Today, I’m going to help you become a better writer online. And if you read this post in its entirety, I think you’ll agree that I’ve met my goal.
There are many different types of writing in this world and each targets a different type of reader. Novels are written for one audience while newspapers are written for another. Magazines are clearly written differently than advertisements are. While all styles of writing use text, each has been refined through time – honed in such a way as to offer the maximum clarity and impact for its intended audience. After all, writing is a form of communication and without it being constructed properly, it’ll be lost in translation.
There’s a new medium that’s come on the scene over the past twenty years – the web. I’m sure you’ve seen it. It’s pretty much ingrained itself into the lives of almost everyone on the planet. The web offers many things – one of them being writing in all shapes and forms. And like the writing we’ve become used to all our lives, what we put on the web needs to target a specific type of person who is engaging in a specific activity.
What Do People Do Online?
Have you ever taken notice of what you actually do online? If you sit back and think about where you go, who you visit and what you read, I think it’ll quickly become apparent that, for the most part, you’re looking for something. Call it what you want – surfing, browsing, researching, shopping – whatever. The point is, in general, while browsing online, you’re moving quickly and don’t appreciate things that get in the way. While I don’t think I need to say this, I will – writing for the web is wildly different than most of the writing we’ve become accustomed to over the years.
The next time you get a chance, try to watch someone as they’re browsing the internet. If you do this, I think you’ll notice a few things:
They Scan Quickly – You’ll see that people scan web pages as opposed to really digging into them and seeing what they’re all about. Opinions are formed quickly and folks have become used to what to expect. Now, of course I’ve seen exceptions to this claim and have witnessed, first hand, individuals out there who carefully comb through ever detail of what’s written somewhere, but by and large, when people are surfing around, they are doing so at a breakneck pace.
They Prefer Casual Over Formal – I read a lot of books for leisure and am almost always on the lookout for my next read. Throughout time, I’ve decided that I enjoy a certain style of writing. Writing that I can understand. I’m not sure I can count how many books I’ve had to put down because they simply weren’t fun to read. When I’m engaging in something for entertainment, I don’t want to work at it. Remember, when people are online, they don’t want to feel like it’s work to be there.
They Want What They Want – Like I mentioned above, the large majority of people browsing the web are looking for something. They want information – the juice – the goods. If they bump into too many obstacles while searching for what they’re looking for, they’ll leave and look somewhere else. It’s that simple.
And They Want It First – Alluding to what I wrote directly above, folks don’t like sifting through text that isn’t relevant to what they’re looking for in an effort to locate their golden nugget. They prefer to find what they’re looking for front and center. If they’re searching for the reason cats meow, they’d revel over a web page that starts with, “Cats meow because…” If the information they seek is buried too deeply, they’ll surely lose interest before they find it.
They Prefer Not To Be “Sold To” – When I’m online, the moment I feel as though someone is attempting to sell me something, my sniffer shifts into high gear. Oftentimes, I lose trust in what I’m reading because I’ve become so accustomed to the “salesy” impure motive. I feel as though I’m not reading an honest opinion anymore, but more of a premeditated one. Perhaps that’s why so many people jump straight to the “Reviews” section of Amazon.com’s products pages, oftentimes bypassing the manufacturers description altogether.
They Want Help – If a web surfer can’t find what they’re after on one web page, but that web page links to others that might have what they seek, they’re likely to consider the first web page a “source.” I personally know of sites that purely link to others and in turn, receive loads of traffic. Their audience doesn’t have the time or the will to do all the hunting around that the linking site has already done, so they go straight to where they know they’ll find the answer.
They Want Proof – How many product pages have you encountered where all you found was a picture of a product and a short description? I’m guessing you’ve seen more than a few of these and by and large, you’ve moved on from them without any sort of action or engagement. In today’s world, shoppers, surfers and readers want evidence of what the page author claims. They want to read reviews and comments that were written by real people. They want something that they can place their trust in.
