I have a nice sideline as a freelance journalist. Obviously editors consider my work good enough on the whole to be worth commissioning, although I'm sure I could do better in many respects. But it must get readers, else I wouldn't keep getting hired. However, there is one thing I know I'm very bad at: encouraging discussion.

In this day and age when so much written work is published to the web, and communities are used to being able to comment, that's a fairly major shortcoming. Sometimes editors have a specific desire to incite discussion. Sometimes it's just nice to engage with the people that read my work. Sometimes I'd actually quite like to be able to write a polemic, without trying to be reasonable. But even that often fails to get comments.

Here's an amateur blog post I wrote recently which got no traction at all, and inspired this question: http://fortressat.com/articles-trash-culture/5188-bolt-thrower-xcom-board-game-dark-souls-starship-troopers-johnny-flynn

And here's a professional piece I did which is a rare example of me succeeding in generating discussion: http://www.pocketgamer.co.uk/r/Android/Neon+Shadow/feature.asp?c=63745

I'm struggling to see why one worked and the other didn't: both are just me laying down opinions and backing up with a few examples and a bit of evidence.

Whatever the reason, I struggle to present arguments in a way that encourages readers to want to answer. How can I write in a manner that leads to more comments?

(A linked post and possible duplicate: How can I encourage more comments on my blog? - I guess my question is more personal, more technical, and less about marketing)

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  • A journalist's job is not to incite discussion, it's to inform and enlighten: books.google.co.uk/… The number of comments you get is not a good measurement of the quality of your journalistic ability. – Django Reinhardt Feb 27 '15 at 15:51
  • @DjangoReinhardt That's a discussion you should be having with commissioning editors, not with me. And of course, it's becoming an increasingly important debate in the digital age. – Bob Tway Feb 27 '15 at 16:13
  • @DjangoReinhardt The value of "informing and enlightening" the public is that it enables the public to be informed participants in discussions and debates. Usually this is passive participation as observers, but also as volunteers, candidates, and voters in the democratic process. So "encouraging discussion" is pretty much what "informing and enlightening" is for. Let's not discuss this further, as this really is not the context, but I just wanted to point out that the difference is really not that big. – Ville Niemi Feb 28 '15 at 10:39
  • @VilleNiemi Inciting discussion can be easily done by stating something controversial from a position of authority. It takes no skill whatsoever, and comes from opinion, not facts. It has nothing to do with informing anybody about anything. Journalism exists to enlighten and inform, not to incite discussion. If discussion occurs as a result, it's a healthy byproduct. – Django Reinhardt Mar 2 '15 at 15:19


It starts with the title. Let's compare.

Bolt Thrower: XCOM Board Game, Dark Souls, Starship Troopers, Johnny Flynn

Someone talking about their random musings about four seemingly unrelated topics. I doubt that the article will be in any way more coherent that the title.

Opinion: It's time to give up on first and third person shooters for mobile

Woow! What a bolt statement! Someone claims a whole business industry must change their focus. They say people should not like what they like. I am already forming my retort in my head before even reading the first paragraph.

First impression

But I am a busy person. I don't have time to read an article more than a page long unless I know it will mention something which interests me. So I scroll down and skim the article. What do I see?

One picture of the box-art of a game, wall of text, the sub-headers "Video Games", "Films & TV" and "Music".

These are really broad topics. I am interested in some video games and some films and some genres of music, but not all. I have no idea if the article talks about those I care about. So better not take the risk that I could be wasting my time.

Screenshots of Deus Ex for iPad, Tomb Raider, Bioshock and a fourth game I don't recognize but sure looks interesting. Sub-headers "Performance issues" and "Stop it". There are also some links which catch my eye through their color. They also mention some games I know.

I know those games and I have strong opinions about some of them. I wonder if the author shares my view or dares to have a different (certainly wrong!) opinion. That fool - he will pay for his insolence when he reads my comment!


Let's talk about the article content. The first one


The second one:


Sorry, didn't read either.


What? Why is your cursor moving to the downvote button? Does that not make my answer useful? My laziness makes me just like the vast majority of your visitors. The usual internet user opens an article, skims it, and decides within seconds whether or not they want to read it. Most of the times they won't. When you don't manage to immediately catch the attention of your reader, they will close the browser tab and move on.

Just kidding. I did actually read both articles. But really, the content doesn't matter as much as the first two points.

Some final tips for blogging

  • Appearance is everything on the web. Make your articles appealing with many images, sub-headers and links.
  • Links, links, links! Links help your users to find more informations and they help search engines to better index the web. But mostly, they are useful eyecatchers.
  • Pick a title which is already your conclusion. That way the reader already knows where you stand
  • When you write an article, write an article about one topic and one topic only. When you want to talk about multiple topics, create multiple articles.
  • When you would like to talk about multiple unrelated things, you should create multiple unrelated blogs. People who subscribe to a blog do so because it caters to their specific interest. A blog about everything and nothing will not gather a followship as easily as one with a clear focus. So when you like to talk about video games and about movies and about music, you should create three separate blogs, each one focusing on one of these areas of interest.
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  • I'd like to point out that this answer is not only good in substance, but it actually practices what it preaches. Nice use of headlines, bullets, short paragraphs, and quote blocks to avoid being a wall of text. It's about as visually exciting as it gets on Stack Exchange. – newz2000 Mar 21 '19 at 0:47

Let's look at the two.

