Professional writers spend years learning their craft and perfecting their techniques. They are aided by volumes upon volumes of information on best practices. What does this mean, if anything, for modern bloggers? Should they be expected to maintain certain standards?
The answer is ‘yes’… if you want to be reputable. The question a blogger must ask themselves is ‘Do I want to be respected and accountable,’ like a reporter for The New York Times (to make a mass media parallel), or ‘Do I want to be a hack,’ like a reporter for The National Enquirer.
What are some best practices for blog writing? Overall, bloggers should be mindful of three key elements: content, visual appeal and ethics. To define and illustrate these elements, I will use Deborah Blum’s blog Elemental which covers the fascinating subject of poison.
Reading content on the web is physiologically different than reading print on paper (Writing for the Web; n.d.). Not only does reading a backlit screen hurt our eyes but, as the Internet is associated with speed, reading long winded material on the web may seem extra arduous (Writing for the Web; n.d.). Content, therefore, should be kept short and sweet (Writing for the Web; n.d.). Blogs should be formatted using journalism’s inverted pyramid where the most important content is served up immediately (Writing for the Web; n.d.). Language should be simple and concise (Writing for the Web; n.d.). As an example, in her post “Chocolate as Poison,” Deborah Blum introduces the topic using conversational language and tells the reader what the post is about in the second (short) paragraph:
Well, sure you say. Obviously. This is chocolate, after all. Almost goes without saying. Which is why I won’t. Actually, I’m mostly trying to explain why the most potent chemical compound in chocolate – a plant alkaloid, slightly bitter in taste, surprisingly poisonous in some species – is called theobromine. (Blum, 2014, February 14)
Blogs, like all published writing, should be written using thorough research and transparency and credit sources when appropriate (Montecino, n.d.). Blum’s posts are littered with links to outside sources backing up her statements (Blum, 2014). She cites academic studies, articles, government databases and websites to support her claims and incorporates quotes when appropriate (Blum, 2014). For example, in a post about poisoning pets, she quotes the medical director for the ASPCA’s (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) Animal Poison Control Center:
“Cats love to eat it [Venlafaxine],” says Dr. Tina Wismer, medical director of the Animal Poison Control Center operated by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). She speculates that it may be something about the way this particular antidepressant smells. “It’s crazy when you think about how hard it is normally to give a cat a pill. But in this case they’ll swallow multiple pills.” (Blum, 2014, March 20)
A blog should incorporate pictures and a professional look to engage readers (Rowse, 2014; Writing for the Web, n.d.). In addition, headlines should be kept short so they are easy to quickly scan (Rowse, 2014; Writing for the Web, n.d.). Blum is a master at this. She uses short (mostly two to six word) headlines and professional photographs to entice the viewer. My favorite was a picture of the Snow White exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History that she used for her post “Lessons from Snow White” (Blum, 2014, May 8). The photograph features Snow White laying in a glass coffin with blue, iridescent lights hovering over her (Blum, 2014, May 8). The picture made me want to discover what the article was all about.
Best practices are invaluable for guiding writers (professional or amateur) to produce content that is both appealing and responsible. I have been writing professionally for years but I found DM Consulting Services’ Writing for the Web, for instance, extremely useful as a source (Writing for the Web, n.d.). It not only includes many thoughtful dos and don’ts, but provides examples to illustrate best (and worst) practices (Writing for the Web, n.d.). Personally, I am guilty of being a little too wordy (perhaps bordering on academic) in my blogs and could use some visual elements to spice up my site. But, I do think I am utilizing the inverted pyramid. In the future, I will try to be more conversational, dear reader.
Blum, D. (2014, February 14). Chocolate as Poison | WIRED. Retrieved March 27, 2015, from http://www.wired.com/2014/02/poisonous-chocolate/
Blum, D. (2014, March 20). Poisoning our Pets | WIRED. Retrieved March 27, 2015, from http://www.wired.com/2014/03/poisoning-pets/
Blum, D. (2014, May 8). Lessons from Snow White | WIRED. Retrieved March 27, 2015, from http://www.wired.com/2014/05/lessons-from-snow-white/
Montecino, V. (n.d.). Helpful Hints to Help You Evaluate the Credibility of Web Resources. Retrieved March 27, 2015, from http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/web-eval-sites.htm
Rowse, D. (2014, March 5). Beginner Week: My 43 DOs and 25 DON’Ts of Blogging. Retrieved March 27, 2015, from http://www.problogger.net/archives/2014/03/05/beginner-week-my-43-dos-and-25-donts-of-blogging/
Writing for the Web. (n.d.). Retrieved March 27, 2015, from http://www.uakron.edu/webteam/docs/dm_webwriting.pdf