The Anatomy of a Blog Post

I frequently receive questions about how I blog.  Where do I get the ideas?  How long does it take?  Where do I come up with the graphics?

The process I went through to create my previous post on “content engineering” was pretty typical so I thought I would dissect it as a way to illustrate a few set-by-step tips that might help you with your own blogging efforts.  Let’s start from the beginning …

Four weeks before publishing

While doing research for a content marketing project, it occurred to me that much of what is taking place today is not necessarily “marketing,” but “engineering” content to produce a certain business result. This term stuck in my head and I thought this observation could be a potential blog topic.  I went into WordPress and simply created that headline — “content engineering” — and a few sentences to remember what I meant by that.  Key point: Write down a lot of ideas as they come to you. For me, about a fourth of them turn into posts.

Two weeks before publishing

I usually carve out a few quiet hours on Sunday afternoons to review the ideas that I’ve captured and write a few posts.  The content engineering topic caught my eye and I decided to do some additional research and riff on that topic.  Once I started writing, I had the framework for a post in about 15 minutes. Key point: Create quiet time and JUST WRITE.  Don’t spend a lot of time trying to be perfect right off the bat. Editing and refining can come later.

Three days before publishing

I saw a post by Lee Odden that crystallized my idea that content engineering could be a contributing factor to a lot of blog posts sounding alike.  Adding the quote and beginning to refine the original post took about another 30 minutes. Now, you might think that seeing Lee’s post while I was working on this ideas was pure luck, but I don’t think so because:   Key point: To be an effective blogger, you have to be an active reader too.

Two days before publishing

Now I was sure I had an interesting post but there was a problem. Half-way through the original post it became humorous. I had started riffing on what it would be like if I slid keywords like <send me money> into my posts. I thought it was funny but it didn’t fit any more.  So I took out the buzz saw and cut the article length by half — might be a stand-alone post some day?  Key point: Have the courage to edit your post to make it succinct and relevant. Don’t write to show off. Write to make it a great experience for your reader.

One day before publishing

I shoot for one well-written “pillar post” per week and I decided this would be the one so I got serious about editing and making the post interesting and fun to read.  I spent another 15 minutes finalizing the post. I was still not happy about the way the post started out but after several attempts, had to decide it was “good enough!” Key point: If you strive for perfection, you will probably never publish a single post.

Four hours before “publish”

I always do the illustration and headline last. I think both are important to the reader experience and I try to come up with something catchy without spending too much time on it.

My original headline was “Is content engineering killing blogging — or saving it?”  Then I read Danny Brown’s article about how he is tired of everybody writing about the “death” of this or that. Crap. So I challenged myself to do better and the final headline was “Should you write your blog or engineer it?”

Sometimes the idea for a graphic is easy but I was really stuck this time.  I try to come up with something fanciful, something to make my readers think or smile, but nothing was coming to me. How do you illustrate “content engineering?”  Then the blueprint image came to me. I found a generic blueprint picture and added my own words on top of it — I do this all in Powerpoint — crude, yes, but simple and speedy. If I can’t conjure an imaginative graphic in less than 10 minutes, I just use a piece of clip art of some kind.

Key point: Don’t overlook the importance of headlines and illustrations to make the post more interesting.

PUBLISH

When I finally published, I had invested about 1.5 hours in the post.  Still not totally happy with it, but if you’re going to have balance in your life you can’t keep second-guessing and editing forever.

The time and day I publish is somewhat determined by my work schedule. I don’t like publishing before a day I have a lot of meetings because then I won’t have an appropriate amount of time to respond to comments. On some posts, hosting the resulting dialogue takes more time that it took to write the original post. But that’s what it’s all about, right?

It was also shortly before I published that I had the idea for this post so I cranked out most of this in a few minutes while I had the thought fresh in my mind.

COMMENTS

The best part of the blog is the community commentary. I feel very honored and humbled that people take the time to comment on something I’ve written so I try to acknowledge as many comments as I can. Key point:  Celebrate the people in your community and their comments.

Jeremy Victor is a respected marketer and he pointed out in a very direct way that my opening paragraph implied a generalization about content marketing that I did not intend. I knew there was something about that opening paragraph that I didn’t like!  I frequently admit I’m wrong on the blog and this was one of those times to eat humble pie.  I admitted that my writing was unclear and corrected the problem. Key point: Offer humility to your community. They’re smarter than you are.

