13 Ways Writing Content for the Web Isn't What You Learned in School
Jasmine W. Gordon is a copywriter at Lean Labs. She's written for digital audiences for over 5 years, and her background includes agencies, tech startups, health care, big data analytics, energy, and more. Jasmine loves new marketing statistics, optimization studies, and live music.
Your English teacher was completely and utterly wrong. Dead wrong.
Well, let me clarify that your English teacher was right at one time. But most of those rules that used to matter, aren't only optional, they may actually be hurting your writing!
There's no question that technology has had a drastic impact on culture. However, it's also significantly shaped user behavior and the way people read web pages, eBooks, blog posts, and more.
No one is being paid to read your company's blogs. If you're still relying on the five paragraph essay format for all of your content, chances are, you're not driving the content marketing metrics you desire.
The New Rules of Writing
We're not saying that content marketing has nothing to do with good writing. There's some clear overlap between the two concepts.
In fact, many excellent content marketers come from writing backgrounds. English, journalism, public relations, creative writing, and editing can provide a great baseline for future marketers. However, marketers and business majors can excel, too. The best writer is one who's got all of the skills necessary for web writing, including basic graphics, research, SEO, user experience, curiosity, community-building, and more.
To be clear, this isn't a guide on how to create thin, SEO driven content that was the bane of the internet from 2004-2012 or so. Content marketing goes by a lot of names -- business blogging, native advertising, and brand journalism are all types of custom content. This is a guide to what you should (and should not ditch) from what you learned in school.
1. You Can't "Wall of Text"
79% of web readers scan articles, and just 16% digest things word-for-word. By forgetting everything you know about academic formatting, you may be able to better educate and attract readers.
Full paragraphs aren't necessary on the web. Solid pages of text are actually kind of a turn-off to many readers.
By using the following formatting tactics, you can tailor your content user experience to modern prospects and leads:
- Short Paragraphs
- Short Sentences
- Bullet Points
- Numbered Lists
- Bold Text
- Italicized Text
2. Subheaders are Critical
Subheaders increase readability by breaking your content into nice, easy-to-digest chunks. It facilitates "scanning" on the part of readers who might not want to read every single word. Perhaps even better, subheaders carry some SEO weight for ranking!
3. You Need to Take Behavioral Psych into Account
Content marketing is marketing, and the best "sellers" leverage human psychology to drive results. In your web writing, you may choose to leverage psychology theories to elicit clicks, shares, and blog subscribers. There're dozens of tactics to apply, but examples of behavioral psych that really works for web writing includes:
- Reciprocity: Promise value to your readers in exchange for their time.
- Negativity Bias or Loss Aversion: Fear is an especially strong motivator.
- Social Proof: Have 10,000 customers benefited from your unique approach?
- Scarcity: Is there repercussions for clients who fail to "act now"?
4. Blog Headlines aren't Essay Titles
In academic writing, your essay titles were probably descriptive and straight-to-the-point. However, descriptive and factual doesn't always cut it on the web. Our blog titles need intrigue, specificity, and more to elicit clicks on social media and search engines. Blog headline best practices can include:
- Using Numbers: 13 Ways to Decimate Your Bounce Rate
- Specificity: 10 Ways to Improve Your Blog Traffic with Behavioral Science
- Value Demonstration: How to Save $1,00 Next Month on PPC Marketing
- Seeds of Distrust: What Your Physician Never Told You About Diabetes Risk
- Urgency: Why Next Month is Probably Too Late to Refinance Your Mortgage
- Sparkle: 16 Spectacular Ways to Achieve an Eye-Popping Summer Manicure
5. Hooks are Critical
You may have been taught to write a paragraph that summarizes your essay with precision. Forget that immediately -- you've got to "hook" your reader. Former journalism students are familiar with the concept of a "hook" or well-crafted introduction that pulls in the reader. For the web, this can look like:
- Shocking statistics or facts
- An anecdote
- A controversial statement
Without hooks, you could suffer a high bounce rate from readers who decide they're bored and hit the "back button."
6. Length (Sometimes) Matters
Blog posts aren't your typical five paragraph essay. I'm not pointing any fingers here, but remember how in college we'd all add a little fluff to meet a seven double-spaced page length requirement? Yeah, that's really ineffective for web writing.
Research varies, but most expert analyzes indicate that the ideal length for a business blog post is at least 1,500 words -- and probably even longer.
However, that isn't a hard-and-fast fact. Some topics demand less, and some demand even more. Posts with tons of visual content could excel at just 800 words of written text.
If your mind is blown on blog post length, that's okay. We covered the topic in great depth at The Ideal Length for Business Blog Posts: When Less is More.
