What Novels Can Teach Us About Successful Blogs
The best blogs provide information, solve problems, and offer a healthy serving of entertainment.
To write a successful blog, you need to grab your audience’s attention through both the words themselves and less obvious elements (like text density and titles).
Then, once you’ve captured their attention, it becomes about how to sustain that audience—keeping them thirsting for your linguistic blood, so to speak—and coming back week after week to read more.
In this article, we’ll consider how you can engage readers, whatever the subject matter, with a few linguistic and pacing ideas thrown in.
Lessons from a Popular Author
Have you ever read a James Patterson novel? According to Forbes, he’s the most successful living author. Chances are if you read books, you’ve encountered him at some point. Despite being a novelist, there are a handful of techniques he uses which easily translate to the blogosphere.
All of his books have a recognizable style, even though many of his titles are written with a collaborator.
Some of the stylistic points include:
- Very short chapters.
- Minimal descriptive detail.
- Pacing—driven by characters and action.
- Drama—intense stories that are juxtaposed with one another, and left in mid-air at the end of chapters, driving the reader forwards.
Of course, the techniques are used in a plot full of satisfying twists and turns—another Patterson trademark. And while examining plot-points is perhaps not so relevant in the blogosphere, it’s worth bearing in mind that his intricate combination of plot and writing style is his recipe for success.
Applying Novel Techniques to Blogs
Let’s break down Patterson’s recipe a little more to see how the elements can be easily implemented in a blog.
1. Fifteen-Second Countdown
There’s a fantastic blog by Chartbeat’s Tony Haile that suggests most people spend less than 15 seconds reading a web page (for me, it’s sometimes substantially less). He also claims that most people these days confuse the value of hits to a page with people actually reading the content.
He’s got a point: how many times have you clicked on a page, skimmed it, and left? A successful blog either solves a problem for the reader or provides something entertaining or provocative. So it’s worth considering what you’re providing your audience, as well as a few other writing techniques.
Keep things short and moving forward. Just like Patterson does with his books, don’t weigh readers down with lengthy paragraphs. Visually, paragraphs of no more than 5 lines are most appealing. Nearly everyone does the same internal ‘oh no!’ when they see a wad of dense text.
Experiment with interesting layouts, fonts, and bullets/numbering to keep your blog visually stimulating. A gripping title really helps—we’ve all seen (and fallen for) ones using superlatives (the best, the most, the greatest). Oh, clickbait—when will we ever learn not to fall for you?
2. Minimal Description
As beautiful as a line like “splendid meadows, melting into tepid turquoise blue skies” is, such frivolity in a blog post quickly becomes self-indulgent and doesn’t really add much.
Like Patterson, the best way to drive your post forward is clear narrative. In this case, it means compelling characters and action. In your blog, it means finding the most interesting way of conveying your main points.
Hone in on exactly what it is you want to say, then find the most effective way to say it. Ultimately, it’s ideal to give your readers the information they’re after and entertain them at the same time.
So far we’ve looked at your blog in terms of “plot”—the framework upon which you’re going to hang the words. Now, you have to convey your story in a way that holds your reader’s attention.
Have some fun with it—the world is your oyster (or any other crustacean you want it to be). Even if your blog is about a dry topic, such as accurately filing company accounts, you should always endeavor to build a compelling narrative—so in this case, save the bit about last year’s historic profits to the end?
Above all else, your pacing and categorization of information should aim to make the blog as easy to scan as possible.
An easy way to do this is to create subheaders throughout your article. That way when they scan through your article, they see the section without much effort. For lengthy articles, you might even add an HTML Table of Contents at the top, to allow readers to jump straight to the content they want.
In a blog, ‘drama’ really means adding as much information as possible. The tone of voice you use will dictate the extent to which you can use ‘dramatic’ techniques.
Something that is linguistically casual can be more imaginative, which enables you to play more with how you arrive at your hit points. Consider the following:
Let’s face it, everyone likes to laugh. Humor seems increasingly prominent in places we wouldn’t have imagined a few short years ago.
Meme culture and advances in the way we use social media have transformed humor into a public entity where anyone can be a comedian. Just look at the ever-hilarious Boaty McBoatface.
Of course, humor is relative to what you’re writing. A personal blog allows you to be the unadulterated you. If you’re writing for a company blog or another professional context, light word-play will have the same effect on the reader as out-and-out comedy in a more casual blog.
You can see proof of this when jokes are used in any TV programs that aren’t sitcoms. Put that same joke within a sitcom, and the chances are it wouldn’t be funny enough to get a laugh. The moral: people appreciate humor relative to the amount of it there is.
In the blogosphere, humor could also be implemented as wit, observation, or even light playfulness. They all have a similar effect but try to include humor in one of those forms.
The term ‘suspense’ might be a stretch when it comes to blogs, but bear with me.
To everyone who has asked themselves “why am I doing this?” as they resignedly click through another fifteen pages to see what the entire cast of Home Alone looks like now, I say “suspense works.”
Juxtaposing topics, or even adding anecdotal remarks between points, makes a blog feel a bit more novelistic. There’s a reason we lie down at night with novels and not instruction manuals!
This is simple on your blog—it’s just you and your blogging “voice”. But the “you” that is most appropriate for the blog. Are you a sage professional providing your advice to new people in your career field, or a wacky bicycle repair guy offering repair tips? You can be as serious, wacky, or intriguing as you want to be.
We can’t deny that we adapt our personality to suit occasions. Just think about spending time with your relatives versus your friends. You’re still you, just the version in a silly crown you wouldn’t leave the house alive in, reading a joke that hasn’t got a laugh since 1976 (when it was lovelessly written by an unsmiling man in a suit who wouldn’t know comedy if it hit him around the face with a giant banana).
Simple words in short sentences? Check.
No flowery language? Check (or should that be ‘no check’?)
So what are we left with? A grey smattering of dreariness?
Hopefully not. When you recognize that all blog posts are stories you’re telling your audience, your content will begin to shine. How effective it is will come down to your own linguistic prowess and your use of the techniques we’ve identified.
As with anything like this, it’s about finding your feet. It takes time to identify your voice and what your audience is most interested in reading about. Watch the first few episodes of any TV series and you’ll see a slightly hollowed husk of what is yet to come. It takes a few ‘episodes’ to settle, so don’t be deterred. When you play around with these techniques, your blog will improve over time.