How to Write a Blog That People Will Read

By Dave Ceddia Comment

Welcome to Part 2 of this series on starting a blog! You might want to read Part 1 first to get the blog set up.

So you’ve created a blog and maybe even published that first post. Congratulations! Seriously, getting started is the hardest part.

The truth is, though, the parts after that aren’t a whole lot easier.

How do you figure out what to write about? Will anyone actually read it? Growing an audience without the help of a big platform seems difficult too. And, if you’re anything like me, with lots of failed projects under your belt, you might not trust yourself to keep going when things get tough.

In this post I want to share what has worked for me, in the hopes that it might help you too. I’ve been writing this blog since April 2015 (almost 4 years :scream:) and I’ve had plenty of highs and lows. Points where I almost gave up, points where I clawed myself back from the abyss, and points where posts went “mini viral” on HN or got picked up by a big newsletter.

How to Decide What to Write About

Before you start writing, you need a topic. One cohesive topic, preferably a small one, that will fit in a blog post-sized thing.

To come up with topics, I read what other people write, mostly in comment threads or Twitter or other discussion places, but sometimes an angsty Medium article is good too.

In these discussions and articles, I look for struggles. What do people find difficult or confusing? What do people argue about? (CSS in JS, Redux vs MobX, …) What do people get excited about (because the opposite of that thing might be something that others struggle with or dislike)?

Sometimes these problems are obvious like here where someone literally says “make sure you cover redux”. That person is confused about Redux. And another one says “Especially if it involves best practices” – that person probably wants to learn more about best practices.

Other times it’s more subtle. The OP in that thread said, “hopefully the motivation keeps me up.” That’s like a struggle presented as a hope.

Once you have some of these struggles written down, then you can go through and try to turn them into blog post titles. Brainstorm about it for a bit. What articles might help a person who said “make sure you cover redux”? Here are a couple…

Your first instinct will probably be to pick something HUGE. Like “The Complete Guide to Redux.” That’s more of a book-sized thing than a blog post, though, and that’s not ideal for a couple reasons.

Primarily, something that large will take forever to write, and you might not finish it.

You will naturally have apprehensions in the beginning – feeling like the article isn’t good enough, or that you don’t really know what you’re doing, or that someone else already wrote a better guide to that thing.

So the other reason to avoid writing huge posts, especially in the beginning, is because it’s more important to build up your ability to write & publish things, and build up your backlog, than it is to write a small number of epic posts (and potentially burn yourself out).

How to Write So That People Will Read

People will read and share stuff that helps them. If, at the end of the article, they have a moment of clarity or they feel they’ve gained a new skill, they’ll be quite happy. This is awesome. But how do you do it?

I try to break down each article into logical steps, explain each step, and try to explain the reason behind each step instead of just “now do this.”

Why Why Why

You don’t have to go super deep when explaining the why. Even a little explanation can go a long way to building understanding.

An example might be saying, “React doesn’t magically understand that we created a Redux store, so we need to wrap our app in the Provider component to make it available” versus just reciting the steps like, “Now wrap the <App/> with <Provider store={store}>. Then connect the component.”

Sometimes (cough frequently cough) I’ll try to add a bit of “why” and realize that I don’t actually know why it works a certain way. That’s a great time to open up the docs and learn why, and then restate it in a way that fits your writing.

Make it Clear It’s For Them

It helps to state, right up front in the introduction, what this article will help the reader do or learn. Make it clear you understand where they’re coming from.

Explain the problem as you see it, and summarize how this article will help them with it. If it’s a tutorial, what will they have built by the end?

Breaking Down My Own Intro

Here’s the intro to this very article, broken down into parts:

So you’ve [created a blog] and maybe even published that first post. Congratulations! Seriously, getting started is the hardest part.

This article is for someone who already started a blog and wants advice on the actual writing part. So I wanted to make it clear right away that I’m not going to talk about tech and deployment and tools here.

The truth is, though, the parts after that aren’t a whole lot easier.

How do you figure out what to write about? Will anyone actually read it? Growing an audience without the help of a big platform seems difficult too. And, if you’re anything like me, with lots of failed projects under your belt, you might not trust yourself to keep going when things get tough.

This is the problem they have, and I want to make it clear that I understand their problem. It’s a few problems, but they’re all pretty related to building a blog, and they’re common struggles that I’ve heard from other bloggers and felt myself.

Also important to note: this post is not for everyone. If they’re turned off by the idea of an “audience,” well, maybe this particular article isn’t for them. If they’re pretty confident in coming up with ideas but what they REALLY struggle with is WordPress configuration, this article is also not for them.

Your writing will help some people, and that’s awesome. It can’t help everyone, though, and trying to do that will make it much much harder to write as well as harder to read.

In this post I want to share what has worked for me, in the hopes that it might help you too. I’ve been writing this blog since April 2015 (almost 4 years :scream:) and I’ve had plenty of highs and lows. Points where I almost gave up, points where I clawed myself back from the abyss, and points where posts went “mini viral” on HN or got picked up by a big newsletter.

Here’s what this article will help them with. It also has a bit about why I have something to say on this topic, to lend some credibility. This can be helpful but is absolutely not necessary.

A Note About “Credentials”

When I was starting out it seemed like every good piece of content had someone who started off with “I’ve been doing X for 15 years and…” OH MY GOD they’re so much more qualified than I am!

