Writing well is a superpower.
Great writers are great thinkers, capable of using the written word to impose structure on nebulous ideas and simplify the complex. They’re persuasive, able to create ironclad arguments to defend their beliefs. They’re interesting, masters in the art of winning attention. They can reach across oceans and continents to create real, personal connections with their readers.
Most important of all, great writing can be taught.
The following article details the nuts-and-bolts process we follow to consistently publish high-quality content marketing. It documents the guiding beliefs that separate good content from great content, and it contains more than a few practical takeaways that every writer can use to quickly improve their work.
This is our answer to the single question that our team has devoted centuries of cumulative time to answering: How do you write a blog post?
Writing well is a superpower.
How to Write a Blog Post (That Readers Care About)
- How to Find Ideas
- How to Interview Someone for an Article
- How to Outline
- How to Write an Introduction Hook
- How to Write Persuasively
- How to Write with Authority
- How to Write a Conclusion
- How to Make Your Article Skimmable
- How to Choose a Great Title
How to Find Ideas
Great writing can’t cover for bad ideas. The best content writers spend as much time honing their ideas as they do the nuts-and-bolts of their writing skills and writing style, and at Animalz, there’s a process we use to help workshop and strengthen ideas: the Idea Farm. Writers collect the “seeds” of ideas, spend time nurturing them, and write them only once they’ve grown to a mature state.
Collect the Seeds of Good Ideas
Many writers use keyword research as their default starting point, but this has limitations. Not all great ideas have a convenient 500-monthly search keyword associated with them. Many great ideas have been weakened by forcing the unnecessary constraint of keyword targeting upon them. There are many types of content, and not every article needs to be SEO content.
As well as keywords, the seeds of great ideas can be found through:
- Sales conversations and customer feedback
- Internal meetings, conversations, and Slack channels
- Unfinished snippets from past articles
- Books, blogs, newsletters, and research papers
- Forums, social media, and communities
Nurture Them to Fruition
Not every idea is great from the outset. Sometimes they need time to sit in the backwaters of your consciousness. Other times they need more data or a different framing to be the best they can be. You can encourage this process by:
- Finding commonalities between ideas. By looking for the common threads between your ideas, you can often find a bigger, better insight lurking just beyond the periphery of your vision.
- Test new angles. Experiment with new framings for your idea: Focus on one smaller nuance of your topic, or zoom out to give a 10,000-foot view; turn a generic article into a concrete case study, or borrow a hook from a different discipline.
- Get input from a peer. Your colleagues help identify your most compelling ideas; ask questions to further your thinking, and add their unique experience and perspective into the mix.
Harvest Ideas When They're Ripe
It can be helpful to identify the characteristics that mean a blog post idea is ready to write. There are four factors you can consider when vetting ideas:
- Impact: How will this blog post influence your company and your goals?
- Originality: Are you adding something new to the discourse?
- Credibility: Is your argument the strongest it could be? Do you have the right evidence to validate it?
- Timeliness: Is now the right time to share this story?
How to Interview Someone for an Article
Anyone can write a blog post by opening up a page of search engine results, reading half a dozen articles, and publishing their own mishmash interpretation of the topic—no expertise, experience, or real research required.
But even if these articles manage to rank for their target keyword (no sure thing in today’s ultra-competitive search environment), they’ll never manage to achieve the one thing that really matters: convincing the reader that real experts wrote them.
Interviews with industry experts (often called subject matter experts, or SMEs) are the fastest way to write credible, authoritative content. We run interviews with SMEs all the time to add new insights into content and make blogging easier. While the process is simple—ask questions that help you write your article—we’ve picked up a few tips for getting the most from every interview.
- Ask “dumb” questions. As an interviewer, your job is not to become a subject matter expert. Instead, you are a conduit for your readers’ questions. Don’t rely on your intuition to brainstorm good questions—ask, “Is this something my reader would care about? Does it make sense, given their level of experience?”
- Use prepared questions as prompts, not as an agenda. Interview questions provide a useful starting point for discussion, but don’t be afraid to deviate from the plan and let your subject matter expert guide you to better insights.
- Identify the core themes from your interview. Group related quotes together into a handful of big ideas that can serve as the basic structure of your article—the core steps in a process, the pros and cons of a particular tactic, or simply the most interesting stories raised in the interview.
- Cut any ideas that don’t reinforce the main narrative. Most interviews will have a few asides or anecdotes that—though interesting—don’t strengthen your article’s primary argument. Cut them to prevent bloat and from muddying the waters of your article (but save them in your Idea Farm for later and possible inclusion in future articles).
- Call out specific language to use as pull quotes. Some parts of your interview will be useful for structuring the general narrative—you’ll paraphrase them and work their contents into your writing indirectly. Others are useful to use as direct quotes, using the SME’s exact language as a catchy quote or illustrative example.