Lee Odden also dropped by to comment. This was a nice surprise and I was delighted that this respected authority took time to contribute for the first time on {grow}.  Some unexpected fireworks erupted when we could not see eye-to-eye. Unfortunately his comments and tweets degraded into personal barbs.   This presents a difficult situation but it’s probably going to happen to every blogger at some point. If you put yourself out there, you’re not going to connect with every person, every time, even in a community of well-intentioned professionals.  It’s a part of human diversity and the challenge of trying to communicate only though the written word.  Key point: Don’t be thrown off-center by criticism. It’s a sign that you took risks. Take the high rode, stay positive.

Ironically, I did not expect this post to be especially controversial. The idea seemed straight-forward to me.  In hindsight the tone of the post was probably a little smarmy. Perhaps my point got lost behind the smarm. Key point: Learn from your mistakes and keep on plugging. Your next post will be better for it!

Thanks for hanging in there through what turned out to be one of my longer posts. Can you connect with any of this?  What works for you?

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  • Great post. I’m always interested in other people’s process.

    I recently exchanged guest posts on this topic with http://jimraffel.com

    Here’s his: http://whowritesforyou.com/2010/07/13/why-i-wing-it-when-writing-my-blog-posts/

    And mine: http://jimraffel.com/2010/07/11/why-i-write-my-blog-posts-one-week-ahead/

  • Mark

    @Randy — This is very, very good stuff. You captured a lot of benefits of writing ahead that are implied by my post but not articulated. Well done! Thanks!

  • Damn, mate, I know you always joke about “stealing ideas” from me, but I think I’m going to have to pin this to my wall. Very meticulate, and a great pointer as to why your blog kicks ass the way it does.

    Cheers!

  • Thanks for sharing your process, Mark. I see a lot of similarities in our approaches–but I also learned a few things from the post above, too.

    My process is a little different in that I usually take my Saturday/Sunday afternoons and crank out the framework of my posts for the week. It’s the only free time I can find in the week to blog. I then let them “perculate” for a day and then go about cleaning them up a bit. Sometimes that means I revisit the post and hate it–and end up chucking it. Other times, I have an epiphany and it takes the post in an entirely new direction. For me (and for now), the process works. My goal has been to post 3 times a week–and I’ve been doing that lately.

    Again, thanks for sharing, Mark.

  • Thanks so much for sharing, Mark. I’m fascinated by this. It seems there’s a real germination period for your posts.

    I personally don’t have a typical approach as I write at so many different times of the day. My blog schedule is a real boon because that helps generate ideas and things to research. But I’m always looking for more time in my day to tend my blog-writing.

  • Mark

    @Danny — I take your advice to the bank. You’ve been a huge influence on me. Thanks for everything you do!

    @Arik — Yes, our processes are very similar! I don’t have a specific number of posts in mind for a week but it usually ends up being about 3-4 just because there is so much going on in my head. As my brain decays the posts will probably be less frequent. I’m also mindful of overloading readers. I know I can’t keep up with somebody who is posting more than a couple of times a week so I actually limit the number of posts I do because i just think it starts to be too much. My theory any way : )

    @Jon — Definitely a germination period. Benefit = the results I think are richer and more thoughtful. Risk = I sit on an idea and then you do it before me! Honestly this happens all the time. I think our minds turn in the same directions!

    Thanks fellas for taking the time out of your busy schedules to share with the community!

  • Jim LeBlanc

    Can you send me those extra ideas? You know the 3/4 you don’t use? I would happily blog off your scraps.

    Seriously, good post, good inspiration. Thanks for sharing the inside scoop.

  • Just learned about your blog and really enjoy it. And, thanks for this well-written and informative piece. I’m a little more of the “off-the-cuff” kind of blogger. The reason: I’m a former wire service newsman. I’m used to writing fast. Two themes I follow: My search for full-time work and my profession, public relations. I’d welcome any feedback:

    http://www.prdude.wordpress.com

  • As usual great post.

    One thing you did not touch on, and I see this in the majority of Blog posts – is the need for emotional writing. I would say that the vast majority of posts I see have a headline like – The 6 ways you can get more traffic. Cool, worth a look. You go to the post and it is amateurish at best and fraudulent and vapid at worst. Their tips are hackneyed and mostly useless. If you ARE going to write a blog, think of your readers. Everyone responds to the emotional context. Not just a damn list!

