Over the years, I’ve seen lots of blog posts discussing what people could blog about (anything!), exploring philosophies of blogging, and explaining how to set up a blog on a variety of content management systems. I don’t think I’ve seen someone walk through their process for writing a blog post, though.
Most people’s experience with writing for others comes from the five-paragraph essay, business materials and communications, and social media. While some applied skills overlap all types of writing, blogging is its own medium that may warrant changes. Reading other people’s blogs helps us develop our taste for style, but putting that into practice ourselves can be tough.
It’s quite a transition from social media, with its social and stylistic conventions and forced brevity, to blogging, with its unlimited length and boundless options. Even though writing on social media is a form of self-publishing, graduating to self-publishing on your own blog feels like a bigger commitment: your writing stands on its own, not commingled in a stream with others’.
Sure, you can follow a tutorial to create a new blog, embrace the philosophy of blogging about whatever interests you, emotionally prepare for self-publishing… and still hit a wall when facing the empty field of your content management system. Where to start? How does one pull a tangible idea from the inchoate swirl of our unconsciousness?
My writing process for long blog posts
I can’t promise that I have an especially good process for blogging — it’s certainly not efficient — but I am willing to share it anyway 😉 It’s been effective for me in writing and publishing several short articles a week, and often one longer piece. I’m surely breaking best practices, and I’m coming up against the boundaries of its efficacy in going beyond that volume, so I hope to refine it — but this is how I’m crafting blog posts now, and have been for the past couple years.
This article describes how I write a long blog post with lots of references. Short blog posts are also great! Not all posts need to be long, or original! I do not follow this full process for short posts — please don’t think this is a usual amount of work for every post. But longer blog posts are more challenging to write than shorter ones, so I hope that sharing my approach for the most complicated type of article will be more useful to folks who want to write long but aren’t sure where to push the shovel in.
Fair warning! This post is over 3000 words long. Sorry! 😅
How I decide what to blog about
I write two types of posts on this website: in response to one or more specific articles I’ve read, and original articles.
Blogging in response to an article
When I encounter an intriguing article or quote, I note that I’ve connected to it emotionally and dig a little deeper as I consider responding to it:
- am I likely to want to reference it or the ideas in it?
- do I have anything to say about it? I don’t need a full “thesis” or anything unique, just some starting point. This could be as simple as a personal anecdote.
- does it connect with other ideas I’ve recently encountered or that I’ve been pondering lately?
- am I simply having an emotional reaction to it? is my reaction solely anger or cynicism? how warranted is my reaction? is it worth sharing this reaction? if the government goes full fascist, will it get me black bagged? (only kind of joking)
Twice this week I’ve gone through the post setup step and decided that I didn’t actually have anything to say, or I’d misunderstood what the quote was actually saying once I turned my full attention to it.
If the article’s on a website that I haven’t visited before, often I’ll check the about page and skim a list of recent blog titles. If I spot any red flags, I reconsider whether I’d like to reference this site or not.
Finding my own “unprompted” ideas for blog posts
Nothing is really unprompted in the sense that the idea came from somewhere, but some ideas are less directly in response to one particular piece or quote.
Some of the ways I gather ideas for original articles (like this) include:
- Jot down ideas as I chat with a friend, even if they don’t yet coalesce into something bigger — as I’ve written more, I’ve developed a sense for when an idea has not been tapped out yet, when I likely have something more to say
- Throw in simple ideas as headlines or notes as draft blog posts and periodically go look at my drafts folder to see if anything jumps out at me for elaborating on
- Recognize a zeitgeist or vibe when a bunch of articles overlap and I feel they’re connected but am not entirely sure how yet
- Think about how I do things and what I might like to document
- Note a style or structure of article I’ve appreciated someone else write, and consider how it could apply to my own ideas (for example, my article My Reading Philosophy in 17 Guidelines was inspired by a similarly structured article at tor.com, in turn inspired by a newspaper column)
This article was prompted by a few things in combination: Colin asked about my process for writing weeknotes, I had a fruitful discussion with a friend about our fiction writing processes after struggling with non-craft writing choices, I encountered an interesting article about how tacit knowledge can apply to knowledge work as well as physical skills, and lately I’ve been reading a bunch of other bloggers’ posts about blogging 💪
How I set up new posts
My blogging setup
I use a wordpress.org install (not wordpress.com) with the IndieWeb plugin, which enables a broader array of post kinds than a standard WordPress install. I write directly in my content management system, which is probably not the best idea, but I prefer it to writing elsewhere. Writing in the browser, I think, reminds me where I am writing and where I will publish — it’s a cue to my writing mind of what type of writing I’m doing. When writing in browser, save early and often!