They Want It Fresh – Like their food, folks looking through web page after web page prefer to have what they decide as “the one” to be relevant and up to date. If a piece of material online is dated, many times a reader will abandon an entire site because they feel as though they may be wasting their valuable time scanning through more outdated material. Now, I understand that this isn’t always the case. Some material lasts for years and years and other material is timeless, so it’s best to use good judgement here.
Writing For Scanners
As I stated above, readers of online content skim through what they’re looking at pretty quickly. If something doesn’t jump out and say “ANSWER,” they’ll likely move onto something that does. So it’s in our best interest to give our audiences what they’re looking for – FAST.
The question is, how do we accomplish this? Well, I’m sure you’ve browsed around and have read various blog posts and articles that just “felt good” to you. If you’re going to begin blogging or are already blogging, it’s a good idea to take notice of what others are doing. Also, take notice of what feels like it’s a successful strategy and what’s not. What types of pages did you stay longest on and what types did you quickly abandon?
Other than going with your gut, I do have a few suggestions for successfully engaging your readers and giving them what they want.
Short Is Sweet – I suffer from this. Most writers do. We can’t seem to keep our writing as short as it can be. I can remember back to college when one of my professors gave the class a writing assignment that was limited to one page. You should have seen the creative methods students used to squeeze text on that piece of paper. I never knew writing could get so small. The rule here is, if you can say something with fewer words, do it. There’s no need to use fluff to simply add more to your page.
Right From the Start – Have you noticed how I’m bolding some words at the beginning of each section in this part of the post? What I’m doing is actually a strategy. I’m telling you what to do, right from the start. If you read this post once and then wanted to return to it to find an idea I discussed, it helps immensely to have the main ideas at the beginning of each paragraph.
Tiny Words – As intelligent as you think you are and as much as you enjoy reading beautiful literature, you need to remember that many folks out there don’t share in the same pleasures you do. If they stop by your site to read something you’ve written and find it too challenging, they’re going to say goodbye. Keep your words small, easily understandable and friendly for the largest number of people.
Keeping Them Separate – If you find yourself merging idea after idea into the same long paragraph, you may be losing valuable visitors who could potentially return time after time. Think about how wonderfully simply it would be to read one idea per paragraph. Again, from here on out, take notice of how you feel when reading content on the web. Who are the winners and who are the losers?
The Almighty List – This is a big one. It’s actually the most important one. If you take a look at this and the section before this, you’ll find that you’ve just read two lists. People love lists. Lists allow readers to compartmentalize ideas and absorb posts and articles into bite sized chunks. I’m sure there’s something psychological out there that supports this, but from personal experience and from watching this style of writing grow exponentially online, I know it works and that people love it.
Mind Your Audience
I want you to consider something for a moment. If English is your native language, but you’ve taken a few years of French or Spanish in high school, think about attempting to make your way through a website that’s written in one of those languages.
Next, pretend that you’ve never really taken an interest in reading. Say that you’ve spent your life enjoying activities where you “do” things as opposed to “read” things. And because of this, you haven’t built up the skills to read beyond a certain level. Pretend that you’re trying to look up some data on how to fix something or where someplace is located.
Lastly, pretend that you’re over 40 years old. You may well be, which might make this exercise easy. Your eyesight may not be as sharp as it once was and reading long sentences in large paragraphs is a challenge. Now, pretend you’ve landed on a website where the author can’t seem to contain him or herself. They like to write and write and write.
Do you think any of these experiences would make you smile and ask yourself, “Hey, when can I return to this website? Soon isn’t soon enough!” That response is doubtful if the websites you just pretended to visit weren’t written for people like you.
The main point here is, when possible, write so the large majority of readers can understand what you’re writing. You may have noticed that technical manuals have taken this advice and are currently rewriting their text so it’s much more understandable. Also, large websites are rewriting their terms and conditions in a simpler format. Even laws in congress are being reviewed as to allow for folks to more easily digest what’s contained in them. It seems like the popular thing to do.
But how do we do it?
Great question. I’ll give you some great suggestions below.
