How to write a great blog

  • By Laurie Goering, TRF
  • 01/10/2015
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What makes a great blog? Here's a short guide that can help you cut the jargon, engage your reader and successfully get accross your point.

The most important part of your blog is the first paragraph. If you haven't caught the reader's attention within the first few words you may well lose them. If you haven't grabbed their interest by the end of the paragraph you'll definitely lose them. These crucial first few sentences are not the place to provide some background. Instead, start with an interesting fact, a question or some wonderful description of a place or people you have visited.

Would you read this?

What’s one way you can tell more frequent droughts and floods are hitting families hard in Kenya’s western Nyando district? Doors are closed at mealtimes.

“With less food, nobody is willing to share,” said Mary Nyasimi, who works in East Africa to ensure information on adapting crops to climate change gets to women as well as men.

What she called the new "stinginess" is affecting social connections and safety nets in the communities – one impact of crop and livestock losses that researchers might not have predicted.

Get to the point. Sometimes telling a story is a great way to begin a blog. But by the time you reach the fifth or sixth sentence, the reader needs to have a clear idea of what your blog is about, or they may give up reading in frustration. It’s often worth putting in one simple declarative sentence by this point that tells the reader what your blog is about, if that’s not clear yet.

Blogging from the field. The point of blogs from the field is to convey to readers a real feeling of what it's like to be there. That means using telling colour and giving readers a sense of what the people you’re writing about are experiencing and saying. Look for telling detail, including sometimes not only what things look like but what they smell or sound like.

Keep it colourful and chatty.  Imagine you are talking with friends over lunch. You wouldn't speak in chronological order - you'd start by telling them what was most interesting. Let your personality come through if you wish - readers like to feel a connection with the writer. If you're having problems getting started imagine you are writing an email to a friend.

Keep sentences short. Think twice if your sentence is longer than 30 words - it might well be better to chop it in two. Putting lots of clauses in your sentences will make them harder to read. Keep the full blog short, too - no longer than 800 words.

Cut the jargon. Many readers don’t understand acronyms, jargon or academic terms. Try to write in the everyday language you use to talk to family and friends. Before you refer to “inclusive growth” or “gender mainstreaming” or “post-2015” ask yourself if your grandmother would understand what you're talking about. Avoid jargon words like “stakeholder.”

Avoid abbreviations. Too many references to DRR, UNFCCC, LDC, etc. create alphabet soup. Many people won't understand them so don't use them without explaining what they mean the first time you use them. A lot of abbreviations in an article are alienating even when the reader does know what they stand for. Try to find alternative words or phrases, such as “people uprooted from their homes” rather than IDPs.

Avoid long job titles and organisation names in the first couple of paragraphs. Try the U.N. climate panel rather than the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). You can always explain the full name later.

Quotes can make a good blog great. A powerful quote that provokes some sort of emotion can help readers relate to a situation they're unfamiliar with. If you have a good quote, use it high up. Quotes that are thinly disguised public relations to promote an organization or quotes full of jargon or figures should be avoided. Quotes should be someone’s reflection or view on something, rather than a listing of facts and figures, which are best left outside of quotes.

Here’s a case of a writer making super use of quotes:

It is a mere distance of 10 km, but every day Kareema Silva keeps aside three long hours for the commute to work and back.

The executive, who lives in the suburb of Wattala, just outside the capital Colombo, spends most of that time idling in traffic or driving in the lowest gear. “There is always traffic on the road. Even at 10 at night, there is traffic,” she said.

Alternative routes into the city offer little relief. “After a couple of weeks, they are no longer alternate. They are as clogged as, if not more than, the main roads,” she said. And she loathes public transport, even in emergencies, she said, as it is slow, “not on time, noisy, unclean, unsafe and sometimes like traveling in a mobile public restroom.”

Focus on people's stories. If you’re in the field, looking at the experiences of a single person or family can be a powerful way of bringing a subject alive and enable the reader to identify with the people you are describing. Below is a favourite (if very literary!) example:

Each day before the reaping, the 11-year-old girl walked between the stunted stalks of millet with a sense of mounting dread.

In a normal year, the green shoots vaulted out of the ground and rose as high as 4 metres, a wall tall enough to conceal an adult man. This time, they only reached her waist. Even the tallest plant in her family's plot barely grazed her shoulder.

Zali could feel the tug of the invisible thread tying her fate to that of the land. As the world closed in around her, she knew that this time the bad harvest would mean more than just hunger.

In Hawkantaki, it is the rhythm of the land that shapes the cycle of life, including the time of marriage. The size of the harvest determines not only if a father can feed his family, but also if he can afford to keep his daughter under his roof.

Never assume your readers have prior knowledge. Weave in essential background but keep it simple. For example, if you're writing about climate change and mention the Sendai framework, you'll need to say briefly what that is. Your piece should be able to stand by itself without your reader having to go elsewhere to figure out what you’re talking about.

If in doubt cut it out. Once you've started there's sometimes a big temptation to go off on all sorts of tangents. Keep it short - you can always write about other topics in a second blog. And keep it simple - don't get bogged down in too much complicated detail.

Check name spellings and figures. And then check them again. These are the easiest things to get wrong and an error can discredit your piece.

Put in links. Feel free to add hyperlinks to your piece, particularly to reports you might mention or organisations. These make it easy for readers to find out more if they want to do so.

Propose a headline. It should be short, interesting and contain no jargon or acronyms. Here are a few ideas of the kind of thing that works well:

From second jobs to 'stinginess', women see warming differently

Ten things to know about the Sendai disaster risk reduction deal

Climate impacts are here. Time to talk?

When trying to spur change, 'the greatest sin is boring'

When you've finished ask yourself:

  • Is the piece interesting?
  • Would my grandmother understand it?
  • Would I read it if it were not about my own project?

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