5 years ago today I posted my first article on this blog. It was about new beginnings, and five things we can learn from the story of Abraham’s decision to leave town and pursue a vision from God. That was a pretty good piece, in retrospect, and appropriate. Building a successful blog requires a vision and years of wandering in the wilderness.
On this anniversary, I offer you five key principles for what makes for compelling, original content. How do you get people to line up to read your stuff?
I have learned most of this the hard way, through years of posting. They apply not only to writing a blog but to any regular process of creating something, for example a weekly sermon.
1 – Good material requires a constant flow of ideas.
While consulting a group of pastors the other day, one asked me a simple, profound question. I had been pontificating on the discipline of capturing good ideas, and how like many people I’d struggled for years to find good material, until I’d become intentional about recording every random thought that floated by my mind.
She replied, “What constitutes a good idea?” The question stumped me. What makes a good idea?
Perhaps it’s an embryo, a concept that might be worth using or developing later.
I certainly don’t publish every thought on this blog. In fact, I told the group that as time goes by I get more and more discriminating, and at this point have over 200 unwritten blog post titles.
I will eventually develop a few, but most will remain embryonic. The secret is having a large pool to choose from.
Takeaway: To have a few good ideas, you need a lot of ideas. Start tracking your unspoken witticisms.
2 – Never publish a first draft.
I can’t believe some of the crap that got past the “Publish”button in the first few years of this blog. Now, I never – well, rarely – publish a first draft. (This was one that I fired off, and it worked out okay. But I’d been thinking on that topic for years.)
Instead, I let a first draft marinate for a day or two, then go back to review. Usually, what I find is incoherence: two or three topics mashed together, rabbit holes of rambling. Just too much material. A good first draft session usually gives me more than I need.
I advised a pastor of the same thing the other day. His sermon was actually three sermons. He’s killing himself every week for no apparent reason. Find the one topic that matters most.
Takeaway: Pick the most salient topic from your first draft and tighten around it. But don’t throw away the other material – it might come in handy later.
3 – Without a good title, good content is DOA.
My early posts had such compelling titles as “Craft” and “Baptism.” Over time I have seen my site data affirm the assuredly apocryphal statistic that 80% of people will read a headline and only 20% the rest of your content.
Sometime in 2013 I began studying what makes a good title. And what do you know – the principles are the same ones that have been used by editors and mad men for a century. I reconnected with principles from my old English classes in college. (A shortcut for you: here’s a link to some basic rules for writing titles from the master copywriter David Ogilvy.)
Now I almost always use this headline analyzer tool to help craft better titles. Don’t get me wrong – the tool won’t do the heavy lifting for you. You’ve got to crank the engine; it’s just a gauge for your power.
Takeaway: Research good headline writing. Agonize over your title development.
4 – A web presence is a necessary tool for 21st century content creators.
Sometimes, people talk to me about the writing life. The courageous ones admit that they want to be published. The difficult answer I give to people who want to be published is that they need to start a blog today, and post new content to it at least once a week, from now until Jesus comes back. And it needs to be something others actually want to read.
A blog is nothing more than a personal publishing platform, like a newspaper where you’re the editor, layout artist and columnist. Site statistics are the brutal critics. If you can master the art of creating something people want to read, you’re ready to publish something longer.
Takeaway: The best time to start a blog was 10 years ago. The second best time is today.
5 – The best content is only built over a long period of sustained effort.
It may seem like everything is fast now, and social media has given short cuts to personal publishers, but the process of building a reader base … just … takes … time.
I learned the value of having “a list” (a spreadsheet of email address of people who voluntarily subscribe themselves to receive your content) while running a company in the 2000s. But in the first few years of this blog’s history, my inability to build a list was maddening.
My luck began to change last fall, though, through a combination of better site marketing and a sustained run of good titles and helpful articles. My overall readership is now growing exponentially, and my email list is too. I am now over 15,000 unique readers every month, and I’m finally close to the 1000 email subscribers I set as a goal when I launched.
I never would have predicted it would take five years. I also under appreciated how difficult it is to create something good enough that people voluntarily want to come check it out.
Takeaway: This may sound overly simple, but the longer I try to achieve it, the more profoundly true it is: if you want to be a creator, figure out what people consume. If you want to be a writer, figure out what they read. If you want to be a preacher, figure out what they listen to – and yes, this may be controversial to some, but preachers can’t give people the discomforts of what they need to hear unless they also know how to give a message people want to hear. Otherwise, you’re just wasting time.