Usability-first Search Engine Optimization

10 Steps To Writing Better Web Content

Your Web content is in a constant battle against a number of variables competing for your readers’ attention: A link to another website, the back button, their task at hand, the size of their monitor, the number of hours in the day. For those reasons and many others, it’s crucial to give your readers easy access to the information they want, without making them think, and without getting in their way with marketese and fluff.

Write better Web content

Here are some of the most useful guidelines I’ve come to appreciate in my quest to continually improve my content writing.

  1. Create personas
  2. Write your headline first
  3. Keep your headings and lists parallel
  4. Write how you talk
  5. Write drunk, edit sober
  6. Use the active voice
  7. Write in inverted pyramid style
  8. Think of writing as revising drafts
  9. Let go of the words
  10. Stop when you are going good

1. Create personas

We all know how important it is to focus on our audiences when writing for the Web, but without a method, that advice can be somewhat abstract. Personas are fictitious users you create to ensure that you keep your different audiences’ perspectives in mind as you write content. Here are the basic steps involved:

  1. List your major audiences: Think of which groups of people (not departments or institutions) that might be using your site.
  2. Gather information on your audiences: Don’t assume you know what your different audiences are like; instead, compile information from various points of interaction with them to better understand who they are, and what their needs and questions might be. Potential sources of information include contact form emails, interviews, your past consultations, your customer service department, and even questionnaires.
  3. Some very basic examples of user personas
    Basic examples of user personas

    List major characteristics for each audience: Each of your site’s user groups may have identifiable characteristics. For example, a poison control website will surely attract a large number of anxious visitors that need information very quickly, whereas an airline site will have a wider range of visitors with varying levels of travel experience. Plan for your visitors’ terminology, demographics, cultural backgrounds, potential emotions, and experience with your website’s subject matter.

  4. Use your information to create personas: Once you’ve compiled information on your different audiences, you’ll want to bring all that data to life with a few personas that represent the typical visitors to your website.Each persona should be given a name, picture (stock photos are good), and characteristics.
  5. Use your information to write scenarios for your site: Once you’ve identified some goals that each of your personas are likely to have, come up with some tasks they’ll want to accomplish on your site. This is a great way to organize your content according your visitors’ needs.

Refer to your personas by name when strategizing content instead of calling them “users”. Creating personas will greatly improve the focus of your Web content writing as well as the user-experience of your website. Dive deeper into the nuts and bolts of creating user personas:

2. Write your headline first

Writing your headline, aka primary heading, before diving into the content forces you to stay focused on the purpose of your article. Your headline makes a promise to your readers, and writing with that in mind is a good way to keep your content structured and to the point.

Brian Clark’s Copyblogger.com is the place to start for tips on writing compelling headlines:

3. Keep your headings and lists parallel

People are very pattern oriented. Headings and lists with consistent grammatical structure help your readers remember and compare successive portions of content.

Compare these 2 problem solving checklists, one written with an inconsistent style, and the other using parallel grammatical structure:

Table 1. A problem solving checklist – written and rewritten
Inconsistent grammatical structure Parallel grammatical structure
1. The problem Must be defined 1. Define the problem
2. Analyzing the problem 2. Analyze the problem
3. What are the possible solutions? 3. Generate possible Solutions
4. Solutions analysis 4. Analyze the Solutions
5. Planning the next course of action 5. Plan the next course of action

Table 1 shows how a list or group of subheadings with parallel grammatical structure clarifies their meanings and relationships between them.

Table 2. Big words vs simple words
Complex words Simple words
utilize use
modality style, way
assist aid
assistance help
commencement start
necessitate need

4. Write how you talk

When you’re writing about complex concepts it’s easy to get carried away with complex words as well.

If you have performance anxieties associated with writing, resist overcompensating with big, important-sounding words. Write for your readers, not your ego.

Trying to sound eloquent can have the reverse effect. It’s better to write clearly and sound authentic than it is to risk coming across as being pretentious.

5. Write drunk, edit sober

Before you pick up that bottle of Jack…

You don’t need to be quite as devoted to this piece of advice as the man who originally offered it. This nugget of wisdom from the late Ernest Hemingway simply reminds us to write without inhibition—especially your first draft.

It’s better to write with a bit too much passion, editing some of it out later, than it is to deny your readers of your personality, or voice.

Enthusiasm makes for compelling reading; dry, self-conscious writing doesn’t.

6. Use the active voice

Create a clear and engaging tone by using the active voice with direct sentences such as “Content drives traffic”, instead of wordier sentences like “Traffic is driven by content”.

In the active voice, the object receives the action of the verb:

Table 3. The active voice
Active voice Subject Verb Object
>
Content drives traffic

In the passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb:

Table 4. The passive voice
Passive voice Subject Verb Object
<
Traffic is driven by content

In tables 3 & 4, notice how with the active voice, the action is in a verb, whereas with the passive voice it’s in an adjective. Action verbs and the active voice add intent to sentences, giving your words clear meaning.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t ever use the passive voice; in fact, in scientific writing, the passive voice is usually preferred, as the object (result) of the action is more important than the subject (scientist). Politicians also often use the passive voice to put emphasis on events rather than on those responsible.