Unfortunately, I do most of my blogging from my phone browser because that’s where I read for pleasure and find articles I want to reply to. Writing in the browser window really sucks, especially on a small phone, where the keyboard covers half the screen. I’m a slow phone typist, and the phone ain’t ergonomic in the slightest.
This is the worst part of my process, and I don’t recommend it… but I also haven’t been able to change it for myself 😂 Accessing the looseness of the blogging headspace is important for me, and being away from my desktop helps with that. My compromise with myself is that after drafting to a stopping point, I try to do revisions on my desktop so I have access to keyboard shortcuts and a bigger screen.
Once I’ve decided to blog about something, my first decision point is what kind of blog post it is. I use “likes” and “replies” a bit differently than most of the IndieWeb community — not as interactions but as a mental classification for the depth and tenor of my response. Most long posts like I’m describing here I create as either a “reply” or “article.” This wouldn’t work out if more people used IndieWeb tools.
If I’m writing in response to another article, I plug the URL into the IndieWeb “response properties” sidebar. It auto-populates the fields, but I verify that the title, author, and detail fields represent the piece correctly. Typically, I replace whatever is auto-populated in the detail field with the key quote I’m responding to.
I’m big on classification, so I use an extensive compendium of categories and tags to make posts findable. Then I write an initial headline that expresses what I expect the main point of my response will be.
Crafting the draft
If I have a bunch of ideas upfront, I’ll dump bullet points at the top of the document. I don’t want to forget anything by the time I finish writing my first idea in prose! For example, when I started this article I had a very clear idea of what ground I wanted to cover. I first wrote my headline and my H2 headings, then populated bullet points under each heading, and finally organized those with H3 headings. I then snowflake those bullet points out into full sentences that eventually grow into paragraphs.
But usually I’m just reacting to what I’ve read and thinking through in real time — the writing is the thinking. So I’ll first pull in all the quotes I like from the original article. When I’m writing an original piece that references a bunch of different articles, I’ll often spread the accretion process of gathering like sources over multiple days. (I’ve got a good one in the works right now 🦾)
To kickstart my writing, I start responding to each quote. Usually, one will send me on a longer train of thought. When I feel myself get into the zone, I roll with it. Essentially, the first draft is freewriting.
Once I’ve gotten going, I keep writing, applying the “save draft” button frequently. I prefer to compose a first draft in one sitting, though often that initial draft will be two or three chunks of ideas that need to be smoothed into a single article during the revision process.
I write until I reach what feels like a conclusion, run out of steam, notice I’ve wandered onto another tangent that doesn’t belong, or realize my point has changed dramatically, at which point I’ll hop into some revision stages.
Revising and refining
Before starting the revision process, I pause for a gut check. If I’ve written something personal, I reflect on whether it’s a story I really want to share, and make sure I haven’t said too much about other people. If I’ve written something political or critical, I reflect on whether it’s helpful to publish this or I just needed to get it out of my system. Sometimes I’ll sit on a piece and come back to it the next day, particularly if it’s something controversial or where I’m revealing personal information.
Pinpoint my argument
In preview mode, I read through the initial draft and figure out what’s the true point of my article. Because of my freewriting approach to drafting, I often need a good bit of revision to bring a piece together. Frequently, I’ll start my first draft with one thread before stumbling into a much more interesting strain of thought. I don’t consider this unused writing a waste; the thinking I did there helped me unlock the other idea, which I might not have gotten to without clearing aside my initial impressions and responses. In the fiction world, people suggest brainstorming a list of ideas and throwing out your top ten because they’re probably generic; I don’t agree in toto, but there’s a kernel there.
Once I’ve gotten a better feel for what I’m actually talking about, I rewrite my headline and adjust my metadata to reflect the refined focus.
If you take away one thing from my process, I’d suggest the value of rewriting your headline. Multiple times, probably. Especially when you’re not trying to SEO-game, but write actually useful or interesting headlines, it’s an incredibly helpful tool. The headline serves as framing for your piece to guide your decision-making in what belongs and how to structure it. My end goal is a title that showcases the piece’s main topic or argument in short, hints at the tone, and uses keywords or phrasing that I’ll be able to find when I want to reference the piece in the future.
Next, I reorganize to support the updated headline. I rearrange paragraph order — while working, I cache ‘spare’ paragraphs at the bottom of the document until I decide where they fit — and remove paragraphs that don’t support the main point (I’ll throw them into a new draft blog post).
Based on the refined focus, I pull in other external articles and sources from tabs I have open. I also cross-reference internal articles for further ideas and elaborations. Sometimes I have a few previous blog posts in mind, but other times I search my site to refresh myself.
I do this by adding a link in the post and typing keywords into the link searchbar, which IMO has significantly better search capabilities than the main site search. If I’m not finding much, I might pull up my site index and check a couple promising tags. When I’m looking for a particular article that isn’t coming up, I’ll open WordPress in another tab and search “All Posts”.