    What you do, my friend, is write with your heart on your sleeve. I like that! You tell stories mostly and I have yet to read a post of yours where I went …meh.

    People seem to seek to be prolific as if that was the Holy Grail. It is not. Being genuine, have a point of view, a voice and telling it from the heart is way more important.

    You do not have to be an expert to have a well-crafted opinion. (You do have to be able to write a modicum and that is where reading comes into play!) Site references, and why you take one side or the other. I will listen to an opinion day in and day out – Oh, and through in an anecdote! I am sold.

    Mind you, just thinking … you missed the ever-important role of a well-poured scotch to Blog writing (or writing in general).

    And, of course I was extremely disappointed when I saw the word engineering in the title… no trains. Damn. I like trains.

  • Ike

    Process is VERY undervalued.

    What is interesting is that many of our processes are quite similar, but what changes is our perception of it. I use a different analogy – we all do. We pick something that works for us.

    The key is in understanding YOUR process. If you don’t, you’re just shooting in the dark, wondering why things aren’t clicking. If you have Writer’s Block and don’t know your own process, you’re hosed.

    Well done.

  • Mark, this is SO great. You have several exceptional points.

    1 – the importance of logging ideas somewhere (cuz you never know when they’ll hit you)
    2 – effective blogging usually requires some reading (I always say reading is a requisite trait in great bloggers… the good news is that blogging helps us be better/more frequent readers if we weren’t to begin with)
    3 – reflecting and refining makes posts even better! (I’ve found the same as you)
    4 – if you wait for “perfect” you’ll never post (soooo true)

    And another fantastic idea you’ve shared is that you aim for one pillar post per week. I like that you distinguish that EVERY post doesn’t need to be earth-shattering.

    As an aside, I’m not in love with this title for this post because your post is more about the process than the physical structure. I confess clicked through because the title intrigued me since I developed the Anatomy of a Blog Post (http://www.slideshare.net/goldenm/anatomy-blog) and I hoped you’d improved on my concept! Instead I found a brilliant process. Here’s hoping you’ll improve on my Anatomy post in a future post on Grow! 😉

  • Ike

    Michelle, I went with “The Chicken’s Guide to Writing a Better Blog Post.” And I agree, this was more about engineering than anatomy. 😉

  • Mark,

    I really appreciated this piece. Your process is pragmatic and realistic, and I’d say that it reflects my own approach but I’d be fibbing a bit. Still, this is an attainable ideal for all bloggers.

    My favorite insight: write for the readers, not just yourself.

    Thanks for sharing the wisdom.

  • Mark

    It occurs to me from the comments that the people in the community know more about me and my blogging style + process than I do. Well done. Thank you.

    @Jim L – Will do, but I’m not cheap. Oh wait, yes I am.

    @Edward — Thanks for joining in. I’m also a former journalist and the ability to write quickly is certainly an advantage in the new media! I’ve added your blog to my blog reader and look forward to getting to know you.

    @mose You and I kid each other a lot and I will only tell you this once so enjoy it — I really respect your opinion. Telling me you never go “meh” over one of my posts is a very high compliment and I appreciate it! Yes, I do sip Lafroaig and dawn my Earnest Hemingway sweater during writing mode. Pipe optional.

  • Mark

    @Ike. Very keen insight. There is a certain rhythm to it, no? I think people do write to an internal beat. If they lose the beat they get lost. Interesting idea.

    @Michelle – I’m so glad to see you back in the comment section! We have missed you around here! I’m glad you connected with the points today. I agree with you, the title sucked. Just had no more time to think about it. I’ve got to get back to my customers at some point. : )

    @Ike — I remember that chicken post. One of my favorites that you’ve done. You should have left the link.

    @Neal — You’re welcome. Thank you for taking the time to express your appreciation. Means a lot!

  • Great post, though it differs greatly from my own blogging process, especially in terms of time requirements. It seems you go through many, many steps before actually publishing, whereas I write blog posts usually within 15-20 minutes. Of course, what really matters is finding the rhythm that works for YOU, but I was just surprised at the stark differences. In the end, it doesn’t really matter – as long as you get to the Publish point because I love reading your blog!

