How I approach writing a blog post
Jack Finlay - February 14, 2021
I sat down on the couch and flicked the TV over to the YouTube app. I had seen a couple of Ali Abdaal’s videos before, but this one I had ignored for a few times, scrolling past it each time I saw the suggested video. It was his video How Writing Online Made me a Millionaire. I finally thought I might as well take a look as I had found some moderate success writing online with a few previous articles.
At first I was confused at the subject of the video as it didn’t quite match the title. That’s not the point though. The video gives some insight into why and how he started writing. In the end it inspired me to write this piece.
Herein I take a look at some of the techniques I use to put together my blog posts. From the perspective of observation of process, I’ll be breaking down the way I formulate, organise, and actually write my articles.
Whether you are just starting or are rather seasoned already, I hope this sparks some new ideas for you to explore - as Ali’s video did for me.
The big idea
It all starts with an idea. I can’t tell you what to write about. That part is all up to you. Where I can help is telling you that you need to write it down. Whether it’s in a little notebook or just the Notes app on your phone, the key is to keep a record of the idea. When I’ve been stuck in the past with the will to write, but a lack of inspiration, I’ve gone back to the note I keep on my phone titled ‘Article ideas’.
As you can see in the image above, I have a few ideas on the go at once. While I might not always work on them straight away, I often come back to them.
Never delete anything
My last article actually sat in the Notes app for about a year before I found it again, tidied it up, and published it. This is a testament to the idea that you should never throw away anything that you write. Even if you don’t publish it, you may find it useful for reference in future, or might even find success with it at a different time.
Personally I find that I forget a lot of details if I don’t record them. I had a look at the Notes app on my phone and found that I have about 80 different notes for things that I felt were important at the time, with some being aggregates of many small points. Turns out this has saved me plenty of times, even outside my writing!
Validate your ideas
When you have an idea that you want to pursue it pays to try validate your thinking about what you think is a good idea. I often run my ideas past at least one person to see if they think it’s a good idea. Sometimes they will even suggest ideas of things to talk about in the blog post! If you get someone making suggestions like that, you can usually tell you’re onto a good idea.
Out of honesty and transparency; when I first ran the idea for this post past someone, their first response was “have you written enough to actually write about that?”. While others might not share your vision, you can validate the idea for yourself. If you can come up with some points that you want to talk about in your post and can elaborate further than a single point, you may consider that enough to have validated the idea.
Break it down
The key to succeeding with any task is to break it into manageable pieces such that you can’t break it down any further. For me, atomisation of ideas happens in stages. First I’ll write out a few bullet points about broad topics I want to write about. From there, I’ll then break those points into smaller, more focused topics, and so on until I get to a point where I can’t break them down any further without losing meaning.
In the above picture you can see part of how I approach breaking down each part of an upcoming article, a revisit of the first article I wrote years ago. Each point is broken down to as many levels as I think are necessary to convey the points I want to express. The above is just a rough outline, but it helps guide me in fleshing out the “what” of my blog post.
Again here I have used the Notes app on my phone as this allows me to update my thoughts from anywhere at any time.
In the beginning
After I have made a quick sort of outline of my article, I like to jump into writing the intro. I feel like for me this helps set the tone and voice of the post I am about to write. Have a look at any of my articles and you’ll see I like to write about my motivations for the piece and give a little background. For me this allows me to also set the lens through which I will look back at the events or ideas I want to talk about.
For example in my piece about why you need technical leadership you can see this super clearly:
Sometimes projects can go very, very, badly. Most of the time there are multiple reasons. Technical leadership is one of the key things that is often missing. It can make or break a project. This is a reflection on the insights I have gained from observing, and being embedded in, both high and low performing teams.
Through exploring and reflecting on a project that went poorly, I aim to convey the reasons why technical leadership is the key point in a project’s success. Each section presents remedies for discussed issues, each brought forward from my observations garnered when observing high performing teams.
Here I made clear the perspective through which I was writing and reflecting on past events. While this wasn’t my most successful blog, I feel like having this intro in place had me constantly thinking back to my motivations for the piece. This piece in question was one of my early attempts at developing a constant ‘voice’ through the piece, helping me to focus my points around a central theme.
