If you’re a web editor or freelance writer producing copy for an agency or brand, print or bookmark this page and read before you start and after you finish. This article will cover:
- Rhythm, pace and readability
- Language, tone and humour
- Structure and sentence length
- Layout, formatting, spacing and navigation
Before you start
- What is ‘the one thing’ you want this piece to achieve? Write it at the top of the page (it might help with your headline)
- Structure and planning
- Detail as bullet points the information you need to cover/points you want to make
- Define your keywords and a key phrase. This should help frame your article, what it needs to say and how. It may also help with the headline when you come to it.
Rhythm, pace and readability
- This is one of the most important things to master. Longer sentences (especially more complex sentences) are harder to read, and can, therefore, slow reading and lead to confusion. Online, this means you’re in danger of losing your reader.
- For example:
- Gun fit, the single most important ingredient for success in any form of shotgun shooting, is provided by an adjustable stock for height and cast, easy to understand and to use, which again demonstrates that Caesar Guerini has its priorities right when it comes to the serious target shooter.
- Gun fit is the most important ingredient for success in any form of shotgun shooting. Here, this is provided by an adjustable stock for height and cast. It’s easy to understand and use, which again demonstrates that Caesar Guerini has its priorities right when it comes to the serious target shooter.
- But remember, don’t go mad: too many very short sentences can be strange and you may fail to include some of your more complex thoughts/message.
- The rhythm of a piece of writing is hard to describe but easy to feel. Broadly, you want a mix of long and short sentences – short sentences being fast and easy to read and give pace, and longer sentences for complex messages that will slow the pace. Try to keep sentence length down, but not at the expense of the message or a dynamic rhythm.
- For example:
- Gun fit is the most important ingredient for success in any form of shotgun shooting. [SHORT] Here, this is provided by an adjustable stock for height and cast. [SHORT] It’s easy to understand and use, which again demonstrates that Caesar Guerini has its priorities right when it comes to the serious target shooter. [MID] Every detail down to the recoil pad – which is of excellent quality and shape – has clearly been given careful consideration. [LONG]
The inverted pyramid vs traditional feature writing
- The inverted news triangle, or inverted pyramid, is a method for writing news. It says: put all the most important information first (the who? What? Why? When? And how?), followed by the next most important information and finally the less important information and any nice-to-have content.
- Traditional feature writing piques our interest with a tidbit and a promise of what we might discover if we read on, but doesn’t reveal everything at the beginning.
- Web users won’t stick around if they can’t find what they’re after quickly. So, web articles should be more like news articles – giving a complete overview of the article ie what is to come, what it means and what the conclusion will be.
- Only a very strong hook will mean readers will stay with you without knowing what they’re going to get from the feature.
Standfirst or intro
- Use a ‘standfirst’ or intro to frame the whole article. Pad out or explain your title, including what the reader is going to get from the article – or even how to use the article, like I did at the top. If you’re reading this, it may be because my intro let you know what was going to be in the article.
- Introduction as ‘contents’:
- It may not be the most poetic way to write, but including a contents-like bullet-point list or list within a sentence can help communicate everything the article is about, and help readers find what they’re looking for.
Navigation and signposting
- As well as using H1 and H2 tags for SEO purposes, paragraph headers of various weights are an effective way of allowing readers to skim and find exactly what they’re after. Most people skim a whole article before starting to read, so you can let them know what they’ll get and where by using paragraph headers (just as I have done here). They are also a good way for you to structure your article and make sure elements are in the right place, and the article has a logical flow.
- Styles like bold, italics and caps can be very useful to aid readability and the success of your communication. Just as words have meanings, so too do these styles and you should use them in the same way.
- For example: “I hate the current government, I wish I could tell them to stuff off.”
- Insert italics to let people know the message is about this government rather than any other government:
- “I hate the current government, I wish I could tell them to stuff off.”
- Or that you mean the government, as opposed to some other body:
- “I hate the current government, I wish I could tell them to stuff off.”
- Use caps to let the reader know you’re shouting:
- “I hate the current government, I wish I could tell them to STUFF OFF.”
- Most people will use bold in headers for ease of navigation. But you can also use bold in flowing copy so that people who are scanning can see what a long paragraph is about:
- “The Caesar Guerini over-and-under is one of the few new guns in recent years that has achieved a significant market share in the UK. This is no small achievement and is entirely due to good design, high standards of manufacturing, and quality of finish. I’ve been looking at the Invictus Impact 1, a Sporter model.”
