Even among blog posts expressing an intriguing, insightful idea, some are meandering messes, while others pack a powerful punch. What is the difference? The answer matters. I have the students in my “Monetary and Financial Theory” class write 3 posts a week on an internal class blog, and host many of the best of those as guest posts on supplysideliberal.com. Of course I am looking for a good idea at the heart of the post, as I explained in “On Having a Thesis.” But another quality is also crucial: what I will call brio.
What is “brio”? The dictionary definition “vigor or vivacity of style or performance” is a good start. But all the other words I went through looking for just the right one are also helpful:
Above all, brio is knowing exactly where one is going, then going there by the shortest possible path
Someone who sets a good example of writing with brio is Noah Smith. I admire his blog writing style, and have benefitted from seeing his writing in action in pieces the two of us have coauthored (1, 2, 3, 4). I studied brio by studying the structure of Noah’s Bloomberg View columns and posts on his blog Noahpinion. Here is what I learned.
First, a blog post should have one point. If two points can be treated separately, they should be made into two blog posts. There may be subpoints, but for a post to have brio, those subpoints have to feel like one point driven home in various ways.
The “five-paragraph essay” taught to students facing the AP English exam is not a good structure for a blog post. The trouble with the five-paragraph essay is that in between the introduction and the conclusion the three middle paragraphs have three different points often only distantly related to one another, though tied together somehow. If the same argument were made on a blog, it might be better made as three separate posts.
As is clear from Noah’s columns and posts, the rule of having a single point does not mean that the middle section of a blog post is necessarily short. It often takes a lot of explaining even to make one’s point clear, let alone back it up with half-decent arguments. In my own blog writing as well, many is the time I told myself “I’ll just write a quick blog post to make this point” only to see the post grow to a hefty size by the time I could adequately explain what I wanted to say. That is particularly true when writing in a technical field such as economics, where readers need to be given key background information in order to make sense of the main point.
In my analysis of Noah’s Bloomberg View columns, I was surprised by how often his thesis statement was not stated until the end of the middle section of his column–simply because many readers couldn’t have understood the thesis statement and why it might make sense until after a good deal of explanation. Thus, in many cases, the thesis statement came as a pulling-together of many ideas that Noah had systematically laid out in order to lead to that point. But in every case, once the point was made, it felt as if the structure of the whole column clicked into place.
Here is what I think of as the structure of a blog post with brio. There are three parts, which I will discuss in turn:
the grand finale.
1. The Hook: The hook or introduction needs to answer the question readers implicitly come to a post with: “Why should I care about this?” or “What makes you think I would be at all interested in this.” The objective of a post’s title should be to get people to read the first few sentences–that is, to read the hook–while accurately reflecting the post’s contents. The objective of the hook is to get someone to read the rest of the post. Now that I have begun cross-posting many of my posts to Medium, it is humbling to see in Medium’s penetrating statistics how many people start reading, but do not finish. So getting someone to read on is a real issue.
2. The Point: The middle chunk of the post can be short or somewhat longer, but it has one primary objective: getting across the main point of the post. That is, it needs to answer the question “What is the point?” Beyond explaining the point, the second objective is to back it up–to answer the question “Why should I believe it?”
3. The Grand Finale: The last few sentences of a blog post should give the reader words worth remembering. They might be inspirational words, or thought-provoking words, or words that encapsulate the point one more time, but this time in a nutshell. But they should be memorable. The grand finale answers the question “What is the broader meaning of the point?” (Even the distillation of the point into a nutshell answers this question, since shorter statements inevitably become a bit more general and so connect with many other ideas.)
Although it can be tough on the ego, one of the easiest ways to add brio to a post is to subtract words from it. In the first pass, anything it takes to get the ideas down on the page is great. But then it pays to go through the draft a second time to see if there is any way to say things equally well or better in fewer words or simpler words. And take a good hard look at passages that lead off in an extraneous direction; they may need to chopped off and thrown into the pile of ideas for future posts.
“Less is more” can mean many things; among them is “Other things equal, using fewer words is better.”
Writing well is a source of power. It can be used for good or ill. For those who are good at heart and go to the strenuous effort needed to understand how the world works, writing well is a tool that can help to make the world a better place.