I originally started my blog because I wanted to help people. I wanted to help people get easy access to the information I had to work hard for. I worked hard to develop effective writing skills for solid content and formatting it for search engine optimisation (SEO) to help people find me. It’s still a learning process.
This post is a summary of the search engine optimisation, free online tools, and writing aids that I learned in the past year. As I refined my writing, I also learned to use my tools better so that I jumped from ~20 page views to 300+ average daily overnight.
Writing Tips for Bloggers (Part 1 of 2)
1) Start Niches
I started with the things I couldn’t Google. These were the things that would help me rank higher in SEO (provided I followed the other steps below). The things that I had to create my own documents for became great places to start. I have many interests that aren’t easy to Google, and they don’t all make it to my blog.
When I started, I settled on Startups, travel, books, food, inspiring people. One of my biggest problems has always been my interest in just about everything. Those were as best as I could narrow down to a year ago. I told myself I would modify the tagline once I figured things out.
My real niche began with my Shikoku Henro Blog. It was my own pet project to document a unique experience. When I finished that project (which took almost half a year), I moved on to other information that was difficult to find in English for Japan. My tag line’s totally different now: digital nomad and travel blogger.
Niches I’ve built up:
- Japan travel
Niches I want to build better:
- startup insights
- content and writing
- travel hacks
- Circle around related topics that you already do. For example, if you are in illustrator, consider your finished pieces, pieces in progress / how to, exhibitions you’ve seen, tools you use, and found art. Throw in enough related topics to do minimum 1 post a week.
There’s a term in content marketing known as ‘evergreen’ content. This means that the content isn’t seasonal and has a long digital shelf-life. Most of these things are ‘how-to’ guides and databases and they were up my alley. My first database was the only English and Japanese Shikoku Pilgrimage affordable housing and camping spots. The information should be relevant for pilgrims for the next few years, at least.
Then, for inspiration, I did posts for my AirBnB guests who had challenges such as finding vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo. When friends asked me where the gay scene was or whether a city was safe for same-sex couples, I wrote a post on being gay in Asia because I couldn’t find a page to share. Other random niches I ended up doing were accessibility for Tokyo, Muslim-friendly restaurants and startup jobs in Asia. These are all specialty topics with information that isn’t restricted to a certain season or event. People search for them whenever they need it.
Tip: Start with whatever you had to take notes for and could use again. If it was for a trip, then share your itinerary with people. If you compiled a list of useful tools for gardening, share that too. Start with something that you like, something that you will enjoy researching for and writing about even if it’s only one or two people seeing your page a day. Once you get the hang of sharing it in the right channels, your posts will have a chance to shine.
- Google just punch in your keywords and see how your post would stack up
3) Be Visual
Your great writing is always 2x better with visuals. Visuals have 150% more retweets according to Buffer.
Visuals are the new writing hooks. In addition to writing a great hook to get your reader interested, you will need to have a photo or banner to catch their eye amongst a sea of text.
Chances are, if you started a blog, you like writing. Having visuals doesn’t mean you are cheating; digital readers are now used to certain types of information, so help them along with a little bit of colour.
- WordPress users: set a featured image for all posts so that your link automatically has an image
You may have started blogging because you want to write or like to share. However, to maintain a good blog, you need to learn many other peripheral skills such as photography, editing photos, and learning how to use marketing tools.
Create 70%, borrow the rest. For important details, borrow. Borrow from from photographers with creative common licenses and use free online tools to help you create visuals, charts, or whatever else you need! Just search!
Let’s start with photos. Many people out there are better than you. The good thing is, many of those talented people are willing to share. When I first started, I felt I needed to create all my content myself. But it’s not a good use of my time roaming the streets for the perfect banner image: someone else has already taken it and released it on Flickr with a copyright commons! While I still prefer to use my own photos, I highly recommend looking for license free content for inspiration.
Tools of Choice:
- Unsplash (gorgeous photos you can do anything with)
- Pixabay (Creative commons photos database)
- Stocksnap.io (stock photos)
- Flickr (Use only creative commons photos)
When you borrow, give credit. Crediting is a good unto itself. Crediting shows integrity. There is no shame in having excellent taste when selecting free photos!
Integrity is also rewarded: links other websites helps your ranking on Google Search. Linking back to people’s sites will boost your relevancy and ranking in search results. In addition, proper crediting and tagging will get you discovered by people searching for other people. In other words, you don’t know how it’ll boomerang back, but it most certainly will.
If I have community contributions, I will add it to my posts. I feel that readers benefit from having crowdsourced information while also being able to see what is first hand (from me) and secondary. Of course, people who contribute will also be happy to know they’re acknowledged and will probably show their friends!
- Link terms to Wikipedia sites and save yourself time writing a long explanation.
- Credit photographers and other creators that have shared their Creative Commons work.
Simple. Stupid. Understandable.
