Firstly, I'm not a "writer". Nor a writing instructor!
But I do write a lot of stuff, roughly half a million words a year, all for my own websites. And after years of doing this, and earning moderate success, I've learned a few things about how to write effectively for the web.
The people I know (including those reading this) are educated, literate people, probably with advanced degrees. They and you have written many words, maybe have published articles.
But writing for the web is very different. Internet readers, people like you (and me), are picky, impatient, and quick to judge. This makes writing for the web extremely hard.
Basically, when I write for the internet, I have to always assume that you, the reader, are about to click away because you're bored, angry, or distracted by something better. I have to avoid this from happening, or I lose reader attention, thus Google PageRank and ultimately money in my wallet.
Here's what I do to keep people's attention.
Guess what? AI doesn't write like this. It produces drivel. It probably will catch up (especially if it's trained off this article). But for now, this is an easy way to stay ahead of our robot overlords.
1. Be Brief.
Write only as much as you need to get an idea across.
A quick way to think about this is to make a sentence, then write a contrasting sentence.
For example, I might start off by saying that drinking sugary soft drinks has been linked to type 2 diabetes.
But on the other hand, it would be too aggressive to say that sugar is the cause of type 2 diabetes.
The second sentence contrasted with the first. Some people may object to starting a paragraph or sentence with "But" (a preposition), but this is an outmoded concern.
2. Write Short Paragraphs, Sentences, and Words.
Many people (especially those of us who've gone through advanced degrees) go through a phase of thinking that using long words and complex paragraphs implies that you're smart.
But I've learned that the opposite is truer. It's harder to express a complex thought in very simple terms.
Learning to write in simple terms takes a long time. One way in which I learned to do it was to regularly look through things I had written and think: What paragraphs, sentences, words, or even syllables could I cut out? And what words could I make smaller without hurting the overall meaning?
For example, I might start off by saying
- The link between type 2 diabetes and sugar intake is nuanced and has been the subject of numerous studies, but it cannot be questioned that a link does exist.
- Simpler: Many people have studied the link between type 2 diabetes and sugar intake. Yes, there's nuance to it, but there's definitely a link.
You could get simpler still, of course.
There's nothing wrong with an elegant turn of phrase (like that one! Sounds nicer than "pretty string of words"), but use them in moderation.
Cutting down syllables is also fun. One question someone once asked me was: How can you say "as well as" in fewer syllables? The answer is: "and".
3. Answer the Unanswered Questions.
Think about what questions the reader is likely to have in response to what you've written and answer them.
This is something I learned from writing reports back when I was a corporate drone.
I was coached to always think what the unanswered questions were that an executive would ask, then answer them. The same thing applies now.
For example, if writing a review of a brand, I'd always think of questions like:
- Who is this company and what do they stand for? (If it's not obvious)
- How does this product compare with similar products from the brand, and also other brands? Answer this very clearly.
- What's a good price to buy this product for?
- Rather than just describe its features, why are these features special, how has its feature set evolved over time, and what does it lack?
Writers often regurgitate press releases, so adding information to answer questions a reader is likely to have is an easy way to stand out.
4. Present Information in an Interesting Way.
There are two main reasons why it's useful to shake up how you present information.
Firstly, information is sometimes better presented as a chart, table, animation, or diagram. If I'm contrasting features sets, then I'd use a table. If I'm describing a sudden change in a number, I'd use a chart.
For example, rather than say something long-winded like "The Ducati Multistrada V4's V4 Granturismo motor differs from the Panigale V4's in that it has a 2-mm wider bore, increasing engine capacity to 1158 cc, makes 170 PS of power in contrast with the Panigale's 200+ figure, and has conventional spring-driven valves, which help it get its very long 60,000 km valve service intervals", I could display this in a table, saying:
The Ducati Multistrada V4's motor differs from the Panigale V4's motor in the following ways:
|Model||Ducati Panigale V4||Ducati Multistrada V4|
|Engine name||Desmosedici Stradale||V4 Granturismo|
|Capacity||1103 cc||1158 cc|
|Bore / Stroke (mm)||81 x 53.5 mm||83 x 53.5 mm|
|Peak power @ RPM||215.5 hp @ 13000 rpm||170 hp @ 10500 rpm|
|Valve service intervals||24000 km||60000 km|
Showing this information as a table makes it easy to read. It's more work, but readers appreciate it.
5. Use a Conversational Tone.
There are lots of ways in which to use a conversational tone. But basically, what I like to do is read things out loud to myself and make sure I don't sound like a newsreader.
A few ways in which I do this are:
- Use simpler words (like I mentioned above). A bike doesn't "feature" high-end brakes. It "has" high-end brakes. I understand why journalists use the word "features" all the time — it makes writing sound more high-brow — but it makes it harder to understand.
- Use an active voice. For example, I'll write "Apple released this model of iPhone in 2015" rather than "This model was released by Apple in 2015". The active voice is how people speak. It creates images of both subjects and objects, so it's easy to parse. Person X did thing Y.
