It would seem anyone can be a digital writer these days. Fire up a blog, choose a theme, and away you go. The internet has democratised the act of writing.
This is great. But while anyone can write, the craft of online writing has core characteristics. From word count to layout to search engine optimisation, there’s much to consider.
Here we explore some of these key elements and spell out tips for improving your writing online.
Do your research
We cannot stress it enough: you need to know what you are talking about. So much writing lapses into vague expression because the writer does not really know what to say.
The remedy for this is simple: read around your topic and establish a base level of understanding. Watch videos, review social media, and see how writers and organisations in the sector talk about themselves and their industry.
Unless you are truly expert in a field, your article will need to bring in outside sources. Even out-and-out opinion pieces will benefit from third party facts, statistics, and insights that support your argument. Quote material is particularly helpful as it allows you to paraphrase or cite verbatim a person or organisation directly in your post.
Pro tip: If Google is your go-to search engine, play around with its advanced search options to return more precise results. The ability (under “Settings”) to specify a narrower time window for your search is particularly helpful if you are looking to return only more recent content for a query. Bing has similar functionality.
Watch the length
Time was when an article had to be a certain number of words to fit into the allocated space in the newspaper or magazine. If an editor wanted 500 words and you delivered them 800, out would come the hatchet.
Now we are prey to the temptations of infinite scroll. Web pages, and by extension online posts, can technically go on forever. For many, the idea of writing to a precise word count feels antiquated.
The problem is that too many articles extend longer than needed. They sprawl when they need to stay tight.
Write as long as you need on the first draft, but return to your copy at a later point and edit down. Remove extra words, strike out redundant sentences, and reorder paragraphs and sections to improve narrative flow. Where possible, get someone else to take a look and provide feedback.
“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter,” remarked seventeenth-century French mathematician Blaise Pascal. Keep that one in mind as you are rushing on to the next job.
Know your audience
The fact you are writing for an audience is often the hardest thing to remember. If you are a stage performer, you have your audience right in front of you. By contrast, the act of writing is solitary.
The trick here is to have a clear sense of who your target audience is. This should not be difficult to ascertain as you will know which website or online publication you are writing for and have an idea of the people the organisation would like to attract in.
Once you have clearly defined your audience, create your copy with a tone and an angle that you believe will appeal. Ascertain how much prior knowledge your target audience has about a topic or a concept, and write to the middle of the group.
Pro-tip: At the start of each article, create a mini-brief that states what the article will be about, why you are creating it, and who the target audience will be. Even if you don’t actually write these things down (though we recommend that you do), think through these questions and don’t start researching and writing until you can answer them to yourself satisfactorily.
Work the layout
Text layout—important for print publications—is equally important for online content. Think about:
Paragraphing. With a white paper, you might be running paragraphs of several hundred words each. With shorter articles, it is likely your paragraphs will be shorter to create a sense of pace in the article. Having a single chunk of 1,000 words will look off-putting.
Subheads: These should break up the text on the screen for readability, but also be good for the search engines by using Header tags to inform the search crawler what the forthcoming section is about. Include subheads in your final copy wherever they make sense.
Rich visual elements. Include photos, charts, video, audio, and other elements such as pull quotes where an opportunity arises. Make sure they advance the story by pulling in new information or a fresh perspective. At the same time, don’t overdo it. One great photo that really adds visually to your story may be all you need to carry the copy. Badly-sized images, or hard-to-read text on custom graphics, can detract from your copy. Always assume something either adds positively or negatively to the editorial experience. Judge it positive, or leave it out!
Optimise for search
Optimising your copy for search can feel like a creativity killer at times. But remember the tree in the forest that nobody heard fall down. Make sure you are writing with target keywords and phrases in mind that actually speak to subjects of interest to your target audience. If nobody finds your writing because you don’t make it easy to get discovered, what’s the point?
Don’t forget to properly optimise your article for on-page elements. The few minutes it takes to generate a title tag, meta description, and specify the main keywords of your piece will pay you back richly over time. WordPress plug-ins such as Yoast help keep your articles in good SEO shape.
Pro tip: It’s too easy – even for the most experienced writers – to do all the heavy lifting crafting an excellent piece of copy only to fall short of inspiration when it comes to the headline. Slow down when developing your headline and test different versions to see what works. Sharethrough offers an excellent headline analyser tool that gives actionable feedback on various iterations of your heading, encouraging you to try new things that you may otherwise overlook.
Inject voice and style
Screenwriter Nora Ephron once told actor and sometime scribe Tom Hanks that there were three things missing in a piece of his writing he had submitted to her for feedback: “Voice, voice, voice”.
Cultivate your written voice. It won’t all come through in the first draft. Inject pluck and poise to the way you sound online.
That doesn’t mean liberally adding exclamation marks and peppering your copy with light asides. Having voice is about being heard. It means projecting confidence through the written word and taking a clear position on the matter at hand. That means aiming for good style. You’re not trying to win a Nobel prize, but you do want your writing to be pleasing to read with good cadence and flow.
Avoid empty language. So much writing these days is dull and drawn-out, using 100 words to say something that needs only 35.
We have already mentioned tools such as Yoast and Searchthrough for sharpening your online writing, but there are other options. Hemingway, named after the US writer, will help simplify and strengthen your writing in the manner of his own taut style. Grammarly is a good browser tool for anyone who wishes to stay vigilant against spelling and grammar mistakes.
Making it snappy
There is no magic wand for making okay writing good, and good writing great. Like any craft, it takes time and practice to get right. Work hard and methodically on each new draft you produce. From layout to sentence construction and word choice, there are many considerations when aiming for a sharp, engaging style online. Don’t aim for perfection as you won’t achieve it, but do expect to spend the time needed to get your written work in as tight a shape as possible to engage and delight your future readers.