Writing is a skill that has to be learned. As with any skill, we only learn it by doing it over and over again, each time getting a little better. It helps, however, to have some guidelines for inspiration.
This writing guide aims to be such an inspiration. Pick an item from this guide that resonates with you and try it out in your next article. Then tweak it to match your style and add it to your own writing guide.
It helped my writing tremendously just to have my personal writing guideline in written form. I’m using these guidelines for my writing on this blog and I also pass them to contributing writers on reflectoring.io, my software development blog.
General Writing Guidelines
Have a Mission Statement
This is probably the single most important item in this guide: have a mission statement.
What are you trying to achieve with your writing? Are you writing for yourself? Are you trying to provide helpful content for others? Are you trying to promote a product?
Think about the goals of your writing. Your writing style may be completely different if you’re writing for yourself (for example in a diary) or if you’re writing for the public.
Write down the goals you want to achieve with your writing.
Then write down some bullet points that help achieve these goals. If you’ve got more than three or four, hold each bullet point against each other and decide which one you would rather choose. Then, pick only the three or four that come out as winners.
Here’s the mission statement of reflectoring.io, my software development blog:
The reflectoring blog aims to provide software developers with a comprehensive but easy-to-read learning experience that generates “aha” moments when they need to solve a specific problem.
Because it has served me well, I’m using the same mission statement for the blog you’re currently reading, just replacing the audience with “bloggers”.
The mission statement allows you to decide whether a topic is worth writing about, whether to put more research into this blog post you’re working on, or whether to accept that guest post proposal, among other things.
Take some time to create a mission statement for your writing.
Not every article has to be the same length. But you should have an idea of an article length that matches the expectations of your readers.
A well-researched, hands-on tutorial can have as many as 3000 words or more. A quick solution to a specific problem may only have a couple of hundred words.
Think of what you want to achieve with an article before writing it. Then, think about what level of detail the reader would expect and adapt.
Use Simple Language
Except in academic papers, where it’s probably expected to sound stuck-up and overcomplicated, you shouldn’t use complex language. Especially when reading online, readers have a short attention span and will rather close the browser than read an article that has lots of complicated or unnecessary words in it.
Instead of “utilize”, write “use”. Instead of “in order to”, write “to”. You get the idea.
The free tier of Grammarly will point some of those words out for you.
Keep Sentences Short
For the same reason, keep sentences short.
No one wants to read long sentences that keep getting longer and are finally getting so long that the reader questions the value they’re getting out of the article and decide not to read on.
Did you read the previous sentence to the end? Sorry! I hope you’re still with me.
Break long sentences up into multiple sentences. A sentence that’s longer than 2 lines is probably too long.
Create a Conversation with the Reader
Don’t try to keep the pronouns “I” and “You” out of your text. Blog posts that try not to mention the author or the reader sound artificial and impersonal.
This can go as far as using “the author” to refer to yourself when writing a blog post. How would you think about an author that refers to themselves as “the author of this text”? Don’t do it.
Similarly, don’t talk about the reader as “the reader”.
Use “I” and “you”, instead.
That’s what you use in a conversation, too, after all. And you want to create a conversation with your readers to keep them engaged with your content.
In tutorials, I like to use “we” instead of “you”: “then, we can do X to achieve Y…” sounds just so more pleasant than the imperative form “then, do X to achieve Y”. Obviously, I’m not following this rule in this article, since that would sound strange in a writing guide.
Make It Personal
Text engages more if it’s personal. If you engage the reader in a conversation, as explained above, this goes a long way. But you can go a step farther.
Include an anecdote from your own experience. Make a joke. Include a bit of sarcasm.
Just don’t overdo it. That’s probably worse than not doing it at all.
Make the text sound natural, as if you’re telling something to a friend.
In contrast to “I” and “you”, do try to keep the pronouns “he” and “she” out of your text. At least when talking about unspecified people. Don’t let your text offend readers just because you were too lazy to build a sentence that includes everyone.
Since I’m writing a lot about software development, I write about software developers at times. Writing “The developer can do X” is OK. Continuing with “Then, he can do Y” is not OK. This presumes all software developers are men and non-male readers might feel rightfully offended.
If you’re writing in English, there’s an easy fix. Use plural, instead: “The developers can do X. Then they can do Y.". This sounds perfectly fine and includes everyone.
Other languages, like my native German, are not that easy in this regard. Here, you might have to use more extensive phrases to include everyone.
Use Active over Passive
In almost every case, prefer active over passive. Passive sentences can sound artificial.
Usually, a sentence has an actor and a subject.
Let the actor act. Don’t let the subject be acted upon.
