People always ask me why I have an editor for my blog posts. The big reason is that I don’t want my posts to suck. But what he does more than anything else, is make sure that my posts adhere to a set of five rules. And if the post does not adhere, he makes sure I have a good reason for it.

So here are the rules I use for writing a blog post. These will either help you to write better, or these rules will help you understand the specific reason you hate my posts on the days you hate them.

1. Start strong.
Most first drafts of writing function as a way for the writer to find the subject. This means that maybe first 20% of a first draft can usually be cut. Whenever I hear Weezer's Buddy Holly, it reminds me what a strong opening feels like. It's a boom, and it's confident. And it says, here's a good part, right now.

2. Be short.
Do you know why people love Seth Godin’s blog so much? Because he writes short. But watch out: you have nowhere to hide if you're writing short. If something is short, it must be good. And even if Seth doesn't soar every time, it's fun to know he's aiming so high — fun to be a part of that.

The hardest thing about being short is that it's scary. You have to risk that your one idea will really resonate. (You can see this playing out in a resume as well, by the way. A two-page shows less confidence. The resume says, “I don't trust that the first page is good enough, so here's one more page.” A one-page resume says, “I have such good stuff here that you don't need to see any more of my history to want to interview me.”)

3. Have a genuine connection.
Newspaper columnists are oblivious to how many people actually read their stuff, because newspaper management is oblivious to how many people read a particular article. That's off-line media. But today a blogger can tell right away when she is writing something readers care about. The ability to tell fundamentally changes the relationship between writer and reader. The writer is more connected to her individual readers instead of being isolated in some glass box called journalism.

Here's how to start a genuine connection: In the 80s, it was fashionable for literary narrators to write directly to you, the reader. That genre is a primer for how to be a blogger — using the high quality of literature and the street-level parlance of the second person. Some of the best are Jay McInerny's novel, Story of My Life (bonus — based on the NYC club-hopping years of the woman John Edwards recently had an affair with.) and Lorrie Moore's book of short stories, Self-Help (my favorite is How to Be a Writer. The best part of teaching creative writing at Boston University was that I could make all my students read it.)

But the best example is the opening of the inscrutable book by Italo Calvino: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax.”

4. Be passionate.
Passion is rare. It's something we are all attracted to, but it's something few people can muster. That's why most people are bad in bed, and it's why most people are bad bloggers. Unleashing passion is scary. You don't know where it will go. So instead, most people try to sort of keep themselves under control. This is boring. You instinctively know it's boring, because you remember who was fun in bed.

A post with passion can actually overcome the curse of a boring topic or a lack of insight, and poor structure on top of all that. For example, here is a rant from the blog, Barstool Sports. I love this rant because it's funny and emphatic and quirky. Most passion ends up being quirky, by the way, because when you're passionate you are letting yourself be totally you.

5. Have one good piece of research.
At the Boston Globe, I was required to do research. And I loved what I learned from interviewing people. For my book contract I was supposed to have research on every page. I thought that was over the top, but I really needed the money, so I agreed to it. Then I turned in my manuscript, and it was rejected. Then I learned to use research consistently in my writing. And you know what? It's not just that I was a better writer, but I had more fun writing. I learned more.

Another thing to think about when using research is that it's a little present to the reader. The gift of a blog post is, first and foremost, your perspective. Because information is a commodity but your perspective is not. A fun piece of research ads zing to the post. It's like going to a good party where you meet someone interesting, and leaving, at the end, with a phone number and the bonus of a nice goodie bag.

So here's the goodie bag. I've been saving it for months: The smell of pizza makes men want to have sex.

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  1. Stuart Foster
    Stuart Foster says:

    Great points. I’m trying to adhere to these on a regular basis. The shortness and passionate blog posts have been my godsend. Apparently, funny ones get a lot of play too.

    Interesting but boring=no play. Interesting and not boring=win.

  2. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    I like your blog a lot, but I have to say this is the first post that I didn’t read at all. I didn’t read it because I knew, judging by the title, that I would not love it. Funny, no?

  3. Voice in the Crowd
    Voice in the Crowd says:

    Men’s Health Magazine isn’t a peer reviewed journal, I wouldn’t trust it’s research at all. You want good research stick to scholarly journals, everything else is just people passing around surveys.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Men’s Health always reveals the journal they get their research from. I know because I love reading Men’s Health. Also, for that matter, Self. Both magazines are great at applying peer-reviewed research to real life.

