Writing content for the internet is about one thing: clear communication. Forget flowery language, cryptic messages and long sentences. If you’re writing your memoirs, you can take whatever creative liberties you’d like. But when writing content for the average internet reader, remember these main principles:
- Stick to one main point
- Assume to role of teacher
In the next chapter of this series we’ll go over how to edit your content. Suffice to say, editing is hugely important. Never let your content be published without putting it through at least one round of editing. In this chapter, however, we’ll go over the fundamentals of writing the base content.
Your content should be easy to read. Full stop. If people find your content hard to read, they will click off your site. It’s as simple as that.
A trap I’ve seen even upper-level executives fall into is the notion that complicated content=sophisticated content. Their theory was that writing long-winded, conceptual content would show customers they were forward-thinkers. This resulted in content that was extremely difficult to understand. There were run-on sentences, too many commas, and no clear thesis. Content intended to impress ended up raising more questions than it answered.
Hectic content signals quality control issues behind the scenes. After all, if a simple blog post or newsletter could be released with glaring errors, what about client work? Would it be treated with the same carelessness? Young businesses need to be especially aware of this danger, since they’re trying to convince customers to walk away from longstanding, trustworthy institutions and take a chance on a new player.
Good content, on the other hand, doesn’t try to trick the reader. It doesn’t speak down to them. A good writer knows it’s their job to transmit information with the absolute minimum of confusion. A favourite book of mine, called Good Prose, offers this golden quote:
“The reader is always in danger of confusion.”
The internet is the most diverse marketplace on earth. Your content will have readers from different countries, with different language capabilities. You have to write so that every type of reader can understand your message.
Here are some tips to keep your content readable:
- Make sure your sentences are 20 words or less
- Avoid leaning on your industry’s jargon or acronyms
- Avoid regional jargon
- Avoid using more than one comma per sentence
- Avoid overuse of line breaks, such as hyphens and parentheses
- Use bulleted lists to express a sequence of points
- Keep paragraphs to five sentences or less
- Avoid repetition (using a particular word or expressing the same point over and over again)
- Stick to an appropriate word count for your medium
- Ensure grammar is correct (follow AP Stylebook)
The above tips have some wiggle room to them, but in general they’ll help keep your content looking clean and flowing well. Don’t feel like you have to express a complicated idea in just one sentence. Oftentimes it’s better to give ideas more “breathing room” by separating them into two or more sentences.
Always come at your content with an idea of the reading level you need to adhere to. This will vary depending on your audience and your industry. My advice is to never go above an eighth grade reading level. Your audience may be reading your content in a hurry, or they may not be native speakers of your language. You still want your content to be accessible to them. A golden rule of marketing: keep “friction” as low as possible. This extends to the experience of reading your content.
That's all great, but we're forgetting the most crucical tip for producing readable content...
During my days as an editor, I could perceive a sharp difference between experienced writers and newbies. Writing is not an exotic skill. You can learn to write at any age, with any background. But you cannot cheat when it comes to practicing! It will be plainly obvious if you have.
The good news is that you don’t need to quit your dayjob to practice writing. One of the best ways to practice writing and get your creative juices flowing is to keep a journal. There are no rules to a journal: just write what you feel. This will help “unblock” you mentally, and gives you the chance to experiment without pressure to be perfect.
If journaling is too hokey for you, there are plenty of other ways to flex your writing muscles. You can write a comedy sketch, you can find a penpal, you can actively comment on an online forum, and the list goes on. The single grain of truth is that you must practice writing, communicating and self-editing. If practicing writing is not something that sounds appealing to you, then pass along content writing duties to someone who does organically enjoy the writing process. It will be less of a headache for everyone involved.
2. Stick To One Main Point
Your English teacher was adamant that you pin down your thesis for a reason. You need a clear reason “why” you’re writing a piece of content. This should be in response to “why” a customer would seek out your content in the first place.
Content marketing revolves largely around providing answers to questions someone might ask before they purchase a product or service. These questions are known as long-tail keywords. For example, if you sell pet food then you could try and be the first Google search result when someone types “Dog”. But, it’s cheaper and easier to rank for a longer string of words such as “best dog store in Toronto”. It will probably be more profitable to rank highly for that long-tail keyword as well, because someone searching that term has self-indicated they are interested in making a purchase.
Keyword research is an essential part of building your company’s brand. Knowing what keywords customers are likely to search for, and researching the top performing keywords for your niche, helps you generate organic web traffic. While having a quirky or lofty company tagline or byline might be memorable for a moment, it doesn’t contribute to what’s known as a funnel.
The funnel concept involves attracting the widest pool of customers possible using digital marketing best practices, and leading them through the buying process deliberately and without friction. I won’t get too much into keywords or the funnel in this post, but suffice to say it’s important to consider which keywords will inform the main point of your content.
Some popular “main point” topics to plan your content around:
- Best, top rated, number one _______
- Where to buy ______
- ______ reviews
- _______ for men, women, kids, teens, teachers, pets…
- _____ vs _______
- How to, how do you, guide to ______
- Top 10 _______
- Easy way to ______
- Tutorial _______
When you think about it, people usually have clear, practical reasons for searching something. This helps us plan out our content calendar. What a customer might ask can be turned into numerous blog posts,videos, infographics, landing pages, whitepapers and more.
Stick to one main point with whatever you’re publishing. This will clarify your message, and give it more impact. As your English teacher said, “everything should reinforce your thesis”. Modern consumers generally have the attention span for only one topic at a time.
3. Assume The Role Of Teacher
Speaking of teachers, your business needs to assume the role of an educator in it’s content marketing practices. This is a good idea for a few reasons:
- Psychologically, people like to follow a leader. A teacher is a clear leader.
- Teachers have implicit trustworthiness and credibility, two highly desirable brand qualities.
- By educating your audience, you’ll be dealing with more informed customers. Your customer service department will receive fewer superficial questions.
- Behaving like a teacher improves your relationship with your customers. A teacher helps their students thrive.
- It’s good practice to assume your customers know less about your industry, your technology, and your products than you do. At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, you have a lot to teach your customers.
In the first section of this chapter, I advised against writing lofty thought leadership content. That’s because your business needs to teach it’s fundamentals to everyone. The person who is reading your content may never have heard of the problem you’re trying to solve. Don’t take it as a given that your potential customers are already experts in your field. Strive to give your customers the "101" version of a topic. And remember what Einstein said:
"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."
- Create readable content. Your content should contain correct grammar, and be of the appropriate reading level for your audience.
- Stick to one main point. The thesis of your content should be based on what your customers want to know, not just what you want to tell them.
- Assume to role of teacher. Write content for customers who are not experts in your field.
Good content certainly depends on the type of assets you’re aiming to produce, your industry, your audience, and so on. The above tips can help you simplify your writing process, and give you parameters to help you understand your customer’s perspective. Writing is an exercise in sharing perspectives, and is an ongoing craft.
To young content writers: the best thing you can do is just start writing. In five years you’ll look back on your old work and cringe. It’s the same for every other writer. The upside is that you’re cringing because you’ve made progress!
That’s all for this chapter. Next time we’ll talk about the joyous process of editing in Chapter Three: How To Edit Your Content.