What a week! My head was spinning with half-remembered remarks, half-formed thoughts and half-baked ideas. I knew there was only one way to get it all straight: I had to confide in my diary.
Everything was set. I was tired, yet not overly so. I’d enjoyed a fine dinner. A little red wine had pleasantly loosened the bonds of reason. As I drew up a chair and lit the lamp, the universe itself seemed hushed, holding its breath for the act of creation.
But I couldn’t be arsed. So I phoned some guy who does diary entries for £10 each and told him what I wanted. He sent me something a couple of days later and all I had to do was paste it in. Sorted!
If that last paragraph seemed fine and natural to you, you might want to stop reading right here. But if it didn’t, you’re already down with my theme: blogging, like keeping a diary, is something you can’t really outsource.
Well, how did I get here?
Blogs, or ‘web logs’, evolved from online diaries, and the classic format for a post reflects this ancestry: a few hundred words long, date-stamped, written in the first person, reactive to events and coloured by opinion.
A blog as a whole is made, not born. Its themes, style and structure coalesce gradually rather than being imposed or decided at the outset. Instead of appearing as a fait accompli, it emerges in fragments, its overall shape only becoming clear over time.
Like the rings of a tree, a blog shows where you’ve been, and how far you’ve come. In the early days of this blog, I barely knew what I was writing about, or who for. (The answers were ‘not much’ and ‘almost nobody’.) So while it’s embarrassing to look back at me-too potboilers like this, it makes any progress I’ve made since then all the more gratifying.
The whole story
But it’s not all onwards and upwards. An honest blog documents self-doubt as well as self-development. If you’ve changed your mind, or can see both sides, your blog can reflect that too. Witness the way I’ve come down both pro and anti the movement for Plain English, or maintained that copywriting is an art while admitting to my own lack of creativity.
Up close, such inconsistencies do make you look a bit of a prat. Being generous, though, they show willingness to follow your ideas wherever they lead, and to share opinions you’re not completely sure of. Over time, a blog develops into a true reflection of its author (or authors), with all their contradictions, frailties and failings.
In other words, it tells a story. An individual, human story. Indeed, for most of us, our blog will be the most enduring cultural artefact we create. Your blog is the book of your life, and since work is a part of life, that’s true of business as well as personal blogs.
However, a blog isn’t just a record. It can also be a powerful force for change. Just as writing down your travels, your diet or your dreams can make a big difference to the way you think and act, so recording your deskbound thoughts can transform your working life. Blogging is a kind of vocational therapy.
Although it can be fiercely challenging, putting business ideas into words is an excellent intellectual workout. Writing clarifies ideas, chases out woolly thinking and (as noted) exposes inconsistency. It calls your bluff if you’re hedging your bets. Basically, it helps you get your head straight.
More subtly, blogging helps you know thyself. Sometimes, to write your opinions is to discover them – maybe even to be surprised by them. And that deeper self-knowledge can easily lead to new directions in your work.
Sense of purpose
This is why blogs are special: they embody the human thoughts and feelings that give life to a business. Organisations are made of people, and blogs answer the big questions about them. Why should anyone, inside or outside it, care about this business? What makes people want to be part of it, or put part of themselves into it? Why does it do what it does, and not some other thing that might make more money? What, in the deepest sense, is its purpose?
Short of physically speaking with the people in a business, shaking their hands and looking into their eyes, you’ll find your best answer on their blog. And it’s this human dimension that distinguishes a blog from other forms of commercial writing.
Arguably, Twitter does something similar, but it’s too ephemeral and fragmented. Most tweets aren’t even seen by most followers, and only the most unhinged cyberstalker reads a Twitter feed right through, like a book. Facebook is perhaps more permanent, but it’s also less pure in a textual sense: writing is only one aspect of the experience, and it’s still more about comment and conversation than extended narrative or reflection. If reading a blog is like taking a look at someone’s diary, following them on Twitter and Facebook is like meeting them in a crowded pub.
Blogging, then, is a Very Good Thing. But clearly, some blogs, and some posts, are better than others. What makes a ‘good’ blog post?
I put ‘good’ in quotes because the definition, in recent years, has been very much up for grabs. If you believe everything you read, you’ll probably conclude that good blogging is about information, opinion, entertainment, search-engine prominence, frequency, relevance, uniqueness and ‘shareability’ – ideally, all at the same time.
Some of these aims have not come from bloggers, or their audiences, but have been imposed by the middleman who stands between them. Because Google is the gatekeeper of the web, it’s skewed the idea of ‘quality’ towards its chosen proxy measures for that elusive concept: keyword density and any old backlink in the early days, social profile and human-curated backlinks more recently.
As Google tried to reflect human values in its algorithm, it placed new obligations on website owners. Suddenly, everyone had to have a blog and update it regularly. So people started blogging for the sake of blogging – not because they necessarily had anything to say that week. Blogging became less human, more mechanistic, as businesses looked for the parameters and processes that would deliver an effective blog. Having been like painting a picture, blogging was now more like painting a fence.
Welcome to the machine
Naturally, some firms resent this new drain on their resources, so they reach out to suppliers who can take the problem away.
Those who ‘get it’, and do not expect straw to be spun into gold, hook up with thoughtful, professional copywriters who will give their blog the time and attention it deserves – which is the next best thing to doing it yourself.