- Use your SME’s idiosyncrasies within the article. The sparing use of your interviewee’s unique quirks—like their favorite idioms or their penchant for exclamation points—can make a bylined article feel more familiar and convey their personality in the finished piece.
- Restate their own argument back to them in clearer terms. Like most humans, your interview subject will find the thrust of their argument gradually, often using your call to think out loud. Your content creation should skip this exploratory process and present their finished argument in clear, organized language—making the SME sound even smarter in the process.
- Recap the thesis of your article to get buy-in on the call. As you synthesize your interviewee’s comments and begin to construct the narrative of your article, try sharing it directly with your interviewee, live on the call. Explain the direction you intend to take their quotes, and give them the chance to explicitly buy-in—avoiding any potential surprises when they see the draft for the first time.
Deep dive: How to Interview Someone for an Article
How to Outline
Outlines form the backbone of our writing process. We think of them as roadmaps: a written plan that ensures our reader reaches their destination by the end of each article while hitting each key point on the way.
We’ve built our outlining process around three key stages:
- The Thesis: Every article exists to argue a point, whether it’s that companies need to cultivate an ownership mindset or that call tracking is a crucial marketing analytics tool. Your thesis is a one-sentence summary of this argument, designed to focus your energy on your core topic (and help you communicate the premise of your article with your boss, editors, and teammates).
- The 10%: A 10% outline (so named because your article is—roughly—10% complete at this stage) is a bullet point list of the key points required to support your argument. Your 10% might be a list of the steps involved in a particular process, a selection of compelling reasons why your thesis is true, or even a chronological series of events that tell a complete story.
- The 30%: Your 10% contains the broad strokes of your argument; the 30% is where you add in supporting evidence. We aim to add two to four supporting points to add clarity and persuasiveness to our key points: supporting examples (real or hypothetical), convincing statistics, expert quotes, or answers to anticipated objections.
Deep dive: How to Write a Blog Post Outline
To help gauge when an outline is “finished,” we use a framework borrowed from McKinsey: mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive, or MECE for short. Great articles cover their subject matter in enough detail to avoid missing ideas (collectively exhaustive) while managing to avoid repetition or straying into unrelated areas (mutually exclusive).
How to Write an Introduction Hook
The introduction performs the real heavy-lifting of any article. It has to vie for attention with a thousand competing distractions and hook the reader’s interest. It has to clearly and concisely introduce the topic at hand and build the reader’s confidence that the article really gets their problem. It has to offer enough value to persuade the reader to stick around—all within a paragraph or two.
Faced with these constraints, great writers usually stick to a handful of familiar principles:
- Use a hook to snag attention. Great introductions surprise their readers with something unanticipated, be it a metaphor, hypothetical question, quote, or data point. Instead of slipping into the same well-worn tropes as every other blog post (“Did you know that most sales teams ...”), it uses the unexpected to force the reader to pay attention.
- Provide substance with a clear thesis. While the hook supplies interest, the thesis—a one- or two-sentence summary of the argument you intend to make in your article—sets clear expectations of the value your article is going to deliver.
- Highlight concrete benefits from reading. Great articles leave their readers richer for having read them by teaching new processes, explaining useful strategies, or telling compelling stories. By pointing out these benefits, right at the start of your article, you provide a clear reason to stick around and read on.
- Connect your introduction to the rest of the article. The very best introductions set up a hook that piques the reader’s interest and connects to the rest of the article. The hook—for example, a story about shark fishing—is a structural part of the article, making it easier to grok the topic at hand.
Many professional writers work on the assumption that it’s good to “tease” the reader in the introduction. They hint at the value on offer and try to lure the reader deep into the article to earn their payoff. But when dozens of other articles vie for that reader’s attention, the more likely outcome is a quick tap of the back button.
How to Write Persuasively
Persuasion is the core purpose of any article. The writer’s job is to convince the reader that the idea they’re presenting—be it a product, process, story, or opinion—is credible (ideally so credible that they take action on it). But few articles are written with persuasion in mind. Instead, they dump their ideas onto the page and hope that the reader will connect the dots (spoiler: They won’t).
To solve this problem and create consistently persuasive content, we use an ancient philosophical framework called thesis, antithesis, synthesis:
- Thesis: Present the status quo, the viewpoint that is currently accepted and widely held: “Great writing should be persuasive.”
- Antithesis: Articulate the problems with the thesis (sometimes called “the negative”): “But most writing relies on the reader connecting the dots themselves.”
- Synthesis: Share a new viewpoint (a modified thesis) that resolves the problems: “Make writing consistently persuasive using the thesis, antithesis, synthesis structure.”