In reality, that fear was just a feeling. Learn to recognize fearful feelings for what they are: feelings, not facts. The best way to get rid of the scary feelings is to push through them just long enough to hit the publish button.

After a few times, you realize the world hasn’t exploded. The angry mob never showed up. And the fear starts to crack a bit. The more you publish, the more factual evidence you have that you are not in fact an impostor.

How to Grow an Audience

The ability to grow an audience that you own is one of the huge advantages of having your own blog instead of publishing on something like Medium. Nobody can take it away from you. If the Medium algorithm changes, or they get bought out by Facebook or something, you can laugh knowingly and go back to writing your next post.

This part is optional. I mean, technically all of this is optional. But you know what I mean. You could just publish into the void (I mean, on your blog) and let that be the end of it. If you want to grow readership though, this section will help.

First off, give your readers a way to sign up for an email list. Then email them every time you have a new post. Mailchimp is a great free option (up to 2000 subscribers), and it’s what I started with. I’ve heard good things about Buttondown too (free up to 1000 subscribers).

Next, you need to share the stuff you write. Find relevant places where people share articles like yours, and share yours there too. Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, news aggregators, whereever.

“Build it and they will come” is a lie. “Build it and Google will find you” is probably not a lie but it is very very slow and you don’t have time for that. You’ve got to give it a helping shove.

You can also try cross-posting your articles to places like Medium and dev.to, to get your ideas out to a wider audience. Those places also allow you to set the “Canonical URL” which means that Google will realize that your site is the original. On Medium look for the “Import Post” button. On dev.to you can set the canonical_url: attribute in the frontmatter.

I don’t want to spam anyone, though.

A big barrier to sharing is the fear of being “spammy.” Self promotion is evil, or so Reddit tells us.

If you examine that with a microscope you might notice a couple things…

  • Some communities tolerate self promotion more than others.
  • Some kinds of self promotion are worse than others. “Hey Reddit I wrote a book, please buy it!” is a far cry from “A tutorial on using Redux in your React app”. One of those is helpful, the other looks like a money grab (even if the book is actually helpful).
  • If you hang out in that community and answer questions and be helpful and actually participate, you’ll gain respect and people are way more likely to welcome your contributions.

To clobber this fear of “I feel spammy,” you need facts, in the form of shared posts that people enjoy and reshare and upvote. To do that, you need to write posts that are actually helpful, and respect social norms.

Over time, you’ll build up a core of readers who like your stuff. You’ll start to rank on Google (which, I’m convinced, is as much or more about being genuinely helpful about useful topics as it is about OMG SEO HACKS). It doesn’t happen magically, and it doesn’t happen very quickly either. It’s more like a snowball that starts very slowly and accelerates over time.

That’s why you have to keep going.

How to Keep Going

“I feel terrible that I haven’t published a blog post in so long,” has got to be the #1 killer of blogs. The Guilt.

I’ve found a couple things that help with this.

First: keep a running list of ideas for blog posts. The tool doesn’t matter. Trello, Asana, Notepad.exe, a LEUCHTTURM1917 notebook or a scrap of paper. Doesn’t matter. Just keep a list. This will make it easier to get over the hurdle of “what do I write about.”

Next: try to jot down an outline at the same time you write down the idea. Take advantage of that little burst of excitement! I’ve found it to be much easier to pick an article out of the pile when it has 3-5 bullet points about specific things I wanted to say, than when it’s just a catchy (or not so catchy) title.

Then: celebrate every post. Even the tiny ones. They count. Three paragraphs about React setState and the “functional” form you just discovered? Counts. One paragraphs and a nifty Bash command you use every day? Counts.

How often should you publish?

I try to publish weekly. If you look back over the archives though, it averages out to something more like every other week. That’s fine. That’s why my email signup boxes say “weekly-ish newsletter” ;)

Even with the strategies, though, it’s never been foolproof for me. Sometimes I just get into a funk and don’t feel like writing anything, and the guilt creeps in, and I need to try to beat it back again.

I’ve gone for 6-week stretches not publishing anything, feeling bad the whole time. Eventually I got myself to write a tiny article just to get something out, and that made me feel better. The next week I wrote another tiny one. Then I was back in the groove, and I didn’t feel so guilty anymore.

“Try not to feel bad” is terrible advice, so I’m not gonna tell you to do that. A better strategy might be… feel what you feel, but try to write something anyway. Doesn’t have to be epic. One tiny post can turn things around.

Go Forth and Write!

You can make progress on this right now, with the skills you have. You can help at least one person.

1 > 0 is a great motto to have. If a post helps 1 person, gets 1 comment, 1 subscriber, 1 upvote, 1 share – chalk that up as a success. Celebrate those tiny wins.

Keep writing, keep publishing. Play the long game.

If you’re interested in learning more about the audience building, business side of things I highly recommend pretty much everything Amy and Alex have done at Stacking the Bricks, Amy’s book Just Fucking Ship, and Nathan Barry’s book Authority.

And oh, if you write a post at your own blog, leave a comment below! This here is a sharing-approved zone ;)

Learning React can be a struggle -- so many libraries and tools!
My advice? Ignore all of them :)
For a step-by-step approach, read my book Pure React.

Best thing that ever happened to my career 👏🏽

I’m very happy I bought this. Didn’t fully grasp the fundamentals from Udemy courses I’ve been taking. I’m buying the Redux course immediately after I’m done with this. THANK YOU SOO MUCH

– Oluwafemi
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