Checklists: A Blogger`s Second Best Friend

I recently wrote an article about editorial calendars and how they can help bloggers build a backlog of topics. It’s so wonderful not to run out of ideas that I called them a blogger’s best friend. I’d like to introduce you to your second best friend: checklists. This hoary organization tool can keep you from looking foolish – or worse.

If you want to read that earlier article, here’s a link. This article, however, will be more concerned with what happens after you’ve written your masterpiece of a post. The work doesn’t stop after you finish typing. In a sense, you got the hard part out of the way by writing what was once called the first draft, but now it needs a little polish.

Don’t worry; I’m not going to pretend I’m your high school English teacher and force you to write three or four drafts of the same post to get it right. That would be counterproductive. Many, if not most, blog entries weigh in at under 600 words, maintain a conversational tone, and try to find a tie-in to current events of one form or another. Even in such a casual and “ephemeral” medium (can anything on the Internet truly be ephemeral?), you must have standards.

The good news is that Theodore Sturgeon’s law applies to blogging – that is, ninety percent of everything is crap. Yes, that’s GOOD news, because simply by checking over your work and making sure it meets certain standards, you’ll already be rising above the worst examples in the field. This will help you get noticed and properly indexed by the search engines. You’ll also stand out to those using the search engines to find relevant information, which could increase your traffic.

I’d like to tip my hat to search engine marketing consultant Jennifer Slegg, whose article helped me understand the importance of a checklist to blogging. While I don’t use the one that Slegg gives, I do check my articles for many of the items she mentions. After all, good writing is good writing, whether you’re doing a blog entry or a PhD dissertation (though I should hope you’d use different “voices” with each one!). So certain rules will carry over regardless of what you’re writing.

The first points I want to address deal more with the content as a whole than all the little details. We’ll get to those details later, of course, but first, let’s look at your entire blog entry. You’re all excited about it; it came off so good that you think you can just hit publish, right? Wrong. Get up, get away from your keyboard for at least an hour, and then come back to it. Now reread what you wrote with fresh eyes, as if you were looking at a post written by someone else for the first time.

Surprised? Don’t be. If you find some twisted grammar, poorly-made points, tangled typos, or other problems, understand that it happens to the best of us. You need to make sure that what you envisioned made it from your brain through your fingers and into your file. Every word under my byline on this site has been read twice: once shortly after I wrote it, and again when I’m specifically preparing it for publication. That second reading takes place anywhere from a day to a few weeks or months after the first one. And sometimes I still miss stuff. I know this is a bigger luxury than many of you have, but if you CAN wait, even an hour or two, and then do that second reading, it makes all the difference in the world. If you get flamed, wouldn’t you rather be flamed for something you actually meant?

Let me follow that rather long point up with a short one: spell check. I don’t care if I do sound like your high school English teacher this time. Slegg thinks that “Someone needs to create a plugin that has an auto-spell check function when you hit publish,” but really, that’s no excuse. What’s stopping you from typing your blog entry into Word or WordPerfect or Writer or some other word processing program with a spell checking function before you put it in your blogging application? Absolutely nothing.

Now that you’ve looked at your content as a whole, let’s focus on your first paragraph. Does it grab your reader by the throat? Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much of one. Movies, plays, novels, stories, and similar works often start “in medias res” – in the middle of the action – so the audience will want to see what happens next. In non-fiction (and often enough, in fiction as well), whatever grabs your audience is called the hook. You should follow up strongly, but that strong beginning gives your reader a reason to pay attention in the first place. So spell out why they should bother, in the strongest appropriate terms, right in your first paragraph.

So you’ve looked at your post several different ways already. Now you need to look at the entire post one more time. How well does it read? Does it flow? Does it seem a bit awkward? An entry that stumbles when it is supposed to dance should make you hesitate to give it the spotlight. Leave it in the wings for a while and come back to rework it at a later date. You can’t put off writing because you’re not inspired, but if you think a post can be better than it currently is, sometimes it pays to let it bubble for a bit, like a good stew.

