Why Most “How to” Posts Suck (and How to Write Great Ones)

How to Posts

Once upon a time, “how to” posts were a blogger’s bread-and-butter.

The idea was simple. People want to know how to do stuff, and if you teach them how, you’ll get lots of traffic.

And it was true… for a while.

This post from 2007 is a great example:

How to Cook Brown Rice

For years, it was the most popular post on Steve’s mega-popular blog. It continues to rank well in the search engines today.

But here’s an interesting question…

If Steve published that post in 2016, would it still be as popular and get as much traffic?

The answer is no. Absolutely not.

Here’s why:

The Internet Has Changed

A decade ago, it was hard to learn how to do stuff. You might have to call an expert, take a class, or horror of horrors, go to the library.

The idea of finding out how to do things online was still relatively new. People were shocked and surprised by the simple, practical advice they could find on the web.

But not anymore. You can Google damn near anything and find a dozen articles and videos giving you step-by-step advice.

What’s more, you expect it.

If you Google “how to cook brown rice,” and you find an article to teach you how to do it, you’re not overjoyed. It’s not a memorable experience. You probably forget about the article and the website as soon as you finish cooking the rice.

The result:

Not only are “how to” posts getting less traffic, but the traffic they do get is less engaged. Even if you do happen to rank in the search engines, 99% of the people stay just long enough to solve their problem, and then they forget about you forever.

The good news?

There’s a simple fix. It works for every topic in every niche for every person starting a blog.

A Simple Hack for Writing Great “How to” Posts

Instead of teaching people what to do, teach them what to do differently.

Assume every person coming to read your “how to” posts has already read a dozen other posts on the topic. To get their attention, you have to show them an entirely different method that works better.

Here’s a great example from Tim Ferriss:

Tim doesn’t just teach you how to peel a hard-boiled egg. He teaches you how to do it differently and save yourself time and frustration.

The result? 7 million views and counting.

The bottom line…

The strategy of giving people practical, undifferentiated, step-by-step guidance is dead. If you want to write “how to” posts that get traffic, force yourself to find a methodology that’s clearly superior to everything else and then, teach it to people.

Of course, this raises an important question…

What if you have nothing new and interesting to teach?

Well, you have two options.

First, you can become a curator. Find the smartest advice from other people, and piece it together into a collection of resources for your readers.

It’s easy. It’s fast. People appreciate the time it saves them.

The other option?

Say nothing. Avoid the topic entirely until you have something new and interesting to say.

In fact, take the time you would’ve spent writing the post and dedicate it to conducting weird experiments. Most of them won’t work, but occasionally you’ll stumble across a new insight or methodology that changes the way people do things forever.

This is how you become influential, by the way.

It’s not by repeating old wisdom. It’s by creating new wisdom that makes the old wisdom look stupid.

Can’t do that?

Then for God sakes, be quiet.

The world doesn’t need another blogger telling us stuff we already know. What the world needs is thinkers, tinkerers, and rebels, brave souls who look beyond the way things are done and see the way they could be done.

Which one are you?

About the Author: Jon Morrow has repeatedly asked to be called His Royal Awesomeness, but nobody listens to him, so he settles for CEO of Smart Blogger. Poor man. 😉

80 thoughts on “Why Most “How to” Posts Suck (and How to Write Great Ones)”

  1. Thanks for writing an excellent post Jon.

    I remember going to a Roy H. Williams workshop in Austin. Roy teaches us a trick that surprises people. Start with a completely different and random topic and try to find a segue to your point. The twist in narrative is what makes for memorable copy.

  2. Hey Jon,

    Possibly because I’m in the middle of writing a post about “Great Closings” and my mind is in that zone, but I love the closing you wrote. It’s a blog post all by itself — it tells you EVERYTHING you need to know about the topic.

    And, like most great closings, it offers a great quote: “The world doesn’t need another blogger telling us stuff we already know. What the world needs is thinkers, tinkerers, and rebels, brave souls who look beyond the way things are done and see the way they could be done.”

    Love that.

    Off to tweet. Keep these occasional “short posts” comin’. They’re great.

    – @kevinjduncan

    1. I got a little misty eyed when I wrote that. That’s one of the things I’ve realized… If you want anyone to be moved by your work, you have to be moved yourself.

      1. I saved that quote as soon as I read it. Powerful. Glad I am in good company! And…thank you, Jon, for all of your guidance and inspiration. I appreciate it very much.

