The written word is still the most common form of communication online. Sure, video and audio content are important, and infographics and other visual content are on the rise, but text is still king. Even great multi-media content usually has at least some written element, either in creating a script or surrounding the content.
If you want to be successful online, good writing is important. There are success stories out there of people who are good at what they do but aren’t particularly good writers. But there are more success stories of people who are good at what they do and can write effectively about it.
This guide serves to put you on the path to becoming an effective writer. It’s aimed at non-fiction, and heavily slanted toward online writing. Fiction writing requires an entirely different skillset. But if you want to write better blog posts or web copy, this is an excellent place to start.
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The best writing has a clear purpose. Some writing is done to inform. Other writing is done to entertain. And still other writing is done to persuade. Some does more than one of these things. It’s important to know when you start writing something what its purpose is.
Persuasive writing is very different from informative writing. Informative writing is different than writing meant to entertain. And writing for entertainment is often very different than writing to be persuasive.
Informative writing is some of the most common writing found online. This is the kind of writing you find on sites like Wikipedia. The goal here is to teach readers something.
With informative writing, you need to make sure the language you use is as clear as possible. Make sure what you’re actually saying is what you meant to say, and that there’s little room for misinterpretation.
Persuasive writing is most commonly found on business and ecommerce websites. This is the kind of writing copywriters mostly do, and it’s goal is to persuade visitors to take a particular action (usually purchasing or signing up for something).
Persuasive writing focuses on making whatever you’re trying to sell as attractive as possible. However, it also needs to remain honest or you’ll end up with a lot of dissatisfied customers who feel like they were lied to.
Entertaining writing covers a lot of ground online. This type of writing includes joke sites, creative nonfiction, fiction, and other writing whose main purpose is to entertain visitors. It often blurs the line with informative or persuasive writing, as both of those forms of writing often include entertaining elements in an effort to be more effective.
With entertaining writing, to some extent anything goes. However, make sure that what you’re writing is coming across the way you intended. Be aware that humor often does not come across as intended online. What you view as funny someone else may not understand, or worse, be offended by.
Research is vital any time you’re writing for public consumption. You have to be knowledgeable about whatever it is you’re writing about. This is true regardless of whether you’re writing to be persuasive, informative, or entertaining.
Before the Internet, it was easy enough to fake your way through an article for your local newspaper or in your company’s brochure. But with the Internet, it’s easy enough for anyone reading your content to check the facts it contains. You’re also writing for a much larger potential audience, and it’s easier for someone to call you out for misreporting something.
Make sure that you thoroughly research whatever it is you’re writing so you come across and competent and knowledgeable. Realize that any mistakes you make will likely be found out and commented on publicly. It’s better to take an extra fifteen minutes before you publish something to make sure it’s 100% accurate.
If you do make a mistake, own up to it. Make a correction, or cite wherever you found the fact (or both). There’s so much conflicting information online that it can be difficult to determine what’s correct and what’s not. Even someone calling you out on a mistake might not be correct. It’s best to verify facts through more than one source.
Knowing your audience is probably the single most important part of creating content for the Internet. The tone in which you write, as well as the actual content, will vary depending on who your audience is. Writing for teenagers is different than writing for professionals. Writing for experts is different than writing for beginners.
Take a few minutes before you start to create a profile of who your typical reader is going to be. This could be something simple, like “intermediate web designers” or something more complex, like “15-16 year old boys who are into comic books and live in Europe.” You can make it as broad or as detailed as you like. Just make sure you have some idea of who they are.
Let’s face it: there’s a lot of really “bad” writing online. By “bad”, I don’t necessarily mean the content itself. I mean the spelling, the grammar, and the sentence structure. Some of this comes from people not writing in their native language. But a lot of it also comes from laziness and people not wanting to take the time to write properly.
The thing is, though, that a lot of people are turned off by poor writing. It’s unprofessional, and makes you appear less intelligent than you likely are. There are a lot of people who simply won’t read articles that are riddled with grammatical and spelling errors.
This becomes infinitely more important when we’re talking about persuasive writing. You’re trying to sell something, but yet you can’t take five minutes to proofread your copy? If that’s the case, then why would anyone believe that what you’re trying to sell is really worth their time, effort, and/or money?
