May 2, 2008

Creating Great Blog Posts: Chasing the Elusive

A good blog post is one that is interesting, informative, or enjoyable to read. But a truly great post goes beyond that and is thought-provoking in an enduring and perhaps unexpected way. It sticks in one's mind, and inserts itself in one's thoughts hours to days after one encounters it. These highly elusive posts are like buried treasures in that they are rare but well worth the effort to uncover. So how do we bloggers create more of these treasures?

As an active reader of many quality atheist blogs, I am treated to several good posts each time I open up my RSS reader. Since I am selective about filling my blogroll with the blogs I read on a regular basis, you can find many examples of good posts there. Of course, you probably have your own favorites already too.

The great posts are out there too but far less frequent. So what makes a great post, and how might we bloggers strive to create more of them?

Before we start, it is important to understand that "great" is in the eye of the beholder and that what I find exemplary you might find trivial. This is the case because the greatness of a great post is determined by the interaction between the content of the post and the mind of the reader. But while there is undeniable subjectivity here, I submit that there are some common elements of great posts that at least partially transcend our varied preferences.

Recognizing Great Posts

Before we can say anything about how to create great posts, we must start by focusing on the reader side of the interaction and understand how greatness is recognized. The simplest way to put it is to say that a great post makes an impact on the reader. A great post makes the reader think or feel. The reader's experience is changed from his or her encounter with the post.

The impact is nearly always experienced as emotional (i.e., the post is perceived as striking a nerve) or aesthetic (i.e., the reader experiences the beauty of the post). Even in cases where the reader experiences a post as thought-provoking, such an experience typically includes emotional relevance and appreciation for the beauty of the content. That is, even an exceptionally clever argument is unlikely to make a lasting impact if it packs no emotional or aesthetic punch.

Great posts spark the reader's internal dialogue by asking the reader to struggle with something. The emotional relevance provides the motivation for the reader to engage in the struggle, and the post typically raises questions in the mind of the reader which prolong the post's impact. Such questions are not necessarily explicit but are nevertheless often raised in the reader's mind.

Thus, from the side of the reader, great posts:
  • Affect the reader after his or her encounter with them
  • Provoke thought or emotion
  • Are emotionally relevant and/or aesthetically pleasing
  • Raise questions
Creating Great Posts

One interested in creating great posts is encouraged to first consider the lessons relevant for writing good posts. As one example, most blog readers appreciate posts of variable length. If every post ends up being a lengthy treatise, few readers will have the patience to stick around. Similarly, if every post is a brief comment or the dreaded YouTube only post, most readers will gravitate elsewhere. Another closely related example concerns the mix of original and derivative content. A blog that offers nothing but summaries of others' posts or of news articles provides readers with little reason to return. And yet, few have the time, insight, or life experience to post regular exclusively original content. Once again, it is a question of balance.

So what about great posts? They tend to take time, effort, and insight and should be recognized as infrequent occurrences even for the best bloggers. What's worse, we never know how our posts will interact with particular readers to provoke the experience of greatness. This means that the best we can do is describe methods for increasing the likelihood of great posts.

A useful starting point is the observation that great posts provoke more questions than they answer. A post that engages the reader by raising questions, whether explicit or implicit, is more likely to have an impact than one attempting to provide definitive answers. For a quick example, see this brief post at Debunking Christianity.

Because we are going for impact, we can add that questions with high emotional relevance are going to better advance our goal than those dealing with more abstract or esoteric domains. Questions about the origins of the universe do have a certain aesthetic appeal, but questions about how you and I should treat those who actually believe in supernatural entities with whom we interact tend to have greater emotional relevance for many of us. The importance of emotional relevance also reminds us that posts filled with abstract, mildly irrelevant questions are likely to be worth little (oops!).

Aside from questions, another useful way of increasing emotional impact is selective self-disclosure. I say selective because I am not suggesting that you turn your blog into a diary. While appealing to some, such blogs seem to be fairly short-lived. Instead, I am suggesting that great posts often contain something of their author.

Lastly, variability is a must. Because of the unpredictability inherent in knowing how readers will interact with posts, one should cast a wide net. Part of what makes great posts great is that they stand out. Be selective in the pursuit of greatness.

Thus, one's likelihood of creating great posts can be enhanced by:
  • Studying the widely available suggestions for writing good posts
  • Raising questions instead of attempting to provide definitive answers
  • Focusing on questions with high emotional relevance
  • Using selective self-disclosure
  • Writing variable posts rather than aiming for greatness on each one
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