Thesis, antithesis, synthesis can be thought of as a type of persuasive argument called “best objection”: You’re attempting to articulate the reader’s strongest possible objection and systematically refuting it. But there are other types of persuasive argument, and the best writing uses multiple “strands” of evidence in conjunction:
- Best objection: A strong argument may, counterintuitively, inspire doubt because it’s so strong: Readers will think you’re duping them. Tackling the best objection head-on gives readers the chance to entertain the other side of the argument, making them feel as though they have come to an objective conclusion.
- Repetition: Your best arguments don’t exist inside articles; they exist across them. Readers need to see multiple arguments, in multiple types, across multiple occasions to be convinced. The bigger the idea, the more times you’ll need to convince them.
- Narrative storytelling: Narrative arguments make the case that readers should accept a conclusion because it follows from a logically coherent narrative. Writers will often write about a personal story or tear down an example from another company and use that narrative to reveal a conclusion they want the reader to accept.
- Data analysis: Data arguments marshal previously unused or unanalyzed information to support a claim. Writers use data to show that their claims are rooted in objective evidence and that readers should follow what the data implies.
- Social proof: Social proof is an appeal to collective authority—that because numerous people (ideally, experts in their fields) believe something, then readers should, too. Writers will use survey answers, interviews, or community feedback to leverage a reader’s innate tendency to follow the crowd.
Successful content will use one of these methods of persuasion. Great writing will use multiple “threads” of evidence and weave them together into an irresistible argument.
How to Write With Authority
You’ve probably had the experience of reading an article that comes within a hair’s breadth of credibility but falls just short. It’s technically accurate. Parts of it might be helpful. It’s almost a convincing, authoritative read—but it fails the final sniff test. It feels like marketing.
These near-miss articles fail because they lack the subtle hallmarks of experience that give their authors credibility. There’s a name for these hallmarks of experience: shibboleths, the small quirks and turns of phrase that prove that the writer knows their subject matter inside out.
These shibboleths can’t be understood from reading the top-ranking blog posts—they can only come from walking a mile in the shoes of your target audience. Thankfully, there are a few ways to do just that:
- Hang out where they hang out. Read the same publications, follow the same blogs and newsletters, participate in the same forums. For developer content, that might mean Hacker News, Dev.to, or r/devops. For content about marketing strategy or content strategy, that might mean following influential marketers on Twitter or joining a Slack community.
- Get content reviewed by your ideal reader. Find someone from your target audience willing to read, review, and comment on the believability of your writing. Ask them to go beyond the technical accuracy of the piece and leave feedback on the use of language, the credibility of the examples, and the framing of the advice.
Deep dive: Why Readers Can Smell Fakes a Mile Away
How to Write a Conclusion
There’s a psychological concept called the peak-end rule. It suggests that our experience of an event is disproportionately shaped by the peak—the most intense part of the experience—and the end. For writers, that means that a reader’s perception of an article is shaped in large part by the conclusion.
Many blogging guides suggest using the conclusion as a place to recap an article’s key points, but with the peak-end rule in mind, that’s a problematic suggestion. A rote summary of the article the reader just read is forgettable, and—if you’ve properly applied the BLUF principle (explored in the next section)—not necessary. A boring conclusion creates the perception of a boring article.
Instead, the conclusion is a place to deliver extra value, to leave a lasting impression, and most important of all, to inspire the reader. There are several frameworks you can use to do just that:
- Growth inspiration: Your article has taught the reader a useful skill—so what can they do with it? If you’ve taught the reader how to improve the checkout for their ecommerce store, build their excitement at the bigger, better entrepreneurship opportunities they’ve just unlocked: reduced cart abandonment, more revenue, and more opportunities to scale their business. If you’ve pointed out why Google isn’t a perfect search engine, get the reader excited about how they can practically apply that knowledge.
- Reframing: We all process information in different ways, and the conclusion can be a good place to reiterate a key point in a slightly different way, using a different metaphor or focusing on a different part of the process. This example introduces a new metaphor—an arms race—to provide a different access point into the same key point: Digital marketing gets more competitive over time.
- The extra serving: Sometimes, a great anecdote or data point doesn’t make it into your finished draft. These little “extras” can be useful to include in the conclusion as an additional point of interest that piques interest right at the end of an article. This works particularly well in interview-driven content, like this article, allowing you to use catchy quotes that didn’t quite fit the flow of the article proper.
How to Make Your Article Skimmable
No matter how beautifully written your blog post, the chances are high that your readers won’t read it from end to end. When we analyzed 150 million page views of data in our content marketing benchmark report, we found that the median time on page is 3 minutes and 15 seconds—about as long as it takes an average reader to read 400 words.