This is especially true if you are trying to provide information. It is better than smart, elegant, and without value. I had an existential crisis over ‘dumbing down’ my writing. It feels like it doesn’t have a voice without the rich descriptors. However, as time went by, I realised I cared more about getting this information out to the right people.
Blogging has taught me a humbling lesson: make basic, dry, writing readable. The basics begin with stripping down to the essentials. Can I choose valuable topics? Can I write clearly so that every sentence is of use to my readers? Can I make dry writing accessible?
As time went by, I realised I cared more about getting my information out to the right people than about refining the writing style I prefer. I believe having useful information will bring viewers. Of course, viewers also like to get to know their writers, so having a strong character can also work for you! Make your writing be your transparent self.
Tool of Choice:
- Hemmingway App (Free web app that shows how readable your sentences are)
It’s easier to not ask than to ask. For every request you send out that is ignored, it’s a little blow to the confidence. Why didn’t your friend respond? Do they care that little? Every time I put out an ask, part of me is always anxiously waiting to hear back from someone, anyone.
When I decided to write a post about being gay in Asia, I had so much fun I made a status about it and followed my own advice: I asked if anyone would be interested to read it. I was overwhelmed by the number of people who liked the status and left a note saying they would be a reader. I even messaged acquaintances and they got back to me too. More recently, when I wrote a post about my Japanese diet, I asked some friends to help me share it because I knew many of my friends were foodies. I don’t ask often, so when I did, every 9/10 came back with a yes.
The flip side is that the friends that do respond will make up for all the rest.
- Ask a question at the end of your post to engage your readers
- Ask if anyone’s interested in reading a draft amongst your friends
- Ask friends privately if they could help share before tagging them (opt-in) so that they can feel involved rather than roped in unknowingly
Listening comes in two parts. The first part is to stop explaining what you were trying to do and just let someone start telling you what they got.
The second part is to know which parts to focus on. Listening is learning what a piece means to someone. It could be entirely different from what you intended, which can be an interesting discovery or a marker that you didn’t convey your points.
My post 10 Things I love about being Gay and Lesbian in Asia went through 20+ revisions because I solicited a lot of feedback. One response I got reads:
I like how you’re using these stereotypes and flip it in a positively way in tongue in cheek style.
My only feedback is I think it’s almost there, but I feel you can go further because if you only commit sarcasm half way, it makes the piece sound more self pity than it oppositely intends.
The brief e-mail addressed my biggest hesitation with my piece at the time: I didn’t know how far to take the tongue-and-cheek style. With this friend’s encouragement, I rewrote 80% of the piece with more spoonfuls of sass. Other people made suggestions about the length and how I could cut up the sections, mentioned their most memorable lines, and noted confusing ones. I wrote back to every one of my early readers to acknowledge their points. Where there was no conflict, I generally incorporated the suggestions. One or two points didn’t ultimately fit this piece, so I shelved them as ideas for later.
- Recruit readers
- Use specific questions. On the rare occasion that I send drafts for feedback, I ask upfront for the main problem that I’m stuck on. I usually ask what they think of the tone, the length, the examples, or a certain section. This is to be respectful of their time, to help them focus, and to help me get relevant feedback.
- Consider your position on a certain point. All feedback is contextual, so you need to decide if it suits your original purpose of writing.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) may sound too business-like. It would be nice if our great content shone brightly of its own accord. The truth is, in the digital ocean, we need Google to fish our little nugget of gold out for the right people.
The checklist is a series of formatting standards you can take to help Google find you. After you are done writing and editing your piece, use the checklist to do some final changes. This checklist will also help you standardise your blog format so that it has a distinct character.
- Spellcheck and grammar check
- 500-1500 words. 3000+ words go more viral, but that’s probably later on!
- Keyword in your title (the one you want searched)
- Make section headings to help people read. Make them H1 or H2 to help Google search
- Minimum 1 photo
- Captions for your photos
- Grammarly: Free plug-in for spelling and grammar
- Hemmingway App (Pieces between 6-9 readability are ideal)
- Yoast: plug-in that checks SEO components such as you links, titles, etc.
10) Don’t share (yet)
You’ve just published your post. Don’t share immediately.
Instead, ask yourself: when do I check updates? It’s probably during your commute, lunches, or just before / after dinner. Schedule your shares on Twitter, Facebook, and your other social media accounts. Every platform is a bit different. Usually, you can post more than once on Twitter. Test different times. If your information is seasonal, try to publish the information when the people are searching or planning (not the day before it happens!).
Now, plan out your share cohesively. It gets easier as you go along, and many writers have seasonal posts scheduled in advance and a sharing routine set up.
- For Facebook and Twitter: 7-9am and 8-10pm window (give or take some depending places).
- If you can tag people, tag the people you truly think would be interested in this topic. That way, it feels like a genuine share rather than a sell.
- Buffer (Free and paid accounts available)
That’s it for now! Part II is coming the end of the week!