Style Versus Content in Your Blog

By Guest Author

This is a guest post by Ciprian Ginghina. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

The word on the street, or perhaps I should say ‘information superhighway’, is that certain text style options make website content and blogs ‘pop’ and are thereby more appealing to readers. The use of short sentences within short paragraphs decorated with bullet point lists and sub-headers apparently hold our attention in a vise grip, bewitched by the format. Blogging gurus peddle these presentation options as if they are some magical beguiling cloak for crap writing.

Yup, advertisers have discovered writing. The same people that compose commercial content for the Thigh Master*, penis enlargement cream and the Snuggie* have suddenly realized that rather than hire professional writers (y’know, people that read and write extensively and thereby have actual vocabularies and legitimate skills in idea communication), they can instead employ any old Duncan to throw together a few mismatched words, inject them into their online formatting template, and boom! Instant captivation.

(Oops, that middle sentence in the last paragraph was far too long! But you read it? Why? How did that happen? There were no bullet points, nor even a sub-header in bold!)

One thing a writer requires is faith in his or her readers’ smarts. You shouldn’t treat them like idiots, because:

  • They aren’t
  • A high proportion of them are actually more intelligent than you are
  • You have to respect that, or they can tell
  • Oh Christ, I’m using bullet points

The use of such style tricks is akin to using flashing lights as a distraction in a zombie movie. If you instead want to attract survivors to your fortified mall/pub/apartment (especially physically attractive ones that can read) it’s best to write a legible banner and illuminate it with a single lamp.

Yup, I used an extended zombie movie metaphor. Nope, it’s not in the manual. And guess what? You read that bit, too.

I’m sure, by now, you’ve guessed my point. Writing can be compelling by itself if you’re willing to spend a little time making it so. You don’t need to follow style guidelines from some self-appointed expert. Sure, Search Engine Optimization is a desirable focus; you want people to read your stuff, and SEO is a method to elevate your Google/Yahoo/etc. page rankings. Thankfully, search engine Spiders, the software that secretly explores your web content for relevancy, are getting wise to the ways of the keyword stuffers. As technology advances, so does the ability of the Spiders to avoid being fooled by the black hat brigade. They are starting to develop methods of recognizing quality writing for what it is, rather than a bunch of filler packed around keywords.

And thank goodness for that. Maybe one day I won’t ever again have to waste valuable minutes of my life wading through pointlessly decorated drivel. (Incidentally, is no one else a little perturbed that a machine can recognize talent when it examines a block of text? There’s another blog, right there…).

Note from Daniel: I don’t agree completely with the main point of this article, but I felt that having a different opinion was worth it, if nothing else to spark a discussion.

Ciprian Ginghina is a full time web developer. He has over five years of experience in web development. He specializes in LAMP platform and JQuery framework. He is also passionate about online marketing. His blog is an effort to share his insights on online marketing, blogging, personal development and personal finance.

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38 Responses to “Style Versus Content in Your Blog”

  • robert

    I totally agree!

    As a blog designer, I get tired of reading articles that say your content should be 400px wide with tons of white space, sub headings, and images in order to compel people to read your content.

    Write good stuff and focus on design second.

  • Tom | Build That List

    That is a really good point. We are constantly being told their are certain ways to write content to get people to read it, but as long as it is interesting and compelling – people will read it.

  • Elizabeth Bolton, Cambridge Homes

    As a reader I’ve always been a bit irritated by the suggestions that everyone scans online, rather than reads. But I’ve filled my posts with bullet points just in case!

    I’ve struggled with the idea that search engines can discern quality writing in large part because the “fake blogs” that my competitors’ SEO companies create to link to their sites show up regularly in my g-alerts. And there’s not a lot of quality in those “blogs” – or whatever they’re called.

  • Candace Davenport

    Very nice post. I just was on a site where they paid you $2.00 a 500 word article- $6.00 if you repurpose the same article 3 times. Everything you mentioned above was how they instructed you to write the articles. What happened to quality? Glad to know that maybe there will be ways to respect and reward quality over quanity. Writing should be done well, not just for the sake of putting words on a page.

