Top 10 Worst Types of Blog Post (and how to fix them)

Anyone who writes will eventually be guilty of writing something bad. Most do so only incidentally, as a result of error or ignorance. It’s a sin of professional writers, however, to be systematically bad.

Following are some of the worst things that I’ve ever done … and worse!

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10: The blockquote sandwich

Lede, blockquote, analysis, quip.

The form is simple, and done well, it makes for a perfect post. As a formula, however, it’s poison.

First, introduce what you’re going to quote. Then quote it. Then say what you think of it. Got nothing to add? Drop the analysis altogether, or replace the quip with a question for your readers.

It’s a vital part of the cross-referenced idea feast that blogging kindles. With insight and wit, it’s a powerful and laconic form of filtering others’ work. But it’s all too easy to do nothing but this as an alternative to research, reportage and in-depth review. It generates superficially meaty content quickly and with little effort–no wonder it typifies the output of those markets that still pay by the post and throw demanding daily quotas at writers.

Improve such posts by making every part count. If you’re “just linking,” let the original speak for itself without adding half-hearted commentary. Try reducing it to a single sentence and hyperlink an active verb to the source: this echoes how people blogged before blogging was a business.

Related offense: Posts that try and humanize dry subjects by prefacing the real lede with a short anecdote. Blog posts–at least mine–are best when they’re about one thing.

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9: The Reblog

This is rewriting something that someone else wrote, in your own words. This is the blockquote sandwich’s insecure sibling, who feels it has to work even harder to prove itself – but not so much that the author must engage in original reporting or insightful analysis.

There is an extended form of this, wherein a writer glowingly approves of another’s more substantive opinion piece by quoting all the best parts, interspersing them with an occasional interjection that amounts to “me too!”

Fix these by reducing it to its concise form: that lesser evil, number 10.

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8: The Image Macro

Unless it’s your specialist subject or you’re a razor-sharp practitioner of visual catachresis, forget about lolcats and all the other cut-’n'-pastage. You’ll just make yours seem a commonplace mind.

When the urge rises to post such a thing, ask yourself these questions: why is this funny, here and now? What am I saying by posting it? What am I feeding?

Then do something entirely original that does all of the above, but which others will remember you for.

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7: The Fisk

Fisking is when you disagree with someone by reprinting their piece one sentence at a time, adding your response to each as if you were a computer processing it one syntax error at a time.

Just cut it out. This is the disease of the internet sub-autist who cannot let even a single error go unpunished, because they’re mentally incapable of engaging the totality of their adversary’s argument or the abstractions that embody it. It’s one thing to treat written English like a compiler, but taking that attitude to your own response just makes you look too scatterbrained to compose a reasoned and self-contained critique.

Yes, yes, I’ve done this about eighty times.

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6: The Snark

Snark is blogging’s rottenest bough. Few are gifted enough to pull it off as a general mode of creativity. Most can’t even crank out a single example without losing it to non sequiturs and awful similes.

The solution is not to try and build jokes when you’re in a sneering mood. Don’t set out to be a funny man. If humor doesn’t arise effortlessly from the subject as you write about it, you’ll gain nothing from forcing it.

Mean-spiritedness, contempt and ridicule make it seem easier to get a laugh, but it’s just not true. Instead, look for the unexpected to converge amid the mundane, then report it with a light heart in as few words as possible.

Pro-tip: when ranting on the internet, guard against letting it dissolve into snarking. This kills credibility if you’re sincere, and betrays your artifice if you aren’t. If you read masters of the form, you’ll note that what looks like simple sarcasm is often irony that hooks deep into assumptions that the author knew you would bring to the reading.

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5. Look at Me!

Keep the trolling to forum threads. If you need attention, there are countless ways to do it without being a dick. At the very least, think carefully before publishing something deliberately contrary, unpopular or offensive. What exactly is your plan should it work? Are you ready to be identified, perhaps forever, with the response it garners?

Mastering this means being both respectful and ruthless. Respectful, by challenging your opinions with research and by not treating your own readership as a target for venom. And ruthless, by learning to distance yourself gracefully from your own handiwork should all hell break loose.

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4. The Third-Party PR Shot

This isn’t the evil stuff, like astroturf or paid viral marketing. It’s the mundane burden of every enthusiast market, be it gadgets, games or obituaries.

In its benign form, such blogging amounts to a condensed press release, given proper context with some fresh analysis. But like blockquote sandwiches, one should either keep it short and sharp, or as a lead-in for something more involved. Something that maybe involves making a phone call.

How to fix: if you have nothing to add after condensing the specs to a graf or two, you had nothing to say about it to begin with and should not bother at all. Don’t write stuff you don’t care about.

