The Sin of Originality (and the Truth about Building a Popular Blog)
Note from Jon: This is one of the most shocking lessons you can learn as a blogger. We’re all trained to believe originality is essential for standing out, but the fact is, it can be dangerous, even deadly. In this guest post by Henneke Duistermaat from Enchanting Marketing, she shows you when originality is good and when it’s bad, and she also gives you a strategy for exactly how to do it right. Enjoy.
Okay, show of hands.
Who else is still searching for that perfect, original angle that’ll make you stand out?
Yeah, most of us are. The fact is, the blogosphere is a crowded place, and if you want to stand out, you need to be original.
Well, yes and no.
As it turns out, sometimes originality isn’t quite as important as we all think it is. Sometimes, it can actually hurt you.
Let me explain.
Originality gone wrong
Tell me if this sounds familiar.
One day, an idea strikes you for a new blog. It’s interesting, fresh, bursting with possibility, so you snoop around Google a bit to see if anyone else is writing about it.
And you’re in luck!
The space is totally wide open. Sure, maybe it’s not the biggest, most popular blog topic in the world, but it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a vast, dangerous ocean, right?
Most bloggers think so. Since you’re a beginner, you believe you couldn’t possibly compete in a big niche like personal finance or social media or parenting, and your only hope of standing out is finding a space where there’s no competition.
But here’s what usually happens:
You write and write and write, and nobody pays you any attention, not because your writing is bad, necessarily, but because there is a lack of demand. Yes, your content is great, but there just aren’t that many people interested in reading about it.
Essentially, you’ve created the world’s greatest asparagus restaurant. Maybe you have one or two regulars who are asparagus freaks, but the rest of the world would rather go get some pizza. So, your restaurant (or blog) is empty.
The truth is, originality is only good within the confines of what the audience wants. If you fail to consider the audience, it actually becomes something else:
The myth of creativity
Have you heard of Drayton Bird?
He’s an English copywriting master.
The legendary David Ogilvy says that Drayton knows more about direct marketing than anyone in the world. So Drayton should know about creativity – don’t you think?
This is what Drayton says:
“You don’t have to be creative. You just have to be successful.”
Here is a guy representing some of the world’s most famous brands, writing ads that go out to millions of people, and he’s saying creativity is unnecessary.
So, that brings up a big question:
If creativity isn’t the secret to success, what is?
Well, let’s ask one of the most well-known artists of all time:
Pablo Picasso was a master thief
“Good artists copy, great artists steal” ~ Pablo Picasso
You probably think of Picasso as a champion of originality, right?
He helped create the first collage. He was one of the leaders of the Cubist movement. He invented constructed sculpture.
But the truth?
He snatched success formulas from other painters.
- He used a scene from Las Meninas – a 17th century painting by Diego Velázquez, and he created 44 new paintings based on that scene.
- He copied the central figure: five-year old Margaret Theresa – the favorite daughter of King Philip IV.
- He imitated the arrangement: the maids of honor, the dwarfs, and the reflection of the king and queen are all snatched from Velázquez’ painting.
- He even re-painted the large dog.
Does anyone think Picasso committed plagiarism?
I don’t think so.
Why would his 44 paintings all hang in the Picasso museum in Barcelona?
Picasso didn’t plagiarize, because he didn’t outright copy. He added his personal touch and his own style to create new paintings – his interpretations of the same scene.
And that’s the secret to success.
If you want to become a much-admired blogger, you have to study the masters and steal their blueprints for success.
How to steal your way to blogging success
Stealing isn’t easy.
No treasure of blogging jewels lies waiting to be heisted. You need to know where to look.
And you have to stop reading purely for pleasure.
That’s right. Instead you need to study content.
You have to determine what makes content successful. You have to learn the techniques of persuasion, the methods of bonding with your readers, and the recipes for being memorable.
You should study a variety of texts – blog posts, sales letters, adverts, email newsletters, novels, and newspapers. Even trashy magazines can teach you about blogging.
You need to analyze:
- Why is a headline successful? What benefit does it offer? What power words are used?
- What are the techniques for opening a post? Why does an opening paragraph draw you into the story?
- How is the content structured? How is it set up for skimmers?
- What does the closing paragraph make you feel? How does it encourage you to do something or believe in something?
- How does a landing page encourage you to sign up or buy?
- How are writing techniques such as stories, metaphors, and cliffhangers used?
