Writing! Anyone can do it (and I encourage you to) but not everyone is good at it (sorry).
This is not one of those article that explains the difference between its and it’s or tells you why you’re using “literally” wrong. (Details, details.)
Instead, I’m going to share five super-basic tips that will make all your writing better, including any writing you do for the web (AKA SEO content). These tips will help you hone your writing structure and your writing style, leading to better organized, more readable writing, which will ultimately get more reads, shares and likes.
1. Start with an outline.
Not this kind of outline!
It doesn’t matter how experienced you are. Whether you’re writing your first college essay or your 367th blog post (which I am, and that’s just for the WordStream blog), starting with an outline will accomplish two things:
- It makes the writing part easier. Creating an outline forces you to figure out your main point and your supporting points before you start stringing sentences together. It’s much easier to build out from there than starting linearly with a blank page.
- Your writing will be more focused and organized. Figuring out what you want to say while you say it might be a good way to write a poem, but it’s a lousy way to write a blog post or an article for the web. You’ll end up with a roundabout mess. That’s fine if you’ve built in plenty of time for restructuring and revision, but most web writers don’t. You’ll save time in the long run if you know what you’re going to say before you start saying it.
One of the easiest ways to begin an outline is to figure out your title first. Titles are hugely important for web copywriting – both for SEO and for grabbing your reader’s attention – and if you have a great title, the rest of the article (almost) writes itself. So start there. You can do your initial keyword research at the same time. Then figure out your subheads. If your article will be structured as a list (as in “How to Rank for a Keyword in 10 Steps”), write each step or item first, then expand on each item. Once you have a solid outline, you don’t even have to write in order – skip around, save the introduction and conclusion for last, whatever you want!
2. Write like you talk.
There seems to be a misconception, especially among younger writers, that when you write you need to try to sound smart. The problem is that when you try to sound smart you often sound stupid. I’ve met many students and interns who write perfectly well when they don’t think too hard about what they’re writing – for example, when writing an email – but when it comes to an assignment like an article, the syntax gets muddled and they use words and constructions they would never use in speech.
Writing like you talk doesn’t work in every medium (user manuals? not so much), but for the web, it usually does. So when learning to write for the web, read everything you write out loud. If it sounds awkward coming out of your mouth, it’s going to read awkward to everyone else. Think about how you would explain something out loud to your boss, or in an email to your mother. The same language will work for most web writing.
Of course, you don’t have to put your speech through a spell check. After you’re done writing like you talk, give your writing a close copyedit for errors. If you’re not going to be edited by anyone else, you shouldn’t start writing for the web until you have a basic understanding of good writing. Let’s hope you learned that in college, but if not, buy a writing manual.
3. Don’t bury the lede.
For those of you that were born after print journalism died: “the lede” is journo speak for the opening paragraph of a story. When you “bury the lede,” you hide the true and rightful first paragraph under a paragraph (or two, or three) of rambling fluff that may be flat boring, or kind of interesting but irrelevant to the story at hand.
Paragraphs are like pancakes: The first one’s for the dogs. You may find that you’re just spinning your wheels when you start to get writing, and not really getting to the point. So always check to see if you can improve your piece by cutting some slack verbiage from the beginning.
4. Save something for the end.
You’ve probably heard the following advice for structuring your intro, body and conclusion: Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em. Here’s a different trick from my term paper days in college and grad school: Rather than simply summing up what you’ve already told people, try saving an interesting little detail or nugget of information for your conclusion. It might be an observation that doesn’t quite fit into your main narrative, an anecdote that you cut from the beginning, or a prediction for the future. However you approach it, it’s something new that gives them a reason to read your final paragraph. After all, it’s not like the article has been disappearing while they read it, like film credits. They can always go back if they want to review.
Does your blog look like this? I didn’t think so.
5. Have someone else read it.
It’s extremely difficult to catch all your own mistakes. So even if you don’t have a hierarchy set up at your company that requires everything to go through a copyeditor before it’s published on the site, ask someone (preferably a good writer!) to give your writing a quick read-through and sanity/grammar check. Chances are they’ll be able to catch a mistake or make a suggestion to improve your piece, whether you’ve left out an important word, explained something less than thoroughly or chosen a weak title.
There aren’t as many barriers to entry when it comes to publishing on the web. And as a result, a lot of web writing feels sloppy and rushed. You can avoid that by taking your time and adopting the habits of careful writers.
And finally, don’t stop with good writing. This is the web we’re talking about, so practice good SEO and optimize your writing for both readers and search engines.