- There are other styles (for example superscript and strikethrough) which are less common, but each has a communicative purpose and can be used to great effect if mastered well.
- Offer value
- Describe what the reader will get from it
- Frame the headline in a way they may search for it
- For example, I wrote an article called ‘What is content marketing and how do you do it?’. Not only is this informed by how people are searching for what the article contains, but it also suggests what you might get from reading it – answers to these questions…
- I didn’t call it: ‘Skills for a new generation’ or even a tabloidy pun: ‘Getting engaged’. If you have room you could do both: ‘Getting engaged: a guide to content marketing’.
The narrator, the listener
- To better engage your reader, you might choose to refer to ‘you’, not other people or a specific group. Because people like to be the centre of attention, doing this subconsciously reminds the reader that this piece is about them – or for them.
- For example:
- This how-to guide is based on a presentation to Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) members and students at University of East Anglia. It aims to arm you with the skills and knowledge to paint a useful and valuable picture of who your audience is. It will look at their values, beliefs and behaviours, what they like, where they are, what they share, how they interact with brands, what they hate, when they hate it, how they use content, how they engage with your brand.
- This how-to guide is based on a presentation to Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) members and students at University of East Anglia. It describes the skills and knowledge to paint a useful and valuable picture of who your audience is. It will look at their values, beliefs and behaviours, what they like, where they are, what they share, how they interact with brands, what they hate, when they hate it, how they use content, how they engage with brands.
- 3-part lists of adjectives
- Avoid the urge to stack adjective lists in sentences, especially where they’re not actually describing the subject:
- For example:
- This shotgun is a huge great big lump of wood or
- Squirrels can jump high up into the air oOr
- It was a long and drawn out rant.
- Extraneous verbiage and colloquialism
- Time is money, so most writers proof the first draft and send it live. Drafting and re-drafting and editing and sub-editing and proofing is a luxury. Too many people just write and publish (evident in the number of typos and literals in newspapers and websites alike).
- Unless you have the ability to write first drafts in a certain style (academic, news journalism, feature writing, advertising copy) you will probably write as you think or speak. While this can be charming and effective for certain types of content, for others it is inappropriate – and won’t have the effect you want.
- Re-read your draft and pull out all of the figures of speech and colloquialisms and – if you can – cliches. It’s amazing how punchy and direct you can make your messaging by cutting out some of these words and phrases.
- Examples of needless verbiage that can be condensed:
- …rather a lot of…
- …at the end of the day…
- …the thing about this is…
- But then again…
- And if your copy needs to be super tight, consider removing or rewording:
- In fact…
- As I recall…
- I think… (if you’re saying it, we can assume you think it)
- One thing I have noticed (change to ‘I have noticed’)
- Reduce weak value judgement adjective use – words like ‘good’, ‘nice’, ‘great’, ‘lovely’. Describe the actual thing, not whether we think it’s good or not.
- For example:
- This is a lovely example of a 1960s MG.
- Say why it’s lovely. Is it in good condition or rare?
- This is a good way to cut copy.
- What does good mean here? Is it effective? Quick? Industry-standard?
- Likewise, avoid broad platitudes and cliches
- All rock bands are ‘mighty’, all companies are ‘industry-leading’, all technology is ‘cutting-edge’ and all interviews are ‘exclusive’. Find something useful to say or don’t say anything.
- Tone can be one of the hardest things to ‘manage’. When you write your ‘one thing…’ (see Before You Start) you should bear in mind what tone would be the best to communicate this:
- Formal or informal
- Are you writing from you or we? (are you writing as I? Is there an I?) or from a brand/organisation?
- Are we talking directly to our audience? Are we addressing them by saying ‘you’?
- If you want the piece to be particularly informal and conversational you might choose to include colloquialisms:
- Things, like, y’know, this.
- You might include light humour (though humour is one of the hardest things to get right due to its subjective nature).
- Ellipsis (three full stops) … can be used to imply a raised eyebrow – and unfinished sentence
- Informal tone may include more value judgements (great, lovely, brilliant) whereas something formal wouldn’t tend to pass judgement – simply describe. For example, read a BBC news article vs a Facebook rant.
- Informal tone can be conveyed in a loose and/or long (rambling) sentence structure, using dashes to separate clauses.
- For example: You might decide that you want the article to feel like a sort of train-of-thought type article which goes on and on with a slow but almost hypnotic rhythm – the kind of thing you might hear as someone talks boredly to a parent while twiddling their hair – or something like that.
