I have a personal blog. It’s about literature, a lifelong love of mine and my main area of study. For many years, this blog was a geeksplosion of shop-talk, assumptions, and general thinking aloud in the area in which I’d consider myself an expert. Want posts about zines at the crossroads of art and craft? How about the dissipation of the aura via Google Image search, or structuralism in spoken language? Want to hear about Kant’s sublime or the omniscient first person? No?
Welp. It’s what I wanted to talk about. I figured anyone in my field worth their salt would be able to follow what I was saying. And anyone not in my field maybe wouldn’t love the posts, but if they read carefully enough, they’d learn something. So what if the paragraphs were 15 sentences long? So what if there were no subheads? The value here was my ideas. And my ideas were worth working through the muck to get to.
How arrogant, right? That’s why I call this “vanity writing.”
Let me be clear. In as far as interacting with the world through blogging, this type of thinking didn’t get me anywhere with my personal blog. It was just a way of recording my thoughts: a way that happened to be on the internet instead of in a spiral notebook with puppies on it.
Unless you, too, want the internet to be your puppy spiral notebook, this kind of thinking will not get you anywhere with your corporate blog, either. There’s no room for this mindset unless the goal for your blog is to flatter your vanity.
When I recently revisited my literary blog, I found that I couldn’t make it through my own posts. And I (defacto) find the subject matter fascinating.
If you don’t write for readers, that’s not blogging. That’s writing in a diary.
What Is Vanity Writing?
There’s nothing wrong with writing for yourself. Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with the kind of blogging I just discussed doing, as long as I didn’t actually intend for it to reach anyone. It has to do with your goals—and it has to do with not deluding yourself into thinking you’re working towards goals when you’re not.
If you pop open a draft, write whatever it is that you feel will make you look smart, and then proudly present this face to the world, you’re not actually thinking about your readers. And if you find yourself more concerned with tone and establishing your dominance in a field than communicating value with clarity—if you view the difficulty of your material as an asset rather than a detriment—well, that’s not business blogging. It won’t get you traffic, and the people who do get to your post will wind up hurting your page ranking in the end. That’s because they won’t spend much time there before moving on to more accessible material.
Writing Beyond Vanity: Subject Matter
You have a great idea for a post. Awesome! That’s half the battle.
The next step is not to sit down and slap the keyboard until 1500 or so words appear. The next step is an exercise in empathy.
Who wants to read about this? Who’s going to learn? Don’t say “developers,” and don’t say “techies.” Picture a person, at their job, with a specific problem. Why will this post help them? How will it change the way they approach their work? Will it be educational for them? Or maybe cathartic?
Don’t do mental gymnastics to get here. It should be obvious. If it isn’t, you don’t necessarily need to toss the idea, but you should rethink how to frame your post.
Before you even start thinking about how to get it in front of a potential audience, make sure the subject material is of interest in the first place. It sounds simple—so simple, you may blow past this step, assuming you wouldn’t have thought of it if it wasn’t interesting. Don’t. Really take a moment to imagine your reader in the moment he/she comes across your content.
If you don’t, you may be writing for an audience of one. And as they say, ain’t nobody got time for that.
Writing Beyond Vanity: Readability
Once you know you’re writing on a topic of interest to developers, you have to take the next step–make the actual post readable.
One of my favorite quotes (oft attributed to everyone from Lord Byron to Nathanial Hawthorne to Maya Angelou but actually from the mouth of some guy you’ve never heard of) is “Easy reading is damned hard writing.” And it’s the truth.
It’s a rare bird who naturally writes prose that flows into the reader’s brain without any hiccups. I don’t. Not by a long shot. I guarantee that, no matter how naturally good a writer you are, your first run at a draft could use some optimization for readability.
So cruise through your post, looking for ways to break up paragraphs and sentences and make your post more readable. Otherwise, you’ve set your readers adrift in a sea of words without a lifejacket. And if you try to convince yourself that readers will work to follow you through this sea, you’re not doing yourself any favors. They’ll bounce at the slightest friction.
If your goal is to get readers, then first and foremost, you have to write readable posts. That means employing tactics that are surprisingly less art than they are method:
- Use subheads, and don’t put a lot of material under the subheads
- Don’t make your average sentence length very long (less than 20 words)
- Put your subjects and verbs close together in your sentences for easier reading.
- Don’t make your average paragraph length very long (three to five sentences)
- Use bullets and lists when possible
- Use transitions
- Explain what your post is about in a sentence near the beginning, and make sure the whole post is actually about that
- And for heaven’s sake, include an image!
A final note on this. As an editor, my most repeated advice to writers is that they should give themselves space between the initial writing of a piece and their first read-through. You have to give yourself enough time away from what you wrote that you can plausibly roleplay as one of your readers, taking it in for the first time. Give yourself enough space that you forget what you’re thinking long enough to practice the empathy so vital in writing for your readers.
Save Vanity Writing for Your Diary
Vanity writing didn’t get me followers on my lit blog. It didn’t get me shares or comments—not from people in my field, not from bookworms wanting to chat, not from young grasshoppers who wanted a primer on Bakhtin’s ideas about heteroglossia as manifested in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. What it did was act as an outlet for my ideas, which is okay for a personal blog with no real goals.
But you don’t have time to waste with pointless exercises in vanity when it comes to your business. You want to grow your following and funnel those people toward being loyal, enthusiastic customers.
Don’t flatter yourself into thinking that just because you want to write about it, people want to read about it. This just isn’t the way the world works. At all stages of writing, you must put yourself in your readers’ shoes and imagine them reading, from the conceptualization to the final edit. Don’t write for you. Write for them. It’s only then that you’ll start to see responses.