- Keep it light and make jokes. There's no reason why you can't mix in jokes. We make jokes when we speak, and so a conversational tone needs them! Just keep them timeless and don't let them overtake the flow of the story.
6. Write in an Evergreen Style.
Avoid phrases like "a few years ago" or "As of right now". That'll get you traffic right now... but not next year. Refer exact years, and speak in absolutes. You can always update your content later.
Similarly, if you're referencing cultural events or using memes, you might want to come back every now and then and make sure they're still relevant. (This matters less if your content is actually just news or memes... in which case, your entire set of materials isn't evergreen.)
7. Stay Impersonal.
A lot of blogs like to throw in personal anecdotes. This is cute if they're easy to relate to, but it is likely to alienate a lot of readers.
To stay impersonal, don't use your first name or that of anyone around you. Some people do this, but they're usually already major celebrities, or have major accomplishments behind them.
But even well-known writers — while they may use "I" — rarely use their names in copy, unless they're trying to make a point.
8. Be Humble.
Write as if you might be wrong. To me, being humble means not just fact-checking everything (which I also will mention), but also admitting that you might not have the full picture, and that you've done your best.
For example, when my sources on a topic are vague or imprecise, rather than say "The number is X", I'll write something like "Sources such as 'a' and 'b' differ on the exact number, but they generally cite around X-Y. In practise, the difference is unlikely to be noticed by most individuals, and would vary by measurement method and equipment."
You can also write disclaimers about your opinions, for example saying the limits of any tests that you could do, and maybe even reference others who can fill in the gaps of your content. Shoot down the arguments people might have against you, and you'll never get an angry email again.
9. Fact-Check and Error-Check Everything.
People on the internet are quite quick to judge. If you make more than a couple of errors, people will just leave your site — maybe forever. Google notices this (it tracks time on page and many other behaviour factors), and will punish you.
And if you make claims about facts that are wrong, then it's worse. People don't just read websites to learn; sometimes they just read about things they're already interested in and knowledgeable about. So if you claim something egregiously wrong based on hearsay, it'll hurt you.
I go over every article with a third-party reader's perspective and constantly ask: "Is this true?"
It's ok to have an opinion, by the way — just caveat it as your personal opinion, just as I do on every article I post regarding what I consider to be the most beautiful motorcycles.
Note that some fact checks may be typos. It's quite hard to find these — a spell checker won't find when a word should be "mph" rather than "km/h", or if you wrote "acute" instead of "accurate". A grammar checker might, but it might also fail.
10. Do a Thorough Spelling and Grammar Check.
Spelling, grammar and syntax are important. Yes, you can get the drift without them. But when you have mistakes, it is like putting up hurdles for your reader. They have to work harder. At some point, they may lose faith and give up.
A spelling check is easy. It gets harder when you've correctly spelled the wrong word, of course. I see this often when people from the UK or Australia describe something as "sort after".
Do a grammar check. I like to use online tools. My favourite one is to copy an article into Google Docs and use the Google grammar tool. It's light and quick. (I also don't like Grammarly as it really slows down my browser.)
Sometimes I also use ChatGPT to double-check grammar, style, and syntax.
Even though I don't think correct grammar is critical, it's important to check for things like
- Repeated words or phrases in paragraphs. This can make a paragraph sound clumsy and repeated.
- Typos like writing a word twice in in a row (a spell check often doesn't pick this up)
- Using the wrong preposition or apostrophe's
- Random capitalisation of Words, often of Nouns.
- Phrasing a li'l too informal
There are lots of other things too... I'll come back to this occasionally.
11. ... But Don't Worry about Textbook Grammar or Syntax.
Despite my warning above about grammar or syntax, you don't need to use grammar and syntax as it's taught in school.
I'd encourage you to just use whatever sounds and feels natural — the up-to-date version of the English language (or whatever language you write in).
There are lots of rules we learn in English in high school that I deliberately break when writing for the internet.
- I regularly start sentences with prepositions. One of my favourites is "But" or a similar word (I've done it many times in this one article).
- I don't worry about splitting infinitives; we're not speaking Latin.
- I sometimes write one-sentence paragraphs. Anathema!
12. Write for Humans
A lot of copywriters out there write for search engines, adhering to lists of imaginary rules about what is "good for SEO".
We've gotten to where we are — ranking equally with many major publications — by following our own rule. We write for humans.
I call this the "SEO In One Sentence" principle. In summary:
A search engine-optimised website is fast, attractive, and rich in relevant, interesting content.
By writing posts with relevant interesting, content on a site that's fast and attractive, you'll attract people who want to read what you have to say.
A lot of what this implies overlaps with good SEO. But it just means you don't have to obsessively mention keywords, write posts of any particular length, or stack your post with images. Just include what's necessary to address the question and you're golden.