6 Blog Projects to Improve Your Writing

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You’re stuck in a rut.  You’ve been writing the same thing for the same way for months.

No, it's not me.

Dated is also a style.

You’ve deluded yourself into thinking you’ve built up a style that works for you, but that’s the thing about style: it rarely lasts forever.  As Heidi Klum says, “One day you’re in, and the next day…you’re out.”

Project #1: Tell a personal story first and a tech story second.

There are millions of dry, boring technical posts around, but there’s only one you.  I bet you’ve got some hilarious, awkward, touching, or endearing moments from your past that you’d love to share, but it just doesn’t feel right on your professional blog.

Rather than thinking about a technical feature that you want to illustrate with a personal story, turn it around.  Pick your favorite story that you’d like to tell, pour your heart out, and then figure out how to tie something technical into it.

I used this approach with my SQL Server Data Compression: It’s a Party! post.  I look back and laugh at the party that got me disinherited from the Ozar Family (Lack Of) Fortune.  I loved the story, so to get it out there, I tied it into a SQL Server feature that’s been written about many times, and I brought a personal touch in the process.

Project #2: Forget the answer – describe the question.

It’s not always about helping the community by giving the answer.  Sometimes you can help just by clearly explaining all of the challenges involved with a question.

My recent post How Do You Mask Data for Secure Testing post was inspired by @ErinStellato‘s question on #SQLHelp.  Twitter’s 140-character limit just doesn’t allow for the full explanation of a complex question like this, and I quickly got frustrated with people suggesting half-ass solutions that I’d seen fail.  Rather than tweet one limitation at a time, I poured my heart into the question in a blog post and let readers contribute ideas.

In that particular situation, I knew there wasn’t a good answer, but that’s not always the case.  Even when you know there’s several good answers, try to write a post just describing the question.  For example, how do you find out the most resource-intensive queries running on a system?  Try to write an entire post just describing the problem will improve your ability to step back and see the big picture without taking a knee-jerk reaction to explain a tool.

Leaving the answer open for debate in your blog’s comments encourages readers to get interactive.

Project #3: Schedule a blog post months in advance.

The next time you’re about to hit Publish on a blog post, ask yourself if you’re really proud of that post.

If not, don’t publish it.  Click Schedule, and use a date three or four months from now.  Walk away from the post because at this point, the pressure’s off.  Sure, it’s kinda sorta good enough, and you were okay with going live with it right away, but instead it’s just going to get better with age.

Days or weeks from now, you’ll be inspired.  You’ll think of several ways you want to improve the post, and you’ll jump in to write more when you’re in the zone.  You’ll be tempted to revise the publication date earlier, but don’t give in.  The improvements will just keep coming with time, and when the final publication date arrives, you’ll be giddy with anticipation for the world to see your polished, honed work.

Blog posts are the opposite of milk: the younger they are, the worse they smell.  Blog posts are more like wine: you want to craft timeless words that will snowball and bring you more and more visits over time.

Project #4: Ask a real writer for their opinion.

Don’t ask a fellow technology blogger.  Print out your blog and take it down to your company’s marketing department – the people who write the brochures.  If you have the choice between someone who writes press releases or someone who writes brochures, pick the brochure person, but take whoever you can get.

Say, “I’d like your honest, brutal opinion about something.  I’m trying to improve my personal blog.  Absolutely nothing is off limits.  If you could throw this thing in the Author-o-Matic and remix it completely, what would you do differently?”  Tell them to ignore the grammatical mistakes for now and save their red ink for big-picture stuff.  (They’ll probably mark up the grammar anyway, but I’m just trying to make you feel better about the inevitable stream of red ink.  It happens to me too – Jeremiah constantly kicks my ass about my addiction to commas.)

You don’t have to obey their every whim, but getting this completely different view of your work will help you see things in a new light.  Your blog doesn’t have to be a brochure, but I bet they’ve got tricks that will help bring life to your prose.

Project #5: Make a list of storytelling tools you’ve used, and skip them once.

I bet you’ve got at least a few favorite blogs that you could identify even if the author info was missing.  They always use exactly the same tools to tell a story: they always use code snippets, always use screenshots, always use polls, always use SEO-friendly titles, etc.  It’s great to have an identifiable brand, but that doesn’t mean you have to stagnate as an author.

Reread your blog posts from the last several months and make a list of every non-text tool you used.  If that list is short, it’s time to teach your old dog some new tricks.  Over the next week, as you read other peoples’ blogs, make a list of the non-text tools they use.  Get inspired to experiment.

In my Building a Better BrentOzar.com post, I talked about experimenting with pull quotes.  It’s free, it’s easy, and it brings a new dimension to your blog posts.  Even better, it makes your posts look like something completely new to the tech community, and that brings us to our last project.

Project #6: Read posts from a completely different genre.

If we only draw inspiration from the database blog community, our content is going to look like the British Royal Family’s gene pool.  I try to read at least five blog posts from completely new (to me) blogs per week.

This post is a good example – I shamelessly stole the idea from 4 Photo Projects to Make You Better, heard through @RhondaTipton.

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10 Comments. Leave new

  • This reads like a Copyblogger post (a good thing)! I agree that you shouldn’t publish posts you aren’t happy with, but at the same time, there’s something to be said for a short start-to-publish cycle when you’re writing for a blog or website. Over time it can make your writing more concise, dynamic and easily skimmable–vital traits in a 140 character world.

    Reply
  • Good points! I wonder, though. Exactly *when* does a style get old? I’m not yet tired of my own style. (If I’m wrong, and others are tired of my style, then I don’t want to be right… at least not yet). I’m way to close to my own blog to be objective about it.

    Enter Brent Ozar’s project #4.
    Asking some expert for their honest opinion. Plan to do that soon. Great post Brent (as always)! Thanks!

    Reply
    • Michael – I, for one, LOOOVE your new style with the graphics. It’s still new – you’ve only been doing it a little while, it seems like, but it’s already had a big impact!

      Reply
      • Thanks Brent, that’s high praise!

        Your advice (project 4) is still good advice. I’ve learned that it’s too easy for me to fool myself about things I’m too close to.

        (Except for my kids, I *know* those angels are the best kids in the world)

        Reply
  • “There are millions of dry, boring technical posts around” – really? I feel completely the opposite. Endless flow of non-technical technical blogs seems to be overwhelming and makes me question if a author got sufficient amount of hugs as a child or perhaps wants to be a fiction writer. I read technical blogs to get technical knowledge, for an entertainment I go look elsewhere.

    Reply
    • Bunder – dang, sorry to hear that, sir! You probably won’t want to read this one, then. We blend education and entertainment here. You probably want to steer towards purely technical sites like MSDN and TechNet. If you run short on those, let me know what kinds of topics you’re interested in, and I can help point you toward purely technical sites that don’t include any personal information.

      Reply
  • Irony too expected. Thanks for the non-opinion. Sorry you don’t see the obvious space between documentation/n00bie teaches n00bie sites and social compensators for developers.

    Reply
  • Brent This is really nice blog on blog writing .when i want to write some i always confused how should i start.
    Really Helpful ,Thanks.

    Reply
  • So true, although really useful and would be lost without it, at times I find technet really difficult to read and follow. I want shout “you know a person is trying to read this!” You can’t beat in-depth knowledge with a detailed walkthrough and a joke/entertainment mixed in. It keeps the mind sharp and open. It has been proven that taking a “brain break” when tackling a problem can suddenly lead to a solution or a thought of ” wait a moment what if we try this?”

    Reply

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