  3. Hi Jon,

    Reading this post I realized you’ve done exactly what you teach us here. Many bloggers recommend writing step by step post, but you told us how to make a different type of how to post. Love the smaller post. It’s easier to read. 🙂

    Thanks for teaching me something new today, Jon.I’m heading over to twitter now to share it with all my friends and followers.


  4. It goes along with the long tail keywords. “Individualism” for lack of a better term is how aspiring bloggers can get ranked today. This article addresses that issue with “how to” posts.

  5. Keri Vandongen

    Insightful advice, Jon! Here’s my different twist… I’m keeping your advice in mind when offering services for my clients. How is my approach different when an objective is similar to what competitors and the Internet offers?

    1. It’s a useful question. Just remember there are multiple different types of unique selling propositions (USPs). Differentiating your approach or method is one way, but it’s not the only way.

  6. Hey Jon,

    This is an excellent post. A reminder for us,bloggers, to not be contended with rehashing content and telling ideas over and over again.

    There is no room for mediocrity if we want to be a successful blogger. Always find a way to add value and be different. That’s what I learned from this post.

    I will definitely tweet this one. Tweet tweet! 🙂 amazing! Thanks Jon.

    Jon Espina

    1. Maybe I’ll write a post about that. The short of it is, your output of ideas is directly related to your input of ideas. Immerse yourself in the creativity of others, and you’ll find it a lot easier to be creative yourself.

      1. “your output of ideas is directly related to your input of ideas”

        This is so true. The best thing I’ve done this year was to build a habit around it:

        1. Read a marketing book at lunch.
        2. Explore blogs during breakfast. Feedly is a Godsend.
        3. Go for a 1 hour walk everyday and listen to a podcast/audiobook. Outdoors + walking + listening to smart people = creativity on demand.

        Then I booked all of these into my calendar for an entire year as recurring appointments.

        Another thing I’m experimenting with – and this is controversial – is to stop reading mediocre content.

        What goes in, comes out.

        Let’s be real for a second. 90% of blog posts are mediocre. The more I consumed ‘junk food/writing’, the more it dragged my own writing down.

        I would rather read 10 posts by one author I admire than follow 10 bloggers who don’t impress.

        PS: Here’s a cool exercise I picked up from the Fizzle show. Set aside 1 day to explore the body of work of a single author. You see how they’ve developed as a writer, the themes that come up again and again in their work, their ‘arc’…

        This week is “Jon Morrow Week” 😉

  7. Just Great.
    Your posts are still the best, Jon.

    You have the ability to make things clear and make a point where others have only fuzzy thinking.

    I will now go experimenting 🙂 Not writing.

    Greetings from Germany,

    1. “You have the ability to make things clear and make a point where others have only fuzzy thinking.”

      It’s like you read my mind, Walter! I had the exact same thought after reading this post: How on earth does Jon make everything seem so simple?

      Do you think this would eventually rub off on us if we read more of Jon’s stuff? 😛

  8. Hi Jon,
    Great timing for me…I was about to start a How To post. Now I’ll brainstorm (and experiment!!) more and see if I can come up with something better.

  9. I have certainly seen the need to re-strategize my content production compared to what my 2010 posts looked like… especially since today’s internet has a daily crush of regurgitated, thoroughly boring blog posts.

    Being a little more observant will likely help us all create content that will provoke curiosity in our readers.

  10. Thanks for creating this Jon. When I hear people complaining about how they can’t get traffic from guest posting on popular websites or that they writing 50 blog posts a week and their traffic is a trickle.

    I’m reminded by what Steve Jobs said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

    Thank you for leading us.

  11. That’s a great insight, Jon. Being a story coach, I wrote a guest post last month on ‘how to plot a story’. It bored me rigid. So I changed the theme to ‘Why Everything You Think You Know About Plotting Stories Is Wrong’. I submitted it to the world’s highest traffic writing site, Write To Done. They published it two days later with not one word changed except the title. Result: it brought down the chandeliers in terms of sign-ups to my list and the clicks are still coming. The idea works 😉

  12. In these days of content saturation, we need to be different.

    We can be different in what we say. Or the way we say it.

    We don’t have to be 100% different, just different enough to make an impression.

    As Bruce Lee said:

    “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.”

    Great post Jon.