  • Free Classifieds Blog

    I think you’re missing the point. Reading on a monitor is easier when paragraphs are short and spaced nicely. The same is also true when the main points are in bullets.

    Many readers, including me, scan the contents. I come from a breed of fast readers who, even before the advent of the Web, read by scanning a sentence rather then reading it word by word. This is an old technique I learned in my school years.

    If it is a peer reviewed journal or scholarly article slow reading is required to understand the author’s opinions, arguments, and analysis

    But most web contents, including those published in very popular sites like Yahoo finance can be scanned pretty fast to understand author’s points because most of them are rehash of old ideas anyway.

  • Kids Soccer

    @Ciprian If you think style and format aren’t improtant then you must have just crawled out from under a rock. Style and format are very important. Get these wrong and no one will ever read your post irrespective of how good your content is.

    This post, using your terminology, is unorganised dribble. Organise the structure and it might be mediocre content at best. Sorry, but structure and formatt is proven. Look at all the authority blogs with great content. Case closed!

  • Harrison

    Try not to be too clever and witty; people can see through that, too.

  • Jens P. Berget

    Will good content help to decrease your bounce rate? I’ve always been focusing on design, and get links to popular and related content visible to the visitors (in order for them to click). But maybe better writing is a key?

    If they really enjoy the writing, and of course the content, they’ll be instantly looking for more?

    – Jens

  • Mark Smith

    Wow, I was just thinking about this today. All on my own. 😉

    I was thinking that writing has “evolved” (?) online into formats of short paragraph-sentences and bullet pointed arguments that simplify not only communication, but short-circuit thinking.

    I appreciate your commenting on the phenomenon and believe that the “backlash” to come might just be well thought out and insightful writing that will engage us all.

    At least we can hope!

  • Steve

    @kids Soccer,

    I think spelling, idea and grammar more “improtant”.

    Yes, your post was disorganised dribble.

    “Sorry, but structure and formatt is proven”

    Who by?

    Look to meaning, young man, not style.

    Read a book.

  • Kristoffer

    @Ciprian: I totally agree. Good content is a good way to get good readers…

    @Kids soccer: I don’t agree with you. My blog is not that popular yet, but if you look at all the big blogs, they have tons of content, and a very simple design.

    @Jens P. Berget: Yes I think it’s the way to go. If I’m searching for something and I find interesting content, I look through the blog to find more, and I’m looking to see if the author have more websites.

    Conclusion: Content first, design after that.
    And then make it just as good as my blog or better 🙂

  • Chris Peterson

    I liked your article. Your post is totally wrathful. Both are important, we can’t neglect design or content. When visitors at first land in a blog they first see design then content. If your content is not meaning full then there is no use of good design and also vice-versa

  • Natalia Ventre

    If the author is well known, maybe the style doesn’t matter.

  • Annie

    As a person who still reads real books (ahem), I’m used to large blocks of text without any snazzy headings or large graphics. I get thoroughly turned off by posts and articles that follow all the design “rules” without offering any content of value, any original thought or even well-turned sentence. On the other hand, I appreciate the design features (lists, bold text) that allow me to quickly figure out, “Hey, there’s nothing worth reading here but the bold headings…”
    Heh. Not exactly what that bold text is supposed to do.
    The best equation is great content plus great design. If you can’t pull off both, though, I vote for content.

  • Lucy Thorpe

    A very direct post and I was glad to read it. I write a blog because I have things to say. I write in my own style as I always have done. It frustrates me when I am told by the writing guides that I must set out my writing in a certain way, or use headlines like ’10 things you must know about…..’
    I can only imagine this advice is aimed at bloggers who have set up with an aim other than writing great content. Why have a blog if you have nothing to say ? Or why not hire someone who has ?

  • BlogTech

    I agree with your opinion eventhough design is also needed for blogging

  • Debojyoti

    I don’t quite agree with the author. I am not saying that properly formatting and presenting your writing will make up for bad writing skills.

    But PRESENTATION IS ESSENTIAL. Bullets, numbering etc make the posts look nice and actually make it easier for readers to go through it.

    The reason that most people will read through your 1st paragraph is because of the eye catching type title and first line. But there are a lot topics where this is not always possible.

