Advice for first time bloggers

Last week I ran some training for first time bloggers. To give some personal insight I thought a lot about my own blogging practice and how I got started. And here’s the result.

In the beginning…

I started blogging before I was even aware of what a blog was. I was a teenager, working out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. I created an account on diary-x and started writing. I’ve never thought about it before, but this means I’ve been blogging in some form for around 15 years. I’m comfortable doing it. I’ve developed a voice that I’m happy with. And yet I still get nervous every time I publish a post. I wouldn’t have it any other way – it means I care about what I’m writing and making it the best I can for the people who are going to read it.

I can’t tell you the number of blogs I’ve had over the years. I’ve always had at least one on the go, but more likely two; one personal and one professional. When I’ve set them up they’ve all had a clear purpose. Some I’ve set up and then handed on. Others were written for a specific event.

Deciding what to write about

There’s an easy answer to the question of what you’re going to write about – anything. Yes, really. As long as you’ve got a clear idea of the goal of your blog and the overarching theme, within that you can write about any topic. You don’t need to be an expert. In fact I think it helps if you’re not. What I’ve observed from interactions with the readers of my blog is that they’re looking to learn from the experiences of others in a similar position to them.

I’ve got the best response to posts where I’ve shared what I’m learning or what I’ve tried. The most popular post on my blog is about writing handover notes. I wrote it when I was looking for tips on how to write a good handover document and couldn’t find anything useful. It gets as many daily views (around 40) as it did the day it was published over a year ago. Why? It shares my experience, offers practical tips and covers a topic that isn’t written about much.

The act of writing

Once you know what the topic of your post is going to be, get the initial ideas out of your head. Put them down on paper or in a digital notepad, whatever works best for you. You might find it helpful to give yourself a time limit – I usually begin posts in my lunch breaks which gives me a deadline for getting something down. Don’t edit as you go along. You’ll end up with a rough draft or perhaps just a list of disconnected thoughts. The important thing is that it’s a start.

Now you can edit. I find it’s best to leave the draft for a while, when I come back to it with fresh eyes it’s usually obvious where to go next.

I find it’s easier to write outside of the blog environment. Only once I’ve got what I’d consider to be the final draft do I copy this to my blog editor. At this point I preview it to see how it looks in the template and give it a final proof. Once the final tweaks are made it’s finally time to publish.

Conclusion

And there you have it, my advice for getting started with blogging. I’ve summarised that stream of consciousness into a few key takeaways:

  • write about your experiences and share what you learn
  • give practical advice
  • choose topics where there’s a gap in existing writing
  • once you’ve got a topic, just get some ideas onto the page – don’t worry about order or style
  • give your draft some space and then begin to edit after a few hours

Do you have any top tips for beginner bloggers? Share them in the comments.

A year in the world of web content

In January I will have been in my role as Web Content Officer for a year. As I head into my last few working days of 2014, here’s a reflection on my first year in the world of web content.

Highlights

I’ve enjoyed getting stuck into content standards and style guides. This includes:

  • contributing to our editorial style guides with the aim of making them clearer and more comprehensive
  • working on a tone of voice guide for our new postgraduate website
  • setting parameters for improving content for mobile (which we all know is improving content for every device)

The piece of work I’m most proud of this year is overhauling our team website. Is it always the case that the web team has the worst website? Not any more. We’re now practicing what we preach; we’ve restructured, stripped back and rewritten. Part of this work involved redefining the role of our team and how we work. For this I got to embrace my inner-trainer. I facilitated a workshop in which we came up with the team’s mission and a set of guiding principles.

Challenges

Starting out in a new profession I have been slowly getting to grips with the overall context of working on the web. My work is largely with words, I’m not a techy but I need to understand the technologies that allow me to get my words online. With every new task I do, I learn a little more. One year in I think I’ve got a good enough understanding of the systems and setups at my institution.

There is a thriving community of librarians and I had a well established network that I could go to for support and advice. Coming from this, I have struggled a little to find and build a place for myself in content communities. There are many reasons for this. The ones that I have control over will form my professional new year’s resolutions. A lack of confidence has held me back this year and I’ve not been putting myself out there. Next year I need to write more, comment more, share more and start the conversation.

