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Monday, May 2, 2011

A Writer's Guide to Formatting Blog Posts

Guest post by: Tavis J. Hampton

There is a certain art to writing for the web, and anyone who does it has developed a skill that took time to learn. From mastering search engine optimization (SEO) to understanding image copyright restrictions, one could probably develop an entire course on web writing. Formatting is unfortunately one that sometimes gets overlooked. How you format your blog posts or online articles can affect everything else: SEO, presentation, clarity, and ultimately your reputation as a professional.

The good news is that it is far easier to format web articles now than it was five, ten, or even fifteen years ago. With dynamic websites and content management systems, publishing is a cinch, but there are still possible hiccups along the way that can cost you. This quick guide should help you learn or remember some of the more critical aspects of web formatting.

1. Avoid the direct Microsoft Word copy and paste. If you must use something like Word, turn off your blog's WYSIWYG editor (select HTML in WordPress), and paste directly into the plain text box. Then, switch back to rich text and format the document. Pasting from Google Docs is also much cleaner than pasting from Word, but it does put a DIV tag around the text and also does not preserve bold and italics in the paste, meaning you will still need to do some formatting within your blog's backend.

2. Use an HTML Editor. A simple way to ensure you provide the clearest, unmolested text to your readers is to use an HTML editor from the beginning. Wordpress and other content management systems tend to use XHTML 1.0 or higher for formatting. That means that old HTML 4.0 editors will use deprecated tags for line breaks, images, and other tags. You can avoid this by using an HTML editor like Amaya. As HTML 5 becomes more prevalent, blogging tools may soon adapt.

3. Avoid inline styles and extra code. This point relates to the previous two. Many word processors can format HTML, but they often leave inline styles within paragraph and span tags. First of all, these make the document unnecessarily long, and secondly, they cause problems when you try to edit them within the content management system. If you absolutely cannot use an HTML editor before pasting text into your blog, paste plain text and do all of your formatting within the blog's editor.

4. Include alt attributes for images. For both SEO and accessibility, alt attributes in image tags are important. They describe images to non-visual browsers, both search engines and visually impaired humans. Wordpress and other blogging software include title and alternate text entries. Make them clear and descriptive but not too wordy.

5. Resize images to fit your blog. Some blogging systems will automatically resize to the dimensions you specify, but older systems may only set dimensions in HTML, leaving the actual file size larger than it should be. Furthermore, by resizing in your own image editing program, you can control the amount of compression and also tweak and crop the image. If you intend to show detailed screenshots, consider using thumbnails that will display larger versions of the images upon clicking.

6. Use CSS styles for frequent formatting. If you have a little knowledge of CSS, you can add styles that you know you will use frequently to your WordPress or other blogging CMS template. That way, whenever you need to apply a style, you can use a quick CSS class. many web hosts, such as dedicated hosting provider, will install WordPress for you, but you can still edit the theme's CSS file within the backend's theme editor.

7. Preview before posting. You may think your post is formatted correctly, but it is always better to double check to make sure it looks the way you expect. This is particularly important if you pasted from another editor. Wordpress, for example, removes some code and modifies others, which can sometimes lead to formatting problems.

Formatting your blog can often make or break your article. Text or images that are malformed or incorrectly displayed often turn readers off before they even start to read your work. No matter how good your writing skills are, it is the presentation and appearance that will make the first and often lasting impression.

Tavis J. Hampton is a seasoned writer with a decade of experience in IT, web publishing, and free and open source software. Some of his services include writing, web design, electronic publishing, and information management.

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