Saturday, December 5, 2009

Should Blog Posts Be Edited? The New Style Rules

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing


The mainstream media loves to snipe about bloggers who offer transcripts of therapy sessions or discourses on their favorite lunch meat. Bloggers themselves may have no use for grammar nazis who cramp their style.

But this year I've discovered just how much editing matters to blogging. Obviously, many people blog for personal reasons. But for the professional writers now migrating online—and all those who want to build readership and get noticed—editing is a crucial tool, even if we're only self-editing.

With this post, I'd like to continue discussing what makes blog writing effective. It's a follow-on to Paula's Silici's piece about manuscript preparation, and I offer ten editorial guidelines for blogging that aren't your granddad's Elements of Style. When I'm evaluating a piece for posting, these are the things I focus on as an editor.

All right, some of the rules will be familiar to professional writers and journalism students. (Go to How to Make My Blog.com for a list of what bloggers can learn from Strunk and White's classic.) But other guidelines here may surprise even seasoned print writers. That's because blogging really does play by different rules.

When I began Talking Writing, I didn't expect to take on a traditional editorial role—and I haven't, exactly. That's the fun of it, as this blogazine evolves. However, I have found myself consulting with other contributors about ideas and how to frame them, and I line-edit all guest posts. Meanwhile, at WOMEN = BOOKS, the blog I run for the Women's Review of Books, I help non-bloggers and academics with how to shape their ideas online.

So maybe the question is actually this: How much should blog posts be edited? You decide, and let us know.

The New Style Rules for Blogging

1. Use an Effective Title
It's important to make clear what your post will be about, even if the title sounds less punchy than you'd like. The "cute" or pun-laden headlines of print magazines are not the best for blog posts. Questions often work well. If you want to say more, you can always insert a subtitle at the top of your post text. Click here for a TW example.

2. Make Your Post Short
This rule gets broken all the time (including by me), but more than ever, readers like short, focused posts—from 400 to 800 words. The more complicated a topic, of course, the longer it can be. But even in a 20,000-word investigative epic, the famous Elements of Style "omit needless words" rule rules.

3. Keep Your Paragraphs Short
Within your post, break the text into paragraphs, and make those no more than a few sentences long. In a blog, big chunks of dense text are even more off-putting than in a magazine column.

4. Use a Good Lead
This may seem obvious to professional writers, but tight leads (or the traditional spelling "lede") are crucial for blogs. The lead refers to your first sentence or short paragraph; it's how you hook readers. What may not be obvious is that the venerable anecdotal lead rarely works unless it's brief. Otherwise, the anecdote itself might as well be the post.

5. Be Provocative
Good ideas and questions matter. The goal is to get readers arguing. There's probably nothing more important to the quality of a post (except fixing atrocious grammar), so I'll keep this section short.

6. But Don't Just React—Illuminate
It's fun to read somebody railing at a bad movie or political figure. However, if you just react with a thumb's up or down, your post will be less effective than one that grapples with why you feel the way you do.

7. Check Your Facts and Links
As Ellen Goodman puts it in a recent Boston Globe column, "Facts—along with their enforcers, editors—have long been the guides and saviors of my career..."

Checking your facts is one basic way to create a trustworthy voice as a writer. It's also the ethical thing to do. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin may run roughshod over the truth—and seem to get away with it—but writers should hold themselves to higher standards.

Here's where the discipline of journalism has something important to teach the blogosphere, as Goodman and others have argued.


You may be writing about your own experience, but any time you cite a fact that's easily verifiable—such as the title of a movie—you should check it. A quick google of names to verify spellings and other details often does the trick.

You should also link to the source of statistics or other research you cite. If you quote another writer, blogger, or website, doublecheck the wording and link to the source. Attribute quotes or ideas to the right people and name them. (See my attribution of Goodman's piece above.) When you insert links, check to make sure they work.

8. Create a Strong Personal Voice
Blog posts are a chance to relate anecdotes from your own life and to state your own opinions strongly. Blogging is a very subjective medium, driven by the personality of the writer, rather than the omniscient tone of third-person journalism.

When it comes to the voice of a post, my editorial touch is much lighter than with print pieces. Most glossy print magazines have what's called a "house style" or voice—and are edited accordingly—but blog writers are supposed to let their freak flags fly.

The subjectivity of blogging can be freeing, but you still need to keep readers interested—that is, avoid too much detail about toenail clipping or "now I'm sitting down at the computer, thinking about what to write." Instead, think about the kind of person you want to project in your writing: are you likable? are you funny? are you too insulting?

9. Use Links, Images, Video Clips
These are the tools of a new medium, and the ability to link to other information is one of the great advantages of blogs. Don't forget to include links where appropriate, although too many can be distracting. Rather than listing a long URL like http://talkingwriting.blogspot.com/2009/11/view-from-one-inch-shorter.html, insert your link like this.

