Dr. Formattinglove

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Optimize My Blog Posts

If you read about search engine optimization as part of the content marketing world, one of the tips you’ll come across quickly and frequently is that long-form content, blog posts, should be formatted in certain ways. Sub-heads, section breaks, short paragraphs, bullet lists and more are all elements of the post that help search engines — as well as readers — scan and determine what’s important in the post.

That’s been a standard best practice consideration for years. I’ve executed along those lines for clients, both in agency and freelance life, because it works.

For my own personal writing, though, I’ve remained firmly entrenched in the content style I’ve always felt most comfortable with:

Huge blocks of text in paragraphs so densely packed each one has its own gravitational pull.

It was a selfish tendency. If I was going to do what was “best” for my clients I was going to indulge my own preferences when I was writing for just myself.

The Moment of Realization

As I’ve leaned into freelancing as a full-time occupation there have been various “a-ha!” moments where I’ve decided a pivot is necessary. That’s lead to me expanding my portfolio, offering better explanations of what services I offer and more over the last several months.

So I’ve thought more and more about my own writing and the role it plays in my own content marketing strategy. I want my writing here, on my personal site’s blog and on Cinematic Slant to do something, namely lead to more work. That means I need all those posts to work for me. In other words I am the client and I need to produce material that is of the same quality I would send to others.

It Was Already In Place

I don’t often work from outlines when I’m writing. Usually I have an idea of what I want to say and what supporting points will be important in bringing the reader along with my train of thought, but that’s subject to change as the piece evolves. My arguments are arranged logically, designed to flow from initial presentation to a conclusion that is supported by the evidence I’ve offered.

As I looked back over some older posts recently — some from years ago some from just a couple months ago — I realized it would be easy to insert section heads in many of them. Every two or three paragraphs I could identify where I shifted from one point to the next. If I was already doing this, I thought, why not go the two steps further and include those section breaks?

Focusing My Thinking

Since I’ve begun applying section breaks and as I begin implementing sub-heads, I’m finding it’s adding a different focus to my writing. As I consider how I’m going to approach a subject I’m already breaking the draft in my head into sections that make sense and clearly guide the reader, allowing them to easily see what I’m saying just by how I’ve formatted the piece.

Not only that, but as I actually begin writing I’m taking a step back to think about how the piece flows if I view those section heads as a de facto outline. Does B follow from A, and C from B? Sometimes that’s lead to rewriting different areas, sometimes whole sections are moved elsewhere to facilitate a logical narrative arrangement. I’m thinking about how I write differently.

This Is My Showcase

Going back to my point about being my own client, getting over my own stubborn adherence to the old way of doing things and embracing the same best practices I apply for other work is part of putting my best foot forward. It’s not enough to be a talented writer. I also need to show I can produce the kind of material clients are looking for consistently, not just in my portfolio of freelance and other work.

What personal preferences do you struggle with abandoning in your own writing?

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.