The rest, I imagine, end up somewhere like the site I found by Googling ‘blog writing service’, which promises ‘original blog posts that are specifically designed for your company and your industry’ that will deliver ‘a strong, stable, and consistent rise in your page rank’. ‘See our system in action’ is the call to action on the green button.
Personally, I’ve seen quite enough of this ‘system’ in ‘action’. From this wretched, utterly materialist perspective, writing is just a cog in the machine. Words are a fungible commodity that can be counted out and traded, like sugar beets. Once bought, such ‘content’ is expected to perform, to deliver value, to yield returns like any other asset. But words aren’t rivets; they’re the thread that links us together. They’re not just valuable, they’re precious.
Clearly, people doing low-rent content marketing couldn’t care less about the soul of language. But their approach isn’t just heartless – it’s pointless too.
Many of the oft-quoted aims of blogging are ferociously hard to achieve in practice. Original information? Takes time, and can cost money too. Search ranking? Tough, and getting tougher, for anything but long-tail terms. Social popularity? Hit-and-miss at best, impossible at worst (especially for intrinsically dull or ‘necessary evil’ brands like Anusol or Rentokil). As for uniqueness, it’s practically unobtainable unless you’re writing for an insanely narrow audience. And the truth is that most off-the-peg blog posts will not deliver against these exacting targets, despite the pedlars’ promises.
Instead of trying to game the system, businesspeople could consider how their own writing could help. Not by rocketing them to page one, or going viral Gangnam style, but by opening a conversation with the people who are visiting and leaving their site without picking up the phone. And as Google Analytics will readily tell you, there are always far more of those people than you might want to admit.
Sincerity, enthusiasm and understanding
Imagine you are looking for a driving tutor for your son or daughter. You find a guy through Google and click through to his site. You notice he has a blog. You start reading.
Now, you are not expecting him to write like Seth Godin. In fact, such incongruence of tone would probably raise suspicion. Instead, you’re looking for someone who understands. Someone who’s already thinking about the things that are important to you. Someone who’s sincere about what they do, and enthusiastic about the benefits they can offer you.
In this case, thoughtful posts about putting the learner driver at their ease, alternative teaching techniques and handy aides-memoires for students might go a long way.
The odd spelling slip or grammar howler doesn’t matter. You’re not marking an essay; you’re getting to know a human being. Conversely, there is no need for the blogger to try and impress you with Martin Amis-style verbal sorcery; this is a situation where simple truths beat technical mastery.
The blogger’s mindset
Creating a blog like that is all about cultivating ‘blogger’s mind’. This is a sort of ambient attunement to potential subjects, encompassing everything from current affairs and industry developments to something you saw on TV. Like volatile chemicals, ideas react when mixed, and before you know it you’re writing ‘Why learning to drive is like going on a first date’.
Chance favours the prepared mind. To get better ideas, just keep the question ‘could I make a blog post out of this?’ always at the back of your mind. Believe me, it works a whole lot better than sitting down to try and generate ideas for posts by force of will. And it’s something that can only really be done by someone within the business rather than a third party.
Blogger’s mind gave me this post about Denis Waterman. I saw the story about Waterman’s domestic abuse on the Guardian. His quotes clicked with something I knew about language. I wrote the post quickly, over breakfast, and posted it within an hour. And people liked it. (Sorry for using so many examples from my own blog, but I can’t know the thought processes behind other people’s.)
Through their eyes
When I have blogged on behalf of clients, the process has been most enjoyable and productive when I’ve got into their ‘blogger’s mind’. I’m sure those writers who provide a thoughtful, high-quality, non-commodified blog writing service aim for the same thing. Over time, it is possible to develop an approximation of the client’s worldview, allowing you to have their ideas for them.
Interviewing is by far the best way to do this. But, because it’s still like writing someone else’s diary, the results are 80–90% at best. Like digitised models of human beings, ghostwritten posts can fall into the ‘uncanny valley’ where near-perfection is somehow more unsettling than something honestly artificial. That last 10% makes all the difference.
Arguably, a better approach than writing for the client is to induct them in the way of ‘blogger’s mind’, so they can build up their own blogging muscles. Teach someone to fish, and they eat for life, as they say. But this requires some initiative and commitment on their part, and some clients aren’t prepared to ante up. In a way, it’s hard to blame them – after all, they hired someone to write for them, not chivvy them to do it themselves.
Perhaps the most compelling reason for them to make the effort is to manage the conversation that a good post can generate. Given the right process of drafting and approval, a good writer can do a reasonable job of standing in for the client within the boundaries of the post itself. But as Han Solo observed, ‘Good against drones is one thing. Good against the living? That’s something else.’ Responding to questions and challenges off the cuff, when you don’t really know what you’re talking about, is hair-raising for the writer and reputationally risky for the client. (It’s the same problem that plagues those who run Twitter accounts on behalf of clients.)
So, if bringing the personal touch to a blog is so cool, shouldn’t business people write all their stuff? Should they, perhaps, write their own websites, brochures and ads as well?
The answer is an emphatic ‘no’ – and not just because I have a vested interest.
As I’ve argued, blogging is a very particular type of writing, and the points I’ve made here don’t apply to other formats. When we look at a website or an ad, we’re not expecting to talk to a human, but to see the benefits of a product or service communicated in the most vivid and engaging way possible. And not just expecting – hoping. In this case, a bit of the copywriter’s magic is exactly what we want.
That’s why I’m still delighted that people choose me to give voice to their product or brand. But I’m increasingly uneasy about doing the same for their blog. They really might be better off doing it themselves.