  13. Hello Jon,
    Rice and eggs in once post? So, now I’m learning how to be a chef as well as a writer?
    An excellent, winning hybrid, I think.
    What if I wrote about – how to cook brown rice naked? (As long as it’s not on YouTube, obviously!) At least it would be different.
    Thanks, Jon. You always make me think but I forgive you. Just hope I haven’t made you retch.
    Kindest regards,

    1. I’d read a post about how to cook brown rice naked, especially if the nakedness improves the rice somehow. Time for an experiment, methinks. 😉

      1. Thanks, Jon,
        Now I see why you are a businessman whereas I am but an amateur exhibitionist.

  14. Loved this. Pretty cool how one simple tweak can make such a huge difference. This just gave me a great idea for re-working one of my old (boring) how-to posts.

    I actually despise writing them in general, I think mostly because they feel monotonous and I would much rather just show or tell someone live and be done with it. But this method might actually make it fun – thanks Jon 🙂

    1. That brings up another point. Listen to your instincts as an artist. Whenever writing something feels boring and monotonous, it’s going to feel the same way to your readers. So, whenever you find yourself feeling that way, stop and find a way to make it interesting again.

      1. “Listen to your instincts as an artist. Whenever writing something feels boring and monotonous, it’s going to feel the same way to your readers. So, whenever you find yourself feeling that way, stop and find a way to make it interesting again.”

        Jon, please write something on this. 😉

  15. I’m gonna be a rebel here.

    So don’t tell me nothing.

    Jon, you’ve written a good post. But I don’t think I agree with you completely… and to some this may actually look like attacking their Jesus, but I’ll shoot, anyway.

    The world need all kinds of bloggers, damn it! Even if all they do is simply remind us what we already know.

    Did you know that most of us know a lot but apply a little (another ‘already know thought’, right?)?

    Do you know that the person who is seriously telling us what we already know will soon learn themselves to share what we don’t know?

    C’mon Jon, it doesn’t mean that those are at the bottom of the same ladder that you are on must either be you, Steve Pavlina or the egg man (the 4-hour Workweek man).

    We learn by doing mistakes, and even if that means sharing what the world already knows. A a blogger who does this is still on a plus side. Let me explain.

    Actually, there’s no point to.

    The world, in my view, needs bloggers who are getting better at it – every day. The bloggers who are hungry for more. Those who will never keep quiet even if all they share is repetition. Because here is the thing, there’s growth in repetition than in silence.

    1. I agree with the need for practice, but I think there is a difference between practicing in private and practicing in public.

      Should you write every day? Yes.

      Should you write even if what you say is boring? Yes.

      But that doesn’t mean you should publish it.

      When you’re publishing everything you write, you’re practicing in public, and I think that’s disrespectful for readers. You’re far better off practicing in private, writing things that are good and bad, and then only publishing the best stuff.

      1. Jon,

        I respect you so much you, know. Some of your advice have helped me double my income (offline). And so I know what you are saying is true.

        But I think, there’s room for bloggers who take time to remind us what we already know… because you’d agree with me that most of what you are sharing you have already shared in the past – only this time you share it differently.

        And someone else may share the same info differently. For readers like me, that means picking up new ideas, new perspectives that I didn’t think of before.

        The person I’m today, will not be the same person I will be 90 days from now – as long as I continue to invest in my craft (writing/blogging, in this case)…

        My simple point is this, there’s room for poor posts out there.

        Because this validates better posts – like yours. And this creates the urge to do it better next time – in public as that’s where we get feedback we need.

        Anyway, thanks for challenging some of us.

  16. Great post as usual, Jon.

    I’ve been thinking about this for some time. I have been wanting to create posts or videos showing my followers how to tie a tie in different knots.

    Done millions of time before, I know. So the rule I am starting to use for these type of “how to” posts is going one level deeper/more specific. Something along the lines of:

    How to X WHILE Y or How to X WHEN Y or HOW to X EVEN IF Y

    Your post reinforces my idea not to do simple how to’s. They really don’t bring anything new to the table, unless you’re super sexy and hot… then all shit sticks! 🙂

    Keep it up!

  17. Jon,
    It’s been awhile since a post “slapped” me in the face. Thank you for doing that here.

    Everything that is of value is unique; it takes the time to ferment, marinade and ripen. And as you discussed with Josh Legembe – lately I’ve made the mistake of practicing in public and have seen my little traffic dry up.

    Thanks for sharing and taking as strong a stance as you have. I always learn so much actionable advice from your posts, that there’s only one word I can use to describe them: invaluable.