After I’ve written up an introduction, I start to take each point from my rough outline and put together my thoughts in more depth. This often will result in an article that looks very different in layout and feel to the original outline of my ideas. As I go I will realise that perhaps my original ordering of ideas doesn’t flow all that well. This will lead me to cutting out big chunks and moving them around. If I don’t feel they fit, I will sometimes just leave them at the end until I can find a way or place for them to fit best.
This part for me is one of the easiest in the process of writing an article. I find here that the ideas will often just flow out. Sometimes they don’t all fit together, but as mentioned earlier the final piece rarely looks like the first initial brain dump.
I’ve come to realise that there’s not actually all that much to say about this section. To be honest it usually is the most straight forward part!
The wrap up
Every story has an end. How many books have you read, or movies you’ve seen, that have a terrible ending? It’s a lot, right? For me, conclusions are always the hardest part to write. Too often do I leave them super brief and underwhelming. I’m well aware of this and try to make them better as I go on and write more. A good conclusion should sum up each point within the piece and keep it feeling cohesive. As with in an essay, it shouldn’t introduce any new information. It should simply wrap everything up, leaving the piece feeling actually finished.
The act of writing itself
Everyone has a different way they like to do the actual writing part. Personally, I use the Notes app on my phone and computer as they are synchronised via iCloud. I’ll usually write articles over a few days, giving me time to reflect and break up the task of committing thoughts to written word. I’m also quite slow at doing the actual writing part. My typing speed isn’t particularly high and it takes me a while to find the words I want to use.
One of the hardest parts of wrting is the editing. It’s so difficult to spot your own mistakes. That’s why I, when I can, get someone else (usually my wife) to do it for me. Handing a draft over to someone else is one of the best ways to find mistakes. I’m known to write a lot of run-on sentences with far too much information in them. Phrasing that makes sense to you may sound clunky and unnatural to someone less familiar with the piece.
Typos are pretty easy to make when I’m typing away at a decent pace. So I use the spell-checker on the Notes app to make sure I’ve spelled everything correctly. Microsoft Word is a good choice too as that’ll give grammar suggestions, as well as automatically correcting common spelling mistakes.
After I have a first draft together, I’ll copy it across to a new Markdown file in the source location of my actual blog on my machine. From there I will add the necessary Markdown elements such as headings and links.
My blog website is actually built using a static site generator called Gatsby. I’m a programmer by trade, so I like to have a lot of control over how my site is constructed. But I’m also lazy, so if there’s a tool to do something the easy way, I’m going to use it. Gatsby allows me to convert Markdown files into HTML/CSS pages that looks great and is easy to read. I mostly work in back-end type roles, so having something that can make things look amazing, with little effort, is a huge win for me. You don’t even want to know what my site would look like had I been forced to design it from scratch.
Another plus for using Gatsby is that it is extensible. I use the
gh-pages package to publish my site to a branch on my GitHub repository for the site. From there, GitHub handles all the serving and distribution of the site to locations across the globe, making the site as super fast as it is.
I know that this probably isn’t the best, or most efficient way, to put everything together, but for me it is what works and what I’ve been used to the last couple of years the site has been up.
Sometimes I will publish my articles to Medium as well as my own site. I find it to a reasonably good way to get my thoughts out to a wider audience than would normally see it. My most successful article on Medium crossed over 100,000 views. Medium also allows you to get a breakdown of the source of your hits and a view on how long people are spending reading the article. To be honest, my articles get multiple times more views on Medium than on my own site.
In this post we took a look at some of the tools and techniques I use for putting together a blog post. This was never intended as a masterclass on how to break out and write the next big thing (and it certainly didn’t turn out as such). It’s simply an observation of my personal processes. Hopefully you can take some inspiration from this and start on your own blog! Let me know your thoughts on this on twitter: @jacksoffinspace.
Jack Finlay - Software Engineer in Melbourne, Australia. Exploring the writing process and developing my skills through the occasional article on life as a programmer. Follow me on Twitter for updates.