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Why are so many people intimidated by writing? To me, calculus is hard. Hanging sheetrock. Changing a diaper on a plane.
Those are three skills that take a certain level of God-given, natural ability and a knack that can’t be taught. Writing? Sure, it comes more easily to some than to others. But almost anyone can master enough skills to be good at it.
You can learn to write. You can learn to write well. All you need are some style guidelines to follow consistently and some building blocks that provide you the framework for creating a solid story.
Today we’ll talk about the building blocks for a long-form blog post — in this case, 1,500 words. And you don’t need to limit this approach to blogs; this method can be expanded upon or shortened to suit your narrative. Every story has a beginning, middle, and an end. Every story involves brainstorming, writing, and editing. Take this outline and tweak it according to your needs.
How long is 1,500 words?
In my career as a newspaper reporter, I dealt with word counts every day. The most common was 400 words, the typical length of a standard, daily news story. All reporters quickly get a feel for story length, considering the stakes: go long, and the story gets cut; write too short and tick off the editors and layout folks, who are left with empty space.
Depending on font size and column width, 400 words equates to 10-12 inches. In years past, that would literally be how long a story was; you could take a ruler and measure it. And when a story got cut, that was literal too — it was pasted to a page and any excess would be sliced off the bottom in the composing room. (Yeah. That sucked.)
A reporter staring down a deadline knows exactly how to break down those 400 words: my lead is a certain length, the body another, and I can fit two to four quotes. Done.
So 1,500 words? That’s about three times the length of a basic daily newspaper story.
This is feature story length, the type of piece you’d read on the front page of your local Sunday paper. It’s a short magazine article. You can give your readers a lot of value in this space — provided you do it right.
And don’t let “long-form” scare you. This isn’t like high school, when you’d be assigned a 10-page paper and find yourself propping it up with double-spaced lines and fluff. Taken section by section, you’ll find you have plenty of material. And if you don’t, you either need more research or the piece simply doesn’t warrant the space.
Let’s tackle the steps now — and watch how simple this can be!
Here’s the formula we’ll use:
- Talk to yourself
- Find your building blocks
- Conclusion/Call to Action
Step 1: Talk to Yourself
Chances are, if I asked you to tell me about your topic, we could easily have a 20-minute conversation about it.
So why do we freeze when alone at a keyboard?
One of the first — and best — pieces of advice an editor ever gave me has turned into my “talk to yourself” mantra.
I was agonizing over a lead and having trouble nailing down the focus of a story. And the editor said, “Just tell me what happened.”
As in, say it out loud. Standing by his desk, just chit-chatting. Spit it out.
That was it.
From then on, when I’d get discombobulated (which happens often), I’d mentally step back and pretend I was talking to someone. Try it on: if we were having a beer at a bar and I asked you what happened, what would you say?
Start there. Step away from the blank screen and have a conversation with yourself. Record it if you’d like.
It’s amazing how quickly you can cut through the clutter by stepping back and asking yourself what happened or what the point is.
Related: For a free ebook to improve your writing, check out 19 Easy Ways to Write Better.
Say you’re writing a blog post about training for a 5k. Pretend we’re hanging out and I say, “Man, I’ve always wanted to do that but I stink at running. How do you do it?”
Then answer the question, without thinking about it. Say it out loud. See where your brain starts.
When we talk, we haven’t had time to overanalyze. Often, you get right to the point, to the main idea. You’re letting your subconscious have a go at it, before your conscious mind interferes.
In the example above, you might answer with something like, “Well first off, you’re not gonna just run 3 miles. You’ll probably start by mixing in walking with some really slow jogging. You basically just want to learn how to breathe and teach your body what it feels like to go for a certain amount of time or distance.”
See how many ideas just tumbled out? We have a possible intro (you don’t just launch into 3 miles) and some concepts that we can easily flesh out (mix walking and jogging, learn to breathe, teach your body what running feels like, choose whether to go for time or for distance).
Keep it going if you’d like. Sometimes I keep talking to myself, and sometimes that one answer is enough to get my fingers moving on the keyboard.
Now that you have some ideas, we’ll organize them.
Step 2: Find your Building Blocks
You’ve got your main idea. You have some supporting thoughts.
Brainstorming, elaboration, and organization. You can jump into drafting an official outline if you’d like, but I prefer to think about Legos first. Each section of my story is like a building block that I’ll use to stack one on top of another. And if I want to, I can rearrange them.
In this step, I typically have a few stream-of-consciousness moments. I start writing down anything that comes to mind, regardless of order.
For example, my main idea for this post was that I’d break down the components of writing a long-form blog post. Or: “When you chunk down a longer article into shorter sections, it’s much easier to write and focus.”
My supporting thoughts related to that main idea included things like: lead, body, conclusion; say it out loud; word count; intro (draw reader in); paragraph length; short words; how to break it up.
You’ll see those thoughts get fleshed out in this article, along with others.
After I scribble or type some random thoughts, I start to firm things up: Which do I want to lead with? What are my primary talking points overall? In what order will I arrange them?
