Crafting a blog post is a great way for students to learn about the impact of their language choices
I had laboured for hours on my music review. I was sixteen years old and so convinced that Mrs McCleary would see its literary merits that publication in the school newspaper was a foregone conclusion. My hubris was redoutable, but so was Mrs McCleary. She published a review of the Steps concert instead, written by her daughter, who happened to be a student at the school. It was my first taste of rejection — and of nepotism.
Were I in sixth form today, of course, I could have easily found a wider audience for my work using WordPress or Blogger — content management services which have given budding writers an easy to use and accessible platform — and dispensed with Mrs McCleary’s seal of approval entirely. In the years since I was a sixth-former, blogging has become ubiquitous, evolving from its origins as a simple ‘weblog’ into an inclusive term for writing with a range of different purposes and for different audiences.
Personal blogs and professional blogs are widespread, and many are monetised through advertising or affiliate marketing. But crucially, the blog post has become a staple of content marketing that advocates for a brand. Organisations leverage the power of blogging to drive traffic and generate leads, whether it’s companies selling a product or service, charities or non-profit organisations seeking support or buy-in. The vast majority of web traffic comes through search engines, and search continues to be dominated by text, an acute lesson for students in the power of effective writing.
The largely commercial nature of blogging has imbued the form with an unsparing sense of purpose. Given the immediacy, growth and mutability of the online space, a blog post shouts to make itself heard amidst the clamour. As English teachers, we can capitalise on this. Effective blog posts are urgent, pared down and functional. They can be a great way to teach students a workmanlike approach to writing: the marriage of form and function and the choice of words that serve a purpose, as well as providing an audience for their work if we choose to actually publish it online.
Help students get to grips with the form
It’s worth exploring blog posts from a variety of sources with students so they can consider what kind of content different organisations might commission. The textual purpose of a blog post — to inform, to advise, to persuade, to entertain — is secondary to the primary purpose of inbound marketing, but nonetheless, the blog post must deliver on its promise or it won’t be effective.
Choose a topic for stimulus and encourage students to research
I wanted to find a topic that was sufficiently broad enough for my Year Nine students to explore their views and to choose their own ‘angle’ so I selected the fast food industry. There would be, I suspected, plenty for the students to get their teeth into: the issues of modern agricultural practices and animal welfare, the global food market and the environmental implications in terms of carbon emmisions and waste, not to mention the effect of processed food on our health and well-being. There is also a wealth of stimulus material: blog posts, feature articles, opinion pieces and digital media. I’ve screened excerpts from Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary Supersize Me and both Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have made television programmes that explore the effects of intensive farming, clips from which are available on video streaming platforms online. As part of the research process, students can produce mind-maps, make factsheets and notes.
I also prepared a ‘here’s one I made earlier’ to use throughout the process, although I introduced this to the students as a work in progress so the process of drafting and improving was central to the learning.
Create a series of writing ‘briefs’ for the students
In order to encourage the students to focus on the purpose and audience of their writing, I created a series of ‘briefs’ as a prompt for whole-class discussion about the nature of the purposes and audiences the briefs were to address. We established that the first brief, from a person with a personal training business, would likely be largely written with information and advice at the forefront. The other two briefs, however, required a persuasive piece, although the target audiences of each were different. We discussed each of the briefs and brainstormed the content, in no particular order, that the writing might explore and include.
Analyse the structure of great blog posts
Having brainstormed the purposes and possible content of each blog post, students made a choice about which brief they wanted to work on. We spent time thinking about which elements to include and how to sequence them.
A blog post demands to be read in order to do its job, which is to increase traffic to a website and drive lead generation. Some blogs publish informative, newsworthy posts which adopt the inverted pyramid format of more traditional news reportage; some posts offer advice and solutions to readers’ problems (perhaps the most popular is the ‘listicle’); others are essentially opinion pieces, profiles or interviews.
Whatever the structure, subheadings break up the text and provide signposts to the reader. Most of us tend to skim and scan a blog post, making a decision within a second or two whether or not we think it’s going to be useful, so these typographically distinct elements are crucial.
Provide opportunities to study the structures of effective titles and standfirsts
The title of a blog post (the sentence or phrase that appears in search engines) is usually the same as the h1 tag (the header at the top of the page that acts as a title for the text that follows it). For the purposes of teaching this, it’s worthwhile telling the students to treate them as one and the same, although some savvy content writers code different title tags and h1 tags to maximise traffic.
A blog post needs a great title as it does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to making potential readers click. For those blog posts that offer information and advice, titles tend to offer solutions to problems, the promise of simple advice that cuts through the white noise or clear and tangible benefits. Others anticipate problems and play on a reader’s lingering anxieties or fears. These are often the most fun to work on with students, as close attention can be paid to the impact of the choices of emotive language: Why might ‘addiction’ be more effective than ‘habit’? Would ‘craving’ be more in keeping with the semantic field of food? A slideshow that allows the teacher to drag and drop possibilities into a sentence provides a good focus for discussion. Students can be adept at identifying the most emotive words and exploring their connotations.
It’s worth paying attention to verbs in titles, as they can convey a sense of urgency, as can adverbs. In the third example, below, the metaphor of a ‘ticking time bomb’ has been employed for dramatic effect. It’s a cliché, but many titles employ these for immediacy and relatability. The impact of the stylistic features of headlines is very useful for students to consider, as it allows them to reflect as readers on the effects of language and the choices they can make as writers.
In blogging parlance, the ‘standfirst’ refers to the the summary paragraph that sits between the title and the body text, which brings the reader in a little closer and which is typographically distinct. Often found in newspapers and magazines, it’s an element which has become standard in the formatting of blog posts too.
Some standfirsts, especially those found in the information/advice format, are simple narrative reveals:
For years, Colin Parkes relied on takeaways and fast food during his long working week. That is, until…
Other standfirsts, often those in persuasive pieces, agitate with a statement and a question, which can work well as a follow-up to headlines that play on fear:
Most of us love the convenience of shopping online and the short journey from front door to fridge. But what exactly is the impact of our Ocado obsession on the environment?
Model the process of drafting and redrafting writing that’s got what it takes
There are some key stylistic features common to blogging that serve specific purposes. The anecdote-based introduction (a method I used in the blog post you’re reading) uses the power of narrative to hook the reader:
Conversational tone of voice is ubiquitious in content marketing. Studying some examples can provide us with a useful opportunity to discuss how students can use it in their writing: questions, contractions and addressing the reader with the second-person pronoun ‘you’. Similarly, exploring the the effect of conditional sentences can help students to engage with the idea of a blog post bringing about a change in the reader’s thoughts or actions. Finally, the call-to-action at the end of a blog post can make or break whether or not a reader moves forward. Verbs are foregrounded and strong, for example, ‘grab’, ‘claim’ or ‘discover’. Temporal adverbials such as ‘today’ or ‘now’ create a sense of urgency. These calls-to-action are often visual, in the form of a hyperlink or button. Short ones work best, so when drafting theirs, students should consider the benefits of writing with economy.
Make like an editor
When offering feedback to students, tell them that a copy editor would be totally focused on making their writing as lean and efficient as possible. Whether in exercise books or in Google Docs, it’s worthwhile keeping feedback focused around the impact of the students’ language choices. As well as providing an opportunity for a very practical application of punctuation and grammar, it also helps the students to think carefully about the impact of language from the perspective of both a reader and a writer.
As ever, I’m planning on sharing some of the work my own students have produced at www.confictionarium.com. Feel free to download a copy of the resources.
Featured image by Lucas van Oort on Unsplash