Ideas Of March

This week I was pointed, somewhat ironically through Twitter, to a blog post from Chris Shiflett about how we need a blogging revival. Which is something I quite agree with as although Twitter is great for a sense of community, it is impossible to impart good technical knowledge and/or experience through 120 characters.

Blogs are a fantastic resource. I have lost count of the times that I have been stuck on a problem and after a quick bit of searching I have found a blog post from someone who had exactly the same problem, but managed to find a solution to it. I have quite a few people who have done the same thing with #! code and have posted comments on how I have helped them out, which I find really rewarding.

Blogs are not just good news for the technical community either. I subscribe to a few scientific and skeptical blogs these are a simply amazing resource to find out the real science (and sometimes truth) behind scientific news stories where the journalist has posted something they clearly don't understand or care about. There is now a large community of different bloggers who will write about the latest research, partly to combat sloppy journalism, but mostly because they love doing it, and it shows. I can't say how many times I have seen a news story on television and then gone online to read a couple of blog posts about it and found that it was either wrong or misinterpreted.

So, to pitch in with the idea behind Ideas of March I thought I would talk about how I write blog posts. I tend to write in a particular way, and telling people what my process is might push some people to start (or restart) their own blogs.

The Idea
All the blog posts I write usually start with an initial idea. Once I have an idea I usually start by opening a text editor and writing a few lines of text about what I want to write about. This usually pushes me into new areas that I hadn't thought about initially but writing down ideas is important as I would otherwise forget about them. After a few minutes I'll end up with a few bullet points that cover what I want to write about.

Some blog posts are written in the exact opposite way. I will write some code or discover something interesting, or even attend an event and then write a blog post about that subject. These are normally easier as I will have done most of the thinking before hand when trying to solve the problem, but there is still a degree of effort in turning it into something that people will understand.

Some people will not write technical blog posts as they assume that they can't think of the initial idea. It isn't an easy process, but the best thing you can do is think about your experiences. Try to think about any problems you might have encountered or things you might have found out about during your research. One brilliant tip is that if asked a question and can talk about it then you can easily write a blog post about it.

If the idea requires a bit of research then this is usually done before I write much of the article. I have found in the past that I will start the article and then do some research and find that the subject isn't quite right or that my initial idea is impossible. Doing the research early in the post writing process can mitigate writing lots of content that isn't going to be used. After nearly 4 years writing technical articles I now have a good idea of what to write about and can generally see a good blog post before doing any research.

The First Sentence
This is probably the trickiest part of the process, and it is something that I will probably rewrite at least twice on lengthy blog posts. You can often find yourself writing the same post introduction over and over again and getting out of that habit is a must. I think the best policy here is just to jump straight into what you are talking about and keep pleasant introductions to a minimum. Sometimes the code I am writing about pretty much speaks for itself, but I like to add a few lines to explain what is going on.

The Title
I leave writing the title of the post until quite late in the process. This is because my initial idea might not be the main focus of the post once I have finished. I might even end up splitting one post into two if it is quite long or I want to cover different aspects of the same subject. The title is an important part of the post as it can catch the user's eye and bring them onto the site and is also important for SEO.

The worst thing you can do is write sensationalist titles that have nothing to do with the post in question. These will serve only to annoy your users and increase your bounce rate. You have to make sure that the title introduces the user to the content of the post in a very succinct manner. A good heuristic here is to think about how your post will be linked through Twitter. If you can get you title, a link and a couple of hash tags into a single Tweet (preferably with room to spare) then that is good.

Proof Reading
I think my writing skills are pretty good, but I always make the point of proof reading everything I write and I am a little bit dyslexic and will end up swapping words around or using completely the wrong word entirely. Some people are able to write posts without any proof reading at all, and I quite envy that.

My proof reading process will usually take one of two routes. If the post is quite small, say less than a page of text, then I will proof read it twice before I post it. I usually end up writing extra bits at this stage to make sure I have covered things I might have missed.

If the post is very long then I will usually get someone else to proof read it before I post it. This is essential for long posts as I tend to leave in silly mistakes, like I mentioned above.

Final Check
It is important to make sure that everything is in place before posting, just sit there for a second before you click on that publish button and give everything a once over. This site has a meta tags plugin and a category list that must be filled in before posting a post so my last step is to fill in those areas before hitting post.

Of course, what works for me won't necessarily work for you. You need to find the right way to think about writing posts. I would say that it isn't as hard as you initially think. I usually have at least 5-6 posts on the go at any one time and try hard to get at least one post a week on the site.

The best part about blogging on this site is that more often than not someone will say "I've got no idea how to do X" and I will mention that I've written about X on #! code and that they should take a look. Not only does #! code then become a central resource for both myself and my colleges, it also means that I have good technical knowledge about a whole range of things becase I have spent the time and put in the research.

Part of Chris's idea was to also comment on other blogs and I will start doing that more, even if it's just a "thanks, this was really helpful". Posting encouraging comments on peoples blogs helps to create the same sense of community outside of social media sites and helps to keep them blogging.

From the beginning of the year I made the decision to try and blog more, but to concentrate on this blog, and I will definitely be continuing this trend. If you don't have a blog of your own but feel that you want to give it a try then you could even write for #! code, we would love to hear from you. It is a rewarding process.

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