Two years ago, I began doing what I’ve always wanted to do. I began writing regularly about the interface between Christianity, politics, and public life. And, I began writing primarily for everyday Americans rather than for scholars and graduate students.
The transition has not been an easy one for me.
I had grown accustomed to writing scholarly articles and essays in which I displayed an anxiety of citation, dropped phone books of scholarly names, provided a tangled spaghetti of cross-references for every idea, and surrounded each assertion with a praetorian guard of nuances and qualifications.
I needed to learn how to write all over again. My college mentor, sports journalist John Carvalho, taught me how to write clearly and effectively for everyday Americans, but during my doctoral studies, I unlearned every good thing he taught me.
Thus, I spent the last two years trying to learn how to write effectively for everyday Americans. Instead of writing for scholarly journals or publications, I’ve written for my own website, Fox News Opinion, The Daily Signal, The Gospel Coalition, and The Daily Caller.
Even though I have significant room for improvement, after two years of practice my writing is considerably less bad than it was.
For that reason, I offer a dozen tips for aspiring bloggers or opinion writers, hoping that the lessons I’ve learned might be helpful for you also. I’ll state each lesson in the form of an imperative.
Choose the right subject matter and structure.
The best blogposts cover subject matter that fits the author’s area of expertise, conveys passion about the subject, and addresses the target audience’s specific needs. If a post does not meet these criteria, it might not be worth writing.
I’ve determined that I will spend most of my time addressing subjects at the intersection of Christianity, politics, and public life. Within those parameters, I’ve found that my readers are most receptive if I structure my subject matter as a response to a prominent event in the news cycle, structure it as a list, offer it as a “how to” guide for a challenging situation, or compose it as a multi-part series explaining complicated policy issues or socio-political movements. Thus, I conceive most of my posts as explicitly Christian reflections on public life, written with my audience’s preferences in mind.
Know what you want to accomplish.
The best blog posts and opinion pieces communicate one big idea instead of chasing rabbit trails. After all, most Americans will not read a blog or opinion piece that is longer than 800 words. That’s barely enough to communicate one idea, much less several.
Good writers also hone in on what effect they want their article to have on the reader. Are you writing to help your reader understand a complex issue? To change their mind about something? To motivate them to action? This decision will affect the structure and style of the article.
Be clear about the audience to whom you are writing.
The best articles are written with a clearly defined audience in mind. Only after you have decided to whom you are writing are you ready to write the article, craft a headline, and choose a featured image. In other words, if your headline, image, and article coalesce to communicate to a specific audience, you will win fans among that audience, and you won’t frustrate readers who aren’t interested.
I write for several audiences, but I try to find ways of letting my readers know if a particular article is “for them” or not. When I am writing for everyday Americans, I write shorter articles (600-800 words), title them in a more popular manner, and write an introductory paragraph that is accessible for a broad range of people. When I am writing for specialists or a more academic crowd, I write longer articles (1,500 – 2,500 words), title them in a more technical manner, and write an introductory paragraph that lets the reader know it will be more in-depth.
Read comparable articles to ensure your article adds value to the conversation.
A good thought leader or writer will take the time to do fresh research on the subject matter at hand, Googling the most recent and important articles on the topic. Doing so allows you to make sure your content is accurate and adds value to pieces that have already been written. The value you add might be the concision of your article, the inclusion of new or underemphasized points, the summative nature of it, its style and tone, or its intended audience.
Keep it brief if you want people to read it.
Most Americans will not read long articles. If you want people to read what you write, you should compose posts that are 600-800 words, paragraphs that are uncluttered, and sentences that are short and lucid. This has been a very difficult discipline for me because my scholarly impulse is to nuance and qualify every statement I make. However, if your article is too long or complex, you severely limit the number of people who will benefit from its content.
Start writing even if your time is limited.
Once you’ve determined what you want to write, researched the subject matter, and envisioned your target audience, take an hour or two to compose an outline and write a rough draft. If you’ve outlined well, then drafting the post is straightforward; just put flesh on the bones of the outline. I usually jot down a simple outline and then write an entire draft from start to finish.