    Quick note: Flickr’s listing of Creative Commons images can be useful for finding illustrations: http://ow.ly/2l22Q

  • I stumbled on this blog post through Twitter – my other RSS feed! 🙂 I am working on building and developing my own business blog and am very grateful for your tips, insights and advice. I am also now a subscriber to your blog. Thanks again!

  • Mark

    @Marcella — You rock. Thanks for the great link! I do think the process I described was typical for me but I also can crank them out too. In fact when I write in the moment it often serves up a post that really connects with people. Have you written about your process? I’d love to read about that. Thank you!

    @Mary Ann – Welcome to our community. There are awesome people here as you have probably already learned today. If you check out the “blogging best practices” archives in the right-hand column you will find several posts that would be valuable to you as a new business blogger. Also, please call me if you get stuck on anything you think I can help you with. I’m a full-service blogger : )

  • Ike

    Well, okay then!

    The Chicken’s Guide to Writing a Better Blog Post: http://ike4.me/o84

    And just for Mose…

    Eleven Words Guaranteed to Generate Killer Search Engine Traffic and Clicks: http://ike4.me/ot11

  • Mark – great insight. But I wonder if you ever weaken and allow yourself to be drawn into spur-of-the-moment emotional blogging?

    I share your approach for most of my blogs and try to let them mature from ideas into full posts, but I sometimes just can’t resist the impulse to get-it-down-and-put-it-out-there. Just wondered if you ever broke your rules…

    As always, great stuff

    John

  • At the time that I’m in a rut of my own re the blog and am suffering a bit of criticism (most of which is my own), this post is timely and helpful.

    Tonality is the most critical, isn’t it? Offending folks that way is likely the hardest challenge from which to bounce back.

    Not sure why peeps should be so critical to those sticking out the neck day in and day out, either.

    Human nature, presumably?

  • Mark

    @John — You always inspire me with your questions. I think answering this is worthy of a post on its own next week. Look for it! Thank you sir!

    @Jayme — Hey, glad this helped but if you need to talk, you know I’m here for you. We’re all in this together. It’s that “social” thing we keep hearing about!

  • Michael Taggart

    Mark,

    I am an occasional reader of both Lee Odden’s blog and yours and I was interested in the clash you refer to here, which I thought he handled poorly and with more than a little arrogance. Clearly, he believes the limitation of SEO that you casually and neutrally pointed out in good humor as the industry’s ‘dirty little secret’

    It seems to me that before the internet, there was no purpose for words that I can think of other than to convey meaning. Now there is another – to be a kind of beacon drawing people to your content (ie. they can be searchable). It follows, then, that to optimize your blog, you need to think about more than just the meaning of the words and the effect they have on humans. You need to think about how machines might react to them. This involves using words whose primary purpose is not to shock, frighten, tickle, sadden or evoke imagery but to allow machines to organize the content onto virtual library shelves.

    It is self-evidently true, then, that search optimization, albeit a laudable pursuit, is not going to lead to great writing.

    I was rather unimpressed with Lee Odden’s response when you aired this truism. It would have been better to defend his important, empowering trade with good humor and good grace. And to show respect to those whose view differs from his when they put it respectfully an with good intentions.

    My advice is to rise above it and take heart in the fact that Mr Odden made a fool of himself and lost the respect of at least this former reader.

  • Mark

    @Michael — A very well-articulated perspective. Thanks for all the thought you put into that observation Michael and I hope we’ll hear your voice again as a frequent contributor to our community. Many thanks.

  • Great info!… I’m always envious of how you crank out great posts on a consistent basis so it’s nice to know and learn the method from he who shall not hath call thee “Elvis”.

    I’m extrememly haphazard when it comes to writing my own posts. Your planning way in advance though will be put to great use rather than me just sitting there and willing a post to be thought up and written in a couple hours.

  • Mark

    @Johnny — I sincerely appreciate your kind words but I want to emphasize I do no planning whatsoever. In fact, i think planning on the social web can be a bit of a hazard to being awake to what’s really going on RIGHT NOW. I do capture ideas continuously but from week to week I have no idea what I’m going to write next. Sorry to dash your image of me ; ) But I think if you have the discipline to continuously capture snippets of ideas it will dramatically help when it’s time to write. Let me know how it works out for you. Thanks for being such a great contributor to the community Johnny.

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