I created a style guide for Lawyerist when I started inviting others to contribute. It is short, sweet, and to the point, meant to help contributors get up to speed quickly. The most important section is not about proper capitalization or when to use an em dash, but on how to write great blog posts.
What follows will not make you a great blogger, but it will help you understand the mechanics of good blogging, a skill that does not come easy to many lawyers.
Start with a great lead
The first paragraph is the most important part of any blog post. Since blog paragraphs tend to be short, this means you must give the gist of the story (the who, what, when, and where) and hook the reader in one or two paragraphs. Get right to the point. Do not waste time warming up to your subject. This also makes it easier to excerpt your post for the front page of the blog.
You can see an extreme example of this at Consumerist, where every post has a (very) short lead paragraph on the main page. The “meat” of the story is inside. You can see the same thing on CNN, and other good news websites, which distill an article into a headline.
The inverted pyramid, sort of
Blogging is similar to journalism, and the inverted pyramid is an excellent way to structure blog posts.
The format is valued because readers can leave the story at any point and understand it, even if they don’t have all the details. It also allows less important information to be more easily removed by editors so the article can fit a fixed size. (Wikipedia, Inverted pyramid.)
In other words, start with the big picture and the most-important details. The opening paragraph should both hook the reader and give a summary of the entire post. Write in order of increasing detail and diminishing importance.
Keep paragraphs short
Keep your paragraphs short—two or three sentences each is plenty. Think of each paragraph as one complete thought. When you go on to the next thought, go on to the next paragraph. This helps readers digest the information.
Short paragraphs also help the reader to keep from losing their place on the screen.
When in doubt, split the paragraph.
Headings can help guide your reader through longer posts, tutorials, or how-to posts. Keep headings short, descriptive, and helpful. The reader should be able to get the gist of the post from the title and headings alone.
Do not get too casual
Blogging may be more casual than traditional journalism, but your audience is still made up of lawyers, law students, and potential clients. Avoid contractions and colloquialisms. It pays to proofread your post a few times, as well.
Use links wisely
Your posts are not simply the text you generate; they are also the text on pages you link to, incorporated into your posts by reference. Since a reader can follow a link with a single mouse click, they are a powerful tool to enhance your posts, but they come with the power to distract your reader from your post, too.
Use links to add understanding or dimension to your posts. For example, if you use an unfamiliar word, link to its meaning on Wikipedia. When you link, never link words like “here” or “click this link.” Instead, link text that says something about the link and the article you are writing. This makes for better writing as well as links that are friendlier to search engines.
To prevent your reader from being distracted away from the page entirely, use links sparingly. For the same reason, link to other posts on the same blog instead of external links, whenever it makes sense to do so.
Once you know the rules, break them
Once you can write a great blog post, feel free to break the rules now and then. Sometimes, a long, winding introduction to a post really is the best way to begin. Or you might find a good place for a good colloquialism now and then.
Learn the rules first, but then break them when it makes sense to do so.
(photo: Somewhat Frank)