      Penelope

  4. ms
    ms says:

    You didn’t have your editor review this piece, huh? I saw quite a few typos/grammar errors that you should probably fix! (examples: “consisently”, “ad”)

    • Maus
      Maus says:

      And in #2, I think you meant to write that a two-page resume shows “less” confidence rather than “more.” Your editor appears to be as effective as your house manager.

    • csts
      csts says:

      … and the hot link to “Story of My Life” (a repeat of the previous “playing out in a resume” link) … and the reversal of the period and the close parens at the end of the 2nd paragraph under rule #3…

      (editor too busy confirming adherence to 5 rules to deal with grammatical or technical issues?)

      :)

  5. Tzvika
    Tzvika says:

    Shakespeare said: “brevity is a soul of wit”, which, ironically enough, is a self-evident way to phrase and prove your rule #2 in just 6 words. :-)

  6. KateNonymous
    KateNonymous says:

    The real irony (which also applies to your point) is in that quote’s original context.

  7. Joselle
    Joselle says:

    KateNonymous, I know. “Brevity is a soul of wit,” I tell ya.

    When you quote Shakespeare, get it right. Or. Just. Don’t.

    PT, that’s my favorite Lorrie Moore story.

    As for the editing issues with this blog, I think PT has a great content editor. What’s needed is a proofreader. Or more rounds of proofing.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Okay, okay. I’m going to have to weigh in on the proofreading. There are three issues here:

      1. It’s very, very hard to both edit for content and proofread — you become too familiar with the words to catch errors.

      2. I make changes up to the last second before I post. It’s addictive. So it would take a whole new system for me to send to a proofreader and then stop making changes. I’m not sure if, on balance, it would be an improvement.

      3. One reader has taken it upon himself to proofread as soon as I publish. Some days. (In fact, he’s in this comment string.) That’s nice, right? Think how bad things would be without him :)

      So. I’m thinking about what to do. I see there is widespread annoyance about the errors. It’s good I didn’t make good proofreading one of today’s rules.

      -Penelope

      • Benjamin Lukoff
        Benjamin Lukoff says:

        Re point 1 – it’s not that hard. I, and many of the other professional editors I know, do it all the time. But perhaps your editor isn’t a professional editor?

    • Tzvika
      Tzvika says:

      Oi vey! Please attribute the error to my dyslexia; it was not an attempt to wiki-edit Polonius.

  8. Carol Saha
    Carol Saha says:

    When I discovered blogging it was like Andy Wibbels described in Blogwild, like cocaine to a crackhead. I’ve blogged off and on ever since but do it when I feel like it because it’s fun, not to make money or develop a following. Maybe some day I’ll treat it more professionally. In the meantime I’ll just enjoy yours. And the comments on yours. A lot of nutters out there.

  9. M
    M says:

    Penelope, item two regarding resumes makes no sense. Are you trying to say that a one-page resume shows confidence? You make the opposite declaration, stating that a two-pager shows confidence and then proceed to contradict yourself. (thought I would add to the proofreading frenzy)

  10. Jamie Favreau
    Jamie Favreau says:

    Thanks for the insight. I am pretty passionate and this is why I am writing my blog. I guess I am passionate these days about finding a career through non traditional channels. I have found interesting opportunities just by commenting on blogs and then transferring it to another platform.

    Thanks for the tips. I don’t get very many comments on my blog. I am grateful for learning these tricks.

  11. kentropic
    kentropic says:

    Grazie for the Calvino plug!

    “If on a winter’s night a traveler
    Outside the town of Malbork
    Leaning from the steep slope
    Without fear of wind or vertigo
    Looks down in the gathering shadow
    In a network of lines that enlace
    In a network of lines that intersect
    On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon
    Around an empty grave
    What story down there awaits its end?”

    One of the greatest books ever….

  12. Anca
    Anca says:

    You started and ended strong (Buddy Holly, pizza = sex), but lost me somewhere between those (but I blame Weezer more than your post).

  13. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I believe it’s very important to have the research links to substantiate the main points being developed in a blog post, article, etc. The research links are also important to have if more details are needed.
    However I also think it’s important that the post or article stand on its own without the reader having to go to the research to get the meaning of what’s currently being read. There are times I’m reading a blog post (not this blog) where it becomes necessary to go to another page to get the meaning of what’s being discussed. Basically I’m just saying I shouldn’t have to refer to the research to get the message of the blog post.