Simplicity – The best way to go about writing for almost everyone is to never write beyond an 8th grade reading level. That’s probably the safest route to take. If you start off an article with a lower reading level than 8th grade, even better. Once you’ve got someone hooked, you can ramp things up a bit, but be sure to remind yourself to tone your writing down if it gets too long winded and advanced. Consider this introductory paragraph:
“In this post, I’m going to give you the five best ways to become a better writer. The post will take about ten minutes to read. By its end, you’ll know enough to begin a journey of writing.”
Isn’t that nice? Short, sweet and simple. It states what a reader is going to get, how long it will take to get it and how they’ll benefit if they follow through and read the entire article. And as a special bonus, there were no challenging words to understand.
Images & Graphics – I know many people who love to browse through images online. If they landed on a page and after they were through with it, I asked them what they read, their response would be, “I have no idea. I just looked at the pictures.” There are more of these types of “readers” out there than you can imagine. Even those who love reading, scan through much of the text to get to the pictures. So the rule here is, add supporting pictures where you can.
Descriptive Titles – This has taken me a long time to get used to, but when I write a post now, I’m sure to include as many descriptive titles as possible. Titles break up long posts and allow readers to sort of “bookmark” where ideas begin and where they end. And within section, I try to use bolding and italics to break things up even further. I’ve received a positive response from this method, so I think it’s worth keeping and using more in the future.
Straight Up and Down – When writing for an 8th grade reading level, it’s helpful to keep your article or post as predictable as possible. If you include part of a paragraph over here, a bubble over there and then finish your paragraph after an image, you most likely just lost everyone who managed to stop by. But, if you began your post or article with an image, said what you want to say and then end your post with a graphic that helps explain one of your topics, your readers will most likely appreciate what you’ve written. The rule here is, write from top to bottom with no zig-zagging in between. The straighter, the better.
How can you check reading level?
That’s easy. While we used to have to gauge at what level we’re writing through our word processor, we can now obtain results online. A site I like to use is called, “Readability Score” because it offers the “Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease” score, the “Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level,” the “Gunning-Fog Score,” the “Coleman-Liau Index,” the “SMOG Index,” and the “Automated Readability Index.” Lastly, it’ll return your article’s average grade level. I check this paragraph and so far, I’m at the 8.2 grade level. Not bad.
Keep It Personal
Which would you rather read – a contract or a story? How about a piece of legislation or a tutorial? Perhaps a dissertation or an email? I think you know where I’m going with this. The truth is, even people who write contracts, legislation and dissertations don’t like reading that type of literature. I’m not even sure they know what they write means. There are times when people who craft this type of material get lost in their words, so they continue to write and write and write. It’s called “hiding.” They feel that if they put enough letters together somewhere, readers will lose interest and stop their reading. Since that’s the writer’s goal, they meet it a lot of the time.
Don’t let this happen to you. Your job is to engage and to keep readers coming back for more. You want them to understand and appreciate what you post online. If you scare them away or bore them to death, you’ve failed.
So, how can you engage your audience?
Back when I was in college in New York, I took a public speaking course. For one project, we had to speak on camera. Since I’m one to “over” prepare for things like this, I wrote my entire talk out beforehand. When it came time for me to speak on camera, I read what I wrote. The comments I got for that project were less than stellar. My professor told me that it seemed as though I was giving a speech. That, “perhaps I should become a speech writer for a politician.” That kind of stuck with me through the years. And what I took away from those comments was that I sounded robotic. I vowed to never sound like that again.
Now, when I write, I try to jot down what I’m thinking with a more conversational tone. I try to bring people into what I’m attempting to convey as opposed to shutting them out with words regular, ordinary people aren’t comfortable with. I try to be friendly as opposed to being a lecturer. Not many people would like to read what a lecturer has to write.
I bet you’re wondering what a “conversational” tone sounds or looks like. If so, just give this post a once over. As I write this, I’m pretending that I’m speaking to you. Oftentimes, to remind myself that comfort is my goal, I think of a particular person and write as if they were in the room with me. Perhaps they’re looking over my shoulder at what I’m typing or they ask me to read to them what I just wrote. Those types of tricks keep me on the straight and narrow.
What kind of voice should you write with?
Below, I’ll share some resources that will help you distinguish between active and passive voice. Remember, for the purposes of writing online, always use the “Active” voice (unless you’re writing for a scientific journal).