See what I did there? Choose which of the two previous sentences you would rather read.
Aside from sounding more artificial, passive sentences are usually also longer because they need more words. Stick with active sentences to make the text more natural, conversational, and compact.
One thing that I really can’t stand when reading is inconsistency. And I don’t think I’m the only one. For content to stand out among the rest, it needs to be consistent.
Here’s a list of inconsistencies that freak me out when I’m reading:
- one sentence spells a word this way, another sentence spells it another way
- one heading uses “Title Case”, another uses “Sentence case”
- the post explains one topic in-depth, and another only superficially
- one sentence uses present tense, another uses past tense
- one section addresses me directly using “you”, another section includes the author by using “we”
The list is incomplete, of course, but you see what I’m getting at.
Rest assured that readers will notice even small inconsistencies. Some readers might not care much about it, but you’ll lose the readers that do.
It doesn’t matter so much if you use title case or sentence case for headers or which spelling of a word you choose but stick with one style. That will remove one potential distraction for your readers.
Introduce the Article
Every text needs an introduction. The introduction should tease the reader into reading the rest of the article.
In the intro, outline the main problem the article aims to solve. Give a hint towards the solution and then end with a cliffhanger so that the reader simply has to read on.
I usually write the introduction after I have written the rest of the article because then I know what I can tease with. I’m not very good at writing enticing introductions, though, so don’t take mine as an example…
Conclude the Article
If a reader reads an article to the end, they should be rewarded with the key learnings of the text.
End with a section titled “Conclusion”, or, if you’re more creative than I am, with an alternative heading that ties better towards your content and rewards the reader even more.
You can also combine this with a call to action if you want to point the reader’s attention to a certain product or another article. In my technical articles, I like to include a link to the code example that I have used to explain things.
Highlight Important Takeaways
Internet readers tend to have a short attention span, so they like to scan an article before they decide to read it.
To help them with this decision, use bold font to highlight the important takeaways of your text. This will make them visible even when a reader is only scanning the text.
Don’t just use bold on single keywords. While these keywords may be important in the context of your text, reading these words alone will do little to help the reader.
Instead, for each central takeaway of your article, craft a dedicated sentence that is understandable on its own and make that bold.
Embed Links in Text
A proven tactic to keep readers engaged with your site is to cross-link between related articles.
Here are some different ways of linking I’ve stumbled over in my writing, in order from “very bad” to “good”:
- You can find more information about Writing Guidelines in my article (link)
- You can find more information in this article about writing guidelines
- You can find more information in this article about writing guidelines
- Make sure to follow the writing guidelines.
When linking to another article, make the link a natural part of the text. In the best case, don’t even mention that it’s an article on your blog. If the reader is interested in writing guidelines, they will click the link. If not, they will at least not be interrupted in their reading flow because the link is part of the text.
If you want to add a link, craft a sentence in which you can embed the link naturally.
Review Your Text After a Day
After finishing a blog post, you’ll want to publish it ASAP.
Put it down. Take a break or work on something else for a day.
The next day, re-read it and fix all the oh-so-obvious errors and the terrible writing style.
As writers say, “the first draft is always shit”. That doesn’t mean that you’ve been doing a bad job and have to re-write everything.
But there’s a high probability that you’ll want to change some things after getting a bit of distance to your writing. Give yourself that chance and review your text after a day.
Check Your Spelling
After having reviewed your text after a day, run it through a spell checker.
I consider myself quite capable of written English, but I still put all of my texts through a spell checker. And every single time the spell checker finds things to fix.
Then I fix all the errors and feel lucky that they didn’t make it into the published version.
Grammarly is the most popular tool of choice here. I’m using the free version and it has served me well.
Check the Reading Ease
Instead of relying on your gut feel that the text is easy to read, check it with an automatic readability calculator.
There are many metrics that measure readability. One of the most popular ones is the Flesch Reading Ease Score, which takes the sentence length and number of syllables into account to produce a score between 0 and 100. The higher the score, the easier it is to read.
A score between 60 and 70 is said to be understandable for 8-graders and thus for most adults. But even if your audience is mainly the well-educated types, it doesn’t mean that your text should be harder to read. They’ll thank you for keeping it simple.
There are some free readability analyzers available to check your texts.
Make Your Personal Writing Checklist
Phew, those were quite some things to think about when writing a blog post.
Pick the things from this article that are most important to you, add in your own, and put them into a checklist. A checklist will help to free your mind while writing because you know you’ll be going through that checklist later.
Then, once a draft is ready to review, run it through the checklist, fix all the things, and celebrate pushing the “publish” button.