Unless you’re writing a paper on your recent findings in the lab, or if you’re trying to use weasel words to hide blame, keep your tone assertive with the active voice.

Inverted pyramid - good stuff before fluff

7. Write in inverted pyramid style

Inverted pyramid structure is a fancy way of saying ‘write the important stuff first’.

Don’t make your readers scroll through a full page of content to get your key points and conclusion. Start with the who, what, where, when, why and how, and then get to the details.

8. Think of writing as revising drafts

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? Unless you’re one of the fortunate minority, the answer is probably a resounding well duh!

When you’re having difficulty getting the ball rolling with your Web content, remember that you’ll likely be editing much of it once you’ve stepped away from it for a few hours and sometimes days. Returning to what you’ve written after a break gives you a fresh and objective perspective of your work, and this fact alone should help you relax a bit and get into your writing without worrying about it being perfect on the first pass.

9. Let go of the words

Janice (Ginny) Redish named her book Letting Go of the Words after one of my favorite pieces of advice on writing for the Web. Whatever you’ve written, you can probably edit out at least half of the words without losing important meaning.

Busy Web users should be able to grab the information they need quickly and efficiently without having to endure any kind of fluff, to slow them down. The more you focus on the goals and needs of your readers, the less content you’ll find you need on each page of your site to satisfy them. Efficient and focused content allows people to and grab the information they need and go on to whatever they need to do next.

If you are worried about the search visibility implications halving your content, don’t be; if the fluff you are chopping out has anywhere near the amount of keywords that your focused content does, you’re probably spamming.

10. Stop when you are going good

This final piece of advice is another rule that Hemingway applied to his writing process. It might seem counterintuitive, but give it a try, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.

The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.

Ernest Hemingway

Recommended reading:

  • Letting go of the words – Writing Web Content that Works by Ginny Redish
  • Killer Web Content by Gerry McGovern
  • Clout – The Art & Science of Influential Web Content by Colleen Jones
  • Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like The Seven Deadly Sins of Copywriting.

This piece was featured in:
Awarded as one of the 'Best Internet Posts of 2011' by Techipedia

About matt

Matthew Edward is the founder of Springboard SEO, a usability-first search engine optimization company in Montreal.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    Great tips. With Google cracking down on content these days it’s even more important that content be of good quality. I especially agree with the point to “write drunk, edit sober”. It’s important to write freely and just get all of your ideas out there at first, even if they don’t all flow or fit together. You can make it work while editing.

  • http://twitter.com/Pencilandfork Pencilandfork

    You make some really good points here. I’m just about to start a new blog, and am in the process of writing the first pieces of content for it. I think I’ll be using all of these steps to help me. I’m kind of new to the SEO world, and it’s nice to see some good advice on making content better for the user, rather than just attracting more traffic.

  • http://www.springboardseo.com Springboard SEO

    Thanks Pencilandfork. The ironic thing is that writing content specifically for search engines will only repel them in the end. I believe that Web usability and findability have strong ties that should never be ignored.

  • http://www.springboardseo.com Springboard SEO

    Thanks Nick :)

    “Write drunk, edit sober” is one of my favorites as well. Since I very rarely drink, I find what helps me to get into a looser, more personable mood is to imagine that I’m just chatting with a good friend about the topic. Enthusiasm goes a long way!

  • http://www.viksenmedia.com/ Viksen Media

    You know, there are plenty of tips here that I’m already practicing, but it always helps to get reminded time and time again, until they become a habit. These rules are fantastic, every writer, not necessarily one that does web content, should remember these. Creating personas is a good trick — if you establish an audience, specific people, you know how to talk to them, and you write naturally. That’s an awesome tip. I never run out of ideas so writer’s block was never my problem. Another great thing is to not be concerned about SEO initially- you can always edit and add the keywords later.

  • http://www.springboardseo.com Springboard SEO

    Thanks, Viksen. I agree 100% that there’s no reason to think about SEO during the writing phase. Once the early stages of keyword research and information architecture have been completed, focusing on your audience should be priority.

    If your content doesn’t meet certain keyword targets naturally, focus can be edited in to help satisfy both the human and search engine visitors.

    Thanks for the great comment!

  • http://buzzraid.com Buzz

    Definitely some great tips. The one that really resonates is the important stuff at the top and fluff towards that bottom. From our market research we saw that most people only read the first 2 sentences then scan the rest of the articles mostly for images or bullet points. The attention spans keep going down so it’s best to include some lines to hook them in the first paragraph or they will most likely bounce.

  • http://www.springboardseo.com Springboard SEO

    Thanks for the comment, Buzz. I’d like to hear more about your market research.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ayisha-Al-Haqq/604906512 Ayisha Al Haqq

    Hi Matt,  nice article,  helps crystallize the ideas I’ve got in my head about writing,  always a good thing,  thanks :)

  • Anonymous

    great article..reminds of a post i made on my very own blog about ways to write better web content.