  14. Cubicle Bailout
    Cubicle Bailout says:

    Regarding #4: Having most of my writing happen in a sterile, conservative corporate environment brainwashes me to clean things up. When drafting posts I often find myself editing out things that takes the passion out. Thanks, I’ll need to get better at not editing out the words that convey passion.

    • Chris Gammell
      Chris Gammell says:

      I agree with you CB, it can be tough trying to convey passion in a restricted environment. However, the point I wanted to make as soon as I saw this post (#4 specifically) is that passion isn’t conveyed necessarily by strong language as Penelope would have us believe. It’s something much more intangible. I think of it in terms of what the person is writing about (JD at GRS is a good example of a passionate writer). If you’re writing about or around the same topic every day, prodding and probing for new topics because you are genuinely interested, that’s passion. If you are writing about the same topic when you’re frustrated to no end with it but you still keep writing, that’s passion. If you are taking the time to do the research in your spare time and not just voicing opinion, that’s passion. I would point to the converse case of someone writing a blog or on a website just to try and make money in something. That is not. I started out as the latter and quickly failed. I’ve been writing about my passion (analog electronics) and I’m much happier. On the days where I don’t feel like writing, I can still do it and on the days I do, it’s REALLY easy.

      So don’t worry about your language, because using strong language in your writing doesn’t make you passionate: what you are writing about and how you write about it does.

      ~Chris Gammell

  15. Benjamin
    Benjamin says:

    You are made of stone if you didn’t immediately go to iTunes and play Weezer’s Buddy Holly after reading the first section of this post.

    I have been struggling to convey more passion through my writing, but I have found that it comes from being genuinely interested and sometimes invested in the subject matter. These are all good points to remember when writing posts that people are interested in.

    I find that another reason your posts are so easy to read is that you routinely will use bullet points and lists to keep me and my two second attention span interested. That might have fit into the “Be Short” category, but I think it is important.

  16. Joe
    Joe says:

    But as you point out in your blog about starting your own blog . . . .

    “Post: Don’t waste your time worrying about typos on your blog. Just post.
    Will everyone please shut up about the typos on blogs? Show me someone who is blogging every day and also complains about someone’s typos. Just try. See? You can’t. Because anyone who is trying to come up with fresh ideas, and convey them in an intelligent, organized way, on a daily basis, has way too many things on their plate to complain about other peoples’ typos.”

    Guess your loyal (frenetic, OCD, somewhat AR) fan base hasn't read the full depth and breadth of your thoughts. Sometimes I think that "comments" are an attempt of the viewers to "rise up to the level of the person who actually had the guts to write something" without actually writing anything themselves. Easy to comment and criticize harder to actually be creative and create on your own.

    I do note an interesting "theme" here . . . . .to wit . . .recent twitter about owing your attorney $10K and reference to "passion" or actually the "lack thereof" . . . . "Passion is rare. It's something we are all attracted to, but it's something few people can muster. That's why most people are bad in bed, and it's why most people are bad bloggers". . Ouch, I'd comment but I think I'd incur the wrath of my polite host if I did.

    Good on ya girl, while I don't always agree with everything you write, I'd have to say you're putting it out there.

    Thanks,

    J

    PS – €“ the smell of just about anything makes men want to have sex . . . . Doesn't it???

  17. Jon
    Jon says:

    Regarding point 2: The one-page resume is generally only accepted in the good ol’ U.S. of A. While it may apply to rules for a blog post, it’s not very relevant to much of the rest of the working world — which is quite large. If you’re applying for a job in, say, Australia and you toss them a one-pager, you likely won’t get shortlisted.

    As a forward-thinking careers advisor, informing a global audience that “a one-page resume says, ‘I have such good stuff here that you don't need to see any more of my history to want to interview me.'” is a bit short-sighted, don’t you think?

    • Caitlin
      Caitlin says:

      Absolutely right. Penelope’s advice is often only relevant for the US, but she does have quite a large international following.

  18. Delia Lloyd
    Delia Lloyd says:

    Thanks for this post, Penelope. As a new blogger, I think quite a lot about how to make the posts sing. Also loved your Tips for Starting a Blog. Kept it close at hand when I launched. Keep the blog advice coming…Delia

  19. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Standards for writing a CV or resume vary in different countries. As I’m about to start job hunting in the US, I need to revamp mine. I’m a bit worried about how to reduce three pages down to one without selling myself short. When it’s only one page, is it still expected to be complete, or do people know that it’s just the highlights?

