Don’t Know What to Blog About? Try This. Or, Why I’m Ditching My Blog and Switching to a Weekly Email.
If you’re like most well-educated adults, you have the attention span of a five-year-old on a sugar high. At this very moment, you’re frantically scanning for the TL;DR (the summary of this article) so you can move on to other flashy distractions that will inevitably take you one step further away from productivity. So, at the risk of sounding hypocritical, here’s the summary:
As an alternative to blogging, I’m launching a useful weekly email with cool stuff in it. You can subscribe to it here. If you want to learn more about the content I’ll be sharing in these weekly emails, ignore your phone for the next five minutes and keep reading. You can do it!
Like many writers, I struggle to provide value to my fans on a consistent basis. I needed a solution, so I’m trying something new. I’m excited to explain it, but first — some background:
From the 10–20ish personal blogs I follow, and the hundreds of articles I read on sites like Medium every month, I’ve identified a handful of prominent styles and formats that the majority of successful bloggers seem to use. These styles can be described across two vectors: Length and Content.
Vector 1: Length
I’ve separated length into three categories: Shortform, Longform, and In-Between.
Shortform articles (if you can even call them articles) are super short. They’re almost like tweets. They tend to be very ‘train-of-thought’ oriented, and usually don’t include any researched content or further information (like links to related material). They can sometimes feel empty or spammy, but the most prolific bloggers still manage to make them worthwhile. The best in the business with this might be Seth Godin.
Pros: Quick and easy to produce.
Cons: Can feel empty, useless, or spammy. Requires high frequency to hold the reader’s attention over time.
I define longform as anything that takes more than five minutes to read. (Yeah, that’s a long time in today’s attention-crazed world. Stop looking at your phone, dammit!) Some of the best longform stuff I’m seeing online right now is actually much longer, taking ten or twenty minutes to read. In terms of word count, this can range from 1,000–5,000 words, or more. One of the best longform writers I’ve come across is Taylor Pearson. His essays, as he calls them, are always extremely well-researched and incredibly insightful. I don’t understand how Taylor produces such high-quality longform content as often as he does. Kudos to him. Most people (myself included) can’t produce such dense material on a consistent basis.
Pros: Opportunity to provide rich content.
Cons: Difficult to produce with regularity. Can lose the reader’s attention if the content isn’t top-notch. Creates pressure to produce mind-blowing, epic material, which can lead to inaction.
3. Somewhere In-Between
In-between articles take 1–5 minutes to read, and have a word-count between 300–1,000 words. My best-performing article in this category is about how to read more books. I feel most comfortable with stories of this length. They aren’t as intimidating as longform content, but still feel meaty enough to be useful (unlike shortform). The problem with in-between posts is that they’re hit-or-miss. I’ve written a number of articles at this length, and can’t seem to find a formula for gaining traction. Admittedly, I’m not the best blogger in the world. If I had more interesting things to say, or wrote better, or came up with better headlines — maybe my articles would spread to a wider audience.
Pros: Easier to produce with regularity than longform. Still long enough to provide value.
Cons: Hit-or-miss. Hard to replicate success.
Vector 2: Content
While there are many approaches to creating content, here are the four styles I see most often:
1. Opinion Piece
An opinion piece can be a rant, a philosophical exploration, or a look back at a historical event. The article’s purpose is to convey the writer’s opinion on said subject.
Pros: Can be emotionally charged
Cons: Can lose the reader if they don’t hold the same view, or if the piece becomes overly emotional, vs. factual.
These are usually “How-To” posts. The writer has learned something, and wants to share it with the reader. I did this with my self-publishing experience. The value proposition for this type of content is very clear: If the reader finishes the article, they’ll know more about topic X, and likely have actionable next-steps to pursue it.
Pros: Provides tangible value to the reader.
Cons: Can come across as dry, boring, and uninspired.
3. Lists / Suggestions
This is a popular style for click-bait articles. Sometimes the click-bait leads to useful content — and sometimes it doesn’t. An example would be: “Five Things Every Employee Should Ask Their CEO” or “Seven Rules For Creating Gorgeous UI”.
Pros: Allows for catchy headlines. Creates a simple formula to structure content.
Cons: Feels spammy. Difficult for readers to differentiate between bad posts and useful posts.
4. Podcast Recaps
Podcast recaps are becoming quite popular. If a blogger hosts a podcast, they simply summarize the podcast in text form and post it to their blog. Tim Ferriss started doing this after finding huge success with his podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show. He’s now writing traditional blog posts with far less frequency, and opting instead to just summarize his podcast episodes in written form.
Pros: Creates useful content in a summarized (often bulleted) form.
Cons: Requires a podcast. The content is simply a synopsis of an audio recording, so it lacks the depth and emotion found in other styles.
My Far-From-Brilliant Solution
The problem with the above styles and formats is that they’re all lacking in some way. Something is always missing. They’re either too hard to maintain, or not valuable enough. So what if I combined them and packaged them into a weekly email? After all, email isn’t dead. It’s thriving.
This solution deserves the “far-from-brilliant” moniker because I’m borrowing it from Tim Ferriss. I’m not completely copying him though. I’m riffing a bit, which makes me feel ever-so-slightly better about myself. If you follow Tim at all, you’ll likely be familiar with his “Five Bullet Friday” emails. Every Friday, he sends a short email with five bulletpoints. The bullets can cover pretty much anything, including products he likes, music he’s been listening to lately, interesting people he recommends you follow on Twitter, etc. I’m subscribed to his email list, and I’ve been enjoying Five Bullet Fridays — for the most part. It’s fun to get a glimpse into what he enjoys. Personally though, I’d be happier with:
- Slightly deeper content
- Less than five bullets
Five bullets is too many for me. Three would be easier to consume. If only three bullets were used, the content around each topic could go deeper. Hence, my derivative solution: Three Thing Thursdays.
Until I realize this idea is completely stupid, I’ll be sending out an email every Thursday with useful bits of info. I’ll be focusing on a handful of categories, including: Food and Supplements, Software, Products, Music, and Exercise. I’ll be exploring new content categories as I go. Unlike Tim’s Five Bullet Friday email, my emails will only include three topics, and I’ll sometimes go a little deeper into them. I might syndicate the content to my blog as well, but I’m not sure about that yet.