  • http://www.springboardseo.com Springboard SEO

    Thanks Steve.

    I’d like to read your post

  • http://www.springboardseo.com Springboard SEO

    Thanks Ayisha :)

  • Shahidchamp21

    Outstanding article, i am just planning to be a content writer and these tips really give a clear view that how better it can be don. Great work

  • Jitendra Kapadiya

    Helpful and to the point. It is really going to be helpful for web writers. I appreciate your work.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_A3LYCWO4CQ6YV3NOAPX6FL4ITA NICHOLA

    isnt keyword searching something that can be entered into the meta tags during the programming phase of the site? I mean, great writing is great writing, but the search engines are going to be searching for meta tags, which are easier to search for, rather than actual text. My personal view is that great writing should stand alone. I programmed it they will come; however, i did great writing, they will return. That is more or less my philosophy

  • http://www.springboardseo.com Springboard SEO

    Hi Nichola,

    The keyword meta tag is completely ignored by most major search engines, and has been for a decade because of the keyword meta-spam that was so popular in the late nineties.

  • Rubysanyal

    To begin with what Hemingway says…The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next….its so true…
    I do agree that its more effective when its spoken in active voice than in passive as it creates more intensity and is personal.

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  • http://www.clicproject.com/ Posicionamiento Web

    I love “write drunk, edit sober”, that´s a great idea I shall put to good use!

  • http://www.seo-universiteit.nl/ SEO tips

    Great article. The new Google Panda update will force everyone to improve on their content. Rich content and writing properly (especially grammar) will be very important to Google. 

    It is true that we should write how we talk. It is easier for everyone to understand. Eventually we all want that our readers understand our words or message. Using “expensive” words will cost you also alot of loss in profits. Because people cant understand what you are saying or avoid buying your products. 

  • http://www.springboardseo.com Springboard SEO

    Agreed. What’s interesting is how an update like Panda pushes creative content strategy, especially on e-commerce sites.

  • lauraine 2012

    Thanks for sharing your info. I really appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for your further write ups thanks once again.
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  • http://www.itechcode.com/ Amit Shaw

    Thanks Matt for this superb tips. Thanks

  • Anonymous

    Thanks MAtt for these great tips, I enjoyed reading through.

  • http://www.boldinternet.co.uk/ Adrian Bold

    Excellent post. Thanks for sharing these top writing tips. 

  • http://www.mind-mart.com/ Holistic Health

    Thank you so much for this. People try to give writing tips but they’re so vague compared to yours. Very concrete and actionable!

  • http://www.technomagzine.com/ jamz

    wow. nicely explain :D

  • yuvy

    i have to do 700 words in an hour per day (the SEO decided…) so… I’m gonna take 5 very literally, if you don’t mind. or, if you do, I don’t care. :(

  • yuvy

    I wish – well, it is in the better places where content actually matters.

  • SimplerWebs

    Great article (I had to grab me a cup of coffee which increased my reading enjoyment even more)!

    When I am asked to write content for a client, I follow my own easy steps;

    1 – Learn about the company and the services/products it offers
    2 – Research the keywords they want to use and only select the ones that will drive targeted traffic to their site,
    3 – From the keyword, I would then try to write attractive headlines first
    4 – Then comes the actual content writing step where I like to focus on the readers first, and not the search engines, by eliminating the technical jargon that only a web designer or SEO consultant would understand
    5 – Once the article is ready to be published, I read it several times just to make sure I did not miss anything that I could’ve used to make the content easier to read or digest
    6 I share the content with the client and wait for his/her approval

    One thing we cannot do is follow the “Write drunk, edit sober” idea for no drinking – LOL

    Once again, great article and thank you for sharing!

  • http://www.springboardseo.com Springboard SEO

    Time off is important. You just might come back with renewed enthusiasm.

    Also, hint to your SEO that words-per-minute basis isn’t the best for you or the end result. If you can say the same thing just as well in fewer words, its often better.

    Quality definitely doesn’t equal quantity, particularly with respect to writing for the Web!

  • http://www.springboardseo.com Springboard SEO

    Thankfully, the 5th tip, ‘Write drunk, edit sober’, can be taken figuratively. Maybe ‘writing caffeinated’ should have been tip number 5.1 ;)

    This isn’t such a stretch, though, as many writers work well with coffee, and increasingly, green tea. Green tea give you the caffeine, but contains an amino acid that offsets the jittery part, allowing for lucid concentration, and no post-caffeine burnout. I wrote the content for our recently updated version of Springboard SEO, mostly under the influence of Sencha Japanese Green tea.

    Thanks for the kind words!

  • Deluvas

    Sounds like I need to practice on the 5th one. Thanks.

  • http://www.springboardseo.com matt

    Cheers!

  • http://www.springboardseo.com/ Springboard SEO

    By far, #5 seemed to be the most popular tip…