still the king..
I definitely obsess over my Alexa ranking. I get mostly search engine traffic and I don’t ever edit my content. I don’t have much writing on my blog though.
It isn’t what you write, it’s how you write it.
Unless you’re a genius you won’t shift any paradigms.
Great Post. What’s your advise whose English is second language ?
when in doubt, cut and paste and attribute to original author….
Great post there!
Nicely written. The one liner on the mother is hilarious. The bullet points opened my eyes too. Thanks.
yes writing is easy be the best writer so so hard. maybe need experience
Good comparison between good and bad blog plus a bunch of advises, I like that. And awfully sad for Greg’s state of computer. But you anyhow all good things come to an end. Good luck with our Alexa and hope you become a top rated writer soon. Good piece of writing.
I really liked this post if only for the style it was written in and the extended vocabulary used. Most bloggers try to appeal to the masses but you obviously don’t really mind and want to be read by a more ‘high brow’ audience. Shame you didn’t put a link to your blog in the bio though, would have liked to have a peek.
Ahhhh found the link at the top!
“There are too many homogenous bloggers living lives similar to yours and expressing like opinions for your blog to be noteworthy.”
No, there’s not.
“Taking care while crafting your words is what distinguishes a blogger from a mere muser. ”
This is the time conusming part…
Your article is like a stress release to me!
well said Greg
You are so in my head. I was just thinking about that today. It only takes about 10 – 30 minutes to write a draft, depending on the topic. But making that sucker look good and easy to read is much work. Very rewarding but much work anyway.
What a fantastic post! I’ve printed a copy to tack in my office as a reminder that I’m doing the right thing when i go against the grain.
I had to smile about the mother because it’s so true. So many people start blogging on a particular topic because they hear others had amazing success with it. what they don’t realize is that unless the quality of their writing makes them stand out, it’s not going to happen for them, and even then they’re going to have to work hard for their success.
Thanks for the insightful (and positive) comments, everyone. My apologies for not responding to everyone individually, but this seemed like the most efficient way to do it. Briefly:
Agreed. I understand attention spans have shrunk throughout history, but a good blog post still shouldn’t command more than a few minutes of a reader’s time. I find incessant subheadings and bullet points distracting, and think they’re purely a visual feature – created to save the reader’s eye from a solid series of paragraphs. If I want a visual feature, I’ll use a picture.
@Paul Swaney and Desolie:
My hat’s off to you folks. Editing is a pain – not so much the editing itself, but the difficulty of, as you said, preserving the writers’ voices (and getting past having them worry about their feelings being hurt.)
@Michael Aulia and LIMON:
If you’re writing in your second language, kudos. My second language is Spanish, which I’m barely literate in and wouldn’t dare write a blog post in.
It’s funny…I read a lot of personal finance blogs, obviously, and what strikes me is how the non-native speakers are some of the most articulate bloggers out there. I guess if you grew up in Nepal or the Ukraine you don’t pick up the lazy habits that native English speakers do.
If you’re uncomfortable with your English literacy, find a fluent English-speaking friend to read and edit your post. That’s what I’d do if I were writing a post in Spanish. There are hundreds of millions of us, it can’t be too hard to find one.
Honestly, I’m not necessarily going for a “highbrow” audience. I just know what I enjoy reading – stuff that’s informative, humorous, pithy and direct – and I try to emulate the writers I like. I know this isn’t exactly original advice, but I think WordPress should make you sign a sworn affidavit saying that you’ve read Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” before they let you open an account.
I normally would give you a pat on the back, but I know you’re not looking for that. I enjoyed your article, style, and the way you challenge the status quo. It inspired me to re-evaluate my own writing as I sometimes water my stuff down to not rock the boat. If your regular work is just as intelligent and action provoking as this guest post, you’ve earned a new fan, follower, reader, and whatever social media concoction pops up next. I would normally end by blowing you sunshine kisses, but you’ll see right through that.
This article reaffirmed my position when it comes to blogging. If I don’t have anything intelligent or thoughtful to say, then I don’t publish it. There is a certain amount of respect that one has to give to their readers and posting rubbish is not the way to do.