The aim of this book, written by Darren Rowse and Glenn Murray, is to help you write better blog posts. However, “better” in this context refers to generating more visitors to your blog rather than “just” improving your writing skills. The idea is a simple one: why not identify the key elements of successful blogging, and then provide a tool by which to measure how a particular blog post has done? That’s exactly what the book aims to do.
The book is structured very well. The reader is provided with some useful advice, such as “Know your brand”, and invited to complete a questionnaire about the blog as a whole, with questions like “Why would readers want to read your posts and not get their information elsewhere?”. Why indeed? If you yourself can’t answer that question, you can hardly expect the world to beat a path to your blog. Other questions are also useful, such as “Who is your typical reader?” and “Why should readers trust you?”. These are thought-provoking questions.
It’s a pity in a way that the authors don’t say anything about how to find out who your audience is. After all, you can know who you’d like your audience to be, but without gathering metrics, how would you find out? Like other aspects of the book, this section might best be regarded as a starting point. I’ll return to this theme in a moment.
There follows a questionnaire to complete before writing each post – for the first ten posts anyway. After that, presumably, the questions should be second nature. The questions are pertinent, such as “What will your readers NOT want to see in this post? (E.g.Slang, clichés, 10-tips, discussion of last night’s dinner, criticism of competitors)”. That’s quite interesting and useful I think.
Then comes the meat of the book: a whole series of recommendations, each of which carries a mark. The idea is that, like the quizzes you find in popular magazines, you rate your blog posts, to see how well you’ve written them. Now, paradoxically, while the suggestions are good, the scorecard itself is the weakest aspect of the book, for a number of reasons, which I’ll explore now.
The authors say:
If you write a post and you’ve followed every recommendation, and avoided every pitfall, your post gets a perfect score — 100 points — and will most likely be quite engaging and effective.
I have to say I beg to differ: I think such a post would sound horribly contrived. It would be hard to do anyway. For example, one point is “signal your professionalism” while another is “Lead with the important stuff”. So I might want to write something like, “As an inspector of ICT in schools, I think the latest Government proposals blah blah blah.” The important part of that sentence is what I think of the proposals, but if I don’t establish my credentials first, why would anyone bother reading that far? But even if you could get around these sorts of objections, I think the best writing comes from avoiding formulas – or at least, by “mixing it up” a bit. For example, one of the suggestions is to get straight into the subject, yet one of the reasons people like some people’s writing is that they will often start off with something apparently unrelated to the topic. People like the way they gently lead into the topic, and the feelings of curiosity it arouses in them – which is why they keep reading. Now, that technique would become tedious – formulaic – if applied to every post. But so would simply diving in every time. In fairness, though, the reader is advised to break the rules and be flexible!
The scoring system is flawed because, like most such systems, the questions which are worth a given number of points are implicitly assumed to be equivalent, and somehow comparable. For example, why is signalling your professionalism given the same number of points as checking your keyword frequency with a word cloud? So for this reason alone I’d say use the scorecard as a checklist and an informal check on what you’re doing, but don’t take it too seriously in terms of scoring.
This was reinforced for me by the scores I obtained. Because I didn’t read the instructions, I had to do it twice! The first time, instead of giving myself a mark or a zero, I gave myself parts of marks. For example, I sometimes use a word cloud, but not always, so I gave myself a mark of 1 out of 2. I gained a mark of 77%, which led to my being advised to focus on clearing up grammatical errors. Well, I’m sure that if someone were to go through this article with a fine toothcomb they might find one or two errors, but I would suggest not many. It’s one of the things I try to pay close attention to, along with using correct vocabulary and style.
I then went through it again, and scored 41%. I was advised to look at the 2-point errors. I suppose this makes sense, because they’re less daunting to try and correct than the 3-point errors!
To be honest, I “misused” the scoring card on both occasions, because it’s designed to be used for individual blog posts whereas I applied it to my blog as a whole. If you do like the idea of scoring your blog posts, I suggest using the electronic version of the scorecard, because this is interactive and therefore a great time-saver.
Apart from the scoring, the other weak aspect of the book is the section on grammatical errors. The authors pull out a few of the most common ones, but really these 17 suggestions are no substitute for a proper style manual. I actually think a couple are too dogmatic. For example, “different than” is said to be wrong for the most part, but it’s not wrong in the USA. Also, the authors say you should use the spelling convention (British or American) expected by your audience. But in blogging, you have an international audience, so you have to, I think, take the majority view. For example, on the ICT in Education blog I write using British spellings, whereas on the Technology and Learning blog I write in American English.
You might think from all this that I would recommend not buying this book, but you’d be wrong. I think it’s an essential guide to all the things you should be mindful of when writing for a blog. It contains over 60 suggestions, each of which is succinctly summarised. You can use it as an aide-memoir, something to dip into at random, or as a starting point for further, more in-depth exploration. It sits on my virtual bookshelf alongside the OED and other reference works, and is easier to use for a quick look-up than trawling through blog-writing websites for the information. The price of the book seems high at $29.99, but then you are paying for a blog veteran’s expertise in a very conveniently packaged form.
I’d recommend it on a personal level, to help improve your blog-writing from (mainly) a search engine point of view. I’d also recommend it as a resource to be used in the classroom. You could use it as a starting point for activities, such as, referring back to a point I made earlier, how might the students find out who their audience is? You could also use the book’s recommendations as a starting point for collaboration with your literacy colleagues, and for discussion with students. For example, what makes a blog headline effective, and what makes a magazine article headline effective, can be quite different, as I explore in the article The basic rule of blog headlines.
Like all simple ideas, the Copywriting Scorecard for Bloggers has both its plus and minus points. Although I don’t much like the scorecard itself, I do like the book as a whole. The good points definitely outnumber and outweigh the others! And let’s face it: I have reviewed it here from an educational perspective, which was not its intended audience o purpose.
Further information about, and to purchase, the Copywriting Scorecard for Bloggers: http://www.problogger.net/scorecard/.
This review was first published in Computers in Classrooms, the free e-newsletter for educational ICT professionals.