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.
Here are some of the most useful guidelines I’ve come to appreciate in my quest to continually improve my content writing.
- Create personas
- Write your headline first
- Keep your headings and lists parallel
- Write how you talk
- Write drunk, edit sober
- Use the active voice
- Write in inverted pyramid style
- Think of writing as revising drafts
- Let go of the words
- 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:
- List your major audiences: Think of which groups of people (not departments or institutions) that might be using your site.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Using Personas During Design and Documentation – UXmatters.com.
- Personas – the definitive guide – WebCredible.co.uk.
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:
- 10 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work – Copyblogger.com
- 9 Proven Headline Formulas That Sell Like Crazy – Copyblogger.com
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:
|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.
|Complex words||Simple words|
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:
In the passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb:
|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.
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.
- 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
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