The “colossal blockquote,” bracketed with some perfunctory comment like “if they pull this off, they might…,” is a particularly numbing form.

Sometimes avoidable compromises arise from ignorance of journalistic standards, or by rejecting these standards on misguided principle. One common example is when someone recomposes a press release as news so as to put someone else’s marketing under an editorial byline. This is bullshit and should not be done at all.

A relatively minor but related wrong is using marketing buzzwords, especially in headlines. This is hard to avoid, as it’s natural to want to mix up language: it’s the blogging equivalent of closing dialog with terms like “he muttered” or “she prognosticated” instead of simply “he said.”

As as result, we often echo phrases like “unveils”, “unleashes,” “declares war on”, “officially announces,” and so on. Ciphers that add geek chic (“decloaks”) tire fast: use them only when context makes them apt. Exactly how often do you cover the latest Klingon battleship?

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3: Fake News

Too many people think that fake news is easy to toss off. Most of it is dreadful. There are three necessary skills for writing in the style of The Onion. The first two can be explained, but the last is, in truth, innate. You either have it or you don’t. I don’t!

First, gain an intimate familiarity with AP style (or a similarly universal analog, such as BBC English or the libel-skirting lexicon of Florida tabloids).

Second, understand the inverted pyramid structure used by reporters. Even if you get the tone and language right, it won’t work if it’s applied to a formless journey around the subject. Start with the most important thing in the story, then proceed to detail and exposition. Absorbing this approach will improve your normal blogging, too!

Thirdly, you have to be a seriously funny motherfucker. The strict format makes it harder, not easier, to maintain the laughs. This is because the inherent humor of fake news wears off after the headline and lede, so the rest has to be particularly imaginative and cutting, as it must all lie within the self-imposed limitations of the newswriting format.

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2. The Spec Bump

Sure, it’s covered in passing by at least two of the other entries here, but it’s so common and so foul that it deserves its own place in the shade. Almost all of us in this game do it every day, but it’s bad, folks. It’s really bad.

Technology is a product of mankind’s ingenuity. It raises bridges and flattens cities. It mows the lawn and collides hadrons. It’s fed, clothed and sheltered us for thousands of years, and now it will have to stop climate change and generate new energy sources, or we’re screwed.

So don’t waste energy writing about anything so boring that nothing beyond a few numbers are worthy of inclusion. What does it do?

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1: The Top List

Yes, even this one!

The purpose is to aim a harpoon at our psychological inclination toward the ordered and curated, at our favor for quality rendered as quantity. Lucky 7, perfect 10, top 100; it’s a world-simplifying numerology to which we are addicted. It adds a hook to any old rope.

These aren’t going to go away: They’re just too much fun to write, and when they’re good, too much fun to read.

Pure, unadulterated evil, however, is found the meta list. Lists of lists. Websites facing one another like mirrors, a cloned tulip in every graf. Such things speak for oversaturation, for spent fuel endlessly reprocessed.

That said, would someone please do a top 10 list of top “10 iPhone flaws” lists? It is time.

About Rob Beschizza

Rob Beschizza is the Managing Editor of Boing Boing. He's @beschizza on Twitter and you can find him on Facebook too.
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29 Responses to Top 10 Worst Types of Blog Post (and how to fix them)

  1. CraziestGadgetsdotcom says:

    I’d rather someone blockquoted or rewrote me and gave me a link back than just blatantly steal gadget finds & discoveries and claim them as their own. Not crediting sources=not cool.

  2. reflex says:

    Shit, meet fan.

    Here’s a BB Gadgets post that *really* upset me recently. It quotes 157 words from a post on my site. It’s not a “Block quote sandwich” as much as plagiarism:

    http://gadgets.boingboing.net/2008/09/02/enter-the-commodore.html

    I bit my tongue, because we get a decent amount of traffic from you guys, but JESUS. We work really hard to create original content and it sucks to have a much larger site rip off our hard work.

    (and yes, Brownlee owes me a frakking apology)

  3. Rob Beschizza says:

    Ta!

    Halloween Jack, the graphics are mostly by Joel.

  4. edosan says:

    …so we’re not going to see these kinds of posts on Boing Boing sites any more?

  5. John Brownlee says:

    Rob’s post is dead-on, but bluntly, it totally ignores WHY we write posts like these, even though we know full well that these kinds of posts suck. Pro blogging is a sweet gig, no lie, but it has some serious psychological drawbacks. It doesn’t matter if you’re sick, or your dog died, or you’re depressed, or your girlfriend broke up with you, or your pipes exploded, or whatever: each day, you’ve got to go out and entertain people.