Those “talking points” will comprise the sections of the article. Those are my building blocks.
I introduced you to the sections of this post already. In addition to my lead, they included: Talk to yourself; Find your building blocks; Intro; Body; Conclusion/Call to Action.
Next, take those sections/blocks and jot down more details for each. You’re fleshing it out; now the framework is coming together. An outline is taking shape.
why do people find writing difficult/scary
anyone can learn
what does 1,500 words look like
See how uncomplicated that looks? And now I have my intro mapped out. One section down.
Step 3: Write an Introduction (250-500 words)
You’ve got your main idea and you’ve sketched out an outline (i.e. identified the sections or building blocks, along with their supporting ideas). You’ve got a rough idea of your story order.
Time to get writing. You need a hook. How to begin?
You have one job here: draw the reader in.
Yes, that’s pressure. It’s why writers will sometimes spend as much time on a lead as they will on the entire story. A lead can range from a one-liner to an anecdote with an entire setup. It depends on topic, tone, and length of the story.
For a 1,500-word blog post, you’ve got some room to work with if you’d like. Your lead will typically be in the 250-500 word range.
In this post, I decided my intro would touch on the idea that many people find writing scary or difficult, and that long-form articles in particular can be doubly so. The hook would ideally have the reader nodding along, and they’d want to know what solution I offer.
I needed to let the reader know I understand where they’re coming from and to put them at ease. I also wanted to make it clear that this post would (hopefully!) be an easy read. My premise is that anyone can learn, so I’d defeat the purpose if I overcomplicate things.
As I fumbled for a way to start, I was toying with the idea that many people think writing is difficult but that they’ve probably got more skill than they realize. And so I started brainstorming things that are difficult to do AND difficult to learn, by way of contrast.
That led me to sheetrock and changing diapers on planes.
That should get the reader to at least the second paragraph, right?
Step 4: Write the Body (1,000+ Words)
Now we’re into the heavy stuff!
If your job in the intro was to draw the reader in, your one job here is to keep things moving.
That can be tough in a long article. But this is where our framework comes in handy and where headlines are our friend.
Remember how we jotted down topics and then put them in order, with some details underneath each? That served as a visual to keep us on track.
When you start to get mired or bogged down, refer to your framework. Are you moving forward or did you just start babbling?
You’ll make things easier on yourself as a writer and on your reader if you continue using that idea of building blocks, or “chunking.” Small, manageable parts.
You identified your sections. Now come up with subsections as well. When you format, this is where you use a variety of headline sizes (often referred to as Subtitle, Header 1, Header 2, etc).
It’s up to you how you want these to look. But the idea is to continually break your ideas out into small, easy-to-read sections.
When you’re starting out, just write the way you’re used to writing. In other words, make your paragraphs as long as you want; we were all taught to start a new paragraph when we had a change of thought or topic.
So just write. Then when you format, break those paragraphs up so they look good visually.
That was another early piece of advice I received: ditch what you know about paragraphs. In the newspaper world, as in the online space, you’ll start a new paragraph pretty much wherever it looks good to do so.
This means you’ll have paragraphs that are typically only one to three sentences long. That’s ok. Your readers will thank you.
How to use Subheads
To return to the 5k idea, you might have a section about teaching your body what it feels like to run. Related subsections could include a few paragraphs each on breathing, pace, mentality, and giving your muscles and tendons/ligaments time to adjust.
See how that works? Instead of one long section, you’ve now broken it up visually.
And the sections make sense: I can focus on what I need to know about breathing while running, then read about how to pace myself to accomplish that, and read another section about how to focus or what to think about (or not think about). And so on.
The body of your post will be in the 1,000-word range. Again, that might sound intimidating if you had approached this by just sitting down and starting to write.
Instead, you have a framework and your sections. You have three or four major building blocks for that 1,000-plus words, so each section is a very manageable 250-300 words. And if you have subsections, you’re looking at even shorter chunks of writing.
See how much easier it gets?
We’re writing a series of short sections and piecing them together, NOT sitting down and penning an opus.
Step 5: Conclusion/Call to Action (200 Words)
You’re coming down the homestretch! Only 200 or so words to go.
Hopefully you’ve kept the reader engaged, and now you wrap things up.
This section can include some final thoughts that didn’t fit earlier, a recap, and a “what now.” That could include links to other blog posts, an opt-in, a call for comments, and the like.
If you were writing about training for a 5k, you might steer readers toward a training program like Couch to 5k — or maybe you have your own materials. Perhaps you started a Facebook group for newbies or you have your own training program to sell.
You might also provide links to an article on recommended gear, a calendar of upcoming races, and other related topics.
The point here is to continue engaging the reader. Give them something else to read and to do. If they got this far, chances are they’d like to stick with you awhile longer! Keep nurturing that relationship.
And congratulate yourself. You just wrote a meaty piece and provided a ton of value for the reader. That deserves some kudos!
Not sure how to write about yourself?
The About Me page lets you connect with people personally AND professionally. This free outline stacks the components of a great About Me page into one easy-to-read graphic.