Bottom line: Take a few minutes whenever you finish writing something and proofread it. If you’re not a native speaker in whatever language you’re writing, ask someone who is to take a look at it. Sometimes the line is fuzzy between someone who’s being lazy and someone who just doesn’t have the necessary language skills, and readers can’t always tell the difference.
An outline can almost always help focus your writing. Before you start writing any content, take a few minutes to outline what it is you want to say and what you want to accomplish with the piece. Write down any important points you want to make. Come up with headings and sub-headings you’ll use.
It can be helpful to then transfer this outline to the working document. It makes it easy to follow and helps keep you from getting off-track or off-topic.
Now, this doesn’t need to be a formal outline with roman numerals and all. It can simply be a list of what you want to say, or even a mind map. The important thing is to get some of your ideas out of your head before you actually start. This pre-organization can really add focus to your writing and make it easier to address everything you want to talk about.
Scannable content is the bread-and-butter of effective online writing. The truth is that people don’t often read when they’re online. Instead, they scan content to pick out the most important parts or the parts that answer their questions. And they specifically look for content that seems scannable.
This means you need to create content that’s easy for them to skim through. Format your content so that it includes:
Headlines can be some of the trickiest parts of writing good online content. They’re equal parts art and science. A good headline can get you tons of visitors. A bad headline can prevent people from ever clicking through to your post.
There are a number of ways to go about crafting a headline, but remember the primary goal of all headlines: to convince visitors to read on. Good headlines will entice readers and make them want to know more about the topic.
There are a number of headline “formulas” that tend to be effective. This doesn’t mean that you can’t write headlines that deviate from these formulas, but it can be a useful place to start if you’re unsure of how to write a headline.
There are dozens of articles out there about headline formulas. Some offer nine or ten, while others offer dozens of possibly formulas. The danger here is that a lot of these have been done to death. So while they’re still useful, you can also run the risk of appearing unoriginal.
A few headline formulas still tend to work well, though. The “How to” headline works well in most cases because it’s straight-forward. Headlines that offer to tell “why” something is good/bad/beneficial/etc. also work well in many cases. Another headline formula that often works is the contradiction headline, where the headline contradicts some widely accepted bit of knowledge. It makes people curious, because it disputes something they believe.
Controversial headlines can also draw in readers, but they can backfire. In extreme cases, visitors end up reading your content with a prejudice against anything you say because you’ve upset them with your headline. They’ll often misinterpret or ignore parts of your content in an effort to support their own preconceptions about what you’ve established in the headline.
Copyblogger has some of the best posts on creating good headlines: 10 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work and Warning: Use These 5 Headline Formulas at Your Own Risk. Skelliewag also has a great post on the most common headline formulas in the Web 2.0 era: 25 Headline Formulas That Have Plagued and Blessed Web 2.0.
So far, we’ve mostly talked about how to write longer content: website copy, blog posts, etc. But there’s a lot of writing that goes on online that’s much shorter.
I’m talking about things like Twitter and Facebook updates. These are often overlooked when it comes to good writing practices, but if you’re using either in a professional manner, it’s important to give them the same care and attention you give to longer pieces.
Make sure if you have to abbreviate anything that you do so in a way that is clear within the context of the post. It’s easy enough for people to misinterpret if you’re not careful.
The principles of effective writing mentioned above still apply to short-format writing. It’s important to know who your audience is and what you’re writing about. And it’s important to use proper grammar and spelling as much as possible (with the exception of abbreviations, etc. necessary due to character limitations).
It’s easy enough to use Twitter or Facebook to send out tons of commercial messages every day. But watch how fast your follower numbers drop if that’s all you do.
Instead, mix in updates about your own products or company with more general tweets related to your niche. Engage in conversations with people. Send out useful links to articles that aren’t on your own site. In short, be a good member of the larger community and you’ll find that you have many more followers and get better results than if all you do is spam.
A good tweet or Facebook update has a lot in common with a good headline. It will entice the reader to click through because it promises some kind of benefit. Your tweets and updates should do the same thing. Readers should feel like they’ll be gaining an advantage by reading whatever you’ve linked to.
While writing this article, it’s always a possibility that we missed some other great writing tips. Feel free to share it with us.