First (the failed one) is a mixed bag of... "I did thing". It's definitely your personal blog where you just report things you've been doing, and adding a short piece of opinion to each of them. And you've been doing various things. There's no direction, no focus, nothing to bind it into a solid whole. It's like a Facebook timeline, "played X, didn't like it." It's generic, so it doesn't attract much readership, and the pieces are so separated that even if a reader has an opinion on one, they are discouraged from sharing it, simply because they would nitpick at a tiny piece without touching a much bigger rest.

The other article presents a solid, controversial, focused opinion and then keeps selling it. Every paragraph serves a purpose, to further that opinion, be it through direct points or poking at its weaker sides to show they aren't really that weak ("autoaim is executed well, but autoaim takes fun from FPS"). The readers can express their opinion on the core subject, poke at different weak sides, provide more examples, more arguments, counterarguments - there is something to discuss!

You have two articles, one being a random, fragmented info dump, and the other a well structured, controversial argument. There's nothing to do but nod and move forward with the first one, while the other engages the reader.

Note that specific point, "controversial". The FPS games for mobiles are being sold, the market proves that. And even if through buyer's remorse, there will be people who will oppose your argument - "fans" of mobile FPS. Or maybe shills of the developers. Or trolls finding fertile ground. No matter, you set a direction, created one solid rift, an argument, and people can start arguing.

As I was reading the first piece I was somewhat tempted to argue about Dark Souls. Blighttown isn't all that hard if you realize it's blight for your enemies as well. But then why pick out that little piece of a much bigger whole?

Then I read your second piece. Okay, I agree, no argument here. Then I see the comments and that moron who says mobile FPS is good because the console controller makes the camera move like a robot. Yes, a weelchair is better than crawling. Ever tried walking though? Ever played FPS with a mouse?

That's where discussion is born - when people have something to argue about. When people with too limited view get corrected, and then they defend their misguided opinions. And if the core article presents a flawed opinion then all hell breaks loose...

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I had a quick read of both posts and, to my mind, the writing styles were noticeably different.

You mention nothing about traffic in your question but it might be pertinent to your writing. Obviously if one website only attracts 1,000 visitors and another attracts 10,000 visitors then it would be unrealistic to expect the same level of reader engagement.

As a journalist, it seems a reasonable expectation to ask your commissioning editor or whoever to give you some site statistics. What is the traffic to the website? How many visits did you have to the page over the course of - say - a month, two months, three months? I'm surprised you are not asking for these sorts of numbers so you can bang them into a spreadsheet and see:

a. how much traffic the commissioning website attracts b. how much traffic your article attracted c. how many comments were posted over different periods of time

You can then start to analyse your performance much better.

Secondly, stuff written for the internet hangs around for ever. For example, yesterday, I saw that someone had upvoted some comments I made on a newspaper article using Disqus. Nothing unusual about that - except that I made the comments over three years ago! It is not unusual for people to find articles, read comments and vote accordingly. At least, it seems to happen to me a lot!

Now to the actual writing. As I said, I read both the sample posts. To my mind, the differences between them were quite marked. The article with fewest comments was much more wishy-washy than the other one. In the more popular article, you made punchy points and your position was clear. In the less popular article, it came across to me as if you had no strong views or did not want to offend anyone or did not want to say anything contentious. It was literary blancmange. As articles go, it was okay but it provoked no strong feelings in me.

I know nothing about gaming and intend to learn nothing more than I already know. That having been said, I could see immediately that the more popular article struck positions. Where you have a position, you create the opportunity for someone to agree or disagree and to want to say so publicly. Where you say nothing contentious, no-one will comment because there's nothing to support or oppose.

Finally, I don't know the terms of your commissions. Are you being asked to write a balanced article to inform readers or should you perhaps deliberately throw in something for them to kick against? I often find that articles are the starting point of knowledge because expert "civilians" chip in with their particular areas of expertise.

If your commissioning editor wants to have a website where he is the "expert" delivering received wisdom to the readers, your writing style will obviously have to conform. However, if the aim is to attract traffic for other reasons (advertising or whatever), then maybe you should think about writing slightly more controversial opinions. You do not need to be rude about it as the American "shock jocks" so often are - but give people some meat to tear apart with their teeth. You don't have to believe everything you write but perhaps you should write more to provoke debate and less to give a completely balanced opinion.

Finally, before rushing off to change anything, work with your commissioning editor to determine what it is your writing is expected to achieve. I am willing to bet that even some of your commissioning editors haven't fully thought that one through!

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