    People will always reward you if you make life (in this case reading) easier for them. I am sure a well presented blog will get far more RSS subscribers than otherwise same quality cluttered (read: not so well presented) blog.

    Thanks

  • Agent Deepak

    Did I read the whole post : Ya – for the first time in my life I had to read it twice. Horrible, took me two reading to understand it.

    Do I agree : No. Because from my point of view you need to present content which your readers can read easily and they do not have to struggle for it. I struggled a lot with this post.

  • AnastasiaCarroll

    I think the design is still important. It sets the mood. If the content is good but the design doesn’t please the eye, the impression will be a bit spoilt.

  • Hal Brown

    How refreshing, to read a post about good writing. I see some of the worst writing on blog posts I’ve seen anywhere. But what’s worse, it doesn’t seem to matter – the comments at the bottom are all about how wonderful it is. It is not wonderful for me, and I can hardly believe that English is being so dumbed-down. Some of these posts remind me of trying to read instructions written by someone with English as a second language.

    While were at it, there is a current trend to use shock value language. I’m no prude; an occasional off-color word may add to the value to a post. A constant stream of profanity for the sake of getting attention works. My attention goes elsewhere.

    Finally, I now see posts that rehash the most simple concepts, accepted as an epiphany by the readers. 100 ways to GTD has been done to death. Yet the 97 comments that follow posts like this make it appear as something newly discovered.

    My blog may fail to make money – it’s too early to know – but I have to remain true to myself. The writing on a blog post doesn’t have to be perfect English, but at least make it readable.

  • Aglo

    Style is needed in seeking the attention of readers, but with bad content, whether they will continue to follow us? with good content but the style is too boring to make the reader no longer be in our web. If I might prefer the style, ..

  • Sheila Atwood

    It takes both, excellent content and layout. Great layout is not just for dummies.

    Sheila

  • Eric C

    Before I agree with what Ciprian wrote, let me add the caveat that the style needs to fit the content, and the goals of the writer. Your topic will indicate what you should write about. Also, certain style techniques just work better online, like bold sub-headers. That said…

    People like short sentences because they are easier to write. Ditto with lists. People went success on the internet to come easy, and learning to write well, baby it ain’t easy.

    @ the people hating on the post – This was not a complicated post. It is relatively short, and actually organized pretty well.

  • Gabe | freebloghelp.com

    The truth is, neither style nor content can be ignored. Finding that sweet spot that suits the perception you want to achieve is the balancing act all bloggers face.

    The truth is, there are things that can be done that are proven. Minor tweaks can be made to stand out but to reinvent how to come across to readers would surely be an uphill climb to attract a following.

    Case and point, untrained writers often make very elementary mistakes, which can distract readers from the message.

  • bee

    Design=Content

  • Ben Collins

    Well…. I for one have a different problem. My website could really do with any advice as to text size and style as I keep readers updated with the best articles out there (yours included).

    I like these debating articles and I hope you follow it up with some advice for both sides of the argument.

    🙂

  • Ciprian

    Thank you all for sharing your thoughts. As Daniel said in his short note, this post is “different opinion” when we talk about content and how important is that.

    Of course, I agree that a good layout is essential on the long run and for those who want to make a living from blogging, they need both: quality content and a good layout.

    If at least one of you liked this post then my job is done and I look forward to here your thoughts on my future posts.

    Thx. again for your comments.

  • Dave Doolin | Website In A Weekend

    I’m with Daniel on this one. The writing style should be tailored to the message. Writing a 35 page review on Discontinuous Deformation Analysis needs to be styled differently than writing sales copy for an ebook.

    There is no one way to write.

    But I do understand the author’s frustration.

  • Chester

    Both Design and Content are important.

    Design being the eye catcher plays 50% of the blog’s overall impact. While the other 50% is for the content.

    No matter how fabulous the post seem to be, once the reader senses scrap on the content, it’s goodbye.

  • Supermarket Soap

    Really interesting post. I personally agree with this article. I’ve seen massive posts which I have read start to finish, and I’ve seen small articles which just lost me totally and I gave up on.

    And well done for a couple of points which made me smile – “They discovered writing” and the zombie movie references.