    Lazy posts are what happens when you are in a competitive, traffic-based field in which you, as a writer, are expected to fulfill a quota every day, and to have an opinion or an astute comment on absolutely everything that comes down the pipe. We try to do them as little as possible, but I would say they are unavoidable. Sometimes, for whatever reason, you’re just not feeling it.

    And here’s the other thing that this list ignores: readers LIKE lazy posts. There’s a place for them in a gadget blog. Sometimes, they just want to see something that’s cool, or laugh at a stupid joke, or see a list of ten things that are pretty neat, or be directed to something that’s interesting to read. There’s nothing wrong at all with fulfilling that need, because we all like to read that stuff from time to time.

    The question really is “How do you make a gadget blog unique when you do a lot of these types of posts?” And the answer is you can’t, which is why making them anything other than the exception is a no-win proposition.

  6. John Brownlee says:

    @Reflex: Did you really just accuse me of plagiarism for writing a post in which I said that: a) you had written something fascinating and worth reading, b) blockquoted some of it in a manner that made it completely clear that you were the source, and then c) encouraged and directed people to go read the whole thing?

    It’s a lazy post of mine, no question. I probably blockquoted more than I should have: the original is a short post, and I felt the first two paragraphs needed to be quoted together to whet people’s interest and give some context. That that pissed you off — not the post’s intent — is reason enough to qualify that decision as a mistake. But calling it plagiarism and claiming I “ripped off your work” when it’s a direct link TO your work is stepping way over the line.

  7. jbang says:

    I really love the writing here, to the point where I don’t give a rats ass about what is being written about. It’s just that engaging, for the most part.

    #4: Woah. You missed the point of, uh… so much there. Don’t know if it’s mysoginistic at all, but I’m shithouse at making that call.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I read several gadget blogs daily. I’m amazed how many times I read one blog, and find the EXACT same text (and image even) on another blog site only minutes later.

    I’m all for jumping on the scoop, but at least try to add something original. Even the really bad (half-attempted) jokes are in there! Talk about copy (and paste).

  9. gabrielm says:

    Here is my take: Top 10 Worst Types of Blog Post (and one big example)

    I just couldn’t help myself…

  10. Chris Furniss says:

    Now that you’ve torn blogging down to its base elements, does that mean you are poised for re-invention?

  11. michaelportent says:

    Hilarious and ironic! Bagging on Top 10 lists in what’s technically a Top 10 list. I see what you did there, Rob.

  12. Rob Beschizza says:

    Reflex,

    I can’t speak for John, but I’m sorry you’re upset; we love your site and don’t want to piss you off.

    The aim is certainly not to plagiarize, but to appetize our own readers into clicking through.

    Was it the size of the quote that upset you?

    Edosan,

    I’d LOVE it if I could live up to these standards day in, day out. I know that as a practical matter, I can’t. But now it’s here, you’re MORE than welcome to hold my feet to the fire when I get lazy, stupid, or workaday.

  13. fsck says:

    would someone please do a top 10 list of top “10 iPhone flaws” lists? It is time.

    If so, can we put meta-lists at number 0 on your list? This will then turn into some kind of mobius-list, and will cause the LHC to collapse into a singularity, etc. etc.

  14. d2kd3k says:

    Perhaps you could send a copy of this to your colleagues at BoingBoing gadgets, Rob.

    The level of snark here is astounding. I’d file most posts in category #3 on your bad blogging list.

    The sad truth is that you calling out Verizon for their sexist cell phone ads doesn’t “cancel out” posts by John Brownlee celebrating a photoshopped hentai brandediGeForce 8800 GT card:

    “…what could be a better showcase for a graphic card’s polygon-pumping might than the cel-shaded depiction of a hydrocephalic Japanese pre-teen’s cervix, her realistic mucous membrane providing an impressive testing ground for Nvidia’s revolutionary fluidic physics processing?”

    Unless BoingBoing now has an active policy of driving women away from the site (because it is going well!), I hope you’ll reign in Brownlee and colleagues, and recognize that B-grade snark grounded in misogyny isn’t “cool” or “ironic”: it is just plain bad writing.

    Ghandi said “We must become the change we want to see in the world.”

    Good luck implementing your blogging advice. It would be great to see it applied to BoingBoing.

  15. Halloween Jack says:

    Sadly, there are people that make a living, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, from doing nothing but these type of posts, or even just a subset. Glenn Reynolds is infamous for #10 (“heh, indeed”), and James Lileks occasionally fisks Garrison Keillor, which is like Dane Cook roasting Don Rickles. Several years ago, someone did a list of “funyuns”–The Onion-wannabe humor sites–and although I can’t find it now, I doubt that most of those sites are still in existence.

