Anatomy of a Blog Post Series
Lesson Two: Blog Post Format & Headings: Organize Your Story
(Read Lesson One: Craft Attention-Grabbing Headlines Readers Can’t Resist)
Nonfiction writing is my favorite. There, I said it. And I know some of you must think I’m crazy but I mean it. I love the outlining and brainstorming of ideas that will later become headings and subheadings. I organize ebook content and dissect blog post format for fun. I get excited about research and enjoy tracking down the statistics I need to support my articles. I have a process and, to be honest, more half-finished outlines than I’ll ever have the time to write.
But in nonfiction blog posts, headings are only the first half of the story. There’s also ordering them in the way that best tells your story. The good news is that the standard blog post format generally has a simple and straight-forward outline, making their anatomy pretty easy to examine, depending on the post’s purpose.
If you’re pitching article ideas to editors, understanding how you will structure your story clearly enough to convey it in your query is a must. Editors want to know what they’re buying and your pitch tells them exactly what you plan to write. If you can’t explain it, how can you possibly expect them to say yes?
Headings are the key to nonfiction story organization, for your blog and paying clients.
The Headings & Subheadings Two-Step
Headings and subheadings are the bones of your blog post. By looking at them, you can tell the overall structural configuration of your article. But they are also a timeline, revealing information in order and guiding readers from beginning to end. The trick is to marry these aspects to best present your story.
Brainstorm Your Topic
To uncover the bones of your article, you may choose to brainstorm important points for your post through mind-mapping, (tentative) outlining, jotting them on separate index cards or whatever other process works for you. Include any interviews, case studies, and related stories that you’ll use to support your post.
For example, while working on a post about the Trump vs. CNN video, I included a full heading to discuss the intention of the Bill of Rights and how our criticism of political figures is key to maintaining a free democracy.
Other heading brainstorm examples include:
Find the perfect tattoo artist – social media, personal recommendations, reviews, visit shops, digital portfolios
Refinishing farmhouse furniture – sanding, choosing paint > finish, distressing, wax, sealing
Going vegan – cleaning out cupboards, grocery staples, menu planning, food prep, snacks, eating out
Brainstorming them on paper as opposed to typing them into your word processor or WordPress will keep you from unintentionally ordering them and allow you to rearrange them as you write.
Organize Your Headings
Once you’ve chosen your intended headings, it’s time to start putting them in order. Think of your post as a story: what should happen first? Last? Do your headings need to be in a specific order? Order them in a way that tells the story, explains a process, or makes your point.
Organize Your Headings To Improve Completion Rate
Keep in mind the site’s article completion rate, if you know it. If readers are bouncing a third of the way through their articles, there are two strategies I’d try. One is to take a newspaper approach. Newspapers give the who, what, where, when, and why right off the bat because they understand that their readers are skimming—but that doesn’t mean that those answers can’t be presented in a way that intrigues the audience, drawing them in to learn more.
That suspense, built by dangling unanswered questions in front of your reader, is the second approach I’d recommend. Obviously, this won’t work for every market. I can’t imagine building suspense in our Go Vegan brainstorming example, but I could include links to a curated list of snack recipes, a quick list of vegan-friendly fast-food choices, or a link to a printable grocery list at the end of the article…and offer it like a carrot to readers in the introduction. After all, they have to know it’s there for it to work.
You don’t even have to create this content yourself if you recommend further resources through external links.
Headings And Blog Post Format
Some blog post formats automatically dictate your headings and their order. You may also have a format guide from a client you’re expected to follow in the creation of their articles. To better understand format, I think of it like a Blue’s Clues, or even Dora the Explorer, episode, though I’ll use Blues’s Clues as my example. (Not that grown up shows don’t have their own templates, they’re just super-obvious on kiddy shows.)
Think about it. Every episode begins the same way: Blue and Steve (or Joe, but I like Steve, so Steve) are doing something together and Blue wants Steve to know something. So we sing a song (the same one every time), stumble upon clues, sing a song about finding them, sit in the thinking chair, sing about the mailbox, get a letter from our friends, solve the mystery, sing about it and say goodbye. But the thing is, no matter the theme, this format is the same. Every episode! That means that by understanding this format, you could totally write a Blue’s Clues episode!
