I’ve been championing student blogging for 15 years, and still sift through my feeds with anticipation and publish a selection each week for public scrutiny (#bestPRblogs).
In that time I’ve read a lot of banal – and quite a few brilliant – examples. So what are the rules – and what advice can I give those starting out?
You’ll probably expect me to have plenty to say on writing style, but it’s not the most important thing. We’ll come back to the words later.
Let me propose an 80/20 rule for blogging. 80% of your time should be thinking (including reading and planning). Only 20% should be designing, writing, editing, publishing and sharing.
You have to have something to say. Only then does it become important to decide how to say it (what combination of words and pictures? how personal to make it?).
This requires you to have an interest in (passion, even) and knowledge about the subject you’re writing about.
So this might suggest blogging on matters of general interest - fashion, sport, food, travel, music, celebrity - since you may have a head start. These are the topics covered in the blogs many students read, and the example of those who appear to make a living doing it must prove tempting.
Never say never – but I’m going to advise you against these popular subjects.
Why? Because there’s too much competition. There’s no space for you to find your niche and develop your voice and your readers. It’s not easier writing about popular subjects – it’s harder. Besides, what personal experience can you introduce to a post about the lifestyle of the Kardashians or the tactics of a Premier League football team? How can you do it better than the professionals?
So, let’s try again. You need to combine a subject with enough general interest with your own personal experience.
What’s the biggest topic you can write about that you can still bring a personal perspective to?
Here are some that fit the ‘think big, write small’ advice:
Is this becoming too personal? Then let’s move on to the next piece of advice.
Time for one of the big paradoxes of working in public relations. You think you have a big announcement to make – and nobody cares. So you try harder, or shout louder – and still nobody cares.
But in the digital world, our shouting is on the record. Barely a week goes by without some public figure being shamed by their past social media activity.
Not even the sharpest lawyer could protect you against changing mores: what seemed like an innocent cuddle yesterday could be construed as unacceptable behaviour today (particularly if one of the parties had since become a public figure).
It may be safest to keep a low social media profile – but since that’s impractical and self-defeating for public relations students – then the best advice I can give is to apply a commonsense filter to what you share in the public domain.
The ‘would you want your mum to read this’ test is a sound one. As is the advice to play nicely (‘don’t be a dick’).
Quality, original content is the ideal, but it’s a tough challenge for the best of us. So the fallback is to focus on producing content that’s useful to your readers (you are writing with a reader in mind, aren’t you?)
Let’s say you’re a first year university student. You’re struggling to think of something useful or interesting to share. Well, you’ve made your decisions over what and where to study. Since A level students are facing the same decisions – and they may feel their teachers, careers advisers and parents are out of touch with the new landscape of higher education - then your advice could be valuable to them.
And now to some writing tips. The first is to read much more than you write. If you don’t read, how can you expect to become a writer?
Without reading, how can you explore opinions and perspectives; gather ideas; and learn techniques? At a basic level, since spelling in UK English defies rigid rules, there’s no shortcut to good spelling other than to learn the hard way.
I don’t want to cramp your style. I want you to express your view with clarity.
So the best advice is to get your words out (how about using a voice recorder rather than worrying about screen-and-keyboard?)
At its simplest, clear writing should be like a person speaking. Clarity is even more important than accuracy or formality – so you are allowed to break the rules of spelling and grammar (but it’s best to know the rule before breaking it).
Having drafted your thoughts, please don’t publish immediately. The world can wait!
Go back and read through your words (preferably next day). That way you can see what you’ve written with a fresh eye (just as your reader will). That read-through should enable you to correct most of your mistakes and simplify your sentences. (A friend or colleague can also do this for you, especially if you know you struggle with spelling, say).
If that’s still not enough, then how about reading out your own words aloud? Only then will you know how your writing sounds, and whether your sentences are too long (if you run out of breath, you need punctuation.) Only then will you spot that you’re repeated the same word, and should seek a synonym instead.
I'm always happy to talk to students about blogging in particular, or public relations in general. Let me know if you'd like to fix something up.
Richard Bailey is editor of PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.