- Not: You might decide that your article needs to be formal. It should not be a rambling brain-dump that feels directionless. It needs to be concise and direct – like advertising copy.
- The internet has proven that people like funny. But humour is more divisive and subjective than musical taste or food preference. This is why brands err away from it, only use very safe humour or have an audience who they believe will all find it funny (not unfunny or offensive). It’s hard to translate the funny thought in your head into a funny joke on the page.
- The only advice is to be careful when using humour – it needs to be clear what the joke is. If it’s not it could be considered confusing or offensive if not alienating.
- Technical language and jargon
- Think about your audience – how much do they need explaining to them?
- Explain jargon and technical terms where necessary (include links).
- Write acronyms and initialisms out in full first time. For example:
- I remember when the National Security Agency (NSA) was in its infancy. I was new to the NSA back then but it was clear what the mission was.
CRUNCH IT DOWN!
If you only take one thing away from this article, make it this. Crunch it down, tighten it up. Is what you’ve written the most concise way of saying what you’ve said? Look at each sentence: could you arrange the word order or use single words that describe strings of words to use fewer words?
- Break up your copy with paragraph breaks – especially if you don’t have any pictures or graphic elements. This will help readability and reader retention as people are less likely to read what looks like a dense wedge of copy. Try to create sections that clump topics together. Use paragraph headers to aid this.
- Keep your content interesting by giving different layers of content:
- Top layer reading – superficial skim- pictures, captions and headline
- Mid layer reading – skim reading – headlines, paragraph headers, pictures, captions, pull quotes, info boxes
- Deep reading – reading everything on the page from start to finish.
- It’s important to note that if your article covers a number of topics, some readers will want to navigate straight to that part and read it thoroughly, ignoring everything else – which is why navigation is so important. So, use:
- Bullet point lists (even for lists as short as three)
- Info boxes (that sit alongside or embedded within the copy)
- Pull quotes (that can sit in a box to one side of the column, or cut through the width of an article – usually in italics or a larger size/bold)
- Picture captions. If you’re lucky enough to be talking about something tangible and have pictures of things, then put a caption style into your CMS.
- If you don’t have the budget for photography there are options. Stock photography usually looks like stock photography, so be creative:
- Use free images from Google. Just do a Google image search, click the ‘tools’ tab underneath the magnifying glass, click ‘usage rights’ and click ‘labeled for reuse’. You may find some cool, non-stock images you can use.
- There are also picture libraries such as Pixabay.com that do free images – you just have to sign up.
- Photography can be expensive, but sometimes it’s essential to include for the success of an article. For example, if you’re interviewing someone about their motorcycle collection, you pictures of the owner and of the bikes. Sure the owner could send you a pic of themselves, but it might be poor quality. Stock/free images might do for pics of the bikes, but they’re not the actual ones we’re talking about. For the reader, they want to see what they’re reading about. Stats from social media show that people are more likely to engage with content with images in, and Google analytics bears this out too.
- Use vectors or illustrations to say what a section is about. Even simple lines can help break up the copy.
- These handy little vectors prove how we don’t just read words, we read pictures – and we read them first and quickest.
- There’s no point in producing something that already exists. Great content – the most successful content – is unique and original. If you have the budget, why not commission an illustrator to create something bespoke to your article? Not only will it make your content feel high-quality, but it could play a useful role on social media if you disseminate your article there.
Now check your headline
- Sometimes you will have an idea of your headline before you start. Many web articles come from a headline. But, once you’ve finished your article, you should revisit your headline/title to make sure it not only accurately describes what the article is about, but is written in a way that someone who is searching for it would write.
- Even the most respected of media outlets make spelling/typo mistakes – but frequent errors are a turn off for many readers. Spell check and a get a second pair of eyes over your work. It’s harder to see your own mistakes.
The don’t list
- Don’t use caps for emphasis. Caps lock is JUST FOR SHOUTING!
- Don’t get ‘ and “ mixed up. In UK English, inverted commas ” are for irony – for example, he turned up in his ‘love waggon’. Speech marks “” are for quoting speech eg The guitarist said: “I love the Ibanez Gio”.
- Don’t let spelling mistakes, typos and literals creep into your articles.
- Don’t use ‘clever’ puns that miss the point. People are less likely to click if they don’t what they’re going to get and it’s less likely to rank (and be found at all) if your headline doesn’t semantically link directly to the topic.
Further creates a variety of content for its clients using in-house editorial expertise to make sure all content is tailored for a given objective and audience. Drop us a line to see if we can help you create the right content for your business.