Events

This year I attended my first conference outside the UK, Confab Europe in Barcelona. It was also my first content strategy conference. And it was probably the best conference I’ve ever been to. All the presentations were practical and well structured. The speakers were engaging and clear. You’d expect nothing less from people who communicate for a living, right?

Closer to home I attended the University’s NU Digital event where our team had a stand. It was great to get out of the office and talk to colleagues about what we’re planning for the website in the coming year. Everyone was excited to see our new, responsive postgraduate website in action. And even more excited to hear that all our external sites will be going through a similar redesign process soon.

And finally…

From the posts I’ve written this year here are your top five:

Five takeaways from Confab Europe 2014

At the beginning of the month I attended Confab Europe in Barcelona. It was two days full of practical lessons from the great and the good of content strategy. Now that I’ve made sense of my notes here are my top five takeaways from the conference.
Goals - strategy - tactics

1. Without a strategy you’re just a bear in a field with your mouth open

From Content/Communication – Kristina Halvorson

If a bear’s goal is to feed itself, its strategy is to go down to the river and stand in it, its tactic is to open its mouth and catch fish. What happens if you take the strategy out of the equation? The bear is just standing in a field with its mouth open.

Goals identify what we want to achieve and our tactics are how we’re going to do it (or what methods we’re going to use). Our strategy provides us with a direction and helps us make decisions about what to prioritise.

2. Focus on core pages, not your homepage

From The core model: getting to business while making friendsIda Aalen and Audun Rundberg

The core model

Core pages are where users solve their tasks and reach your business objectives. The core model develops your content around these pages with a structure based on paths, not hierarchy.

NetLife Research’s five step workshop process helps you to develop your website beginning with core pages, not your homepage:

  1. Identify core pages – based on your users’ top tasks
  2. Discuss inward paths – how do users find your website?
  3. Discuss core content – based on your users top tasks
  4. Plan forward paths – what do you want users to do next?
  5. Prioritise content blocks – what will go where on the page?

3. Label your content like your post

From How to make your content flow: content strategy for smart contentTheresa Grotendorst and Ute Klingelhöfer

We need to pair responsive design with responsive content. How we do this is by giving our content structure. With this structure we can move away from thinking of content as pages, instead it becomes modular blocks that are reusable in a variety of locations.

As content becomes modular we need to have a system for determining where it gets published. When we put something in the post we label it so that it gets delivered to the right place. If we label our content in a similar way we create the structure allowing its reuse in multiple contexts (or delivered to multiple locations if we continue with the postal analogy).

4. Create a call to action for your content standards

From Speaking with one voice: how to develop a distinctive voiceAndrew Bredenkamp

When Microsoft introduced a change to their content style guide to improve their customer support language they created a call to action: Destroy. All. Robot. Language.

This was a way to get everyone onboard with what they were trying to do – to communicate as humans. The tagline goes with a practical guide showing language being used now and what to replace it with:

  • instead of modify use change
  • instead of terminate use end
  • instead of resolve use fix
  • instead of enable use allow

5. Tiny tasks are the ego of your organisation

From Key principles for creating useful self-service contentGerry McGovern

Top tasks are what our users come to our websites to do and what we should design our websites around. Tiny tasks are what we think our users need to know; they’re highly political.

Liverpool City Council found there was an inverse relationship between how important a task is to their customers and the importance the organisation gave to it. The more important a task was to a customer the less content you could find about it on the website. The less important tasks for customers had more content devoted to them on the website. These tiny tasks are the egos of our organisations and they flood our websites over time. They make it harder for users to find and act on the information they need.

Based on the top tasks identified by their customers the council reduced their website from 4000 to 500 pages. They also removed 90% of content per page. After they made these changes support calls reduced and they received just four complaints. With less content on their site their customers could now complete the tasks they were coming to the website to do. On the flip side, they received lots of complaints from their staff asking where their content had gone!

This is just one thought from Gerry’s excellent keynote, you should really watch the whole thing on YouTube.

Bonus

What to do if you're unsure of an ideaFor those times when you’re doubting yourself here’s some great advice from Hazel Jennings, ‘Instagram’s first content strategist':

If you’re unsure of something sing it loud and proud.

If you’re wrong about it you can learn and improve.

If you’re right about it others will learn from you.

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