Images and video clips, especially at the top of your post, are also a draw for readers. A number of web services provide stock photos for free. (In other cases, you may need to get permission or pay.) Whenever reasonable, include a photo or art credit line with the image.

10. Spark a Conversation and Respond to Commenters
A good title, a good lead, a provocative idea—these will help draw responses to your posts. But one of the transformative things about blogging is the participation of others. So don't hang back! Join the conversation by responding to your commenters.

Concluding Thoughts: Revise and Keep Revising
After I've written a post, I go back over it several times. I often cut whole sentences and paragraphs, as well as "needless words." Even after a post is published, I sometimes makes cuts and changes—and it's OK to keep editing your post once it's public.

Really. Nobody's perfect, including editors. For example, I'm adding this concluding section after I published the post last night.

And if you discover factual errors after you've published a post—or a reader points them out—go back and correct the mistake. Most important, explain to readers that you're making the correction. Click here to read a post of mine that contains such a correction note.

Do your part to fight misinformation in the blogosphere. Otherwise, Ellen Goodman may be right about our falling standards for professionalism and truth. "When the reporters go, so do the facts," she writes. "And their checkers."

8 comments:

  1. Excellent, useful post. Especially valuable because you followed your own rules. Hope this will be widely circulated.

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  2. Fabulous post, Martha. Thanks. I think I tend to forget that a blog needs to be just as polished as a piece I'm going to submit for publication traditionally.
    Karen

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  3. I thought it was good information until #7. There you seem to contradict the point by interjecting your political opinion as unverified fact with "Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin may run roughshod over the truth". Maybe the intent of that piece of #7 is to implement #5 and get readers arguing.

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  4. Ooh, you caught me, Anonymous. I was partly riffing off Goodman in reference to Beck and his tribe, but I also dropped in the reference as a nod to my own subjectivity and desire to snip at opinion.

    I do think it's important to reveal your biases. It's part of creating a strong voice, and using well-honed magazine writing techniques for adding punch is just fine if you're genuine in what you believe. Readers then know what they're getting, even when supposedly factual, "objective" information is being presented.

    Karen and Judith, thanks for your feedback. Blog writing should be good writing, yes, because the techniques of good writing help to capture readers.

    Yet I'm not sure the "polish" on a blog post needs to be quite the same as for all print publications. There's an evanescent quality to blog writing, too, one that encourages a kind of breeziness of tone and voice that William Strunk would have loathed. (I'm not quite sure about E.B. White's opinion; it would depend on the point of the breeziness, I suppose.)

    One thing I might have emphasized in this list of rules--and may well do in more "polished" versions--is that perfect writing isn't the point. A few copy-editing mistakes, a breezy tone, a knee-jerk political opinion or two--they can all be forgiven in an excellent blog post if it makes the reader think and respond. Sometimes the urgency and energy of blogging is what captures us, too.

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  5. Great post, Martha!

    I'm still on the fence about "a few copy-editing mistakes." I definitely appreciate the occasional breezy tone and knee-jerk political opinions you mention, but I think writers (especially professional writers) should try to have their posts be as free as possible from spelling, grammatical, and factual errors.

    On the other hand, I found a typo in a recent comment I made on your blog, even though I often feel as though I edit everything to death! I guess typos can result from zealous over-editing as much as anything else...

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  6. Helpful, informative post, Martha. Thank you for this!

    I feel we're sort of in another writing world when it comes to blogs. After all, the beauty of blogging (and for many the draw) is that the blogger is supposed to be free to write informally. But for professional writers "informally" should never mean carelessly." It's fine to offer a breezy tone or state our personal political opinions if we wish. But I still maintain that any piece we post should be free of typos, punctuation, and grammar errors. Fact checking is also a must. Though it's easy to imagine we're writing to and for an anonymous audience somewhere out there in cyberspace, the truth is, real people are reading what we're writing. As professionals, don't we ALWAYS owe these readers our best?

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  7. Paula, I agree with you completely. I do think we owe readers our best and should hold ourselves to high standards.

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  8. I like the distinction between informality and carelessness. The latter is why the blogosphere has such a bad rap among traditional media types.

    God knows, I'm not arguing that grammatical mistakes don't matter. However, I know I'm not perfect; no writer is. Without the apparatus of a professional editorial staff, it's simply much easier for those mistakes to get into blogs. I have to rely on myself as an editor--which only works up to a certain point, especially with the speed of blogging--and occasional feedback from TW contributors and readers.

    I prefer typos to factual errors, unverified claims, and unethical posing, all of which are the real demons of blogs.

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