Blogging is graffiti with punctuation.
Maxims and guidelines on what makes good graffiti (and good blogging)
In this post, we’ll see how graffiti and blogging are alike, some maxims from the 70s (that we somehow got to losing along the way) and some guidelines to make your blogposts sticky. But before all of that, we’ll talk cinema.
If there is a tremendously relevant movie for these times we’re living, it is the 2011 movie Contagion: it is about the pandemic outbreak of a highly lethal and highly contagious virus, that sets off when Gwyneth Paltrow returns to Minneapolis from a business trip to –you guessed it!– China. Two days later, she and her son are dead, and cases start to pop up everywhere.
Everything we have gone through in these past few months is in the movie: chaos, panic, shortages of essential goods, enforced quarantines, stadiums repurposed as makeshift hospitals and burial grounds improvised in parks, people out on the streets wearing masks, all the while looting, theft and violence spread along with the disease. Meanwhile, governments, labs and scientists race to find a vaccine or a treatment. Fake news populate the media and, amidst all of that, Jude Law plays a blogger who goes around trying to find stories that can make his blog as viral as the disease.
In the movie, Elliot Gould plays a scientist who is chased all over the place by Jude Law’s character, as the latter thinks that his blog’s followers will feast on whatever information he can pry out of the former. When Gould finally gets fed up with Law, he fires that phrase as an insult.
I instantly loved the quote and wrote it down, as I usually do. But then, after a day or two, I re-read it and found that it might not be so far off the mark. If we really get down to the nitty-gritty, Gould’s character is absolutely on point: a good blog should have the impact of good graffiti.
And a bad blog, well… it should be as impactful as bad graffiti.
What makes good graffiti (and good blogging)?
Back in the mid ’70s, Paul Grice neatly summed up the expectations we have regarding conversation in 4 simple, elegant maxims, and you will find that they very much apply to the expectations us humans have regarding graffiti, blogs, and pretty much every other medium, given that, in a way, they are also conversations:
- Maxim of Quality —We expect the truth.
- Maxim of Quantity — We expect to obtain information that we didn’t already have, but not too much that it makes us feel overwhelmed.
- Maxim of Relation — We expect the information to be relevant and to have a logical flow to it.
- Maxim of Manner — We expect the speaker to be reasonably brief, ordered and unambiguous.
Now, we have to understand that there is a fundamental difference between writing a scientific article and writing a blogpost. Sure, that’s obvious. We’re not saying anything new here, right? Well… we all know they are different, sure, but I have found that, when we start looking a little bit closer into what it is that makes them different, the likelihood of you sayin “oh, wow.. I’ve been writing my blogposts like scientific articles!” increases dramatically.
A scientific article is a document that does not argument. It doesn’t need to. It is the product of research, and its goal is to communicate in a clear, precise way the results of an investigation carried out on a specific area of knowledge. Therefore, as a cultural product, it doesn’t need to follow any sort of structure that captures the reader’s attention: we don’t read scientific articles because we want to, but because we have to. We read them to find data, methods, results; we go to them to see what has been done in a certain space and what results have come out of it, so we can avoid traps and mistakes, or be able to reference that work and save time, money and energy.
That is why scientific articles have an abstract at the very beginning that gives away the ending. Since their goal is to simplify and speed up the process of knowledge dissemination, they need to cut to the chase as soon as possible. We start out already knowing what the problem is, and the result or solution to that problem, and all we can learn by reading the rest of the document is how they got from A to B, and if that path is scientifically valid. There is no kind of suspense about the ending and, in that sense, the closest literary genre to a scientific article is romantic comedy.
A blogpost, on the contrary, is like an emotional rollercoaster. Ok, maybe not a rollercoaster… but it is definitely on the emotional end of the spectrum: its structure can and should vary, mutate, be omitted or subverted. Its function is rhetoric, it lives only if it can catch you, hook you, convince you, move you. It should also be sticky: make you want to tell other people.
Good graffiti –and good blogging– is contagious.
A blogpost is a goal-based instrument, and it leverages emotions to move you into action. It has to give its readers something concrete, and that something has to move them towards acting. Being so, it demands that, on the writing end, we know what we are going to tell and especially what for, before even start dwelling on how. And though we should suggest where the narrative is going, we are going to operate always within the space of suggestion: a little amount of intrigue to keep our readers hooked.
- The title demands, the subtitle arguments. Your title has a license to kill. Well, not to kill, but to be provocative. It’s a beacon, and it will have to call attention. Once you created that initial spark of attention, your subtitle is going to provide a reason to take a step further. Your title is what will catch readers’ eyes and your subtitle is what will turn them into your readers.
- Provide a map. Tell your readers what they will find. The map is not the territory, but it gives your readers an idea of what’s coming. Human beings love having a sense of certainty about the future. Content rules over form: your map can be as simple as a couple of bullet points: what matters is that it needs to tempt readers to keep on reading, and help them regulate their expectations.
- Cornerstone Content format. Break down your content into a series of questions. Each question should be answered in one sentence. Clear, short and to the point. After that, feel free to elaborate as much as you want, by giving examples, telling stories and even creating characters; whatever it takes to move your readers forward. Finally, you will wrap up your big idea by going back to that one sentence answer… which is now supported by all the arguments and examples you just provided.
Blogging –and any kind of writing, really– is much more of an art than an exact science, so no matter how many guidelines and tips and tricks you can gather, you will still need to find each blogpost’s own ring, and tune it by ear.
In the end, the real question you need to ask yourself when writing a blogpost is: What would Banksy do?
And then let your imagination fly.