A long time ago (actually like 2002) in a galaxy far far away (actually Pittsburgh) a creative writing partner told me to take the last sentence from the first draft of my essay and tape it to my monitor and make the whole essay say that. That’s not terrible advice to give an aspiring creative non-fiction writer. But, today (Thursday), I write technical blog posts, and I have to make sure my point is really obvious. To me, that’s about making the introduction and conclusion of my posts very explicit about what the post is about, while still being creative and engaging.
I’ve been lucky enough to write a lot of content for a lot of sites. This has been given me a lot of practice and a lot of help from great editors who helped me struggle through developing these skills. Believe me, it was a big struggle for a long time. In this post I will give you some tips on how to improve the introduction and conclusions to your posts. As a practical example, I will show you a revision I did to Roy’s recent post on development workflows.
Yes, this post is very meta. I’m writing a post about editing an introduction to another post, on the same site. I’m also making very sure I implement every single piece of advice I give. If you take a creative writing class, you will hear the “show, don’t tell” rule over and over again.
In technical writing, you should show and tell. Just saying what to do isn’t enough. Make it clear why what you’re saying is important. Back it up with statistics, working examples, and testimonials. You’re never just explaining something, you’re selling an idea.
By the way, Roy’s original introduction linked back to an older post on this site, which is great. My post does the same thing. That kind of self-referential linking helps create a narrative readers can follow through the site.
So let’s talk about Roy’s post. The content of the draft I read was really good. But it had a one-line introduction and very short “How about you?” call to action as the conclusion. I worried that without a really great introduction to hook people in, his quality content would get skipped over. So I edited it up, and used it as an excuse to write this post.
Here is Roy’s original introduction:
As I level up as a WordPress developer as much as I can, my development workflow has evolved and changed with me.
On one hand, he told us exactly what the post was about. On the other hand, it’s all packed into one sentence and doesn’t really craft the journey he’s been on. Without giving the arc of Roy’s personal journey, it’s hard for readers to see themselves taking a similar journey. Also, he didn’t tell us exactly what we’re going to learn and what new powers we are going to receive from learning from Roy.
Reading a technical blog post is really a selfish act. We do it because we think it’s going to give us a new power. IF anyone is going to get past the first sub-header in the post, they need to believe that by the time they get to the end, they are going to be better at something. And yes, this starts wherever they clicked into the article — the blog index, social media site, etc. But still, never stop selling, and while you’re at it — be engaging.
Here is what I changed Roy’s intro to:
When most people get started with WordPress, they don’t start with a workflow, they just WordPress. But as you get more serious, having a way of working — a set of tools and strategies for doing your job— becomes essential. As I level up as a WordPress developer as much as I can, my development workflow has evolved and changed with me. I’ve also become more focused on refining my workflow to ensure my tools don’t get in the way of my work.
In this post I want to share my workflow and a bit of how it has changed over time. I hope it helps you think about what your workflow is and where it could be improved.
It’s a little longer and says exactly the same thing. Now it is explicitly clear not just what the article is about, which Roy had in his original sentence, but it also says why this is important and acknowledges that this an ongoing process. Also, it tells the reader how to experience the article — use it to help improve your workflow.
For a conclusion Roy had two calls to action:
How does your workflow compare to mine? What are you going to try to add to yours?
Ending with a clear call to action is important. But, this isn’t sales copy, so it’s a little trickier. In a technical article you need to end with reminding people what they have learned and give them next steps. I actually have mixed feelings about ending a post with a call to engage with the content. On one hand people know how to leave a comment or share the post. Then again, when done right that can’t hurt.
Still, packing all of this into one conclusion can get tricky. For “How to Do X” type posts, a “Links to Learn Further” or “Things to Try Next” subsection directly before the conclusion can really help.
Here is what I revised Roy’s conclusion to:
Talking about tools is fun. Being a little obsessed with developing and implementing a quality workflow is good; just be careful not to lose sight of the work itself.
How does your workflow compare to mine? Did anything I suggested sound like something you wanted to try? Leave a comment or say hi on Twitter.
Honestly, this is a little bit busier than I would normally do. Keeping the call to action was important, as this is the type of post that people are likely to want to talk about. At the same time I wanted to work in a summary and a quick note about staying focused.
A great blog post empowers readers to believe they can do something, that they can learn something new, that they can become more awesome. It’s not really about teaching people, it’s about convincing them that they can learn.
No matter how powerful your content is, if it fizzles out in the end, it’s not going to leave the user feeling empowered.
I used to be terrible at this, but I put in the effort to look at every post I wrote and ask “What is this really about?” and “What’s the most important part of this post?”
Funny thing is, I wrote those posts, I knew what they were about, what the important takeaways were. That’s easy. All I had to do was stop trying to hide the point and just say it. With that simple trick, writing posts with engaging and clear introductions and strong conclusions became easy. Once you start asking these questions, and answering them for your readers, you to can quickly level up as a tutorial writer.