Update, 22 Feb 2012: Now that I've passed the five-year mark, I've decided to write a book on this topic. Stay tuned.
It just occurred to me that I've been writing mentalfloss.com blogs for over three years now (156 weeks, by my count). In my weekly roundups, I only count weeks in which I actually wrote -- there have been about two months of vacation across those years; my start date at the blog was actually February 5, 2007. That was post number 3,913 on the site -- now we're up at 52,613. The blogging staff has been busy!
So what have I learned in all this time? I'd actually like to write a short book about it, but thought I'd collect a few quick thoughts here first. Hope it helps.Headlines Matter Most
If your goal is to get people to click on something, you need a killer headline. It has to be interesting, short, and hopefully provocative without being bullshit linkbait. The headline (and blog post) I'm most proud of is He Took a Polaroid Every Day, Until the Day He Died. That headline poses multiple questions -- Why did he take a photo every day? How did he die? Who is he? -- but it also gives you a big "spoiler" by revealing that whoever this article is about died at the end of his project. I would argue that the spoiler is the biggest hook of the whole thing. It's also short enough to be forwarded via Twitter with room for added commentary.
You know what's funny? I wrote that Polaroid post in about forty minutes, after probably an hour of research the night before. I chose the photos in a hurry (random clicking of dates until I saw something more or less appropriate, with particular attention to the very beginning and end of the series) and wrote up my notes as quickly as I could, because I had to get to a meeting for my day job. I wrote the headline just as quickly. I had no idea this post would be such a big hit. (One million people have read it, I was interviewed for CBC Radio about it, and it was picked up by zillions of media outlets. A Guardian article about it is now a standardized test question in Spain, so I'm told.) This brings me to my second point:You Don't Have to Write That Much
It's better to write one sentence than a huge article.
If I were Strunk and/or White, I'd stop there, but it's worth repeating for new writers and bloggers: avoid the instinct to catalog and obsessively cover the subject. Get in there, write the most interesting part as quickly as possible (you want the subject clearly explained in the first sentence), and if you really want to write more, put it below the fold (after the jump, so to speak) or just point people to further reading.
I'm also constantly surprised by what strikes a chord with readers. Often the most slapdash efforts cranked out in mere minutes get the biggest responses. Examples: Gotta Read 'Em All which was written in less than ten minutes on a Thursday morning before I started work (and received 224 comments); What Books Can't You Put Down? which was written in five minutes at most (and received 157 comments). Having this happen over and over (and having articles involving hours of labor get no response), I've finally realized what's going on here -- if the subject is immediately understandable from the headline (see above), if the subject itself is interesting, and the article is short enough to be approachable, people will read it. It's not rocket science, but it took me a long time to figure that out.
Side note: interviews, at least in the pop blog market, are almost never worth doing -- they take a lot of time and people don't read them that much. Save your interviews for print. For the web, it's better in almost all cases to post a short video about something than to do a detailed written interview. An exception might an interview with someone super-famous, but that's rarely the kind of interview I'm offered.You Need a Thick Skin
People who comment on blogs are usually pretty nice, just saying some variant of "oh, cool" or "check out this related thing." That's great and sweet and validating. On the other hand, there's an unstoppable army of jerks out there ready to jump on you. Grumpy people love writing blog comments. Pissed-off people are a lot more motivated to leave a comment than people who are simply enjoying your stuff.
I haven't developed a very thick skin over these three years. It still really hurts when someone yells at me via a comment. On the other hand, I get a genuine charge when I get a positive comment. Often people will post corrections to problems with the article (typos are a common problem). I've actually had good luck; most of the people who post these are actually very gracious, and I make sure to thank them in the comments. Sometimes they're jerks, but so it goes.The Jerks Come Back
You'd be shocked how many commenters (particularly trolls) bookmark a post and come back later in the day to continue the fight. Disengage. Post comments on your own posts ONLY to clarify something missed in the article but raised by another commenter (if you dare), point to other sources, and/or acknowledge making corrections to the main article in response to a comment.Ask Commenters to Contribute
This is very, very important. Whenever you make a list of things, end it by asking readers what you left out. This makes the inevitable "You left out xyz awesome thing!" comment a happy collaboration rather than an indictment of the blogger's intelligence. I can't tell you how many times people have commented: "I can't believe you didn't include [some obscure nerd thing], furthermore [you are an idiot] and [should be fired]." But when I invite people to contribute, they do so gladly.