If you don’t have time to compose an outline and rough draft, don’t set the project aside. Go ahead and write the first paragraph or two. Why not write what you can when you can? You can always come back to finish the article. I rarely have more than a brief snatch of time, here and there, but even brief snatches of time are enough for a determined writer to get stuff done.
Edit like a beast (if time allows).
If your calendar allows, put the rough draft aside for at least a few hours so that you can clear the decks mentally. Return to it with fresh eyes. Sometimes you’ll need to make only minor revisions. Other times, you’ll have to make substantive revisions. Still other times, you’ll realize that your first draft is a lost cause that needs to be put in the trash.
Edit ruthlessly. Eliminate everything that doesn’t fit your main purpose or thesis. Check the introductory paragraph, transitional sentences, and concluding paragraph to make sure you’ve led the leader along a clearly-marked linguistic path. Revisit your sentence structure and word choice. Evaluate the article’s style and tone.
Ask somebody to proofread and edit your article.
Ask a friend or colleague to proofread and edit your work. In the best scenario, that person would be a professional editor. If you don’t have access to a professional editor, find a friend who majored in English or journalism. And, if you can’t find friends who majored in writing, find a friend who is willing to read the article carefully and thoughtfully.
If you are writing on a deadline and are unable to ask another person to proofread or edit before you post, you’ll find that your readers often give feedback about typos and other minor revisions. In these instances, thank them and encourage them to give similar feedback on future posts.
Make final edits, including formatting and linking.
The best posts are formatted with the reader in mind. Most American readers will put an article down if it is longer than 800 or so, if it has lengthy paragraphs or complex sentence structures, and if it does not have clear and helpful headings. For that reason, I recommend making final cuts to any material that is unnecessary, breaking longer paragraphs into shorter ones, streamlining and simplifying your sentences, and inserting helpful headings.
Another way to serve the reader is to provide links to articles, books, videos, or other resources that support your argument, provide access to other points of view, or point readers to other substantive resources.
Craft a compelling title.
If you’ve worked so hard to create a substantive and helpful post, why bury it with a lousy headline? The title should accurately describe your thesis or some aspect of the article (else, it is clickbait) and should persuade the reader of the article’s value. The payoff of a good headline is that potential readers are more likely to click and more likely to share on social media.
I recommend brainstorming until you have at least three or four ideas for your headline. I like to create several different “types” of headlines for each article, making my final choice only after having compared and contrasted the merits of each. If you’re having a hard time thinking of titles, read an article or two about how to compose good titles (such as this one and this one) try Googling phrases such as “top headlines” or “most shared headlines” to get some good ideas.
Choose a magnetic image.
Equally important is the image you choose. Do not underestimate the importance of the image. With social media such as Instagram and Facebook, images have proven to be more important even than the title or introductory paragraph. In my experience, the perfect image is difficult to find. I start by looking for free images offered at sites such as Pixabay and Pexels, but sometimes purchase an image at sites such as Shutterstock.
Make a social media plan.
Finally, publicize your article by creating thoughtful social media posts. Through Tweetdeck, I schedule three or four tweets linking to the article. Through my Facebook author page, I schedule one or two posts with links. Sometimes, I utilize the article’s headline for each of my tweets and Facebook posts. Usually, however, I mix it up by utilizing the article’s headline in a couple of the social media posts, while creating new text for the other posts. The “new” text might be an alternative headline, a question that piques the reader’s curiosity, or a catchy pull quote from your article. When I provide multiple and varied types of social media links throughout the day, I have a better chance of getting the attention of potential readers who have different schedules, different learning styles, and different interests.
One more thing…
One more thing. As I began the transition from writing exclusively academic material to writing more popular-level material, my publisher—Broadman & Holman—connected me with a wickedly sharp adviser named Chris Martin. Chris is the genius behind LifeWay Social whose job to help authors, church leaders, and others better use blogging and social media for the kingdom. If you are interested, check out LifeWaySocial.com.