Don’t Beat Around the Bush
I can’t stress to you enough how important it is to offer clear and concise navigation through your post or article. Now, when I say “navigation,” I don’t mean website navigation in the way of links to other pages. I’m talking about navigation in the way of telling readers where they are and where they can go inside the page they’re on.
I want you to do a quick exercise. If you wouldn’t mind, scroll up and down this post a few times and ask yourself if it’s written in such a way as you give you indication of your position in it. I know it’s kind of long, so this one’s a great example.
Before I began writing today, I knew I had a lot of information to cover. With this in mind, I started the post clearly identifying what my intention was. I told you what I’m going to talk about and what you will get out of it. After that, I gave you some brief background on the topic and then dove into the subject matter. Within that subject matter, I labeled each section using nice, large headings. With these headings, I wanted you to really know where you were. And within each section, I created sub-sections to clearly identify what you were about to read with bolded text, followed up by the content itself. Within every article, it’s critical to guide readers to important information and to let them know when they’ve arrived. With longer pieces, such as the one you’re currently reading, the necessity of those principles become magnified.
Answer Before They Ask
Have you noticed that I’ve been sprinkling questions throughout this post and then answering them directly after I ask them? My goal with using this tactic is to predict what you might want to know or need more explanation on and then to give you that detailed explanation. You’ll see various writers do this on blogs, retail websites and basically any type of website that offers user interaction.
If you recall from the “What Do People Do Online?” section of this post, I stated that most users of the internet are out there looking for answers. If they seek answers, they must have questions. The problem is, oftentimes, users don’t don’t quite know what those questions are yet. Many of these types of people are in the beginning stages of their shopping or research or plain old browsing. Sometimes, it takes good ol’ “pointing in the right direction” from a trusted source to get the ball rolling. And if you, as a writer, can point someone in the right direction, that reader may just put some stock in you. If you did it once for them, you may do it again. There are rewards for building trust like this – newsletter signups, follows on Facebook and Twitter, sharing and bookmarking posts and becoming a fan. And that’s how sites grow.
Give It Fast Or They’ll Leave
There are tons of statistics out there that offer data on the average time a user spends on a web page, as well as the bounce rate for a specific web site. The last time I checked, the average time per web page was shockingly short and the bounce rate was over 50%. Can you imaging that? Users land on your page from one source or another and more than half of them leave almost immediately. That’s disheartening, to say the least.
I’m here to tell that your goal with writing for the web isn’t to keep a particular reader on your site longer today, it’s to keep that same reader on your site longer tomorrow. Every time someone lands on one of your web pages, your goal should be to give that reader what they came looking for. Don’t try to trick them into scrolling around, don’t try to trick them into clicking to more pages and don’t try to trick them into navigating somewhere they have no intention of going. The internet is full of tricks like this and all it does is annoy people to the extent that they learn what these types of sites look like and avoid them like the plague. So while methods like this may work today, they won’t work tomorrow.
In order to build trust and an audience, you have to delight people. You delight them be giving it all away, right away. If you can do that in the very first paragraph of your post or article, that’s perfect.
Recently, Google began answering common questions in their search results. Those answers come from websites that appear in the search, but Google has decided that by pulling short snippets of information from that website, it can help give users what they are looking for as fast as possible. This creates a good user experience on Google’s website and keeps searchers coming back time and time again.
I may have mentioned that I read a lot of books somewhere in this post. I purchase many of the books I read on Amazon. When I search through lists of books that I feel may interest me, I look for the ones that have the little “Look Inside” graphic on the book photo. I click that image and up pops excerpts of the book, including the table of contents and a few pages from a few chapters. Amazon and the book seller are giving me what I want and because of that, I trust that my purchase with them will be exactly what I’m looking for.
The point is, establish trust with those who visit your website by giving them the data you think they’re after – fast. A little trust goes a long way.
