One of my many talents - aside from an unerringly accurate double-handed backhand - is, to my surprise, blogging. Not necessarily my own but others', their ghosted blogs.
The other week I was asked to speak to a selected group of PR executives as to how I approach writing a blog and it was the first time I had attempted to put down in words, or rules, what until then had sort of come naturally.
Not because I have some sort of special gift but because decades in journalism have given me the tools to make blogging work. It's not, as some snake oil salesmen out there would have you believe, something complicated, some sort of new science called, oh I don't know, 'content marketing' perhaps. It is, simply, telling a story - pitching it, sticking to a headline, writing succinctly, rewriting it even more succinctly and checking it incessantly.
The 17 stages I've identified here are not the rules, they're just my rules, how I would have approached ideas and articles as a Features Editor on national newspapers. It turns out they're ideally suited to writing a blog as well...
1) The idea. The starting point, obviously. But make sure it's an idea you care about. Don't pretend to care about something, it'll look fake. Push the idea. Normally your first take on it will be good, the second worse and the third better than both.
2) Relevance to now. It needs to have a newsy feel to it, something connected to this moment.
3) Spin it. Try to challenge convention, have a maverick opinion, swim against the tide, don't follow the sheep.
4) Why do I give a ****? Sorry, I often swear. Newsrooms do that to you. But really, why do I give a damn about your idea? Why should I care. This is crucial before even starting to write. Convince me I not only want to read this but that I need to.
5) What's the headline? In 8 words or less. If you can't do that then the idea is worthless. Honestly. Forget 140 characters as being the key to brevity. Eight words is all you need.
6) Sell it to the editor. Idea, angle, headline - now sell it as a package. To yourself, obviously, but do you buy it?
7) Who's going to write it? You, obviously, but in a newspaper office I always used to analyse whose skills and personality would most suit the idea. A blogger needs to be different people, subtle nuanced voices, chameleon-like. Who are you going to be according to the idea you have? Angry, helpful, inquisitive, flirtatious, serious, inventive, wistful, witty, playful, all of the above?
8) Who's it for? Right, at last. You're ready to write. But who's your audience? Is it inward-looking or outward? Are you trying to gain business or protect it? Do you want to shout and provoke debate or quietly add your tuppence worth. Who do you want to read this? Got him or her in your head? OK, start writing.
9) What's the personal element? Don't write about things, write about people. Be personal and anecdotal. About yourself if you like (but not too much) or about someone you know whose experiences you think will highlight the issue at hand. People, people, people. Things are boring.
10) Is there any proof? Include figures and research when at all possible. Not too much but evidence to back your premise, aside from the anecdotal, is crucial.
11) What's the picture? Some blogs are suited to multiple images. Personally, I find them distracting. If you must use an image, keep it to just one. But don't be too clever, make sure the image doesn't require too much interpretation but tells the story clearly.
12) First draft - now rewrite/cut. You will think your finished piece is perfect. It isn't. It needs editing, rewriting, cutting, possibly ripping up and starting again. Nothing - nothing - should make it without a rewrite.
13) Go back to the beginning - what's the story? Have you stuck to the idea/headline/why do I care element? Have you strayed from the premise? You spent ages at the beginning distilling the essence of the blog, don't spoil it by veering off-piste.
14) Polish that first par - the most important bit. Sometimes you'll need to redo this paragraph completely. This is the hardest bit and probably needs tightening. Perhaps bring the anecdote to the top. Don't be afraid to adjust the order of things and liberally sprinkle adjectives. Both will undoubtedly make your first draft better.
15) Does it work as a whole? Look at it all again. Does it gel? Are there different lines fighting each other? Does every single paragraph - sentence even - refer back to the headline? They should.
16) Check and check again. You've read it for mistakes, used the spell-check and are happy with it. Believe me, there are still errors. Punctuation, missing words, repeated adjectives. You are not a literary genius (sorry). Revisit your work, correct it and make it better.
17) Is it over 700 words? If so, cut it. A blog should ideally be between 350-700 words. Just enough to make a point and not to become self-indulgent and boring. I have just broken this rule, which perhaps means I don't know what I'm talking about. But then neither do hundreds of 'content experts' out there either. In fact, in the wise words of screenwriter William Goldman: 'Nobody knows anything'.