  20. Never listen to a bachelor
    Never listen to a bachelor says:

    So I veered off towards pizza and sex, and, being acclimated to your tart traipse through words, pastor Tony was like listening to Jesus rock. Or listening to mall music.

    The obligatory references to wives was limp.
    DNA whispers in the ear of most males.
    In spite of this, a good share learn to be domesticated.

    And there are powerful bonding processes that endear us to wifey poos…

    But the imagination races, and roiling waters run deep
    Through the power of our commitments, we channel these forces into productive pursuits.

    I think I might have had a bad reaction to heavenly speak.
    I think I will shut up now.

  21. Rich
    Rich says:

    P I think you missed the biggest gap nearly every blogger’s skill set…the ability to write well. I read your blog, not because it really has anything to do with careers that often, or than I am interested in your relationships, but I enjoy your style and the tone of your work.

    Reading most blogs is like chewing broken glass. They are full of condescending half assed opinions and self righteous babble. If bloggers were good writers, with something interesting to say, they would be able to get someone to pay them for writing.

    For what it’s worth, you seem to have a real skill with this form of expression. Thanks for sharing!

  22. abdpbt
    abdpbt says:

    If you guys are going to be so nit picky about everything, perhaps you should also note that the line is spoken by Polonius, who is a manipulative politician, and not likely supposed to be taken as the giver of great advice. Much like his other line, “To thine own self be true,” is often trotted out as an imperative “by Shakespeare” to be honest to your own true wants and desires, this citation is taken out of context.

  23. Sansa
    Sansa says:

    okay, so you have an occasional typos.

    the advice is sound. and welcome.

    I’m starting up my own blog (one of 250,000 new ones today) and appreciate the ideas. one thing tho: do you always have to use numbered lists? seems like a standard convention.

  24. Tom
    Tom says:

    I have never posted a comment to this or any blog. Ever.

    In fact, I’m not even sure how it is that your posts have come to land in my mailbox, though I see they've been coming in for quite some time, and I’m sure if I dusted off the right synapse(s) I could figure it out…

    Anyway, while I found these to be all good-enough writing tips, what truly resonated with me was #5 about including research in your writing and in particular, the idea that doing this is a little gift to the reader. Personally, I didn't find the pizza/sex reference much of a gift, however, I wanted to say you gave me a fantastic gift in your previous post when you included the midlife crisis reference. That led me here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mid-life_crisis), and then here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meaning_of_life), where my mind and soul truly appreciated being. Thank you!

    There were 2 other more random things I wanted to mention. First, that in addition to never commenting, with the exception of today I've only once before (and LONG ago) ever ventured to the comment section of your blog. The differences in what I see now versus what I saw 1+ years ago are startling. Previously, I was amazed (and entertained) by how mean and nasty everyone was – if there were a theme to the comments then, it may have been something like: "you are a stupid bitch, so why should anyone listen to you". Though I now still see the occasional undirected criticism and personal dig, the comments overall are unquestionably more thoughtful and purposed…I'm thinking you must just a-b-s-o-l-u-t-e-l-y LOVE this! :-) My second random thing is a possibly/mildly amusing anecdote. When I got to the bottom of today's post I first misread the pizza/sex link as "The smell of pizza makes ME want to have sex". I was immediately turned me off a little since your posts that include information about your personal/sex life don't really appeal to me. My very next thought was how I was a little annoyed I might know you weren't getting any now due to the fact that frequency of your posts has gone up recently.

    Of course, I re-read the link and saw it wasn't about you, and had great laugh at my own expense for thinking I was so smart – .which by the way, I also really appreciated because one characteristic I have always valued in people are those who can laugh at their own stupidity, and reading your post reminded that I am one of those people.

    Thanks, again!

  25. rainie
    rainie says:

    Thanks for another dose of useful information.

    Penelope, I greatly admire your desire for constructive criticism. I wish I took criticism better; working on it.

    • love poems
      love poems says:

      Thanks for another dose of useful information.

      Penelope, I greatly admire your desire for constructive criticism. I wish I took criticism better; working on it. 

  26. ms
    ms says:

    Okay, I had to respond to why I complained about the typos and other errors (such as saying a two-page shows “more confidence” when you really meant “less confidence). The first line of this blog refers to the fact that Penelope has an editor for her blog.

    If my co-worker has typos on his personal blog about his baby, I don’t really care – he doesn’t have a paid editor, his blog is for fun, etc. If Penelope pays someone to be her editor and also treats this blog as a professional work product, I expect typos and errors to be few and far between. I think that’s a fair standard.

