My high school career was pretty much what you’d expect of a writer: I hated math and science, didn’t mind history (although I liked the stories better than the dates, ugh), and loved English.
I went to a high school in a rural town in small-town Arizona and was enrolled in AP Literature. As such, I learned it all: the symbolism of William Carlos Williams’ plums and all the big words that make you sound fancy when you talk.
A few years later, when I started blogging for business, I quickly realized I had to throw all those lessons out the door. Writing for the web is different from writing for print for one specific reason: short attention spans.
Right now, you’re skimming the article to pick up a few lessons to take back to your own writing. You’re probably not going to read the whole thing; I know that. If you are, well, good for you and thank you for your attention!
So, whether you’re keeping up with your business blog (P.S. did you know I can do that for you?) or updating the copy on your website (I can do that, too), toss out those lessons from English class and keep these rules in mind:
1. Keep it Simple
Have you ever read a paragraph – or, hell, even a sentence – and then looked up, blinked a couple times, and thought, I have no idea what that says?
With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to do the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive voice.Stephen King, On Writing
In English class, your teacher reinforces fancy vocabulary, teaching you words like “admonished” and “finagle”. There’s nothing wrong with these words; there’s just no place for them in your blog. In fact, trying to make yourself sound smart will actually make you sound less so.
When you’re writing for the web, your goal is to cater to most 8th graders. Shorten your sentences and paragraphs, remove industry jargon, and please get rid of over-inflated terms like “ground-breaking”.
2. Be Active
I will be totally honest with you here: active vs. passive voice has been my biggest struggle as a writer. For some reason, it just doesn’t click with me. But when I read King’s book On Writing, it became clear.
Part of making your writing simple enough for an 8th grader to read is by using an active voice rather than a passive voice. What does this mean?
As Stephen King explains, in the passive voice, the subject is just having something happen to it. So, in Example One below, “I” am letting myself “get a cup of coffee”.
In the passive voice, however, the subject is taking charge of the sentence. So, in Example One, “I” am “getting the coffee” – no questions asked!
Passive: I will be getting a cup of coffee later today.
Active: I am getting a cup of coffee later today.
Passive: You will be the queen of the ball with these earrings!
Active: With these earrings, you’re the queen of the ball!
Don’t have On Writing? First of all, if you’re at all interested in writing, buy it (not an affiliate link, I’m just a fan). But, if you don’t, here’s an excerpt where he talks about active vs. passive voices (with more examples).
3. Make it Visual
Have you heard the term, “a wall of text”?
This basically describes a blog post, web page, or any form of digital writing where…well, there’s a wall of text.
In other words, the text isn’t broken up. It’s just paragraph after paragraph. If you wanted to read that, you’d just pick up a novel or an essay, right?
The thing is, our time (and patience) is short. We want our content and we want it now. But we also need some visuals to help our minds pay attention. That’s why visual content does so well on social media platforms like Instagram.
Just because you’re writing doesn’t mean your reader just wants to read. Show them examples, include entertaining GIFs (if that matches your brand), use illustrations, include videos…add visuals anywhere you can.
CoSchedule recommends placing an image every 300 words or so. The actual placement and content is up to you, but just make sure it’s there.
4. Tell a Story
Ever since I started learning about storytelling in marketing, I’ve started to notice it everywhere. It’s the curse of knowledge, it really is, but in this case: it’s amazing.
Just the other night, as I re-watched Game of Thrones for the third time in preparation for 2019’s release of the last season, I realized Varys pretty much only talks in stories. Whenever I watch advertising, I think about the great ones: they’re all stories.
The takeaway? When you want to make something stick, turn it into a story.
Storytelling brings your customer along on a journey to discover your brand – and therefore your product. It also connects with them on a deeper level, making them more loyal and more willing to support you.
So, how do you tell a story? Well, start with this recipe:
- Start with a hook
- Add emotions
- Tie it all together with a call-to-action
5. Talk to Your Reader
Small businesses are great. They sell things that support the local economy. They also struggle with finding enough time/manpower to get things done. They have a lot to offer but not a lot to spare.
How did you feel when reading that statement? Do you resonate with it, or are you just thinking, “huh, yeah, okay – but what does that have to do with me?”
Here’s the thing: if you’re not talking directly to your reader, it’s easy for them to tune out and get distracted by something else. Writing for the web is like having a conversation. Talk directly to your reader and, eventually, they’ll talk back.
Before you can talk to your reader, you need to get to know them! Get acquainted, learn their names, and find out how they like to spend their time. All this is done when you do the work to create a buyer persona.
6. Provide Value
Want to know one of my biggest pet peeves as a content marketer? Empty, regurgitated content practically copy-and-pasted from five different other websites.
Yes, creating content is a great way to stand out, prove yourself as an industry leader, and attract new customers. But if it’s all the same content as what’s already out there, there’s absolutely no value in that. The internet is already saturated with content without 76 versions of “10 Best Marketing Tips for Beginners”.
To avoid this, there are a few things you can do:
- Write down every idea that comes to you. Google it, read the top articles, and ask yourself: what can you do better or differently? How can you spin a new angle on this?
- Find one thing your brand can be the expert on. Niche down until you find something that, if someone has a question, they know you’re the brand to turn to. For Moz, it’s SEO. For HubSpot, it’s Inbound Marketing and Sales.
- Make sure your content addresses your reader’s specific challenges. Don’t just write content because it’ll serve your business. Instead, think about what problems your customers are facing on a daily basis and address those.
7. Infuse Your Personality
On the topic of things that are extremely hard to read: boring, dry, “formal” writing without even a spec of personality. You might as well be reading a report written by a robot. Yuck.
One of the most important things you can do for your writing is create a brand personality and infuse it with your brand voice.
Ask yourself: what do I want to be known for? What do I want my readers to view me as?
As you come up with your brand personality, make sure it’s one that resonates with your target audience. If you’re trying to market to baby boomers and speaking in GIFs and saying, “that’s lit, brah!” you probably won’t get anywhere. Unless it’s like the cool grandma. In which case, keep doing your thing.
Do yourself, and your writing, a favor and get this nailed down ASAP. Then, review all your past content and make sure your voice is consistent throughout.