    Side note – if you get a chance, watch Dead Set. Great “tv movie” about zombies written by a TV critic.

  • Ciprian

    @Ben Collins – I concentrate first on content, on the message I want to transmit to my readers. When this step is done I can move to layout but I don’t spend too much time on this. You know KISS principle, right? So I use it as much as I can.

    If you want good content then you should:
    1) train yourself and provide quality materials for you audience
    2) learn from the best
    3) outsource content when you have no other option
    4) read, write, improve

    If you want a good layout:
    1) checkout your 10 ten competitors
    2) Find the KISS principle in their themes and apply to your needs
    3) If you can’t customize your theme hire a professional to do that
    4) don’t use default themes if you want to stand out from the crowd

    These are only a few ideas. I can digg for more, maybe in a new post based on this topic.

  • R Kumar

    A good topic to discuss about.
    How many times has it happened that I come to a blog and read a couple of lines and then browse away from it?
    Is it because I did not like the content or, is it because it is poorly presented?
    More often than not, my first impression of a blog is the way it looks. A neatly laid out design and a similar approach to the presentation of an article, with bullets, good headers, a few images etc, catches my attention and I get a feeling that this author(Blogger, I should say) knows how to say it. That creates a psychological impact and I start to love the content even before I have started reading it.
    Gradually as I read the article, even if it is about 40% good content and has only about 40% valuable message in it, I would read it from beginning till end.
    In contrast, if the layout was poor and I had a boring impression in the beginning itself, it is unlikely that I would spend more than a couple of seconds reading the content. Then what good is quality content.

  • Man Overboard

    Pretty sure I soiled myself when I read the bullet list. Bravo good sir. This is the second to last place u ever expected a Zombie metaphor.

  • Free Money Income

    I think, at first Design is more important as we all know “First impressions last” then after that Content will make them coming back to your site.

  • Ciprian

    Content Wins. Every Time.

    Content succeeds without format, but format goes nowhere without content. It is whimsical décor, nothing more. I ask you, when was the last time you finished reading a blog and thought, “Wow, nice formatting”?

    http://www.ciprianginghina.com/2010/01/31/content-wins-every-time/

    Thx. again for your comments.

  • John Lewis

    What an important topic!

    Broadly, I agree with the sentiment of the article; and the comments that emphasise the importance of content make sense to me. Yet I sympathise with the comments that suggest that style leads.

    Surely, in general, it is not realistic to separate style and content? Other comments have described the importance of each somewhat independently; but they are not separate: the “style” is the style of the content.

    For blog posts, on a simply visual level, the layout style of each part of the text is its font, size, color, position, borders, etc.. Also, on a structural level, the use of headings, bullet points, etc. is also being considered here as part of the style, but is more closely related to the content.

    Yet, we also talk of writing style: the voice used, the sequence of revelation of topics and so on; have we crossed over into content or is this still style? I’ve both described the topic and tried to apply it here: http://observations.johnwlewis.info/subjects/learning/disclosure-sequence/

    Of course, a super-car which performs superbly but looks awful is likely be disappointing; but a beautiful-looking car with a weak engine and uncontrollable handling is perhaps even more so. After all, the visual attraction encourages engagement, but when you are driving the car, you cannot see the outside … although other people can!

    So both performance and looks are important, and the presentation style is most effective when it suits the content … it seems to me!

  • Article Writer for Hire

    HA… I love it!!! I could not agree more… Sure, I differ with some of your metaphors but that is what this is all about. I totally agree that in your own blog, you want to be you. I have learned that people tend to react better to information you present them with, when you share what is going on in your head. I think it is a matter of preference and of course choice, deciding whether or not bullet points are necessary. When it comes to writing and personal style of writing, we choose the lesser of the evils, or at least what we believe the lesser of the evils to be.

    I think that if we respect our readers, give them substance to rely on or juicy content in an easy to digest form, it will be much better to keep them there, read through to the end of the post and come back for seconds. YES, this too was a long run-on sentence but it was intended nonetheless.

  • Ron – Sales Copy Writing | Content Publishing | Blogging

    Copywriting is understanding people, not fooling them!

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