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.