Take your time to analyze. It is hard work. You need to learn what to steal. And once you’ve mastered that, you can start your swipe file.
A swipe file is the secret to blogging success
“A good swipe file is better than a college education” ~ Milt Pierce
A swipe file is a collection of material you can use as inspiration for your own work.
Without a doubt, it’s your quickest route to creating awesome content and boosting traffic to your blog. Why re-invent the wheel if others have already tested what works?
A swipe file will:
- Save you time – providing suggestions for headlines, email subject lines, content structures etc.
- Tell you what topics your audience wants to read about and what topics bore them to tears
- Help you overcome writer’s block – it’s a lot harder to get stuck when you have a model to follow
- Make you a better writer – there’s no better way to achieve excellence than to model excellence
- Improve the effectiveness of your content – if others have found what works, why would you start from scratch?
Evernote is an excellent tool to compile your swipe file. You can access Evernote from your phone, tablet, or computer. You can add new content from any of those devices, too. And you can use tags and categories to organize your swipe file.
Use the following three steps to start your digital swipe file:
- Set up an Evernote account and install Evernote on your mobile phone, tablet, laptop, and computer.
- Create a Notebookfor each of the categories you’re collecting examples of. My favorite categories are:
- Power words
- Opening paragraphs
- Closing paragraphs
You can also add categories for metaphors, cliffhangers, and landing pages.
- Right-click the first category you’ve created, and choose Add to stack > New stack. Right-click New stack to rename your file Swipe file. Add all other categories to your swipe file.
You can’t send notes straight from your Kindle to your swipe file on Evernote. For the quickest way to transfer notes from your Kindle:
- Highlight text as normal while reading your Kindle.
- Go to https://kindle.amazon.com/your_reading; login to your Amazon account and click the book you’ve been reading.
- Click the Evernote badge in your browser and clip the whole page to your Evernote swipe file.
Once your swipe file is set up, you should add new content each week, and each time you start writing, you should plunder your swipe file.
Let’s have a look at a real example of how swiping works.
How to steal and write awesome blog posts
You know Jon’s post On Dying, Mothers, and Fighting for Your Ideas, don’t you?
Do you think Jon’s post is completely original?
Of course it isn’t!
Even a blogging superstar like Jon is a master thief.
Jon stole from this post by Brian Clark: The Snowboard, the Subdural Hematoma, and the Secret of Life.
Both posts tell personal stories. Both are captivating, emotional, and inspirational.
The similarity goes a lot further, though.
Compare the two headlines – you see how they use three elements to summarize the story?
Now, have a look at the subheadings.
Do you see how Brian’s first three subheadings follow his title? And how his fourth section (Wake up!) tells you to chase your dreams?
Jon’s structure is similar:
- Jon first explains he nearly died – just like Brian’s introduction.
- Jon introduces the miracle of mothers – just like Brian introduces the snowboard and the subdural hematoma.
- Jon talks about fighting for your ideas – just like Brian discusses the secret of life.
- Jon inspires you, as a blogger, to fight for your ideas in his closing paragraphs – just like Brian tells you to chase your dreams.
Jon analyzed Brian’s post, applied Brian’s post structure to his own story, and looked for ways to make his post even better.
That’s how analyzing, swiping, and writing works.
Would anyone accuse Jon of plagiarism?
Of course not! Truth be told, Brian was honored to have his work modeled in such a successful way.
You will be too, once you’re successful.
But first you have to become successful, and to do that, you have to work your butt off.
The truth about building a popular blog
Becoming a blogging thief is hard work. You can’t just outright copy text.
You have to analyze why others are persuasive and memorable. You have to study what makes content mind-blowingly successful. You have to learn why others are adored by their audience.
And then you have to use those insights each and every time you write.
So start building your collection of the works to “steal” from.
By the power vested in me, you are hereby authorized to pinch, pilfer, and plunder.
But the most important point?
Quit doubting your talent.
All you need to become a better blogger is to study how others write and borrow the best parts from the bloggers you admire most.
Just do it your way.
Yes, you should color within the lines, but the good news is you can choose any color you want. Hopefully even a color that’s uniquely you.
And trust me, your readers will love it.
About the author: Henneke Duistermaat enjoys thieving to improve her writing. She is a UK-based marketer, specialized in marketing consumer goods. You can steal her ideas on content marketing by subscribing to Enchanting Marketing.