Honesty Is the Best Policy
I remember advertisements for sneakers from years ago. I still make fun of them. They went something like this – “Our sneakers will make you jump higher, run faster and most importantly, better looking!” Now, I’m not sure if these types of ads worked or not, but I sure didn’t fall for what the advertiser was telling me. I knew I wasn’t going to run any faster with those sneakers and they certainly weren’t going to make me any better looking (I’m exaggerating the ad, by the way). What I did know was that the advertiser spent their 30 seconds of air time on the television trying to fill my mind with nonsense. I suppose they thought I was stupid. I wasn’t stupid.
When writing for the web, you need to tell the truth. Especially in today’s world. In this day and age, readers can fact check and verify all day long. If they find that you’re attempting to pull the wool over their eyes, you’ll most likely damage yourself permanently. What’s different about today than yesterday is that once you deceive someone, they can inform as many people as they possibly can about your deceit. Yesteryear, all someone could do was walk over to their neighbor’s house and complain. Today, they can tell the internet. And that includes who knows how many people. It’s not a good idea to have all those people talking about you negatively.
When I use Twitter to learn about people and connect with those who have similar interests with me, I’m sure to review each person’s or organization’s profile page. If they are using Twitter to simply share their wares with others, great. If I find they are offering me a free e-book to make millions online, I steer clear. In the latter case, I don’t believe the bull and I don’t enjoy interacting with those types of folks.
Become a Source
One of my most important goals when writing a post is to answer the questions my readers have. If they aren’t interested in what I have to say, they probably won’t be browsing around this website. But if they are, I take personal responsibility to helping them out the best way I can.
In order to offer the most impact, I continually try to improve myself. I study how to become a better writer so I can communicate more clearly, I review other blogs and websites in a similar industry to mine to assure my relevance, I research various fields in the technology sector to be sure I’m up to date and I attempt to maintain a pleasant atmosphere right here on this site. But regardless of how much I try, I’ll never know everything. And I recognize that.
Take a look at this post I wrote regarding composition in photography. See if you notice anything about it that might assist a reader in becoming more comfortable with the topic at hand. Try to imagine whether or not a visitor to this website might bookmark that post for later use. My hope is that they will and here’s why:
I gave a good background on composition, but I knew I didn’t write about everything. Therefore, I gave the reader options and links to follow where they could learn more.
Do the links that I shared in that post lead away from this website? Yes they do. Do I think the reader will leave? Yes I do. Do I mind? Yes I do, but I’d rather earn their trust and become considered a source for knowledge than get bogged down by the fact that they left. Hopefully they’ll come back when they have another question. Hopefully they’ll tell their friends.
Keep It Up To Date – Make It Evergreen
Evergreen content is material that’s continually relevant and stays “fresh” for readers. You can read all about this type of content here:
It’s important, so I encourage you to take a quick look.
Since readers don’t appreciate old, dated content and are looking for something to read that’s relevant to their interests, it’s critical to keep what you’ve already written up to date. There are search engine benefits to taking this approach. One simple benefit is that you’re readers will view your page as “evergreen” and as “something to remember.” Don’t believe me? Well, I’ve got a few examples for you. Check out these following pages:
If you review each of the above pages, you’ll see they have something in common. They all keep an existing page up to date. In the last link to ProBlogger, Darren talks about one of his photography posts that he periodically reviews and modifies when necessary. The impact upon readers when authors do this is huge. Take a look at the following sentence:
“This article has been kept up to date with the best practices for WordPress SEO since early 2008 and the release of WordPress 2.5, the most recent update was on Sept 8th, 2014, with WordPress version 4.0 being the most current release.”
If that doesn’t keep the reader up to date and establish trust, I don’t know what will. I’ve linked to this page multiple times since it was written and I have no doubts that my readers will benefit from it. And from linking to the page, Yoast receives SEO benefit. Real benefit. Increased web traffic, better and more wide spread reputation and increased earnings. All those are certainly worth spending a few extra minutes keeping a page up to date and fresh.
I hope you enjoyed this post about becoming a better writer online. If you did like it, please share it with friends. If you’d like to keep up to date with this website and receive all of our posts by email, all you need to do is sign up for our newsletter. Lastly, if you’ve like to read more posts that talk about how to become a better blogger or writer, just check out our “Blogging” category at the top of this page.