Just kidding, though you could. What’s exciting is that this theory also applies to writing. By studying the underlying templates of successful writing style examples, you’ll be able to reproduce these formats! This same type of structured template can be found within blog posts, affiliate posts, branded publishing blogs, sales letters, landing pages, grant proposals—and other types of writing.
Find those underlying templates, then write your own episodes.
Reverse-Engineer Your Headings
For some articles it will make more sense to reverse-engineer your headings by adding them based on your text, though, for regular nonfiction I don’t recommend it. Free-writing a complex nonfiction topic can quickly muddle your main idea, lead you off topic, and scream of an overall lack of focus. If it works for you, great, but if it doesn’t try brainstorming or outlining.
You may also choose to work with a loose outline or scribbled notes. It’s okay to change the order of things as you write, provided their order isn’t client-imposed. Keeping your outline tentative can improve the story arch of your post based on how you connect those dots.
Personal essays tend to be thought-driven pieces where reverse-engineering would be successful for breaking up text and ideas. The same goes for any creative, entertaining, fictional or humor posts. You may jot down ideas of what to write about and this is also brainstorming, but they aren’t necessarily headings.
Blog Post Template
While you’ll have to fill in the ‘headings/subheadings’ blanks depending on your topic, most nonfiction blog posts share a similar template. Keep in mind I’m only referring to the text and am not including features used to break up text. (We’ll get to those in the next lesson.)
In magazine publishing, those first lines are called your ‘hook’ and your hook’s job is to get your audience’s attention. Popular hooks include the shocking statistic, the outrageous statement, the question, the quote, and starting in the midst of action. And while your hook should demand attention, the purpose of your introduction is to convince your audience to read the rest of your article.
For a number of blog post topics, a copywriting approach to writing your introduction can be successful. The Problem-Agitate-Solve (PAS) formula works wonders for drawing readers into nonfiction blog copy. The formula is simple: you remind readers of a problem they face or create one they don’t even know they have, then you agitate that problem by reminding them of how horrible it is and what will happen if they don’t do something to solve it, and finally you swoop in like a hero and offer a solution to the problem, which in our case would be your blog post.
Looking back at our examples, they all work with the PAS formula:
- Want a tattoo but unsure about finding an artist? The wrong artist can leave you with permanently disappointing ink and life-threatening infections. Here’s how to choose a talented—and safe—tattooist.
- You can refinish used furniture and save a bundle adding farmhouse style to your home but where do you even begin? Do you need special equipment or a workshop? How do you create distressed and worn finishes? You’ll find all these answers and more in this blog post.
- You know that an animal-based diet leads to a number of preventative diseases, that the meat industry is cruel and inhumane, and that a plant-based diet can bolster your local economy, lighten your footprint, and save lives, but what the hell do you eat? Go vegan, confidently, with these tips and recipes.
This is where you’ll organize the main points of your article; that amazing blog post I was referring to in those PAS examples. For list articles, these will be your bullet points. Complex pieces may require subheadings (like this one) but if you’re using a ton of them, you may need to refocus your topic or narrow your focus.
Conclusion & Call to Action
Just like the PAS formula, there’s another copywriting tactic commonly used by bloggers and online publications. It’s the call to action. You may have any number of these inserted into a post as graphics or sign-up forms (again, we’ll talk about these in the next lesson) but the call to action in the conclusion is written. It should also be used to create a specific outcome, depending on your (or your client’s) publishing goals.
The idea is simple. If you want more comments on your blog, ask a question or ask for feedback. If you want to grow your Facebook or Twitter, ask readers to follow you. If you want more blog traffic, guide readers to internal posts with further reading recommendations. If you’re trying to convert readers into subscribers, promote your latest download or freebie and link directly to a sign-up form.
If you’re writing for a client, they may request a specific call to action for your conclusion that promotes their products or social media, but don’t be discouraged. Write it. Then use one of the links in your bio for your own, personal call to action. It might help you reach your own publishing goals.
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See what I did there? 🙂
This post is part of the Anatomy of a blog post series.
Read Lesson One: Craft Attention-Grabbing Headlines Readers Can’t Resist