  18. Hey Jon,

    This reminds of the stages of market sophistication that Eugene Schwartz laid out in Breakthrough Advertising but rather than the market getting tired of hearing the same old claims they’ve gotten tired of reading the same old shit.

    It’s funny how the knowledge can be in your head but you don’t always make the connection until someone points it out.

    Thanks man.

  19. Hi Jon
    I love the way you write. My problem that I’m still waiting, waiting and waiting for something to happen. Where ideas flow and there is no problem as to what I’m to write about. I journal every other day and have diaries that go back to 1997. I just hope that one day, it will happen.

  20. You have sent me back to the drawing board, which is slightly overwhelming, but I so want to get this right. Blogging is the hardest thing I have ever done. Ever. You know what the biggest irony is? I know everything I have learned from you about blogging is right because you prove it, time and time again, as you have with this post. But it’s dawning on me that every second post I read these days is written by a Jon Morrow wannabe. You have created an army of rabid fans who are emulating your style, but very few of them have your talent and natural ability, so we are seeing more and more of the same. My struggle at the moment is how to break through the Jon Morrow wannabe phase, but still use your techniques to find my own style. I’ve never stopped being a thinker, but I’m going to have to do a lot more tinkering before I can be described as a brave soul or a rebel. Thanks, I think.

    Cheers, Mel

    PS. I am loving your short, sharp pearls of wisdom in easily digestible posts. Please keep them coming.

    1. “My struggle at the moment is how to break through the Jon Morrow wannabe phase, but still use your techniques to find my own style.”

      Dear God, Mel! Thanks for giving voice to this. I’ve been wrestling with the same thing.

      I wrote 3 posts this month, which will never see the light of day. Mainly because they read like second-rate Jon Morrows rather than a first rate version of me. They just didn’t feel authentic.

      And I think the only way out is through. If I write relentlessly, day in, day out, eventually I’ll break through into my own voice.

      Spending more time experimenting and less time writing might be another way out. If I end up doing something no one else has done before, it kinda forces me to be authentic. I suppose if the substance is really original, the style moulds itself around that.

      Oh well. One step in front of the other 🙂

      PS: I really like Jon’s point about how “practicing in public” is actually disrespectful towards your readers. (see his comment above) I hadn’t thought of that before.

  21. Hi Jon

    Great post! Thank you for being an evangelist for creating unique and engaging content. As someone that browses around quite a bit online, THANK YOU! It becomes tiresome seeing the same crap rehashed.

    Beyond the uniqueness, hopefully people will make it clean, quick, and to the point. If you have a unique way of teaching something to me, for God’s sake don’t take 20 minutes to reveal your magic.

    Thanks again
    – Jeff

  22. Dear His Royal Awesomeness (See? Somebody calls you this.)
    Love this: Why Most “How to” Posts Suck (and How to Write Great Ones). I do write how-to posts and would love to think I do exactly what you advise. But that’s my ego talking. There are lots of “experts” online—too many to read, unfortunately— but you consistently write something that is worth reading. How many bloggers can say that?

  23. Hey Jon,

    This is great. We all need to be challenged like this.

    This definitely is not 2007 anymore and I think you’re spot on about creating unique content or else “avoid the topic entirely” until we have something unique to say.

    Your blunt tough love style may not be fun in the moment, but we will be better off in the long run if we will listen.

    A smart rebel listens to wisdom. 😉

    Thanks Jon. Off to tinker around now…

  24. Howdy Pardner,

    I will approach my blog in an entirely different way. I am going to think. I hope I don’t hurt myself.

    I have listened to you on audio and it may be odd but when I read what you write I can hear your voice.

  25. When I first read this, I told Glen your closing, “What the world needs is… ” reminded me of the quote by Howard Thurman:

    “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

  26. On point!! I usually like to look for ways that I can provide a different approach to something because I don’t like to move with the crowd. Guess I am a rebel at heart:p But from your amazing post, looks like it can work to my advantage;) Thanks, Jon!!

  27. Sometimes, rather than writing a blog about what to do and how to do it, I write about what NOT to do. It’s kind of a sideways “how to.” I just wrote a blog post called Debunking the Myths About Writing. It seemed a more interesting way to approach the topic. Jon, you have a gutsy, direct style of talking to your readers, but not everyone can pull that off as well as you do.