7. Sourcing Requirements Vary
Only some industries demand traditional citations and stringent sourcing. The majority of content marketers don't need to struggle through proper APA or MLA format, and a "works cited" section. If your target customers are all college English professors, disregard this message. You may need to rely on academic citations after all. The rest of you are probably in the clear.
Proper citation for web writing still demands legitimate sources. Harvard Business Review and McKinsey research are much more reliable than Wikipedia or personal blogs. However, web citations vary in that:
- Recency Matters -- the web moves quickly! Some publications prefer to use citations that are two years or newer, particularly for statistics.
- Use the Original Source: Whenever possible, writers should link to the original source, even though it may be buried deep in the web.
- User-Generated May Be Okay: If you're writing on an emerging topic, you may not be able to use Deloitte data. Quora and other expert-generated user content could be acceptable.
In a small number of cases, you may not have a lot of citations to work with. If you're in a very niche or small market, you just might not have a lot to draw from. For the rest of us, subject matter expert quotations and statistics add a lot of "weight" to web writing.
8. Visuals are Content
Colored visuals increase a person's willingness to read content by 80%. Images can improve information retention after three days by 55%. Including visual content in your blogs, social media posts, eBooks, and other forms of content is critical!
Perhaps best of all, unlike what you learned in school, images actually contribute to the word count of your blogs! Well, sort of. Research by Medium indicates that web readers consider visuals an extension of the text. Forms of visual content to include could be:
- Free-Use Images
- Custom Images
- Charts & Graphs
Use these visuals to tell your story and inform -- and don't worry that you're "cheating" by relying on a mix of pictures and words.
9. Specificity Matters
Forget everything you learned in school about topical essays and comprehensive literature reviews. You'll have a hard time ranking for really general topics like "What is Marketing?" As Jakob Nielsen writes "the Web rewards comprehensive coverage that's more specific than print content."
Google's made no secret of the fact that they love (and reward) "in-depth" articles on a very narrow topic. In-depth typically means well-researched content that's between 2,000 and 5,000 words in length. From an SEO standpoint, your articles have a better chance of ranking if they're focused on long-tail concepts or search phrases of three or more words. It's also important to think about the value you're able to provide to your clients -- you can probably write the very best article in the world about tiny topics than massive ones.
10. Highlight the Information that Matters
Web readers aren't going to search for buried information in long paragraphs. Remember, modern web users scan (as opposed to reading every single word). There's a number of tactics fabulous content marketers use to highlight important information:
- Concluding With a Short List of Key Takeaways
- Using Bold Font
- Emphasizing Points with Short Sentences
- Creating Short Paragraphs to Add Emphasis
- Dramatic Punctuation
- Using Italics
- Adding Call-Outs
- Custom Images to Call-Out Text
11. You Can Break (Some) Rules of Grammar
To be clear, you shouldn't forget everything about sentence structure. Your sentences usually need a subject and object.
However, occasionally breaking a few rules of grammar can allow you to achieve a conversational tone and add a little emphasis. A few short sentences never hurt the right web audience. Like this. Or this.
12. Web-Writing is Community-Based
In academia, you were probably taught to draft a strong conclusion. You may have been graded on your ability to craft an argument that was very sure of itself. However, this doesn't always need to be the case when business blogging or writing social media posts.
If your goals are to start a conversation, you don't need to know all the answers. Some of the best community-driven content presents a complicated question and asks readers to weigh in.
13. It's Interactive
Not all web-written content is single-authored. In fact, interactive, multi-authored content can be an excellent tool for exposure. By collaborating with other thought leaders, you can win some opportunities for greater exposure on social media. Examples of interactive content could include:
- Live streams of Tweets
- Co-Created content from HARO queries
- Spinning social media comments into a blog post
- Adding "addendums" based on blog comments and social media response
Additionally, writing for the web isn't stagnant. Unlike print or academic papers, authors have the ability to update content over time to keep it fresh and up-to-date. By treating your content like living assets, you can maximize it's lifetime value to your organization.
How Writing for the Web is Similar to What You Learned in School
You don't need to forget absolutely everything you told you. If you're writing for the web in any format, certain things you learned in school still hold true. Here's what you need to do, regardless of whether you're writing for print, an academic class, or a business blog:
- Cite Sources
- Use Active Voice
- Edit for Conciseness
- Adopt Strong Structure
- Be Careful About Word Choice
- Use a Second Pair of Eyes (if Possible)
Embracing The New Rules of Writing
Good writing matters. However, web reader user experience is an equally crucial component of content marketing.
Today's most successful marketers take a variety of approaches into account when crafting blog posts, whitepapers, and other forms of digital content. By balancing what you know about good writing with factors like web user experience, behavioral psychology, and more, you can drive the best possible results.