Blogging is all about linking up. More often than not, it seems, a blogger will write a post about something he or she saw online, whether it’s a news item, another blog post, a video, a podcast, or something else. Remember that the word "blog" originally stood for a shortened version of the phrase “web log,” and the earliest blogs really were that: logs and reviews of web sites the author discovered and found interesting. It’s easy enough to be true to blogging’s roots and put in the links – if you remember to do so. So let’s do another sweep of your blog post.

First, have you written a post on a topic related to this one? If so, great! That means anyone reading this entry might well be interested in that one, so it’s a good idea to include a link to it. I may have stretched the point a little bit by including a link to my earlier post on editorial calendars, but both that item and this one cover ways to improve your blog with lists and organization. If the blog entry to which you’re linking isn’t brand new, so much the better; it might inspire newer readers to hang around for a while looking over your older material.

Do you know someone else who has written a blog post on a related topic? By all means link out to it. If you share the link love, you may well get some in return.  Besides, linking out to other bloggers increases the value of your blog to your readers. You’re not only telling them things they might not have known, you’re linking them to whole sets of resources they may not have heard about. They’ll appreciate it…and keep coming back for more.

What gave you the original idea to write this post? Whether you’re commenting on a news item, taking exception to someone’s political analysis, or using a YouTube video as an educational example, you should link to that original source. It will give your readers the full perspective, and let them make up their own minds. Also, assuming you’ve enabled comments on your blog entry, it will help foster discussion; readers will be able, if they choose, to easily check out the source material and comment intelligently on it as well as on your post. I don’t know about you, but personally I’m in favor of anything with the potential to raise the intelligence of discourse on the Internet.

Remember spell checking your article in the previous section? You need to do something similar with your links. Make sure they all go where you intend them to, and that they all work. I said in the introduction that this checklist could keep you from looking foolish, right? Here’s something from Slegg that puts this in perspective: “I once saw a blog where the URL linked to was actually a snippet from an IM that the author intended to paste to someone and not the URL they planned to use.” Bloggers aren’t supposed to be absent-minded about technology; including links in your post that don’t work is a disservice to your readers.

I know you think we should be done by now, but there are a few more details you’ll need to look over. You know enough to put your article into an appropriate category, but did you remember to tag the entry? It’s just another way of getting spotted by the search engines, and, by extension, searchers who’d be interested in what you have to say. So pick a few choice words that cover the topic of your blog post, and tag appropriately.

As to the blog post’s category…well, you did remember to put it in the right category, didn’t you? If not, you’re missing out – or more precisely, your visitors are. It’s not unusual for someone visiting a blog to read the current post, see its category, and then click on the link that leads to a list of all entries within that category. And if they’re interested in other categories, you can figure that they’ll check those out as well. In short, use your categories properly and you might find that your visitors hang around for a while.

Now take a look at your post slug. This isn’t the title of your post; in WordPress 2.5, it appears underneath the title and is highlighted to help you remember. Keep it short, and include keywords from the title. This is another chance to help  your post get spotted appropriately.

Finally, are you including an image in your blog post? If so, you should look at its alt tags. Search engines can’t read images, remember, so you have to tell them what it is. Yes, this is another chance for your post to come up on the search engine results page for a relevant search. Yes, you can use a keyword here if it’s appropriate. You should NOT, however, engage in keyword stuffing. The search engines will catch it, and anyone who uses a program that actually reads web page content to them (as is typical for blind web surfers) will be bored to tears by the sheer repetitiveness of it – and they won’t come back.   

Now you know why you shouldn’t jump immediately from typing the last word in your post to hitting “publish” on your blogging software. Take your time with checking your post; a little work here goes a long way toward making you a better blogger. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to set this aside for a while before I look it over. Good luck! 

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