In a world of keywords and search engine optimisation, never forget the importance of telling good stories.
This post is part one of a series of posts on improving your writing as a blogger, where I share tools and techniques that consistently work for me in my writing process.
I’ve always considered myself a writer first and a blogger/influencer second. I write primarily because I enjoy writing, not for stats or money. (Although I wouldn’t say no to either – just saying.)
My blog reflects this. I focus on what interests me, not what generates the most traffic. People tell me my writing resonates with them because it comes from the heart. As someone to whom genuine engagement with one person matters far more than a thousand impressions, I take this as a huge compliment.
So in this series, I’m going to share some of my hard-won lessons from 12 years – and over two million words – of blogging. You may find some helpful, others not at all. That’s okay; we’re all different. These are my touchstones, the ones I come back to repeatedly because I know they work for me. If they work for you too, great.
I’ll come on to techniques such as deleting your first paragraph and non-linear narratives in future posts. But let’s start here with the simplest but most important lesson of all: the power of stories.
SEO attracts your audience
One of the first thing you learn as a blogger is the importance of search engine optimisation, or SEO for short.
SEO is all about seeding your posts with key words and phrases. These help people find your content by boosting your Google ranking when they’re searching for related topics.
But SEO isn’t everything.
Don’t get me wrong. It is important because it provides the signposts that bring new readers to your blog. Without decent SEO, you might as well be hiding deep in the jungle wearing camouflage gear. No one will ever find your blog, no matter how good it is.
But once someone has found you, what turns a one-off visitor into a loyal reader? Not SEO. If your posts aren’t compelling, your new reader won’t even get to the end of your first post. They certainly won’t return for more.
So what makes a blog post compelling and memorable? Think about your favourite film. Or that book you’ve re-read five times. Or your favourite comedian or speaker. What do they all have in common?
They tell great stories.
Great stories make your audience want more
Great stories don’t just use the right words. They combine those words in a magical way that sucks you in and refuses to let go. They make you want more: the next book, the next episode, the next blog post.
A good story does more than merely present the facts or lay out a sequence of events. They appeal to our emotions over our rational side in many ways. As a reader, we empathise with relatable characters. The plot flows, building tension and anticipation at key moments. (What’s going to happen next? How are they going to escape this peril?) They make effective use of changes of pace and emotion. (For instance, how often does the scariest bit of a film come immediately after a moment of light-heartedness?) And, perhaps most importantly, they walk the tightrope that balances specific detail against narrative economy.
Do your blog posts tell a story?
Now think how those principles of good story-telling translate to your blog posts.
In fact, do that now. Pick the most ordinary, mundane post you can find: a product review, say. Look at it with a critical eye and ask yourself the following questions.
Is the post relatable? Do you just talk about the ‘facts’, the product’s features and what it does, or do you make it personal by discussing how the product made you feel or how it improves your day?
Is the flow of your post dull and flat? Does one sentence roll into the next, so that a reader almost knows what’s coming before they’ve read it? Or do you surprise them occasionally?
What about changes in tempo or emotion? Do you talk with endless enthusiasm because you don’t want to mention anything negative? Is the rhythm of your writing one-paced? One long sentence after another; one long paragraph after another. Is it like reading a bedtime lullaby, sending the reader gently to sleep?
Finally, is your post the right length? Yes, a product review needs to be detailed enough to impart useful information to a potential buyer (and to squeeze in all those SEO keywords!) But is it so long that you bury the reader under an avalanche of unnecessary detail? In the simplest terms, a post is long enough if it has a distinct beginning and end, and in between provides answers to the key questions of what, who, where, when, why and how. Much more than that and you risk losing the reader’s interest.
And that’s it, really. Some blog posts lend themselves more to telling a compelling story than others. But every post you write, no matter how mundane, should always tell a story. A good writer can make a good story out of even the dullest subject in the world. That should be your aim every time you start a new blog post: tell the best story you possibly can. And just think: if you can spin a review for a £5 product into an interesting story, imagine what you could do with a post about your big family holiday, or your child’s first day at school.
Always remember this: without a story, blog posts are just words on a page. They do a job, no more. But a post with a great story can convert a reader into a fan. People remember compelling stories – and if they remember your stories, they will come back for more.