Such a simple lesson. Worth so much. Do it. Also, you'll often get people giving you links that lead to new posts down the road.Lists are Stupid
Somewhere in the middle of the last decade, the Internet List became a common blog format. I assume this is because they're easy to write, easy to click on (headlines are obvious), easy to link, easy to browse, and invite comments (even if they're of the angry you-left-something-out variety). Having said all that, I hate the format. It just seems stupid to me; it's almost always linkbait. What's weird is that sometimes the format, when used well, actually turns up great articles (check out "The Quick Ten" on mental_floss). I guess a good writer can't be stopped by a dumb format.The Past: There's Always More of It
Credit to John Hodgman for the headline here.
When I started blogging, I sat down and wrote a long list of interesting trivia: topics I knew something about, interesting historical tidbits, lots of computer nerd stuff. Literally a big long bulleted list, in a file on my desktop. I then proceeded to write a blog post for every single one of those items. When I ran out, I panicked. What would happen? How would I keep coming up with a new thing every day forever? I had run out of interesting stuff!
When it's your job to find and highlight one interesting thing every day, you quickly become a specialist at spotting interesting things. If you have any human interaction, and you keep your eyes and ears open, you will constantly encounter topics. You just need to notice them, then write about them. Go to the post office and listen to people talking in the line, look around the room, look at what's for sale -- something about that experience is almost certainly bloggable. (Forever Stamps, anyone?) So my job as a blog writer changed when I ran out of ideas in my back catalog -- I became a finder of interesting things, and worked to become good at briefly describing those things. The finding skill can be harder -- you need to develop a clear sense not just of what's interesting to you, but what's interesting to your audience, and also what can be briefly described.
(For what it's worth, there is a school of thought that says you should write only for yourself. I get this, but when you're writing a blog that's being read by tens of thousands of people a day -- and your continued employment depends on popularity as measured by page views -- you should probably think about the audience too.)Credit Where Credit is Due
Always, always cite your sources. If you found a topic via a blog, link to that blog (the specific post, if possible) at the end of your post. If you're quoting something, say so and use the HTML blockquote tag. Don't steal photos -- Flickr has a great Advanced Search feature which allows you to find Creative Commons licensed photos (including those licensed for commercial use!).
Also, be sure you're conversant with the FTC's Guidelines for Bloggers. In short, don't be a shill.
If you aspire to writing for print but are starting in the online world, you're going to need to learn how to deal with citations and footnotes. Better to figure that out while you're blogging than when you're on a deadline for a print assignment. (I'm not suggesting that you need footnotes in your blogs, but you definitely should keep a list of sources and if possible, include them in your article.) Also, as much as I love Wikipedia (and link to it all the time), beware of basing a story on something you find there -- there's plenty of bogus info floating around, and you'll look like a sucker for buying it. Run everything through a Snopes filter or at least a Google filter with the word "hoax" attached.Don't Blog Something That's Already Been Blogged
I can't tell you how many times I've thought of a great idea, only to find that it has already been covered by other bloggers on my own site. Now, I do read the site, but the volume of posts is insane -- and my memory is short enough that I don't remember what people were posting about three years ago. Use the site search. If you don't, people will yell for reposting stuff. Also, get familiar with the Google site: syntax (example: site:www.mentalfloss.com "chris higgins" will turn up articles including my name from that site).That is All
Drop me a comment if you have any questions, or my email can be had by clicking on the thingy in the right-hand column.