  27. Alex @ Happiness in this World
    Alex @ Happiness in this World says:

    I know all the recommendations about blogging include #2 (be short) and that research shows people scan internet pages and prefer their information in tiny bite-sized pieces, but how about the idea of a blog mimicking a weekly newspaper or magazine column: posts occur less frequently but come with more depth? Some subjects just seem to require more detailed analysis and thought (or perhaps that’s just my excuse for writing longer posts). I figure I just need to keep being me and hope that I’ll find an audience interested in being presented with more thoroughly explored ideas. While brevity may be a virtue, sometimes longer really does deliver more value.

    Then again, I could be completely wrong.

  28. Mark Ivey
    Mark Ivey says:

    Nice post. But re. #2, generally speaking it’s always better to write short and concisely, but there is a balance and it depends on the subject and the audience. Seth Godin is in a little different league, a superstar with his own style (short, cute, pithy) so good luck trying to mimic him. There’s plenty of room for other styles. In my social media articles, I always try to include plenty of meat and resources and links if possible (my primers on building followers in Twitter this week’s “Social Media & the Seven Marketing Blind Spots). DoshDosh uses a similar style on this subject. I came out of the journalism world, and the most refreshing change is that so many different approaches and styles prevail online. Find the style that works for you.

  29. jenx67
    jenx67 says:

    Well, I did everything you said to do and I think I ended up spending three days writing my single, most unpopular un-loved post ever. I did my research. I tried to keep it short. I wrote with passion. And, I even started strong, and usually I don’t. I take forever to get to my point.

    So, I came over here to say all that, and I realized, I didn’t do one thing you said to do – have a genuine connection. And, my genuine connection – ABOUT WHY I DON’T THINK CLERGY SHOULD MARRY – no matter the religion (i.e. Father Alberto Cutie) is b/c I grew up in a parsonage. I couldn’t “muster the passion” (or courage) to talk about how hard it was – and what it was really like being subjected to my clergy-father’s vow of poverty. And, you would have said all that.

    So, you’re pretty good, Penelope. I really like your blog.

  30. Chris
    Chris says:

    Where’s the link to the research on how most people are bad in bed? Or is that empirical data?

  31. Mike Gothard
    Mike Gothard says:

    Just finished Calvino’s “If on a winter’s night a traveler” a couple of weeks ago. Wow.

  32. Steve C.
    Steve C. says:

    I can’t argue with most of your points, which is unusual for me, I must say. I think that shows that you really know what you’re talking about in this post(presumptuous, I know).
    I think the whole grammatical thing for me involves the hope that the content of what I am reading is valid and not just some internet pinhead babbling away with a bare minimum of knowledge about the subject in question. It’s a defense mechanism for screening out useless information, or flat-out misinformation. I can’t always depend on my gut instincts in this area. This is why I stopped reading the “Gen Y” posts in Brazen Careerist. The poor writing and abysmal grammar pushed me right out the door.
    Rule # 1 about proof-reading is that you never proofread your own work, for the reasons you stated. It’s a quandary for blogging, as you point out. It’s the price one pays for the instant gratification of the blogging media.
    The smell of pizza makes me want to eat. That’s where you were going with this comment, I assume?

  33. BB
    BB says:

    That is so funny, the thing about pizza. I made pizza for dinner last night and later my husband and I had mind-blowing sex that was way past the point of pornography. I will remember this.

  34. italia
    italia says:

    I always try to include plenty of meat and resources and links if possible (my primers on building followers in Twitter this week’s “Social Media & the Seven Marketing

  35. london plumber
    london plumber says:

    Sorry, but I think the no.4 point is greatly exaggerated. If its a research centric post with a few first time non-rehashed info, im sure we can do it without passion and blatant info representation.

  36. Ecommerce Web Design
    Ecommerce Web Design says:

    One the issue of short blog post, i believe its depends on the subject of the post, i like blog entries long enough to give the pertinent info and short enough to avoid being boring though when I am writing a post, I usually consider my readers and make it as short as possible, unless there are more important things that can’t be deleted.

  37. Wilbert
    Wilbert says:

    I think short and concise is exactly what people are looking for. What is good and what is not is relative and depends on what level people reading your post can connect to. For instance some people will disagree to what you have to say while other wont. I think the goal should be to write a post so that you can connect to the people who think along the same lines as you.

  38. Love
    Love says:

    I love your tips to improve blogs! I’m always tempted to post long sections that I love. Tips to shorten things should be mandatory.

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