But if you embrace the need for “skimmable” content, you can make sure that readers get a huge amount of value from your article—whether they read a thousand words or just a hundred. Here’s the simple toolkit we use to make web content as “skimmable” as possible:
1. Break up your text
Huge walls of unbroken text cause most readers’ eyes to glaze over. If you have more than three or four paragraphs of text without some sort of visual break, use one (or more) of the following devices to break it out into visually manageable chunks:
- Use H2s, H3s, and H4s to call out key points and present a clear hierarchy to your information (“this is the key point, this is a supporting point,” and so on).
- Turn long run-on sentences into numbered lists, bullet points, or checklists wherever possible.
- Highlight, bold, or italicize key text, like punchy statistics or important quotes.
- Use pull quotes to inject expertise in a visually interesting way.
2. BLUF it
Make it easy for readers to jump to precisely the information they need:
- Add a table of contents at the top of your article that connects to corresponding sections using anchor points, so readers can easily find the exact info they want.
- Open each section with a one- or two-sentence summary of your key takeaway.
At Animalz, we use a principle called BLUF to add immediate value to everything we write: Bottom Line Up Front. Introductions and paragraphs open with the most important details first: the key takeaways, the important data, the story’s punchline. The reader gets value, and they read on for additional context—not because of a cheap bait-and-switch.
3. Add images and visual storytelling elements
Images are a great way to break up text and, in some instances, information is simply best communicated in a visual format—like workflows or screenshots. Add in the fact that just over a fifth of SEO traffic (22.6%) originates in Google Images, and creating original, relevant, and eye-catching graphics can increase your organic traffic significantly.
- Use screenshots or GIFs when you’re referencing website content or describing how to do something online.
- Create simple diagrams that illustrate core concepts from your article (they don’t have to be fancy—like this example).
- Match the intent of your keywords by adding visual templates (for keywords like “article brief template”) or simple calculators (“how to calculate inventory turnover”).
How to Choose a Great Title
Great articles can still be undone by weak titles. Like the book that’s judged by its cover (c’mon, we all do it), article titles play a disproportionate role in determining whether your article earns a “click” from curious readers.
Sometimes great titles emerge fully formed right from the outset of the content creation process. But, more usually, they require dozens of iterations to workshop and gradually refine. For that reason, we often ask our content writers to brainstorm as many blog post titles as possible. Usually, this results in five or six so-so and extremely similar titles, all variations on a theme.
It can be helpful to play with a few different guiding principles to help writers bust out of their rut:
- Help your readers get promoted. We all want to be better at our jobs, earn greater recognition, or get more done in less time. All articles should help the reader improve some area of their life, so figure out what desirable result your piece of content is going to help readers achieve, and write a title that highlights that benefit.
- Reverse everyday expectations. A lot of content exists to argue against convention, and powerful titles can come from finding the “truism” that your article refutes (that content marketers have to be great writers, for example) and turning it on its head (“You’re a Content Marketer, Not a Writer”).
- Show your work. Some articles are easy to write titles for: You just have to own the value you’re delivering and be slightly immodest about showing it off. “10 Tips for a Better Post-Welcome Email” is a functional title, but—assuming you put effort into your analysis—this is a dramatic undersell. “Lessons from an Epic Analysis of 50 Welcome Emails” does a better job at reflecting the effort that underpins your writing.
- Mine the specific for universal truths. Imagine you title a post on Facebook ads “8 Psychological Tips for Making Your Facebook Ads More Powerful.” It’s a functional title, but there are often more interesting specificities hiding within your writing—like data suggesting blue ads get clicked the least. That suggests a more specific (and more interesting) title: “Why Your Facebook Ads Shouldn’t Be Blue.”
- Get out of the story’s way. Sometimes a number (like a conversion rate) or a name (like Amazon) is the real story behind what you’re writing, and your job as a title-writer is mainly to get out of the way. Numbers and names provide concrete proof, but they also make us curious—about how particular people accomplished remarkable things or how remarkable people do particular things.
Deep dive: 5 Ways to Write Better Blog Post Titles
Writing That Gets Read
There are billions of pages of information on the internet, and each page was written to be read. But the hard truth is that most of these webpages will never see human eyes. Of the tiny fraction that does, most will never leave a mark. Despite setting out to teach, inspire, or educate, most articles end up glossed over, overlooked, and forgotten.
So what sets great articles apart? The answer is simple but not easy: great writing.
They’re built on brilliant ideas. They incorporate expert perspectives. They pique interest with catchy hooks and pithy introductions. They’re comprehensive and logically structured, persuasive, and authoritative. They deliver value, even for the quickest skim reader. They inspire the reader to actually use their newfound knowledge, and they lead with clear benefits right up front, in the title.