A Writing Story: Choosing Hard Over Easy


Warning: not-so-humblebragging up ahead.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about 1920s language for our sister blog, Wordnik. While I spent more time than I usually do researching and writing it, and I personally was proud of the piece, I didn’t expect it to be received any differently than our other posts.

However, the next thing we knew the piece had been written up by The Milwaukee Sentinel; mentioned by The Visual Thesaurus; and republished in Salon.com (through our content partner The Week).

Did I do anything differently? Yes and no. I followed the steps I usually take when writing a blog post but approached the actual writing a little differently.

Here are some tips and take-aways for writing a post to be proud of.

Be timely. With the premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, everyone seemed to be talking about the 1920s. Since Wordnik.com is a dictionary and the blog is all about words, it seemed logical to write about the language from that time.

I scheduled the post for the Wednesday before the nationwide premiere of the movie. Wednesday was a good choice because it was two days before the film came out and was at a time in the week when people have had the chance to catch up with work but before they’ve checked out for the weekend.

Take-away: Leverage the popularity of news and culture trends, and publish and promote your post in advance of something like a movie premiere or TV series finale, but not so far in advance that people forget about it.

Find a unique angle. From what I had been reading, people equated the 1920s with four things: flappers, the Prohibition, jazz, and slang like the bee’s knees and the cat’s pajamas.

OxfordWords already had great posts on both the language of the speakeasy and jazz, and Jen Doll had a wonderful piece on 1920s slang. I thought about focusing on flappers and women, or crime and the underworld, or relationships. However, each on their own, I thought, gave an incomplete picture of that decade.

Finally, after finding this helpful summary from History.com, I decided to pick a few words from a variety of areas to try and give a thorough historical overview.

Take-away: Do your research! There’s always a chance your “brilliant idea” has already been done. If you can’t do it better, you’re better off doing something different.

Use the right tools. How would I find these words? I relied on a few of my favorite sites: the Online Etymology Dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, and of course Wordnik.com.

I also used Wikipedia if the articles were without issues and had good primary sources; Google News archives for historical newspaper articles that were in the public domain; and sites with .org, .edu, or .gov domains. These types of sites typically have less of an ulterior motive than sites with ads or that are concerned about page views or number of clicks.

Take-away: Double check your facts. Just because something is stated on a website doesn’t mean it’s true. Crosscheck facts against sites and sources you know are reliable. If the facts don’t check out, ax them, no matter how interesting they are.

Know your limits. I had done a ton of research, and as a result had a wealth of material. I envisioned writing five blog posts, one a day for a work week. However, I simply didn’t have time. Disappointed in myself, I stalled for a couple of days. It was only when I accepted that I had time for just one post that I was finally able to write.

Take-away: While you may not like compromising your ideal, producing not-so-ideal content is better than producing nothing.

Write anything . . . at first. Even after I found an angle, I still wasn’t satisfied. But the deadline was looming and I had to write something.

At first I followed our tried and true Word Soup format, a list of interesting words with quotes to show the words in context and a short definition and etymology.

For words like flapper, blind date, and petting, I expected to find fun quotes about carefree young women relishing their new-found freedom. What I found was more complex: women working, women trying to get the right to vote, a tension between the New Woman and old expectations.

Although the Word Soup format was simpler and had been successful in the past, I couldn’t let go of the idea of trying something different. But how would I start it? What was the structure? What would I have to leave out? How would the post be received?

Luckily for me, my boss is very open-minded so I knew I could take a chance. I followed my own advice and started writing about what I most interested in at that moment – flappers and women – and the other sections fell into place.

Take-away: Be open to change. If you find your research takes you in a different and more interesting direction, follow it. Chances are what you find interesting, others will find interesting too.

In the end I had the post I wanted: a historical overview of the 1920s through the words that were coined at that time. And I can’t wait to try writing something like this again.

What’s your experience writing a successful blog post? What difficulties did you face? How did you overcome them? Let us know in the comments!

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by Adikos]

One thought on “A Writing Story: Choosing Hard Over Easy

  1. Pingback: Reverberations: Blogging Tips and TV words

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