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  • Five Blogging Lessons Learned From Newspaper Columnists

    If you want to be a thought leader in your field, to be seen as one of its leading authorities, you need to pay special attention to how you blog.

    You can’t just splut out a blog post here and there, and expect people to take you seriously. You also can’t have an overly formal writing style. You need to write like a newspaper columnist.

    In the past I’ve said bloggers are citizen journalists who need to act and write like newspaper reporters, but I’m changing my approach. The purpose of personal branding is to promote your self, but you can’t do that by avoiding first and second person references, or reporting only facts without analysis.

    You need to adopt the writing style favored by newspaper columnists like George Will, Maureen Dowd, or the late Mike Royko who was the newspaper columnist in Chicago from the 1950s through 1990s. Or even gonzo journalism, as created by Hunter S. Thompson, where the writer is part of the story.

    I’ve been a newspaper humor columnist for 18 years, and have used those skills and experiences to develop my own blogging voice. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned in that time.

    1. You still have to write like a reporter

    Newspaper columnists still follow the “short words, short sentences, short paragraphs” dictum. It’s easier to read, which means people are more likely to finish it. It’s also more likely to be shared. Plus if people search for your chosen topic, they’re going to use words they like to use, not the obtuse kerfuffle of the “look how smart I am!” academic writer.

    2. Tell a good story, don’t repeat someone else’s

    One of the things I love about Royko is that he didn’t spout stats or quote other columnists. He would tell a story about a single person, drop in one stat to help you realize that this person wasn’t the only person suffering, and he’d make you feel that person’s pain.

    Many times, he would write a follow-up column a few months later about how the previous column had caused a reform in a government agency, or how a particular person’s problem was solved when a high-ranking official personally got involved. All because they were moved by that story.

    Make your reader feel your excitement, sadness, or outrage when they read your piece. You can only do that with stories, not statistics.

    3. Keep it short, but not too short

    Abraham Lincoln was once asked how long a man’s legs should be.

    “Long enough to reach the ground,” he said.

    So it goes with blog posts. Say enough to make your point and reach the end, but don’t blather on. The great thing about blogging is that you can revisit a topic again and again, examining subtle nuances, and plumbing its depths. Don’t put every piece of knowledge into a single post. Split it up and spread the love. (If nothing else, it helps your SEO.)

    Shoot for 300 – 500 words for an average length. You can occasionally go longer, but don’t drop below 200 words. Google just doesn’t like that short stuff. It’s too much like spam.

    4. You don’t have to write every day

    Plenty of bloggers post on a daily basis, but it’s hard work. I did it for a year on my humor blog, and finally gave up because I wasn’t doing my best work and was just publishing to stick with a schedule. The only truly good work was my weekly newspaper column.

    So I had to make a choice: did I want to put up sub-par stuff that I didn’t really care about, or focus on doing the best work possible. I chose the latter.

    5. Have a strong lede*

    I truly will not give a shit about your story if you don’t give a shit about your lede.

    If you open a blog post with “I was having coffee with my friend Dave, and. . . ” or “Take two parts enthusiasm, three parts hard work, and one part pure luck. . .” no one is going to care, and will be gone before they know whether you had skim milk or 2% in your latte. And those recipe openers make me want to whack the writer with a rolled up copy of the Sunday New York Times.

    Read 10 – 15 newspaper stories, and focus on the opening paragraph and especially that opening lede. Better yet, go read some old columnists’ work. The art of writing good ledes is becoming lost as more newspapers are firing their experienced writers and replacing them with newbies.

    I’ve talked on this blog many times about how important good writing is to your personal brand. And as you strive to build that thought leadership and expertise, it’s going to become even more important. Start thinking like a newspaper columnist and writing like one. It’s one that’s accessible to your readers, and can still speak to the greater truth of the issues you’re trying to discuss.

    * In newspaper talk, the opening sentence is called a lede, not to be confused with lead, which is what the movable type was made with.

    Author:

    is the owner of Professional Blog Service, a newspaper humor columnist, and the co-author of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing. His third book, The Owned Media Doctrine, will be available this summer.

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    is the owner of Professional Blog Service, a newspaper humor columnist, and the co-author of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing, and The Owned Media Doctrine.

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    2 comments on “Five Blogging Lessons Learned From Newspaper Columnists
    1. avatar
      EXPERT
      jeff shuey says:

      Great post. Thanks for putting this wisdom into an easily consumed format.

    2. avatar
      EXPERT
      Peter Odryna says:

      Excellent post Erik. And should be required reading for any blogger. We do analytics of blog posts, and I have to say the best posts follow your rules.

      I especially like the ‘lede’ lesson. We have a working lead-based movable type machine here in Santa Cruz. I was amazed to see it work… especially the lead part.

      BTW, SocialEars found this article because it’s highly shared in the Social Marketing space… will be tweeting about that shortly. Nice job.

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