  28. You’re right, Jon. It’s too easy to say the same thing, to regurgitate what we’ve read and vomit up onto the page.

    We have to do something different – either to present it in a different way, or say something that matters. Or both.

    Thanks for the post, and for being an inspiration to me and so many writers out there (btw, absolutely loving these short posts. Keep ’em coming).

  29. Jon, you are so right on the money. As usual you managed to put in words the thoughts many of us have when writing. And the closing quote is just masterful. Thanks, this made my day. Take care

  30. And the really great trick was that this wasn’t just another post on how to write ‘how to’ posts. I love it when the thing itself is the perfect example of the point being made

  31. His Royal Awesomeness, I especially appreciate that royally awesome bit at the end — if you don’t have anything to say, just don’t say anything. As Josh said, we sometimes need to be reminded of what we already know. Just as long as we’re doing that knowingly, intentionally, I think that can be useful. But for the most part, we need to have SOMETHING new to contribute — whether a totally new method, a new take on an old one, or even just a new way of saying it. The real point, I think, is just to not write the same old stuff JUST to have something to slap up there. If it doesn’t offer value to a reader, he’s not going to read it.

  32. Great advice, but easier said than done Jon. To be a tinkerer and experimenter until you find a great new method takes a mountain of time most of us just don’t have. Even finding new methods to curate is not easy. Where do you find them?

    1. That’s true Terry – but if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. Isn’t that part of what makes something remarkable?

      1. Ahaha. I’m an opinionated volunteer, buddy ;P

        I’m the kind of weirdo who reads blog posts in hard copy, makes notes in the margins and then goes back to read the comments. I think you get a sense of how big a nerd I was back in school…

        PS: Did you get my email re Calendly? It keeps bouncing back.

  33. Exactly! This happens in almost all categories, programming, cooking and whatever you search for. I guess you should go the authority sites like ehow or something in order to get more authentic solution for your problem.

    The case could be serious if someone is searching how-to related information in health niche. Thank you for such a wonderful post.

  34. Hi, Jon! Nice article.
    It’s a good thing to read someone writing about it because lately it’s like people forgot they have their own voice and everyone writes the exactly same thing.
    Thank you for the insight!

  35. Thanks for the insight! Having new content to write can be a struggle for some people, but we have to learn how to stand out from the crowd and be unique.

  36. I can’t get rid of the step by step guide add. It blocks me access to the site and just doesn’t work for me. This is a good example of what not to do and makes me want to stop getting these blogs which I do learn from.

  37. You are right on the money, Jon. Back in early-internet days I wrote A LOT of How To posts. Like you said, they ranked well and were easy enough to write.

    Now? I won’t touch them with a 12-foot pole. UNLESS….

    Unless all the typical How To advice out there has failed me *personally*.

    For example, I read this awesome book called The Talent Code where the author talks about “deliberate practice”. His examples were that athletes take ballet and guitarists play the same bar over and over and over until it’s perfect.

    I wanted to do “deliberate practice” with my writing skills, but whenever I searched for “How to Practice Your Writing” I got a lot of garbage advice about reading more and writing more. And every single article was exactly the same.

    I ended up spending months figuring out my own ways to deliberately practice: hand-copying writing I admired, doing storytelling exercises on the street with my husband… Just last month I published an entire piece about my experience, which was later picked up by a few big publications.

    Yes, it took WAY longer to write that post than if I’d just spent 30 minutes researching already-written “strategies”, but the results were MASSIVELY more fulfilling.

  38. I get easily turned off by bad grammar and spelling mistakes when I read blogs, but it seems to be an epidemic problem. Another one is not having a call to action, like you did at the end. You asked your readers to comment on your post, which increases the popularity of your post. Lastly, many bloggers do not know how to monetize their blog, like you are so successful at doing. Other than those, you have covered every possible mistake bloggers could make, Michael. Great read.

  39. An interesting article with an interesting example.
    That is true, people do read dozens of article about a problem. If you won’t show how to do something in a different way, they will not stick to your website and will move away.

    Since Google has started showing the answer of how to post within the search, I have stopped writing how-to posts for now but your suggestions are really helpful.

  40. This isn’t a long post at all. But it comes with the cold hard truth.

    You have to think outside the box! Expecting to basic articles which everyone and their dog has done, isn’t going to give you the results you want. That’s pretty much it.

    The takeaway from this is: you have to be unique to be heard!

    Thanks for the great post!

    Can’t wait to Tweet it. 🙂


    Either bring

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