How To Write A Tech Blog That Reads Well — #2. Structure & Presentation
The second article in our series on how to write better blog posts.
This is the second part of our series on how to write a tech blog that reads well. If you wish to read previous entries or find out what will come up next, this is a table of contents that will be updated with links as the series progresses.
Article #1 — Fundamentals & Essential Practices
Article #2 — Structuring Your Blog & Presentation
Article #3 — Style
Article #4 — Common Pitfalls
Article #5 — Opening Your Blog
Article #6 — Closing Your Blog And Explaining Difficult Concepts
1. HOW LONG SHOULD MY BLOGS BE?
For a well-written article, you should expect the attention of a reasonably interested reader to hold for about 700 words. Anything beyond that needs to justify the extra length with a solid reason — you really need to be conveying important information. Articles over 1000 words will have to be very strong and/or highly topical for readers to actually stick with them.
Naturally, the majority of the readers who click on your article will just be browsing, and are likely to enter with the intention of skimming over the first few paragraphs alone and then leaving. These readers are irrelevant to the question of how long your article should be, as they are unlikely to read the whole thing anyway. We will discuss how to spark and grab the attention of inattentive readers later in this series, but for now let’s gloss.
Blogs under 700 words will struggle to offer anything more than very basic information — but if you can provide value in such a short space, then by all means go for it, and don’t extend your article any more than is strictly necessary. If the content stays solid, then the shorter the better.
While the ideal range for most articles will fall somewhere between 700 and 1000 words, there is an important exception, which I will refer to as consultation articles.
A consultation article is one that is not meant to be read from start to finish, but only consulted for those specific parts that the reader is looking for. It stands to regular articles the way that a dictionary stands to a novel.
Consultation articles are also not meant to be read just once, but to be returned to and referred back to frequently (including by the author themselves). Typical examples of such blogs include guides and how-tos divided into several, discrete steps, or lists of various important objects, tools, or concepts.
Consultation articles can afford to be as long as they like, and in fact they will often benefit from being 2000+ words. The one thing you should remember is to include a clear table of contents (ideally hyperlinked) explaining where each part of the article can be found.
The structure of your blog will be decided in the planning phase. If you already have a crystal-clear idea of what you want to communicate and how, you can try sitting down and writing the blog without a plan. This does sometimes work out, especially if you feel very inspired.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, however, you’ll just find yourself running out of steam halfway through, and/or turning your entire draft inside-out during the revision process.
It is much more advisable, before diving into the writing process itself, to make a plan. To do that, follow these steps.
a.) Identify Key Points
To start making a plan, begin by identifying the key points you want to discuss in your blog. You can do this either by going over your research and your notes and finding parts that stand out to you, or by asking yourself the question ‘What’s something that my blog can’t afford to not say?’, and answering that as many times as necessary until you can’t come up with anything else.
Then, summarize each key point in a single sentence. This doesn’t mean a single sentence has to say everything there is to be said about that point, only that it has to remind you what that point is and how you’re going to develop it.
For example (and going a bit meta now!), in my plan for the article you are reading now, the sentence I wrote for this section reads like this:
Planning — find key points, organize, sections & sub-sections
The sentence won’t mean anything to a reader, but it gives me as a writer a.) the key point itself, i.e. ‘Planning’, b.) the elements by which to discuss that key point, and c.) the order in which they should be discussed. Based on that, I can then go ahead and write these more extensive paragraphs you are reading.
b.) Organize & Merge
Once you have your key points, it’s time to rearrange them into the order they’ll be presented in. For the simpler articles, those organized as a list (eg. ‘The Top 10 Text Editors On The Market Today’), this can be extremely easy. I once wrote an article on the most underrated European cities for tech jobs, and here the order in which I chose to discuss the cities was frankly almost irrelevant.
In most cases, however, you want to organize your points according to a narrative, meaning that they must follow logically from each other and build on each other. If you’re writing an article on how to find a job as UX/UI designer, for example, clearly what you have to say about CVs should come before what you have to say about interviews.
Key points that are very closely related should either be merged or turned into sub-sections of each other — again, as this very article is doing right now by treating ‘Organize’ and ‘Merge’ as a single key point.
For an article of 700–1000 words, you are looking at about four to five key points that you will need to identify. If you have more than that, merge and reorganize into sub-sections until you’ve reached that number, and excise anything inessential.
If you’re unable to do that, consider splitting your blog into two separate articles, or even more — a series of short blogs is often preferable to a single mammoth blog (the exception to this is consultation articles as described above).
c.) Append Research Material To Key Points (Optional)
When writing the first draft, you should always have your list of key points before you and clearly in order. Often, however, you’ll also have a substantial amount of material to consult while writing the article; these are the fruits of your research, which are not as easily summarised.
In that case, do this: copy and paste your list of key points further down in your existing document or in a new document altogether. Then, below every key point, copy and paste all parts of the research material that are relevant to it. This way, whichever key point you happen to be writing about, you can always immediately refer to the relevant material just beneath it.
This practice is optional as different people have different preferred ways of organizing and consulting their research. It’s what I usually do, but if you have a better way, go for it!
1. Titles & Subtitles
Nowadays, the title of an article on the internet has less to do with style than with its value as a tool to generate traffic. On that topic, I will once again link you to Backlinko’s SEO guide, which includes a helpful section entirely about titles and descriptions.
Because putting style before optimisation in your blog titles is, alas, so counterproductive, I will not discuss this topic here. If you have reached the point where you can afford to disregard the traffic-generating value of titles and thumbnails in your online writing, then you are probably well past needing my advice on writing.
I will, however, recommend one thing only — a little bit of subtlety. Writing titles that leave the reader hanging a little bit, or which don’t tell the whole story, is fine. Clear clickbait like ‘You won’t believe what she said next!’ or ‘The fourth one on the list is priceless!’ are simply annoying, and if you care at all about your blog’s presentation you should avoid them like the plague.
2. Paragraph Breaks
Four lines per paragraph is usually optimal for most regular blog formats out there. Three, five and six lines are still acceptable. More or less than that is either too light or too heavy and you should merge or split up your writing.
Naturally, this does not include single-sentence paragraphs which are deliberately kept short for rhetorical purposes, eg. ‘Let’s get started!’, ‘Are you ready?’ ‘And that was when I finally understood’, ‘Oh how wrong I was’, and others of this kind.
The blog’s thumbnail picture should be in high resolution and feature predominantly clear and bright colours, as these attract the eye. Within the article itself, you can be a bit more flexible and choose whatever pictures you like.
Assuming your paragraphs are four lines long, you should include approximately one picture every four paragraphs (adjust for passages with longer/shorter paras).
Pictures give a break to both the eye and the mind of your reader, which is why you should avoid the infamous ‘walls of text’. Any time that a reader sees nothing in their frame other than text, they should find an image the moment they scroll down again.
And this ends today’s article on structure and presentation. Join us next week for the longest article of the series as we dive into the question of style.