I write more to connect and integrate these added sources into the piece. I prefer to integrate links directly into the text where possible — I try to do a quick skim of my own previous posts to make sure they’re saying what I think / match the text I’ve hyperlinked — but otherwise will add as a “see also” at the bottom of the section or article. Adding references usually means I need to do more reorganization.
I fact check anything that sets my spidey senses tingling, that my argument rests upon, or that sounds too good to be true. I’ll look for reputable sources for anything I feel needs a reference. Sometimes it’ll turn out that what I thought was a fact is squishier or complicated, so if I don’t have time to dig into it, I’ll cut that thread out of the piece. I feel comfortable rejecting some interpretations because there’ll never be universal agreement on anything — some people legitimately believe the planet is flat 😭 — but I also don’t want to cherry-pick evidence that supports my argument when that doesn’t accurately reflect reality.
By fact check, I usually mean that I do a quick DuckDuckGo and/or Wikipedia search. Depending on the topic, I might dip my toe into Reddit to get pointed to sources other folks have found. On DDG, I look for articles from reputable sources — preferably a newspaper or organization I’ve heard of. Lots of sneaky think-tanks have innocuous or helpful sounding names, then when I check their “about us” I hiss in horror. If anything seems off from an initial trustworthy source, I’ll dig deeper, but often I do a single level of verification to feel I’m not being unreasonable in making a claim. Sometimes, fact checking simply involves skimming the original pdf an article is referencing; I recently uncovered a couple misrepresentations by simply reading the original document.
I want to be respectful to other writers, so when the piece is getting close, I put myself in their shoes. If they see my article, how will they feel about what I’ve added to their work: have I quoted too much material? if so, can I remove any pull quotes or trim any down? do the quotes actually add to my argument?
As the piece shapes up, I turn a closer eye to the sentence level. I refine the language to clarify meaning and eliminate wiggle words that convey uncertainty I don’t mean or isn’t valuable. Completing a science major instilled the importance of precision, but caging about edge cases isn’t helpful in informal writing. As a woman, I’ve also absorbed social norms about not being too provoking, so my initial instinct is to couch my points in softening language that undermines my conviction.
I copyedit for typos, awkward phrasing, missing or extraneous words, repeated words, unintentionally incorrect grammar, mixed metaphors (constantly! 🤦♀️), unintended alliteration, and excessive exclamation points and emojis — things I tend to have trouble with. Sometimes I remove cliched phrases, but sometimes they feel appropriate to use as a colloquialism. I double-check the definition of any words I’m not 100% sure on usage. Every writer develops their own collection of things to check, learned through practice.
In preview mode, I skim through the look of the article to get a feel for the white space. This helps me break up long paragraphs and decide if / where I should add headings. I also bold selected phrases and key points for skimmability. Finally, I tweak metadata and rewrite my headline again.
When I’m feeling like it’s getting close, I re-read in full using preview mode, so it looks like it’ll look on my site. I try to read it like a reader: am I being fair? does it make sense? am I missing connective points? do I feel comfortable with what I’m saying and sharing? is my voice off anywhere? does the ending work?
“Voice” is an intangible quality, unique to each person, that develops through practice and varies with context. For blogging, I think of my voice as what sounds natural to me. My prose trends wordy, while my paragraphs are often short. I’m comfortable breaking grammar rules and employing enough em-dashes to circle the globe, but others might not be. Another aspect is word choice; there’s a subset of words and phrases that feel like me, so even if I’ve picked up a new word from someone else, sometimes it doesn’t fit my sensibility and I’ll leave it for others to play with.
I cull paragraphs and points that aren’t adding to the gestalt — these may be deleted or moved into a separate draft blog post for future expansion.
I revise as needed till I’m satisfied with the answers above.
Especially with a long piece I’ve put a lot of work into, I feel anxiety around hitting publish and calling it done, but I’ve learned that’s part of my process. (Plus, let’s be real, I do another read-through after hitting publish and always find something I missed 😂 Working in print, I’ve come to accept that there’s almost always something missed in the final, but as long as it’s not your phone number, email, or URL it’s fine 😉)
I’ve described the writing of a longer article, which gets much more attention than a quick piece. I might blast off a couple paragraph response in minutes, whereas a longer article could take me two, three, five or more hours. I started writing this blog post last night and spent a couple hours on it, then today spent a bit over three — so five-ish hours, and this post didn’t require any fact-checking since it’s documenting my own process.
This process probably looks outrageously long, but organically it doesn’t feel arduous. It works for me because I have uninterrupted chunks of time I can dedicate to writing and editing — I know this isn’t the case for many people. While I’ve divided it into clear steps, in practice it’s more based on feel — what does this piece need? Blogging is a skill like any other, so the best way to get better is simply to do it.
Also posted on IndieNews