Learning how to blog — the right way

Even though the media world is smitten with Pinterest, the newest pretty thing, that old standard of social media — blogging — is far from dead and gone. Blogs are still used for all kinds of professional journalism, from breaking news updates to analysis and backgrounders. Blogs are also used by entrepreneurial independent journalists to promote their work and get noticed.

My friend George Daniels, a veteran TV journalist, teaches at the University of Alabama. He found that his graduate students in journalism are writing blog posts that — as I often put it to my students — not even their own grandmother would read.

So George posted five solutions for blah blogs. I suggest you go and read them.

Like George, I’ve found that the majority of journalism students (both grad and undergrad) produce very poor posts. They start out boring (lacking a punchy first sentence to grab the reader). The posts are too long (George is pushing them to learn the art of the 350-word post). They are text only (go outside and snap some photos with your own camera!). They lack references (links) to useful outside material, which can: (1) add context, so you don’t have to write that part; and (2) show people that you have the ability to find new things they have not seen yet.

Stupid links include (most) links to Wikipedia or the home page of a news site or blog. In the first case — duh, do you think people can’t find Wikipedia without your help? In the second case — a specific article can be useful, but a link to the home page is, again, something everyone can find without your link.

I made an exception (to the second case) in this post, when I linked to Pinterest in the first line. Why did I do that? Because Pinterest is relatively new, and I expect some of my readers might not have seen it yet. So I’m providing a link as a simple courtesy.

I also provided one example of how the media world is smitten with Pinterest by linking to a recent article about how The Wall Street Journal is using it to cover Fashion Week in New York. I resisted the urge to search for examples of how blogs are used for breaking news updates and analysis and backgrounders. Why? Low return for the investment of my time. Few blog readers will click your links, so it’s best to choose only links that will really reward those who click them.

Before concluding (I try to stay within 500 words per post), I’ll add that this statement from George expresses something we really need to pound into the heads of our students:

The only way I got somewhat comfortable in this space is to spend a LOT of time (personal time) here writing. Doing the minimum requirement for a class is not enough.

Too many students write blog posts just to get the assignment out of the way — the poor quality of the blog post reveals that plainly. No future employer is going to be impressed by that kind of writing.

8 Comments on “Learning how to blog — the right way

  1. I’d strongly disagree with you on two points…

    The first is that the way your post is written implies that any link to Wikipedia is ‘stupid’. I’d totally disagree as there are actually people in the world who haven’t used Wikipedia, may not find the right article due to dissambiguation for common terms etc. As long as it’s a link to a specific relevant article, it’s useful.

    Secondly, I completely disagree with the word limits that most people seem to adhere to – firstly because the SEO guidelines they were based on have completely changed (as have reading habits), and secondly because there’s a huge difference between a long article, and a long article formatted in a way that makes it readable and accessibly quickly.

  2. Dan, both of your criticisms are good ones. I agree and also disagree, with some conditions.

    It is often useful to link to Wikipedia — in particular, when you are skipping an explanation of something not commonly known or understood, and the Wikipedia article provides a good backgrounder.

    Unfortunately students sometimes link to Wikipedia more randomly, e.g. they mention Italy and link to Wikipedia’s article about Italy. No one needs that link.

    Word limits are very useful for students because they tend to resist self-editing. By imposing and enforcing strict word limits, professors make them improve their writing overall, in my opinion.

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  4. Hi Mindy,
    Agreed totally that any link needs to be a relevant and useful one!

    Regarding word limits, I agree that self-editing and word limits are important, particularly in print where space is at a premium.
    The problem I have is that I regularly teach post-grad journalism students who have been taught that everything should be under 350 words because no-one reads long content on a digital screen.
    Besides the fact that it isn’t true, and reading habits are also changing fairly rapidly, my career is split between writing and marketing – and in SEO terms, short articles are less use than they ever were, due to Google changing tactics to try and combat content farms.

  5. @Dan Thornton – What you said earlier is very true: “a long article formatted in a way that makes it readable and accessible quickly” has great value. But there’s the cart-before-the-horse factor: Students first need to do a lot of work on focusing on a single topic and conveying it well in a compact form. After they can do that, I would say, is the time to teach them about the longer forms.

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  7. I think both of you are right. It’s one of the most difficult things to teach students how to get a feeling for what’s “the right length” of a blog post (“write as short as possible but as long as necessary”). It always confuses my students when I tell them that word count doesn’t really work in the web. I tend to limit the word count of exercises, but at the same time show them examples of very successful, very long blog posts.

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