    Nice graphics.

  16. wendy_slash says:

    These lists include almost every blogs I have known :D
    Should it be the new 10 commandment of blogging? Ha!

  17. Mark Frauenfelder says:

    Because I’m a low-carber, I usually do the block quote sandwich with one slice of bread. And it’s usually a very thin slice. Now excuse me while I go spin a plate that’s getting dangerously wobbly….

  18. Gloria says:

    @4: Really? I found that post hilarious. I thought the purpose of its hyperbolic, both purplely poetic and mechanically descriptive style was to point at how desperately ridiculous such a mash of porn and gadget is.

  19. Joel Johnson says:

    Unless BoingBoing now has an active policy of driving women away from the site (because it is going well!), I hope you’ll reign in Brownlee and colleagues, and recognize that B-grade snark grounded in misogyny isn’t “cool” or “ironic”: it is just plain bad writing.

    Huh? I don’t think you understand that post at all. And it’s not because it’s poorly written.

  20. Rob Beschizza says:

    Gabriel, you are awesome. ++!

    d2kd3k, you certainly missed the humor of John’s post. :(

    Chris, there’s no harm in watching this space.

    For about twenty minutes, this top list also embodied a bonus “bad blog post” type: the Myriad of Misspellings.

  21. toasterfire says:

    Loath as I am to log in purely to spread down praise like so much butter upon the toast of content, I gotta say, Beschizza, this is a damn fine post. I wonder both how many will use your words as a de facto stylesheet, and also how many will violate these guidelines by cross-posting this very entry in an inappropriately hackneyed manner. I myself would likely be guilty of the latter, had I a blog I bothered posting to.

    Anyway. Kudos, sir.

  22. Maasgarid says:

    I doubt anyone will read down this far, but here goes:

    First off, this post has only a tenuous connection to the assumed mission of Boing Boing Gadgets, which is to post news and observations about technological gadgets. I guess a blog could be considered a gadget, but that feels like a stretch to me. Unless the goal is to turn BBG into a catchall site like the main BB site.

    Second, several of the main writers of BBG are constantly posting exactly the kind of “worst types of blog posts” that this post calls out. In fact, many posts are very similar in nature to BB’s darling steampunk: pretty at first glance, but overwrought, overthought and quickly forgotten. Perhaps the writers of BBG should get out of the way of their own content, leave BBG to be a site about interesting technology, and start a Boing Boing Writing sub-site where they can craft all the flowery prose they desire.

  23. C0nt1nu1ty says:

    question about the “reblog”
    I run a little personal interest blog (that i am going to shamelessly plug http://justanotherartblog.blogspot.com ) where i often post things i find on other blogs. Thing is its usually along the lines of “I found this via these guys and isnt it cool oh and here’s why i like it”

    Is this ok?

  24. historyman68 says:

    Can we do a list of best/worst comment types? I think that would be very informative.

  25. reflex says:

    @Rob B – I was upset because a sizable portion of the post was repeated without adding anything of value.

    John is a gob-smackingly brilliant writer, which makes cutting and pasting Bohus’ photo and text even weirder – he could easily have added insight and wit that would have had hundreds of thousands of geeks around the world nodding in amused agreement (us included).

    There. Glad to get that off my chest. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a tacky top ten list to bang off…

  26. Internets Was Yes says:

    Internets Was Yes Thinks this is a great post. It hopes to use all of these techniques and more! Thanks for your tutorial on easy blog writings!

  27. reflex says:

    @John Brownlee: I apologize. It is certainly not plagiarism when you attribute a quote – my comment was written in a flash of anger, and I wish I could reword it.

    However, it was over the line. Attribution doesn’t give anyone free license to treat another author’s work like that. Bohus works really hard to create original content for our site, and it takes him a lot longer to compose and photograph those posts than it would if he linked to stuff on other blogs. Seeing half of his post quoted on another very popular site stings on several levels, because in reality it doesn’t bring much additional traffic. People are 10x more likely to read the post on BBG than our site, yet he wrote every meaningful word. That’s not fair.

    That said, this is very much a case of the pot calling the kettle black. I’ve written dozens of similar posts in the past, and no doubt an astute reader of both our sites will forward me just such a link any minute now.

    I will do my best to eliminate blockquote sandwiches from my repertoire from now on. No hard feelings.

  28. Rob Beschizza says:

    Maasgarid,

    We write about all sorts of things beyond gadgets. If you stick around, I imagine you’ll enjoy the roaming.

    Regarding your second point, this post was about the worst things I do as a writer hre, so it’s only natural that you’d see examples a lot at BBG!

    The flowery prose stays.

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