Writing Online Content That People Will Read
What can writers do so that readers will do more than glance at their well-written articles? There are certain rules of engagement that writers can use to captivate readers and make them keep on reading.
As a successful free-lance writer myself, here are some of the lessons I have learned about writing successful online content that people will actually read.
Do Your Homework
Learn what you can about online writing. There are helpful resources on the Internet or at your bookstore. For example, many newspapers currently use the Associated Press Stylebook as a guideline.
The Stylebook is available in print or online. You can subscribe to the Associated Press Stylebook online at their website. Yahoo! also produces a style guide for online writers.
Research Your Articles
Research is the key to many things. First, it tells you what is already out there that will compete with what you are going to write. Some digging also helps to identify the needs of readers that may not be met by the content currently on the web.
If the market is saturated, use the information to create unique content that will captivate the reader. Lastly, articles benefit from lists of reliable references.
Use Reliable Sources
We live in a world where people tend to be skeptical and don’t accept anything on face value. They don’t care about your personal opinion. There are trolls out there who probably have nothing better to do than to find fault with your writing. Be prepared to backup everything you say with reliable resources.
For example, saying, “many people have a mental illness” is not nearly as credible as citing a statistic with specific numbers of people with mental illness from the Centers for Disease Control. Do whatever you can to establish credibility with the reader such as adding relevant quotes or facts from well-respected sources. Be sure to include a link to the source you are quoting, or list them as a source at the bottom of the article.
Another way to achieve credibility is to set yourself up as an expert on your topic by stating your credentials. Telling a relevant personal experience story can also enhance your content.
There are many dubious websites that should not be used as references because they are not reliable or reputable sources of information. User-generated websites are a no-no in many cases, and blogs are iffy unless the blogger is clearly identified as an expert in their field. Some publishers actually have blacklists of references and don’t allow their writers to use them in their online content.
To plan an article, ask yourself:
- Who will want to read this article?
- What will attract readers and motivate them to read it?
- What information are readers looking for?
- What essential information needs to be shared with these readers?
Deliver What Your Title Promises
A good title is like a carrot dangling before a horse. The title should whet the reader’s appetite for your article's content and deliver what it promises. If you offer a carrot and deliver a lemon, you are going to disappoint and lose readers fast, and leave them with a bitter taste in their mouths.
The points you want to make can get lost in meandering, unrelated stuff, no matter how eloquently expressed. Every sentence should have a clear and specific purpose and not be a generalized string of words. Articles that focus on specific topic-related information give readers a good and satisfying read with the bright orange carrots the title promised.
Determine Your Readership
Writers, tend to focus their work on their own facts and opinions rather recognizing the mindset of people who will actually be reading their work. Once you have figured out who will be reading your work of art, don’t make assumptions about what your readers know or don’t know.
Any special terms or concepts that keep popping up should be explained at the beginning of the article. Folks won’t get too far into your eloquent your discourses if they have no idea what you are talking about.
What irritates & turns off readers of user-generated content:
- Poor English and sentence structure: Poor English erodes the credibility of the writer. Long sentences in particular are boring and/or confusing.
- Unreadable fonts and overdone effects: bolding a phrase here and there is fine, but blocks of bolded text or italics can turn off a reader. Italics are not used these days,probably because italics are hard to read.
- CAPITALS: Some publishers ban the use of all caps, saying that only using the uppercase is the same as shouting at the reader. Caps are very hard to read.
- Exclamation points !!: There is little in the world that is important enough to express with an exclamation point. A lot of exclamation points tell the reader that you a drama queen or king who needs to get a life.
- Long blocks of text: Give me a break – I am a poor over-forty (way over forty) who struggles to read anything through bifocals. Big blocks of text will quickly drive my mouse up to the “back’ button.
- Overdone media or poorly laid out articles: media is meant to enhance and not distract the reader - keep it simple but attractive. Some huge pictures can be too “in your face” and interrupt the flow of an article. Check your article after it is published to make sure that the addition of ads has not changed your layout. Look for big gaps in your layout that will make the article look sloppy and amateurish.
- Absolute statements: Generalizations are not true about everyone. There are always people are exceptions to the rules.hose people will probably be writing you to say that what you consider to be the truth does not apply to them.
Keep Your Articles Simple and Concise
We writers love words and to wax eloquently about the topics near and dear to our hearts. Our ramblings may sound great to us, but may not engage readers who often have limited time and energy. In the good old days, people did their article reading on a leisurely weekend. Nowadays, many people read snippets while they are on a bus, have a few minutes at work, or are waiting at an appointment.
We need to craft our articles so that our work is attractive and has pictures and short paragraphs that are easy to navigate. That way, busy readers can easily find their place again if they leave the page.
Online articles should be tightly written, expressing ideas in fewer words than other mediums such as magazines or newspapers. For example, many prepositional phrases can be replaced with one word, and unnecessary descriptive words like “very” or “just” can be eliminated.
Limit Use of the Passive Voice
I really balked when one publisher told me not to use the passive voice in my articles. How was I supposed to produce “how to” instructions without using "may," "should," and "can?" My editors saw the passive voice as weak. I managed to use active verbs, but I was thankful when my publisher decided that the passive voice was OK under certain circumstances.
Publishers generally like vibrant, active verbs. The passive voice is weaker and less dynamic. Active verbs means that we need to put the subject first and generally avoid openings like “Because of this,” “This is,” or “It is.” Non-descriptive verbs such as “seem” or something from the verb group “to be” are weaker than verbs that express actions.
Watch your pronouns
Readers tend to scan and skim through articles quickly and will get lost in a sea of pronouns. I know it seems silly and against your writing instincts to constantly repeat a name or noun, but it does help readers to follow your storyline.
OK, who is this writer who thinks she is an expert on online writing, you may be thinking? Well, I have been in the trenches as an online writer for a few years. I have worked for several online publications, one of which had strict rules about what was acceptable content. Some of the guidelines for these websites were like crash courses in writing for the Internet.
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Writing is a high subjective enterprise and rules can be bent on occasion. If we want to really engage readers and make then hungry for more of our work, however, using these guidelines can help us achieve our goals.
Happy writing! (and I really mean that exclamation point).
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2013 Carola Finch